When I sat down again to write my novel, I knew was once again slapped in the face by one of its themes, how Jonestown nearly destroyed a family. Yet, as with all my writing, my characters are interested in the world around them. They love music, movies, and books. They love clothes, hanging out with friends. They take it all in. This wasn’t going to be an exception. Someone who read an early draft suggested I put in references to current TV shows, Glee or Gossip Girl or something my audience of teenagers could relate to. I hesitated. Nothing dates a book more than current references. Some books I loved as I was growing up are out of print because it had characters going to a Go Go’s concert. No longer do these books have the beat. Yet now more writers are breaking those rules.
What to do?
After consulting with my narrator Maeve, I decided it would be set in 2005. I did this for several reasons: it was before the I-phone, before YouTube. If you did get internet on your phone, it was spotty. She could go through long spurts on not being “connected” online and get to know the town where she lived. But I also did it for one simple reason: Hurricane Katrina. I wanted Maeve to truly understand the reason why so many people left the States for what they thought would be a better life in Guyana. Seeing the footage back then, hearing President George W. Bush say “Heck of a job, Brownie,” was proof that the gulf between the words and the reality of people being treated equally, is a big one. The feeble response to the howling winds and the unprecedented storm surge let us know that, loud and clear.
However, I knew the flashbacks were going to be hard to write. One of my favorite novels is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. When the narrator Melinda reveals the terrible secret that has isolated her from peers at school, the next chapter had her musing about the new name for the athletic teams: The Hornets. During the game, the cheerleaders chant, “We are the hornets! The horny horny hornets!” To make their point across, they wiggle their bottoms. Yep. I knew it was going to be hard, writing what happened. I knew I had to balance it out. I knew the younger sisters Tara and Noelle needed to be obsessed about something. They were 13 and 14, that age when you become a woman, yet still have girl crushes. They needed a teeny bopper crush.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Bay City Rollers!
The Bay City Rollers were huge in the mid-seventies. I didn’t know much about them, except for their earworm hit, “Saturday Night.” I also knew they were from Scotland. I liked it that their popularity reached across the pond; the girls had friends in Ireland, so this could be a shared interest. I turned to YouTube, typing the band name. The first thing that came up was a Saturday morning TV show in which they appeared with the Krofft puppets. The date it was shown was November 18, 1978. I covered my mouth, stunned.
I had recently written a scene when Noelle’s first love Adlai sees her for the first time. He and his family are coming into Jonestown when he sees this girl. She’s wearing a Bay City Rollers T-shirt and jeans. Her hair is in braids. She is walking with her sister, and they are singing “I Only Want to Be with You” as loudly as they can. All Adlai can think is that he wants to get this girl. She’s something else. But can he get her with “I Only Want to Be With You,” the song the Bay City Rollers opens the show with on November 18th?
The Rollers pretty much were past their prime when 1978 rolled around. Jonestown was so isolated, though, Tara and Noelle wouldn’t have known. They simply loved them without question, these guys with bad teeth and tartan pants. When they thought of their music, it made them smile.
In the beginning, when they move to Ukiah, their sister Stella gets a job at the Warm Puppy Cafe. This was connected to the ice rink Charles Schultz built in the late sixties. He was often there to drink coffee, and Peggy Fleming sometimes practiced on the rink. I just saw Stella working there, smiling at the children, always wearing a sweater, since it was always cold. One of the things Tara leaves behind is her Snoopy. I also knew every Christmas the family decorated the tree to the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.
Later I saw a picture of Snoopy dancing in the Jonestown classroom. A letter from Barbara Moore says that she wrote a play with Charlie Brown as the lead character, but because of copyright issues, she changed the name to Horace Green. One of the movies that they had in Jonestown was Snoopy, Come Home.
I never know why my characters are drawn to certain things. Like many writers, I feel like I am their typist, getting it all down. Some people have accused me of being media-obsessed. I just call it being media aware. I want to show that these girls loved the Bay City Rollers; they loved Charlie Brown and Snoopy. They loved singing, and most of all, they loved being alive.
(Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other articles in this edition are The World Needs Your Novel and A Trace of Doubt in My Mind. Her previous articles appear here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)