Caleb Andrew - Mercenaries, Guns, Death, Danger, and Determination.
Caleb Andrew is an author, lawyer and ex-Ohioan living in Switzerland with his beautiful wife. He draws inspiration from his expat life—from growing up in Cambodia to living in Botswana, South Africa, Switzerland and The Netherlands—for his novels, archaeological adventures focusing on lesser-known histories around the world. While avoiding art thieves and shoot-outs, he enjoys traveling and adventure, learning other languages, and working on other books that his wife promises she’ll read. His first book, The Koh Ker Conspiracy, was a finalist in The Adventure Writers Competition 2021, and tells the story of three friends caught up in a deadly plot in Cambodia to steal a priceless statue. As our Author of the Day, Caleb tells us all about his book, The Koh Ker Conspiracy.
Please give us a short introduction to what The Koh Ker Conspiracy is about.
The Koh Ker Conspiracy is a fun, fast-paced thriller that explores the ancient history of Cambodia. It's a story about friendship, belonging, and the choices we make. On a grittier level, it's the story of an ex-spy who gets caught up in a plot to smuggle ancient antiquities out of Cambodia when his best friend is kidnapped.
What inspired you to write this book?
I grew up partially in Cambodia, and I love the country, its people, and its history. When I was fifteen, I went to the pyramid temple in Koh Ker, which is the centerpiece of this book (as you can tell from the cover). When I sat down to write my first novel, I wanted to write something that would highlight the history of the country I love so much, and Koh Ker was a natural choice for me. My love for Indiana Jones and the novels of Preston and Child gave me the idea to write an archaeological thriller.
Many elements of the story are drawn from my own personal experiences. Sure, I've never been chased across ancient ruins by a gang of dangerous smugglers, bullets chipping at the dirt around my heels, but I have been to these temples, sat at these restaurants, and talked to people like the ones I describe in the novel.
You have lived all over the world, from Cambodia to Botswana, South Africa, Switzerland, and The Netherlands. How has this influenced your worldview?
In so many ways. One way this comes through in the book is in how my protagonist and many of my characters feel as if they're products of multiple worlds, never fully one or the other but stretched between two or three. I spent my high school years in Cambodia and returned to Ohio for college, where I felt really out of place. I spent nine years in Ohio, in three different cities, and then moved to Switzerland, with stints in South Africa, The Netherlands and Botswana along the way. Each of these experiences exposed me to rich histories and cultures. I think this has driven a fascination with how history shapes culture, which you see in the book, and how we are influenced by both our home cultures and the others that we experience.
What I love about fiction is that it asks a reader to put themselves in the shoes of another person, whether that person comes from your home culture of a far-flung place of which you've never heard. That's what I hope to do with this book. I want to expose people to Cambodia, to highlight the country, its culture, its people, and do it in a fun and engaging way.
How much of your own life experiences have you written into this novel?
Probably too many! In earlier drafts it was clearer (at least for those who knew me in high school). I tried to draw on places that I had been so that the setting really comes alive for the reader. I want them to feel it as the characters creep through the jungle, climb ancient stone steps, hide behind a warehouse in the beach town of Kampong Som, or ride a dirt bike through Phnom Penh traffic. While the characters themselves are entirely fictional, I have drawn on elements from people I knew. Living in Phnom Penh in the early 2000s, you met many types of people, and I think I reflect that hodgepodge of characters in the novel.
The thing that stands out to me most is the driving. I began driving a moped at 14 or 15, and a dirt bike at 16. Navigating the traffic of Phnom Penh was a welcome challenge for a teenage boy. I remember driving on the national routes with a kramah (a checkered light cloth) pulled over my mouth, arriving at some guesthouse in a province caked in dirt and read for a nap. The way I describe weaving through cars, trucks and other mopeds is the way we drove back then. Turning that into a chase scene was not too difficult!
Where does your fascination with conspiracies come from?
