Interview with novelist John Collings

Novelist John Collings joins me today. We’re
chatting about his new young adult literary fiction work,
Tag: A Cautionary Tale.
John Collings
has written two critically acclaimed novels, Hell and God and Nuns with Rulers, and Tag: A Cautionary Tale. He is also a creative writing teacher at
Korea International School, and spends his free time traveling around the world
to learn from the people he meets.
Welcome, John. Please tell us about your
current release.
Tag: A Cautionary Tale is a fictionalized history of the
playground game, Tag, and all the games that were spawned from its inception.
The boys who created the game enjoy it on a daily basis until things start to
fall apart for them. Soon factions are formed and neither side listens to the
other side as they both inadvertently work towards the destruction of the field
they both love.
The story
plays around with how destructive strong opposing ideologies can be, and if we
cannot spend the time to realize it, we will be sucked down in that destruction.
I wrote it before the recent presidential election in the United States, and it
was released shortly before the ugliness of the election process started to
play out later in 2016. Since then, I have had a lot of conversations with
people who have read the book and can see the same thing that played out with
the boys in my story also play out in American politics. The conversations have
led me to believe that this is a timely piece that really reflects the
frustrations that many Americans are experiencing in the current political
What inspired you to write this book?
The idea of
this story came while I was teaching Alex Kotlowitz’s There are no Children Here. It the story of two brothers growing up
in the projects of Chicago during the 1980s. One of the parts of the story that
affected me the most was a short episode where these two kids could not even
enjoy a game of tag because of the violence of their neighborhood. The simple
childhood game is something I believe is essential to the development of any
child. The game teaches us so much about the world we live in and as it gets
more complicated with the way we grow, it continues to help with this
development and understanding. I had toyed around with idea for a few years but
never could tell the story the way I wanted to. There was something missing and
I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. It took a camping trip to the Redwood
Forrest in Northern California with my wife. She had gone to bed earlier and I
was watching a big oak log burn down when the characters of Little Lizzy and
the old curmudgeon popped into my head. I hadn’t even thought about the story
for a couple of months, but these two were the missing elements I was looking
for. Afterwards, the story just poured out of me, and four months later I had
the rough draft.
Excerpt from Chapter One of Tag: A Cautionary Tale:

then, roads didn’t exist. Big buildings didn’t block out the blue sky. Even the
cars didn’t hurry off to the places where cars hurry off to. Tall trees circled
the expanse of the field. Of course, a few stray trees here and there offered
their shade to those in need on sunny days, and shelter to those in need on
rainy days. Arbella Hill stood over there, the steep sides of it also covered
with trees. On the top of it stood the mightiest of all trees, a proud oak.
And, of course, this rock I’m sitting on sat right here.

in the day, we didn’t call the hill Arbella; that name came later. We only
called the hill, “The Hill”, just as we called the rock, “The Rock” and each
individual tree, a tree. We didn’t spend a lot of time naming things back in
those days. We had more important things to do. We had a big field.

couldn’t tell you where everybody came from, but we came, none the less. We all
wandered out of the woods and across the horizon, drawn by this majestic mound.
It stood above everything else on the plain, rivaled by no other formation in
its beauty. On it, assorted fruit trees and tall pines pointed their peaks towards
the heavens, wondrous wildflowers blossomed, rearing their heads to the world,
animals scurried under the protection of the hill, peeking their happy heads
out whenever they saw fit. If they ever noticed us looking at them, they would
dart back into the shadows. They didn’t know they had nothing to worry about
because we cared about them as much as they cared about us. We had many more
exciting things to do, besides.

ran. Not to or from a specific place—doing something like that didn’t interest
us much. We ran more for the why, rather than the where.

was the why, you ask? Well, why not?

just imagine a huge field stretched out before you, soft and supple grass
growing just tall enough to tickle your toes as the drops of dew danced upon
your bare feet, the subtle sun warming you as you wind your way through the
maze of dandelions. And if ever its heat gets too hot, the shade of a nearby
tree is there to comfort you. If you’d rather continue on your run, the wind
was there to blow a refreshing breeze your way. As far as we were concerned,
the field had been created just for our pleasure, and we took every opportunity
to partake in that gift.

was the case with the hill, the rock, and the trees, we didn’t bother with each
other’s names. We didn’t even bother to acknowledge each other’s presence. We
weren’t very social at that time—running occupied most of our time.

