John’s website gives some necessary information but has this statement, ‘Little else is known about him’. Indeed that is somewhat true; however, if, like me, you’ve been reading John’s work and comments on the many blogs on the net, you just might feel that you know him that little bit better. Nevertheless, when he wrote to me to request that I interview him, I jumped at the chance and, I tell you, he does tell a great story. Without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you, John Ling …
Aneeta:John, thank you for participating in this interview.
John: Thank you for having me, Aneeta.
Aneeta: Let’s begin with some personal information about you. Where were you born, raised and so on?
John: I was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1983, and raised in that same city. I was like any other city kid, except that in my early years, my dad worked as a traveling salesman. My mother and I often tagged along. I saw and absorbed a great deal of the rural life in the northern states of Malaysia. So, in a way, I’m a child of both worlds. I definitely appreciate the rustic charm and community spirit that you tend to find outside cities.
I got hooked on reading very early on, thanks to my mother. My first love was Enid Blyton, then Charles Dickens. Writing became the next natural thing.
Aneeta: I know that you’re currently based in New Zealand. What are you doing there?
John: I am currently in my final year of studies in the University of Otago. I am pursuing Communications, Economics, and Political Science. I’m staying in a quaint little student town called Dunedin. Very beautiful. Very friendly people. Definitely a conducive creative atmosphere. Fingers crossed, I hope to settle here after I graduate and pursue a career in the publishing industry.
Aneeta: Good luck, John, with your future plans. Do tell me, what prompted you to go into writing and why ‘suspense writer’? Indeed, what is the meaning of ‘suspense writing’?
John: Stephen King was once asked why he wrote horror. To which he replied, “What makes you think I had a choice?”
I believe it is the same with me. I didn’t consciously choose to write suspense. Rather, suspense chose me.
When I was young, perhaps no more than five or six, I enjoyed taking walks through my grandfather’s estate in Sitiawan, Perak. The muted sunlight filtering through the rubber trees and the quiet rustling of the leaves fascinated me.
But one time, I ventured in too deep and stumbled on a pack of wild dogs. They gave chase. I darted between the trees, burst through the tall grass, sweat stinging my skin, dryness engulfing my mouth, wind blasting my face, heart almost bursting. Tossing my sandals, I ran bare footed, sand and stones biting into my feet. Time seemed to telescope. Seconds stretched. Though the dogs eventually gave up the hunt, it remains a chilling experience that stays with me to this day.
As I grew older and began to understand the behaviour of dogs, I realized that they weren’t actually hunting me. They were simply being territorial and fiercely driving me out. Because after all, if they really were hunting me, they would have had no problem overtaking and overwhelming me, wouldn’t they?
David Morrell has said that all fiction is representative of our deepest fears and traumas. Most of which we are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge openly. We write to make sense of them, to come to terms with them, and even to make peace with them. The best writers therefore perform a kind of self-psychoanalysis.
I have to say I agree.
Perhaps I might sound Jungian or Freudian, but as I look back, my fear was not so much about being hunted down by salivating bloodthirsty dogs. That was only representative of deeper traumas. What I am truly afraid of is of being a small child again—abandoned and defenseless—in a dog-eat-dog world.
To put that into perspective, our bosses, our older friends, and even our elected government representatives are all ‘parental’ figures. Our idealized picture of a parental figure is always someone who is loving, kind, understanding, and has our best interests in mind. But all too often, we are left like little children to fend for ourselves when our elders prove to be weak, inadequate, or even corrupt.
Suspense, to me, is what results when we explore our traumas and fears.
Many people have the wrong impression that suspense is just a cheap genre to thrill and entertain the masses. I have always disagreed. There is no inferior genre, only inferior writers. Suspense has always had—always will have—a rich literary history. Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS, Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, Alexandre Dumas’s THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and many more are excellent examples of suspense stories done so well.
I am drawn to suspense because it resonates so deeply within me. Because we live in an Asian culture that finds it difficult, at times, to acknowledge what troubles and ails us.
Aneeta: Please share with me a list of the work you’ve published.
John: Since I have no formal training in writing, I took it upon myself to gain an informal education by experimenting and going through trial and error. Believe it or not, I have actually written three novels, two short story collections, and one novella.
