Photos Courtesy of John Collins
Influenced by Derrick Tennial, Langston Hughes and E. Lynn Harris, Author John Collins hopes to become a writer with success in his own rite. The Detroit native who resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, knew that he was going to become a writer at the age 16, but had no idea how he was going to publish the masterpiece. While in high school Collins read Langston Hughes’ poem “Young Sailor” and later discovered that they had something in common: they both were gay and liked Navy men.
Collins spoke to PrideIndex early one Thursday morning about his experiences in the United States Navy, his publishing journey, and his plans for the future.
PRIDEINDEX (PI): Thanks, John, for agreeing to this early morning interview.
JOHN COLLINS (JC): It is early morning (LAUGHS).
PI: I have to jump on the ball when authors such as yourself say that you want to talk to me.
JC: No problem
PI: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from?
JC: I am originally from Detroit, Michigan. I joined the navy right after high school, where I did eight years active duty. I have been writing since I was about 16; I sat down and wrote my first book around 2007; It took about a year and half to complete the first manuscript. I followed up with the sequel, and now I am 8 chapters into writing my third book.
PI: You are originally from Detroit, but I recall seeing something on your Facebook page that mentions something about North Carolina. Do you live in NC right now?
JC: Yeah. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina.
PI: I see something on your Facebook page that says, “The Power of Our Words.” What do you mean by that?
JC: Words can be used to hurt you or they can be used to uplift you. I want to be a voice in the community to tell our side of the story, especially coming from a military standpoint. At one point in time [under the military policy Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell], we were oppressed or suppressed and not allowed to be our true selves. In the Navy, there is a saying: “honor, courage, and commitment.” If you are not allowed to be your true self, then you are in a sense not living up to that code. That code was instilled in us from day one when we entered boot camp. And you always had to cover up your tracks and lie about what you did over the past weekend or lie about your significant other and things of that nature. It’s those words that made you live outside of yourself. Even in family situations when I would go home to visit, I would have to tell those lies to keep them off my trail as far as my sexuality was concerned. In my writing this book, it allowed me to release all of the hurt all the anger [and] frustration; everything that I was dealing with and in terms of my sexuality with friends, family, work and the world. The book was an outlet for me, and I would encourage others to use their voice to tell show their true selves, so that we can [see more] progression within ourselves and our same gender loving community.
PI: Why did you enlist in the Navy if you knew you were gay?
JC: It was a way to pay for college and [to have] a steady source of income for me and not rely on my parents for support for college just in case they did find out about me and were like, “He’s out there doing homosexual activities.” I felt like I needed to do something on my own, and the navy or the military in general was the quickest way to do that and take care of myself, so that’s why I joined.
PI: So when were you in the Navy?
JC: I joined in 1998, and I was on active duty from 1998 until 2006. I then joined the reserves from 2006 until 2012.
PI: You were there during the old days of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT).
PI: So you were there during the time when President Obama repealed DADT. What difference did you notice after the DADT was repealed?
JC: For me, I was always comfortable in my sexuality, but again you had to hide yourself. A lot of my generation who came in under DADT knew there was a stigma still attached to being gay in the military. We may have told a few co-workers, but we knew not to come out to the whole unit or company because of fear of retaliation, especially if you were up in rank or held a leadership position. As far as the generation that came in behind me, you could see a lot of the flamboyancy because they had no shame of being gay. They knew who they were, and it was no secret. The real difference I noticed was that the men would keep their situations on the down low, but the females were bolder. I guess that is just like in American society, where it is more acceptable for two women to show their love out in the open as opposed to two men. I believe that as the older generation becomes more accepting, the younger generation will bring their lovers and significant others to military balls or military picnic or put their spouses’ picture up as their screen savers. I did see a little bit of that as I transitioned out of the military. I slowly saw the positive effects of the repeal of DADT, but in my experience many people did not care; they were like let’s just go and finish this job. I know it has a lot to do with folk’s individual comfort level.
PI: Where can I find your book?
JC: My book is called Virgin to the Life; it’s available on Amazon.com and through dtipress.com; it’s available through eBooks.
PI: How did you become acquainted with our mutual buddy Dr. D. Marcell (Derrick Tennial)?
JC: Mostly through reaching out to authors or people that knew other people who were in the publishing industry and networking on Facebook. Derrick and I have a mutual friend who hit me up and said that I needed to get with this guy Derrick Tennial. I reached out to him and I felt a level of comfort reaching out to him, and I sent my manuscript to him, and we hit it off from there. And that was back in early 2011, and the rest is history.