What exciting story are you working on
I have been
finishing up the first novel for a collection of stories I have been working on
that revolves around Envotuer’s Traveling Carnival, an ancient and magical
circus. The owners of the place interact with certain customers that force them
to involve themselves with the carnival and the real mission of the place. All
of the stories stand on their own, but the characters of each smaller piece
intertwine to create a bigger picture, and in one story, one of the people
might be the protagonist, but turn up as a minor character in another story. It
has elements of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing, and a couple of the characters have
already appeared in other stories that have been published.
I am also working
on a story that reflects the students I work with in Korea. It is the story of
a Korean high school student that feels the pressure of the academic world the
country pressures the young adults with. She attends an international school
and goes to hagwons, additional intense study programs in Seoul, at night.
Through a series of bad luck experiences, she gets kicked out of her hagwon,
and instead of telling her tiger mom about it, she decides to open her own
hagwon that teaches its students how to have fun.
When did you first consider yourself a
I thought it
would have been when I held my first book, Hell
and God and Nuns with Rulers
in my hands, but that moment was a little too
surreal to make it feel like I could really call myself a writer. It was when I
got one of my first reviews for the same book in which the reviewer talked
about one of my minor characters and had some greater insight into the
character than what I had planned for her. The reviewer was able to talk about
the way that character was in love with the main character. I didn’t think I
had written it that way, but after reading the review I could see what she was
talking about. It just showed me that any piece of art that is received by the
public takes on a life of its own, and it was fun to sit back and say that I
created that piece and now people are making their own connections with it. I
really felt like a writer at that exact moment.
Do you write full-time? If so, what’s
your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find
time to write?
I teach
British Literature, Creative Writing, and Film as Literature at an
international school in Korea. It keeps me pretty busy, but I enjoy the
interaction with my students, and the way they challenge my thinking. It also
give me the opportunity to get another perspective on the world which I believe
is probably the most important thing somebody can do in this world. With all of
this going on in my life, I am able to find an hour every day to sit down and
write. It is amazing how much can be written by just dedicating this small
amount of time to do it. I escape from the world for a little bit, and at the
same time, allows me feel like I am giving something back to the world.
What would you say is your interesting
writing quirk?
I have always
been a great fan of pop music. For many years, before I became a teacher, I was
a wedding disc jockey and gained an encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of
music. I use this knowledge to create a soundtrack to what I am writing. Before
I sit down to bang away on the computer, I try to find the perfect album that
will help create the mood of what it is I am writing about that day. It is also
how I keep track of the hour that I write for each day. I figure that on
average an album is one hour long. Some days I write for more than an hour, and
some days, I write for a little less, but in the end it averages out to be an
hour. I feel that the music helps me create the mood with that day’s writing.
Even though the reader can never hear what I hear while I am creating the
piece, I feel that it is still present in the story being told.
As a child, what did you want to be when
you grew up?
I was always
fascinated by the newspaper comics while I was growing up. I loved the stories
that they used to tell, and would do anything to make sure I was able to read
the daily installments of The Far Side,
Bloom County
, and Calvin and Hobbes.
I used to play around with creating my own characters and writing my own story
lines while I was supposed to be learning math in school. There is still a
collection of notebooks in my storage unit with a couple of pages of math notes
in the front and a daily collection of comics written in the back of it. They
aren’t very good but I enjoyed the challenge of coming up with a new joke every
day. And it is also interesting to see how it helped shape the way I think
Anything additional you want to share
with the readers?
It has taken me
many years to find balance in my life, but I am glad that I have. I would recommend
that everybody else works on doing the same thing. It is important for you to
pick up a book and read because you learn something new every time you do that,
but it is also important to put that book down and go out and experience
something fun and engaging everyday as well. You need to laugh from your heart
as well as use that organ to shed some tears. You need to work so your voice
can be heard in this busy world, but you also need to play so you can discover
the true meaning of that voice. Just make sure you do not do too much of one
thing because then you become a two-dimensional character, and those characters
are always forgettable. Don’t be forgettable.

Thanks for being here
today, John.

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