Interview with Andrew Cairns

The Witch's List

My Review:

A better title for this would be “Of Voodoo Bondage”. As it seems to be a cross between Somerset Maugham’s work and the 1950’s American movie depictions of Voodoo.

The “Of Human Bondage” element has the same self-centered tone and descriptions, as Sandy goes through his ‘coming of age’. The Voodoo, well that is a whole different story.

The ‘African Magic’ that is called Voodoo several times in the book isn’t either. Voodoo is Louisiana black Catholicism with some African religious customs mixed in. A person can be both Catholic and practicing Voodoo. The customs the author describe are closer to Vodou, the Haitian experience of tying the body and soul together. At that it is more the 1950’s movie version than the actual practice.

* * *

I have to comment on the reviews saying this book is racist: It is. That is taking the definition I learned in my labor law classes: Racism is treating someone differently because of their race. However, the author clearly meant no harm as he noted with the protagonist’s relationship with Gabriella he was attracted to her because of her skin tone, he went out with her because he liked her as a person. (This relationship could have been handled better, but I believe the intent was shown.)

If just being attracted to someone’s skin tone is racist, then being straight or gay is sexist. I don’t think even the most pro-equality woman would fall for the line, “Hey I’m not a perv, I just believe in treating everyone equally. Now bend over and take it like a man.”

* * *

If a man fetishizes over black women the first thing some people think is racism, yet a man fetishizing over the Ladyboys of Bangkok makes them think something else. It’s a double standard here.

* * *

There is racist language in the book. I would have liked it if Sandy had confronted his mate for using racist language without mentioning voodoo. In the same spot clunky writing made it seem racist, his friend said, “Why don’t we go to the Todd on Saturday night? Last time I was there it was crawling with cute, female, nursing students from the infirmary. There were even a few darkies, if that’s really what you’re into.”

There was a long description of the Todd (a student hang-out) before Sandy responds with, “Don’t call Black People ‘darkies’.” Talk about burying the lead. While I’m sure of the intent, Sandy calling out racism when possible. The constant emphasis on the physical descriptions over the emotional reaction makes it seem like he is going along with his friend’s causal racism.

* * *

The late great Fred Rogers said, “If it is mention-able, it is manageable.”

I have been accused of “Erasure Racism”, in one of my books, for having my bad guy treat all humans as his own personal property, but I avoided showing him doing human experimentation on Blacks. I did this because he used bigoted language against all people who were different than him. I was not comfortable writing the words his character would use towards black people, and not confident enough in my writing to make it clear that he thought of ALL people as existing for his pleasure. So the accusations of “Erasure Racism” were accurate.

While the execution of Sandy having a black girlfriend and a racist friend was bad, it is something that white people must live with. If Sandy didn’t have racist friends, it would be “Erasure Racism”.

I understand the feeling that showing racism from a white person’s POV, is allowing it to continue, but in Mr. Rogers words, “If it is mention-able, it is manageable.” Showing this dilemma, even badly, does mean it is mention-able. If all fiction stamped all racists as twirly mustached villains, it would be the same as people who close their eyes and say racism no longer exists.

* * *

Unintentionally funny bits.

Scottish teacher, so Scottish when reading I pictured Groundskeeper Willie from the Simpson’s, turns his head and the boys, I pictured the Boy’s School class from The Wall even though that’s wrong in both time and place, would sneak off and drool over Natural Geographic pictures in the library. I thought I was deprived, I had to dumpster dive for old discarded magazines, not Hustler or Playboy, but Big’ems, Juggs, and Swank. Sure they weren’t top quality, printed on pulp paper, although oddly random spots were glossy, and some of the pages were stuck together and… Thinking back the Natural Geographic pictures sound better.

Still, somehow the image of private school kids with Scottish accents drooling over tribal pictures while calling the English “Wankers” had me laughing.

* * *

The author quotes Prince saying, “White men hear opera singing when they are in the throes of lovemaking and black men hear the bongos of the jungle.” Then asks what do white men with jungle fever hear? I thought, Black Musicals? Suddenly the voice of Paul Robeson singing, “Ol’ man river” popped into my head.

Thus proving the saying, “Don’t ask a question you don’t want the answer to.”

* * *

After sex they wanted, “Tuna and Sweet Corn Pizza” I don’t know if I should be disgusted by the Pizza or amused at the combinations of Americanisms that invokes (Another word for Pizza in the US is Pie, Don’t look at Urban Dictionary for the Americanisms putting pie after each word unless you have a strong stomach.) However, if you do, you will know why I was laughing uncontrollably at the idea of a young couple naked in bed saying they wanted to share that.

