If someone were to ask me how my Young Adult novel about Peoples Temple/Jonestown was going, I would groan, moan, duck my head, be embarrassed. I had written a hundred bad pages, and then stopped. I could offer many reasons, and a handful of them would even be valid.
In a way, the main one was my father. He had to have back surgery last year. Although he’s doing fine now, it took him awhile to recover. I found myself more in a caretaker role: getting him the chocolate milk he likes, going to the VA hospital in Fort Miley for doctor’s appointments, things like that. Then he came down with pneumonia, which entailed bedrest at the VA.
There were other reasons as well, but the one I really couldn’t get past was this: 918 people died on November 18, 1978.
I wanted to change that. If it was up to me, Leo Ryan would’ve figured out a way to call the Guyana Defense Force to get Jim Jones out of there. It would’ve been hard for everyone, but perhaps Jonestown would’ve kept on going – maybe even thrived – without Jones. Marceline could go back and forth between the settlement and the States, read Melody Beattie to understand her codependence issues, enjoy her grandchildren. John Victor Stoen would’ve been reunited with his parents. Lisa Layton could’ve been interred at a local cemetery where her relatives could visit. Most of all, the people would’ve been alive. “Don’t drink the Kool Aid” would not be an expression, a joke that should’ve never been a joke.
However, it did happen. And I found myself unable to write about it. I felt guilty, just as I knew beating myself up about it wasn’t the answer either. I had to do the next best thing: I decided to work on something new – a tribute to my childhood movie theater that was torn down this past May – and figure the novel out later. My Jonestown characters were never far from my mind or my heart, though, even if I just wasn’t sure how to write their stories yet.
A couple of things finally got me back to the computer. The first one was the death of Brenda Parks on Valentine’s Day this year. I never met Brenda, yet I always have this image of her as the pretty girl with long brown hair, looking scared yet resolute when she told Jackie Speier she wanted to go back to the States with her family and then-boyfriend Christopher O’Neal. I felt terrible when I heard about Brenda, yet wasn’t sure how to express my sympathy to the Parks family. Would I come off as another rubbernecker, wanting to take advantage of their family? In fact, that was another reason I stopped writing: I was scared I would offend the survivor community, and I truly didn’t want to do that. But they were getting older. Clichéd as it sounds, time is a healer. I don’t know if my novel would be welcomed, but it was a chance for future generations to read a version of what happened.
The first weeks of summer were hot, hot, and hot. I don’t have air conditioning. Although I have several fans, they did little to provide respite from the heat. Add to this: a BART strike, money worries, and a freelance opportunity gone south. I wasn’t a happy camper. One night, I woke up itching like crazy. I went into the bathroom for water. I turned on the light, and then looked at my legs. I had hives from my thigh to my toes. Was it the heat? Stress? All I knew was I was very itchy and very tired.
Around this time Camp NaNoWriMo was opening for business. A spinoff from the popular NaNoWriMo website (National Novel Writing Month), Camp NaNoWriMo gives people the chance to write a novel in a month, only in a “Camp” setting (you’re assigned to a “cabin” and can write “letters” to home). The difference between this and regular NaNoWriMo is that instead of writing a minimum of 50,000 words, you could chose your own minimum. What made me become a camper? One of the T-shirts they were selling on the site that had in caps: THE WORLD NEEDS YOUR NOVEL. I wasn’t sure if this was true or not, but I decided to give it a go.
I signed up, chose 30,000 words for the minimum, and then started writing. I wrote in my kitchen before it got warm. I wrote in the library where the air conditioning was flowing. I wrote at Starbucks where I drank iced tea and cursed my keyboard when the “f” key became stuck (if you see a chapter that has no f’s, this is why). I gave the narrator Maeve hives – talk about writing about what you know! – as a reaction to stressful things going on in her life. For Jonestown flashbacks, I made the weather warm so the residents were just as miserable as I was dealing with the heat. I wrote and wrote. I told myself to write the worst novel ever, which was very liberating.
I don’t know if it will ever see the light. I do know this: a week after I went back writing, the hives’ swelling went down. The heat returned to semi-normal. And I realized that no matter what, the world needed this novel. Even if I couldn’t change things that happened, it was needed. Hopefully, when it’s ready, it will be welcomed.
(Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other articles in this edition are I Only Want To Be With You, Charlie Brown and A Trace of Doubt in My Mind. Her previous articles appear here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)