Leaving Jonestown

by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

It’s an overcast day on St Kilda beach when I get the call. I don’t answer it.

Because I’m at the beach. Also because – despite the fact that I work in a call centre – the sight of my phone flashing unexpectedly is like a snake wriggling across the sand.

I listen to the voicemail, though. Several times before the words make sense.

“I think I got that Asialink grant,” I tell my friend Jess, in a tone better suited to I think I have herpes.

“That’s amazing!”

Jess was with me the weekend I wrote the grant proposal, in a hotel room in Newcastle.

“It was so last minute…I never thought I’d get it.” I bite my lip. “Oh shit. Now I actually have to do what I said I would do.”

What I said I’d do: fly to Jakarta in September. Call myself a writer-in-residence. Work on something new, something that isn’t –

“My Jonestown novel. Shit. I really have to finish it soon.”

* * * * *

The problem isn’t writer’s block; it’s just that the novel keeps getting bigger, its structure harder to maintain. Write now, edit later has never been my philosophy. My first draft is a monolith under permanent construction: scaffolds in the sky, dumpsters full of rubble.

I already know I won’t meet my contracted deadline: December 31, 2016. So does my editor. She extends it by six months, commiserates with me over the death of Leonard Cohen and the non-death of Trump. She comments on my busy 2017: festivals, residencies, finishing my magnum opus. Also, presumably, holding down a day-job.

The call centre where I work always empties for a few weeks either side of Christmas. I’ve been there long enough that I should be prepared for an indeterminate period of no pay. I should also be prepared to accept as much paid work as I can when it becomes available again in mid-January. I don’t, though, because I’m going to India.

The writer’s festival doesn’t pay, but the flights are free. Since New Delhi is a long way to fly for a two-day stint of panels, I deplete my savings further and book a week at a beach hut in Goa. Writing time, I tell myself.

It’ll be worth it, I tell myself.

It isn’t, or not in any immediate way. In the mornings, the sun turns my walls as pink as the inside of a seashell. The days get hot, fast; I spend them toddling between my shack and various drink vendors, peeing a lot, and falling into internet wormholes. In the evenings, I reward my ‘labors’ with a beach walk, fish curry, and reading by restaurant candlelight. The book I’m reading is big and bleak and emotionally exhausting, and I can’t make up my mind about it, let alone how to write something better than it. At some point, I give up trying.

There’s always the flight home, I tell myself.

I only sell one book at the festival. The days are long. At the end of the second day is a cocktail party at the home of a local family, patrons of the arts. They have that rich-people skill of remembering names and biographies, performing seamless introductions – something I’ve only ever seen in movies. There’s a man in a white suit who can make any drink. There’s a Hungarian ambassador, for some reason. It’s just like being at a Peoples Temple party in Georgetown! I think giddily, and wish I could find an elegant way of talking about the lucky members who got to be there, keeping tabs on spooks and diplomats, instead of working the fields in Jonestown. But it’s not an elegant subject, so instead I act like a token Australian, talking about shark attacks and drinking too much.

I don’t remember the ride back to the hotel.

I do remember the bathroom sink. Vomiting a blend of Bombay gin and paneer, but somehow having the presence of mind to rinse my mouth with bottled water. Soon after, falling asleep with the lights on and my dying smartphone beside me, no alarm. It’s pure, undeserved good luck that wakes me at 6AM: just in time to nauseously brave the tide of Immigration at Indira Gandhi Airport.

Needless to say, I don’t write on my flight home.

* * * * *

February, March, April, I find other places to write. The commute to work: in a window seat, if I’m lucky; on the grubby tram steps, if not. Coffee breaks, at the mirrored table in my building’s lobby. After work, in the overly conditioned air of the CAE study room, or the panopticon of the State Library, or barefoot on the library lawn. I walk the seven kilometres home each day; to save on tram fares, but also because it clears my head, though my left shoulder aches.

I write at night, or try to, instructing my boyfriend not to let me watch too much TV. He checks on me periodically and is always horrified by my unergonomic contortions, warns me I’ll end up a hunchback. I put his warning in my novel, but otherwise don’t abide it.

I get some work as an extra in a TV remake of Picnic At Hanging Rock and, dressed in my 1900s maid costume, type paragraphs on my phone. When the battery dies, I borrow a charger from Wardrobe.

* * * * *

I grew up in Perth, Western Australia – the most isolated city in the world, by some measures. At eighteen, I moved to Melbourne. I go back west a couple of times a year, but never for much more than a long weekend. This fact changes in May.

It’s not the Perth I ever called home, though. It’s a place called Greenmount, located in ‘the hills’. In my mind, ‘the hills’ are a mythical place when I once saw a giant blue-tongued lizard and, ten years after that, went on a Geography field trip. There are wineries, national forests, and probably some good places for hiding bodies.

I’ve been granted two weeks in a cabin here by the KSP Writer’s Centre, their first ‘scholarship writer-in-residence’. There are three other cabins on the grounds, but none populated; a fact that pleases me by day, scares me at night.

