Confession: we’re fixated by stories about cult followers (like a Kanye tweet, we indulge it but just can’t explain it). For Laura Elizabeth Woollett, the obsession runs deep…
A true-crime writer’s obsession with the Jonestown massacre.
HER NEW NOVEL, BEAUTIFUL REVOLUTIONARY, IS A FICTIONALISED TAKE ON THE EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE IN NOVEMBER 1978, WHEN 909 PEOPLE – INCLUDING 200 CHILDREN – DIED IN A “REVOLUTIONARY SUICIDE” ORCHESTRATED BY THE CULT’S LEADER JIM JONES. HERE, THE MELBOURNE AUTHOR SHARES HER INSIGHTS AND INSPIRATION AND REVEALS HER NEXT TRUE-CRIME PROJECT.
The idea for the book really began while looking at subjects to write about for the stories in The Love Of A Bad Man [Woollett’s 2016 novel about women in relationships with history’s villains]. Jonestown naturally came into my mind. I was interested in Jim Jones’ mistress [Carolyn Layton] to begin with. I began researching her and just found her so fascinating. She was married when she joined the Peoples Temple, and I became interested in the man she was married to, and all these other characters who became part of their world. I thought, “There is so much here, I need to devote more time to it.” So I kept researching and developed a whole novel.
My research became more in-depth when I travelled to America and met with the sister of the woman my main character is based on. I maintained a connection with her while writing the book. I also went to San Francisco to interview people who were involved in the Temple, or their friends and relatives, and other authors who had written about the subject. I spent weeks in the California Historical Society’s archives looking at original documents, letters and photographs, and a lot of time on a website called Alternative Considerations Of Jonestown Peoples Temple, which has pretty much everything you could hope to find.
The outside view is that anyone who joins a cult is lacking in scepticism, or is gullible. I found [the former members] to be really intelligent people. They saw a lot of the bad things that went on, but a lot of them were convinced that because other people who they respected were there too, it couldn’t be all bad. It wasn’t a cult to them when they joined, but that’s how it ended up.
A lot of people joined for idealistic reasons, but they were good reasons and a lot of them did value their time there. Some even spoke about it being the best time of their lives, before everything went so horribly wrong. I think overall they felt betrayed and regretful about how it all ended up.
I like having a subject to obsess over. I really enjoyed the experience of writing a novel, because you get so invested and you get to know all the characters. With a short story, it’s over so quickly. With a novel, it’s really fun to have something ongoing where you are getting to know every little detail of that world.
I recently received a travel grant to go to Norfolk Island to research my next book. I don’t want to say too much because it’s really early days, but it’s again true-crime inspired, with a focus on the female characters.
ON LAURA’S READING LIST SEX AND RAGE by Eve Babitz SWEETBITTER by Stephanie Danler HOT MILK by Deborah Levy