I self-published two of those manuscripts—BROTHERHOOD, a novel, and SEVEN BULLETS, a collection—for the benefit of family and friends. It was a good hands-on experience that taught me a thing or two about the publishing industry. However, they have since gone out of print.
Eventually, I only felt one manuscript was decent enough to be traditionally published. That became FOURTEEN BULLETS, sold in 2004 to a small publishing company in the United States called Silver Lake Publishing.
As for my other manuscripts, they will probably never see the light of day. Funnily enough, this may be the price one has to pay if one wants to write creatively. Talent, while it does help, does not make a writer. Writing, like any other skill, takes a lot of learning and practice before you can do it right. I am only starting to come to grips with the mechanics of it, and I’m learning something new everyday!
The short stories in FOURTEEN BULLETS were originally written separately between 2002 and 2004. Most of them were published in American and British magazines and anthologies.
All my stories have a common theme—exploring the joys and traumas of friendship and honor amidst criminal underworlds and battlefields.
BROKEN, for example, is set in Kosovo, about two friends who enjoy playing catch in the woods. But years later, their different ethnicities tear them apart as their peoples go to war. Once again, they play catch, but this time, it’s not a game, it’s a hunt.
REDRUM is a stylized recreation of the My Lai massacre during Vietnam War, and explores how soldiers suffering from battle stress snap and kill indiscriminately.
What convinced me to put these stories together as a manuscript was an incident that occurred when I published a piece called ACCIDENTAL HERO in a British anthology called Maelstrom Volume One. It was the story of a Red Cross aid worker who experiences great danger in Sarajevo when he tries to protect a Bosnian Muslim baby from Serbian militants.
I received an email from a Bosnian Muslim man who asked me whether the story was true—I had written it in first person—because it reminded him so much of what he had gone through when he lived in Sarajevo during the early 1990s. I apparently brought him to tears by depicting what it was really like to navigate through Sarajevo’s infamous Sniper Alley—a dangerous boulevard flanked by buildings infested by snipers.
Another email soon arrived, from a Serbian man who heatedly disagreed with the way I had portrayed the militants in my story. He didn’t like it that I drew parallels with the Serbs and the Nazis. He insisted that I should withdraw my story. However, he relented when I pointed out that I did have another story published called RAIN, which was about a Serbian commando and a Muslim guerrilla saving each other’s lives and finding a common friendship.
It’s fascinating how a single story can draw such different responses.
I came to believe that my stories needed more exposure, outside of the magazines and anthologies they originally appeared in. FOURTEEN BULLETS was the result.
Since then, I have also delved a little bit into freelance journalism. I regularly contribute to THINK ONLINE, which is a youth-oriented webzine. Among my pieces, I have explored the rules of war in regards to terrorism (WORLD WAR IV) and the blood diamond trade in Sierra Leone (THE DARK SIDE OF DIAMONDS). When possible, I always try to combine a bit of storytelling to go with the facts. It is a compelling approach, considering the short attention span youngsters have these days.
A short story of mine is slated to appear in an upcoming BOOK PROJECT anthology, put together by Karen-Ann Theseira. It should be launched in Malaysia and made available in bookstores over the next couple of months.
At the moment, I am finally confident enough to seriously pursue a proper novel. It will be called RIGHTEOUS FIRE and I already a preview of the first three chapters up on my website. Several literary agents and publishers have expressed interest, but since it is still a work in progress, I will have to wait until it is done before I can really shop it around.
Aneeta: On your website, http://www.johnling.net a question is asked: Is your story Diamant real? I’m curious, what does this question mean and what did it relate to?
John: Many Malaysians are not aware that diamonds have financed several wars in Africa. In Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, a particularly vicious group of rebels called the Revolutionary United Front terrorized the country by abducting young boys, injecting them with heroin and cocaine, and turning them into drug-addicted child soldiers who would fight in order to get their fix. Worse still was their trademark act of violence, which was to indiscriminately amputate arms, legs, noses, lips, ears, even entire faces, to force the population into supporting their cause. Slave labour was also rampant, with many villagers being forced into the diamond fields to harvest diamonds for the RUF, which were then sold on the world markets. Hence the term blood diamonds.
My story—though it features fictional characters—documents many of these atrocities, up close.
Quite a number of readers have approached me, asking whether my story was based on fact. To them, it was so horrible that it couldn’t possibly exist outside the realm of fiction. But sadly, it is not fiction. It is true.