(For those that think I’m a Perv, I described the scene to my wife and she asked, “Are you trying to make me ill?”)

* * *

I do admire the intent behind this book. A coming of age story with supernatural elements driving it along. But two things spoiled it for me. First, the author’s need to fill in the physical description over the emotional impact. It was like seeing a picture of the World Trade Centers coming down and getting the Wikipedia entry of the Towers before talking about the attack.

Second, all the research seemed to be done by watching Hollywood Films from the 1950’s. If Sandy was a cross-dresser this would be a great Ed Wood film.


After your first reaction to my review (First reaction is always wrong) and you had a chance to look it over, what did I miss?

My first reaction was a bit WTF! There were several things that are from your frame of reference which I didn’t know much about, such as Somerset Maugham’s or 1950’s American movies. I was born in the seventies, so haven’t actually watched many 50’s movies, apart from classics like ‘Some Like it Hot’. Having looked up a few things, though, you may have a point. I noticed that Somerset Maugham said of his novel, Of Human Bondage, “This is a novel, not an autobiography, though much in it is autobiographical, more is pure invention.” That is fairly close to my approach on ‘The Witch’s List’.

I think perhaps you missed the fact that Sandy – also growing up in Scotland in the 70s and 80s – had very little contact with non-white people, and so when a gorgeous Kenyan girl shows up in his class, it was mind-blowing.

What would you like any one who read my review to know?

The book is a voyage on many levels : there is the obvious geographical level where Sandy goes out into the world – to France, and Ivory Coast; the voyage into sexuality as he grows up and gradually matures; and also the spiritual level as he rebels against his Catholic upbringing, encounters other beliefs – including witchcraft, and tries to find some moral grounding after his hedonistic years at University.

Without calling out anyone, what would you like any one who read the other reviews to know?

Some people have accused the book of being racist, but I think that is a rather knee-jerk reaction because I used the term ‘jungle-fever’ a couple of times and because the main character is attracted to black women. Others have called it sexist because of Sandy’s womenizing particularly in the first-half of the book. I would say, read the book for yourself and judge it as a whole and not just by selecting a few words and passages here and there. On of the ideas of the trilogy is to show how a person can progress in life – from being rather immature, degenerate and giving into their basic instincts; to developing a conscience and realizing when their actions have been reprehensible and immoral; and ultimately reaching a level of wisdom and enlightenment.

Of all the reviews of your book, what was the greatest take away, what did you learn about your writing from a review?

I have discovered that people will interpret your writing in multiple ways – which is great unless they read negative notions into it which were never intended. And even then, it can be interesting, since it can cause interesting debate around the subject of the book. I think I have really seen how people’s different frames of reference, beliefs and prejudices can really influence what they take away from your writing.

How do you think you have evolved creatively, while writing this book and after?

I think that the first book really allowed me to use some of my experiences – the shocking, the traumatic, the weird, the wonderful – and stir them up into a story. I’ve discovered that the more you write, the more ideas you have, and the more you are able to remember about your past and how you felt in different situations. Having finished the second book, I think I have evolved to use my imagination more and be able to use past experiences as inspiration but project them much more in different directions.

Every author gets bad reviews that miss the mark so completely, that you have to look at the rating to know if it was a positive or negative review. Have you ever looked at the negative reviews of your favorite author and chuckle, knowing that the review could be applied to your work?

I noticed some of the negative reviews of my favorite author, Tahir Shah, take a very logical cartesian view to life – saying things like “How could he continue hiring local workmen who wreaked havoc on his house rather than refurbishing it.” I think they are missing the mark, in that he intentionally embraces the chaos and is inspired by eccentric adventures. Similarly in my book, some people accuse the main character of being a racist mysogynist, but are unable to see the bigger picture of his fascination with the other sex / culture, and his emotional and spiritual journey.

I get inspired by B-Movies, I’ll sit and laugh at “Attack of the the Eye Creatures” (Not a typo, that is the name of it) but learn as well, mostly what not to do. What sources inspire you, that you wouldn’t recommend others try?

When I’m traveling I like to get off the beaten track sometimes – go exploring some creepy, rat-infested ruin; or accept the help of some local ‘guide’ who may lead you to some hidden gem, but just as likely will lead you up some alley to try and swipe your cash. So, not really recommended.

What is the WORST piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

“Show, don’t tell.” I think that’s all very well, but if the ‘showing’ is too subtle and obscure, then the meaning of the story can get lost. I think there has to be a balance between between showing via emotions and senses and actually telling the story – the events, and how they fit together.

Who is your favorite indie author?

