Jonestown, a “hard sell”

by Annie Dawid

The thirty-year anniversary of Jonestown came and went without my four protagonists having their say. Five years into my obsession with writing a novel about Jonestown, the book has gone through multiple drafts and titles: Fathom These Events; Jonestown Perfume; Resurrection City; and, finally, Paradise Undone: A Novel of Jonestown.

It had an agent for a while, and was under close consideration by a major publishing company, only to be rejected because the sales staff wasn’t “on the same page” with the editor, who said he really liked it, but he was new to the house and didn’t want to “force the book down their throats,” he informed me, in an ill-chosen Kool-Aidesque locution. The book might have interested another major company, but that publisher was already contracted for a non-fiction book about Jonestown, and didn’t want to handle two books simultaneously on the same subject.

A small press accepted Paradise Undone in January of this year, but  the deal ran into trouble, and in September finally came  undone. The collapse may or may not have been precipitated by my versions of Jim and Marceline Jones, and the fictionalized characters of Truth Miller, a Peoples Temple member who remained in the Bay Area, Virgil Nascimento, a Guyanese ambassador to the United States, and Watts Freeman, a composite based on the young men who escaped from Jonestown on November 18th, 1978.

One section of the novel, “I Will Never Let You Down,” was a finalist in Glimmer Train Stories’  “Family Matters” contest. Yet another, “Knowing What I Know,” was published in Driftwood: A Literary Journal of Voices from Afar (2006), and sent me to a writer’s workshop in southern France on a partial scholarship. Most promisingly, the first chapter of my book was a semi-finalist in last year’s inaugural Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, receiving nearly 50 super-positive reader reviews – some of them written by complete strangers! It recently received an honorable mention from the Writer’s Workshop  in North Carolina.

But about 40 publishers have said no, and all of them say Jonestown is a “hard sell.” Maybe it’s the subject, or my treatment of it, or possibly – probably – both that have made Paradise Undone: A Novel Of Jonestown so difficult to offer to the world in book form so that readers may experience for themselves my idiosyncratic version of the rise and fall of Peoples Temple as well as the aftermath of Jonestown.

Fortunately, artists keep making art about Peoples Temple, scholars keep studying, and survivors keep telling their stories. Each year now, documentaries and plays, operas and memoirs, academic articles, scholarly volumes and visual art emerge to inform those who know about Jonestown and those who are only now learning of this most profound moment in 20th century American history.

Whether “hard sell” or no, the truth will out – sooner or later.

(Annie Dawid may be reached at annie@anniedawid.com. Her website is at http://www.anniedawid.com/.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on January 22nd, 2014.
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