People must be careful not to buy diamonds from wholesalers, discount outlets, or even street side peddlers. These are the primary channels by which blood diamonds circulate. If possible, stick to established and certified diamond retailers.
Aneeta: I promise, to go only to certified diamond retailers … when (note, not ‘if’) I actually have the money to buy diamonds! I must admit that when I’m a little in awe of you – when I was in University, I did not do half of what you’re doing. I was just too occupied with legal studies and in what free time I had, I watched rugby. So, how do you balance your writing and your University studies; indeed, how do you find the time to write?
John: Some of the most persistent writers I know are persistent not because they are particularly gifted or particularly ambitious. They find the time to write—in some instances, squeezing in the time—only because they can’t choose not to write. They have to write. There certainly is something wrecking their nerves, gnawing at their soul. They need to write or else they might go mad.
Perhaps I might not be too farfetched to say that writers are a curious, obsessive lot. Why else would one shut herself up in a writing corner, brainstorming and scribbling, while life passes her by? Probably because she has no choice but the write. The closest parallel I can draw is perhaps that of the compulsive blogger. Many have discovered blogging these past few years, and along with it, how soothing and liberating it can be to pour yourself out.
I think that for most young people of my generation, they find solace from their daily traumas and troubles by clubbing and socializing and calling up their friends and so on. For me, it is strictly writing.
I most definitely squeeze in as much time as I can to write. Never mind that some days, I can’t even get any writing done, because of my Uni workload. But I never try to bite off more than I can chew. At most, I focus only on writing one scene at a time. A terribly slow process, I know, but it certainly helps me fit my writing into my everyday life.
As a fellow writer once told me, “Gracefully. Always gracefully.”
Aneeta: Yes. grace. Hmmm… will say nothing about that! Now, John, I know that you’ve had a series of promotional activities such as Author Appearance in Midvalley MPH and so on. I’ve done these too and I’ve had some very funny experiences with my audience – especially the questions they ask. Do you have any funny tales to tell?
John: There’s this one particularly funny incident that occurred when I was doing an appearance at MPH Midvalley. A Malay gentleman asked me—since I have ventured into taboo areas such as the consequences of ethnic conflict and violence—whether I was ever going to write about May 13th 1969.
I informed him that I probably couldn’t, since I couldn’t approach it from an objective enough view. As far as I know, that section of the National Archives is sealed. No plucky writer has ever been allowed to view it.
But he insisted that since I am residing in New Zealand, I can just write about it and publish it. Who cares about being objective.
But I told him, “If I do that, sir, I may not be able to return to Malaysia anymore.”
The crowd roared with laughter and applause.
Aneeta: As you know my website is catered for storytellers. As a writer, what advice would you give to storytellers?
John: From time to time, I have heard of writing coaches telling their students to imagine that they are watching a movie, and to write down what they ‘see’. This always troubles me, because the best writers don’t write in this fashion.
What most people don’t realize is that stories are not movies. To put this into perspective, real life is three-dimensional, movies are two-dimensional (having sight and sound), and stories are one-dimensional (having only words). In fact, the only medium that is closest to a storytelling is radio. If you have ever listened to the old dramas and mysteries put out by broadcasters such as the BBC, you will notice how vivid they are despite their minimal of description. They rely only on dialogue and sound effects.
Therefore, if you rely on sight, your stories will end up being very flat. A solution is to use what novelist John Barth called triangulation. Triangulation suggests that you should cut down on sight, and focus on other senses such as smell, hearing, touch. You will get a well rounded story this way.
It is never wise to translate a three-dimensional image into one-dimensional words. For example, how can you totally describe the total magnificence of a statue? Words cannot do it justice. If you try, you will only bog down your story. Rather, what might work better is describing how you felt when you gazed upon that statue.
There is a very practical reason for this.
In the past, before the advent of film and photography, writers were expected to travel far and wide and bring back vivid descriptions. This is understandable, since most people lacked exposure in those days. But in today’s multimedia world, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know how an African savannah looks like, or Venice, or the Himalayas.
So, when in doubt, don’t over-describe or over-embellish visually. Cut down and concentrate more on your other senses. Your readers will thank you for this.
Aneeta: John, that is really good advice. Thank you. Well, we have come to the end of this interview. I thank you, once again for participating in this interview.
John: A pleasure, Aneeta.
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