Well, this book will be the first of three, and I wanted each title to be catchy and to rely on alliteration. So this one is The Koh Ker Conspiracy, and the tentative titles for the next two books are: The Qurnah Conundrum and The Hadrian Hypothesis.
In a broader sense, a conspiracy is a crime committed by multiple parties according to a plan. That's what the book is about. The villain (Jan Botha) and his cronies plan to steal an artifact and smuggle it out of Cambodia. Boran (the protagonist) discovers this plan and has to decide whether he should risk his life, and the lives of his friends, to stop it.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
Great question. Well, I can pick locks, although I haven't tried in a while. I used to train gymnastics, so I have some fun gymnastic skills (like a back flip) that I can still do. I speak Khmer, Spanish and French at an upper intermediate/lower advanced level. My wife also thinks I have a preternatural ability to figure out public transport in new cities, even in languages I don't speak.
This book was a finalist in the Adventure Writers competition in 2021. What surprised you most about readers' reactions to this book?
I think how much people enjoy the history. That was always my hope, but it's great to see that people are interested and want to know more. I include a historical note in the back of the book as well as some further reading to show that I have done the research and made sure that I know what I'm talking about!
Being a finalist in the competition was amazing. It gave me a huge boost of confidence that people actually wanted to read my writing, and provided the motivation for continuing to write and to work on this novel.
What did you have the most fun with when writing this book?
Action. It turns out I love writing action. I get caught up in it while writing, and I almost forget to write the details because I'm flying through what happens next.
It was also fun to include bits of what I was interested in. I was reading a book on the Great Boer War, so I reference that in one of the later chapters. I was studying French, so I use French throughout the book. That was fun.
Do any of your characters ever go off on their own tangent, refusing to do what you had planned for them?
Actually, no, but I think it is really important to understand as a writer that your characters must act consistently. How does the character you've created interact with the plot? How would they react to what is happening? I had a couple early readers point this out, asking whether Boran would actually react in a certain way. Once you realize that, there's a certain inevitability. You write the plot, but the plot changes as you realize what the characters would do.
Tell us more about Boran, what makes him tick?
Boran's a man of action, but he's also a bit lost. He grew up dragged around by his father from country to country, and joined the CIA out of university, but then quit. In this book, he's looking for direction. In one sense, he needs to grow up.
Deeper motivations drive his behavior. His loyalty to his friend Thomas is primary, and he would do anything for him. But there's also a sense of loyalty to Cambodia, his birth nation and one of his nationalities. He's got a strong moral compass, one of the reasons he had a problem with joining the CIA, and he wants to act in line with that.
If you read the book, you'll see how he changes throughout the book and what's next for him :).
When starting on a new book, what is the first thing you do?
A rough plot outline. If I can't plot out 40 chapters then I don't have a full story. The plot will change throughout the drafting process, but I still need to know that I have enough material. I've fully drafted two books (including this one) and I've already begun working on the sequel to this novel.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?
I don't think so. I usually get up an hour before my wife, get a cup of coffee and my breakfast, and then sit with my computer and write. I only write about an hour a day, maximum, but I try to do it consistently.
What are you working on right now?
I have a finished book that I'm working on polishing, but it's very different. It's a space opera about a refugee crisis between Earth and a Martian colony. The first four chapters of the sequel to The Koh Ker Conspiracy (tentatively titled The Qurnah Conundrum) have been drafted, but I've been waiting to publish this book before deciding how to move the plot forward. I'll start working on that now!
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
You can check out my website here: https://calebandrew.mystrikingly.com. I am on Twitter as well at @cabenadumauthor.
A favor to his friend Thomas turns into a nightmare for ex-spy Boran Tompkins. With Thomas's life on the line, Boran pursues a dangerous smuggler to a forgotten temple pyramid in the Cambodian jungle, where he uncovers a plot to steal a priceless antiquity. Can he rescue his friend, stop the theft, and keep everyone alive?