Tahir Shah. He started off with mainstream publishers and then moved to self-publishing. I particularly like his non-fiction books, such as Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where he sets himself some extravagant exotic quest and just goes off on a wild adventure.

Describe you ideal fan (the person who would love your book)?

Open-minded, well-traveled or who enjoys reading about other countries and cultures. Someone who is able to question their own beliefs and the norms in place in their own society.

As I mentioned in my review, I do admire the intent behind your book. Can you tell me a bit about why you wanted to explore Sandy’s entire life and personality, both good and bad, in this book?

The book does explore a good chunk of his life – from the age of around fourteen to around forty-five. I think it can be fascinating to get inside a character’s psyche and look at his motivations, and interior conflicts – in this case as he goes through adolescence and into adulthood. I tried to be brutally honest in showing his thoughts and actions, and how they were shaped by various influences: peer-pressure, lust/love, discovering other beliefs and cultures…

Both of us share criticism for portraying college students as a bit selfish and ‘immature’, I do this because when I was in college, my friends and I were a bit selfish and immature (college was a place to grow and mature), do you ever wonder if we are the ones being honest, or if we grew up in different world than those critics?

Yes, my friends and I were definitely rather selfish and immature in college and young adulthood. I am definitely trying to be honest in my portrayals, but you are right – the world has moved on since the seventies and eighties. There is still some wildness left, or so I believe from some of the accounts I’ve heard from the next generation, but I think we are becoming overly rational and sanitized.

Stephen King has said, “Even a serial killer might help an old lady cross the street.” I like characters whose thoughts aren’t black and white, instead both good and evil. I’d love to hear your thoughts on trying to make characters who are ‘perfectly imperfect.”

Yes, I think that characters who are ‘human’ – a mixture of good and bad – are the most interesting. I will be continuing to explore this inner struggle of the main character, Sandy Beech, in the next two books in the trilogy. Looking at how he comes to terms with the consequences of his actions, how he can develop his conscience – moving beyond the rather basic instinct, hedonistic approach of his youth to a more mature, reflective outlook and ultimately seeking wisdom and inner peace.

What would you say was Sandy’s most redeeming quality?

I would say curiosity / open-mindedness. He likes to explore other cultures, beliefs and practices. I hope that readers will relate to the stories about how he questions his own philosophy of life – his beliefs, his prejudices, and his place or purpose in society. While his journey may be a rather atypical one, as my own personal one has been, I hope that readers can use it and compare it with their own lives, challenging some of their own ideologies and attitudes.

Where can we find more of your books? What books do you have coming out?

Look out for the second book in The Witch’s List trilogy. The story will follow the same main character, Sandy Beech, and will take place mostly in Morocco.

Favorite Cover of one of your books

The Witch's List

What are your different author pages (Website, Amazon, Smashwords, ect)

My Comments:

First I have to praise Andrew for doing this interview. I truly feel it is a mark of professionalism to do an interview with someone who gives a less than stellar review of your work.

My first reaction was a bit WTF?” Aren’t they all!

I was a little surprised Andrew hadn’t read ‘Of Human Bondage’, as ‘Witch’s List’ reminded me of it so much. But he came at writing it from the same way as Maugham so I guess it isn’t surprising a lot of reviews of ‘Of Human Bondage’ could be cut & pasted into reviews of ‘The Witch’s List’.

I had to laugh a little, as my review said Andrew buried the lead in places, and I skipped the lead that this book was a journey on many levels. I have to apologize for that, it is like forgetting to mention the James Bond books have action in them. So obvious when reading it, you forget to mention it to people who haven’t read it.

At times it is delightful seeing how people perceive your work, other times it makes you question your faith in humanity. But like Andrew said, it does open up discussions.

As far as Sandy’s open-mindedness and enjoying people with different points of view, that was another thing that was obvious in the book but I glossed over in the review, sorry.

* * *

One last thing, I posted this review on Goodreads, Amazon, and Amazon UK. It was rejected on the two Amazon sites. I reposted a much more condensed version on Amazon US that was rejected on Amazon UK. I was afraid my Amazon UK post would be down to, “I read it”. I did finally get a version their ‘bots accepted.

I do understand the robot censors, they don’t want hate speech and can’t see context, so things get flagged for no reason.

I also understand how people who have been had vile words hurled at them in an attempt to dehumanize them might have a “knee-jerk” reaction to anyone using those words. I want those people to know, you do have my sympathies and I can see your point of view that these words should be struck from the English language. My view is if we can have honest discussions, the key word being honest, we can learn to embrace the human race’s diversity and love each other as all being unique individuals.

I will get off my soap-box now.


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