One friend called it the “yuck factor.”
Another asked how I could possibly contemplate writing a second book on Jonestown.
My mother said resolutely, “You just can’t understand it.”
When I tried to persuade her that one could try – that that’s what I’d been doing with my novel for the last three years – she couldn’t grasp that understanding is possible.
After reviewing the 1981 NPR “Father Cares” program, based on the radio play by James Reston Jr., author of Our Father Who Art in Hell and reporter Noah Adams, I revisit the fact that the public face of Jonestown belongs to Jim Jones, and the face portrayed is always that of a madman.
My novel, Paradise Undone, is not about Jim Jones.
The “great man” theory of history tires and bores me. My task as a writer is to unveil the faces of the women and men beside the endlessly repeated name and outsized ego of the leader. I wrote the book to expose their lives and voices, to give some “airtime” to a few of the other 917 people who died on November 18 th, 1978, though nearly thirty years later, it remains Jim-Jones-the-Madman as litany, as explanation, as the whole story.
As I write this essay, Paradise Undone is being read exclusively by a number of editors at a handful of small publishers in New York. So far, approximately 24 big East Coast presses have turned it down for various reasons, some of them having to do with subject matter, some with style, some with lack of ability to “sell” the novel or even the idea of the novel to colleagues, and thus to the public.
When I listen to those voices on the tapes, it is not Jim Jones I want to know more about. Frankly, I would prefer to hear less of him. I want to know about the older black woman who says so earnestly, “You’re the only father I have. You’re the only family I have. I gave up my brother for you.”
On the highly selective NPR program, Jones turns the moment into a self-serving gem: sing your song, he tells the woman. So she sings “I Never Heard a Man Speak Like This Man Before.” Everyone sings along, but Jones voice is loudest. I’d rather hear her tell her story instead.
“Why did you leave your brother to follow Jim Jones?” I would ask her. “Tell me how you came to Peoples Temple.”
In the FBI documents, I have located some of these old women’s stories and incorporated them into my novel. But their voices have receded from public memory, like so many of those standing in the shadows cast by Jones and other leaders.
My friend George tried to prepare me for the rejections. “It’s not your writing that they’ll be reacting to,” he told me very kindly. “They’ll be imagining all those bloated bodies on TV and saying to themselves, ‘Yuck! Who wants to read about that?’”
Whether or not my continued applications to editors prove George right, I plan to keep writing. The next book is percolating.