PI: How come you decided to publish this indie rather than going to a mainstream publisher?
JC: I wanted to get my name out there first. I did some research on what to do to get in touch with those mainstream publishers, and I realized that it was hard to get my stuff in the hands of some of those big name publishing houses. I understand they get so many manuscripts and reject so many would be authors. It made me realize that my work could be great, but if it were not in the genre they were looking for at that particular time, then I would get a ”no.” I decided not to print out a bunch of manuscripts or to send them electronic not knowing if they would accept my manuscript; I thought that I would possibly sell my manuscript or look for independent companies. I knew that I would take a loss initially, but it would eventually pay off.
PI: Has it paid off yet?
JC: So far so good. I am continuing to network and reach out to people. Lonnie Williams, the blogger, did a good review; I am featured in SGLBooklovers.com. I thank God and put him first, and I am sure that it is going to be as long as I put the work in is going to happen.
PI: What are you working on right now?
JC: Right now, I am working on the sequel to my first book. I am in the editing phase. I had to change the first couple of chapters to match the ending to Virgin to the Life. So now I am doing the editing. Right now, it may be called Burning Silence since that is one of the breakout themes. I am brainstorming whether or not one of the characters will get a breakout book of his own. I am also working on speaking engagements working with this organization here in Charlotte called Time Out Youth. I will speak to youth about the book and give them some positive motivation to help them to stand in their own truth and to let them know that God does love them in spite of what people will tell you. These kids from Time Out Youth are homeless [having been thrown out of their homes because of their sexuality]. I am also working on this writing thing and making it work for me fulltime. It is my passion, and I do feel that it is my calling, so I am dumping my soul and heart into this.
PI: When were you first called to be a writer?
JC: That’s a great question (laughs) because it is something that I have done since I was 16 when I began to keep my first journal. When I was 21, I wrote the first three pages of this book. I knew I wanted to someday write a full book; I just did not know how I was going to do it. I sat down and wrote about how my sexuality was first discovered by my parents and what transpired on that day [that’s mentioned in the book Virgin to the Life] and that’s how this writing thing came into fruition. I got my revelation that this was my calling in early March  while just lying in bed and thinking out loud: “God, I have my book published, and this is it.”
PI: Do you talk about religious themes in your writing?
JC: Yes, it is very important to me. I believe that religion gives us hope, and for a lot of us, it is the one thing we have even after society has stripped everything else away from us. It is the one thing that cannot be stripped away. God is the only thing that we have in the end long after we have cried about why our parents won’t accept us or why they are kicking us out of their home. In my experience, God is the one thing that gives us the strength to hold on. I mention prayer in my book and don’t beat people over the head, but it is easy to see that God does have a place in my life and my characters lives.
PI: What percentage of your book is based off your own experience and what percentage is all fiction?
JC: That’s another good question. I will only say that I have a vivid imagination and my characters do speak to me. However, I infuse my own experiences based off people and events that have taken place into my writing. I would say that a good chunk is based off my own experiences.
PI: If you were writing style were to be a flower, what kind of flower would it be?
JC: (Pauses) I would have to say it would be a blue orchid because it is a strong flower that has a dynamic presence and you have to stop and take note of it, acknowledge it and you have to take something from it away with you.
PI: Who are some of your writing mentors?
JC: Derrick Tennial, he’s an outstanding mentor, author, and publisher. and E Lynn Harris’ – one of the first same gender loving writers that I first read. I had to literally sneak this book into my house and so glad that I did. He influenced me to write – the flow of his work and the details. I enjoy the details that make you think that you can actually sit next to a person. My third would be Langston Hughes whose poetry is so abstract, where if you are not paying attention you have to read it a second or third time because you might miss something. It leaves a lot to the imagination. The first poem I read by him was called “Young Sailor” which I read during Black History month. I chose Langston Hughes out of the blue; I did not know he was gay. I knew that I was going to the navy and the poem spoke to me and that made me want to learn more.
PI: Where do you see yourself twenty years from now? Where would you like to be?
JC: I see myself retired, but still writing and being an advocate in the community. I see myself in a black same gender loving relationship and living the community that is healed and does not cut each other down every chance they get because of the self hatred that is brought upon by our families. I would like to live in DC, married, getting to know people, and sharing our stories.
To order “Virgin To The Life” click here.