CULT FIC­TION

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…

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents -

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

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