On my first night, I take a walk to the nearest national park. The surrounding blocks of land are massive. Dogs are big and bark loudly. Everyone seems to drive a ute or an SUV. I feel like I’m back in Ukiah, where I went a whole two years ago to research Peoples Temple, as it existed before Jonestown. But the trees aren’t conifers and the birds are undeniably antipodean.

You’re not in California, dickhead, I tell myself. Look at the lorikeets.  

That doesn’t stop me from dressing like a California hippie. My second night, I walk in a different direction, taking random turns onto residential streets. The sky sets itself on fire; I photograph it. When an SUV starts following me, I studiously ignore the creep behind the wheel. As soon as he peels off, a police car rolls up.

“Were you taking photos of houses?” a cop with glasses questions me.

“No. I was taking photos of the sunset.”

“We had a report of a woman matching your description acting suspiciously. You might’ve noticed a car following you.”

“Oh, that guy.” I shrug, laugh.

I see the look he gives the other cop, a blonde about my age. They both have guns, but like I said, this isn’t America and, even if it was, I’m a white girl in a Free People skirt holding a phone with a cute faux-vintage cover.

“I can show you, if you want,” I offer. “I think I got some good ones.”

They explain that there’ve been a lot of burglaries in the area, but I’m probably not a person of interest. They take down my details, just the same. When I get back to the writer’s centre, they’re parked unsubtly across the road. I ignore them and walk the dark path down to my cabin, thinking of skin and power, dense trees, isolation.

* * * * *

It makes a good story when I’m compelled to socialise at an open day that weekend. It’s an older crowd, and I prefer this story to the one I’m asked about most, especially by men over forty. Why Jonestown. Why America. Why such a ‘dark subject’. The implication: you’re too young and female to be thinking about mass-murder. 

I’m too afraid of the dark to make use of the centre’s main kitchen at night. In my cabin, I microwave rice or oatmeal, or eat towers of crackers. I mysteriously lose my taste for chocolate and snack on apples and carrots like a child with health-freaks for parents. I drink constantly: instant coffee, cranberry juice, Pepsi, red wine. It feels right, but precarious.

In the middle of my first week, I get my period and develop a sinus infection. Better now than two weeks from now, I think, quarantined in my cabin.

I meet my writing goal for the two weeks; return to Melbourne on May 13 – a date I recognize as Jim Jones’ 86th birthday. Eleven days later, I fly to Sydney for another festival.

The festival puts me up in a five-star hotel for one night. I invite Jess to share it and we attend the artist party, which is sponsored by a real estate company who show us slides of luxurious beach-front properties, as though artists are people who buy property. The next day, I move into Jess’ sharehouse for the weekend. A considerate friend, she gives me space; takes me to a café where I write for hours while she watches RuPaul’s Drag Race, wearing an earnest face that makes me think she’s working too. I write at the airport and on my flight home. On June 11, 2017, at 7:30PM AEDT, I finish the first draft of Beautiful Revolutionary.

* * * * *

I’m a horror to live with in those last weeks, I know. I feel horrible when I recall certain incidents, like the time I bitch at my boyfriend in a parked car for accurately critiquing a section of my novel I gave to him for precisely that reason. I feel horrible when I think of everything wrong on the planet, and my skill at removing myself from it to make marks on paper that objectively mean nothing. Such privileged detachment doesn’t seem in keeping with the spirit of Peoples Temple, with building a better world. This haunts me, as does my resemblance to those insomniac white women who were able to write memos discussing the pros and cons of mass-murder.

Where Jonestown was, there are now empty spaces. I keep listening to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ to feel the sting of exile. I offer to do more of the cooking, and spend an evening hurling because the cream-based pasta is too rich. I watch all the TV shows, but have trouble staying awake past 11, though my Jonestown-self could fall into bed at 4AM and wake bright-eyed at 7. I’m desperate for feedback, to be told that my work is a revelation. I’m desperate, also, to be told that it’s not that good, get over yourself, just because you’re twenty-seven with a bit of talent, doesn’t mean you’re Jim Morrison. But the feedback doesn’t come fast enough; I’m forced to live among those empty spaces.

Because the spaces aren’t only creative. They’re personal, too, and harder to ignore now. While I’ve been flitting around, nursing artistic mood-swings, the man I love has been stoic. While I’ve been single-mindedly pursuing my ambitions, he’s been increasingly unsure of what his are. While I’ve been turning down paid work, he’s been working overtime for a struggling tech startup, which rewards his diligence with company-wide paycuts that have him earning less per hour than a teenager at McDonald’s. It’s been an uneven year, to say the least.

It’s magic mushroom season. We take some one rainy Saturday, and our differences are exacerbated: where I crave ‘authentic experience’, he wants to be alone with his headphones. I accuse him of being a robot, deliberately kill the mood, then leave the room to play with watercolors.

The bad vibes linger into the next week. We have a very adult conversation about what it means to be adults in this time, this drowning world. By the end of it, we’re bashfully engaged.

We don’t start telling people until we set a date, the soonest we can get, a month after our conversation. The same week, conveniently, we’re set to leave for a week in Bali before I start my two months in Jakarta.

We marry at 2pm on a Monday, blushing through our ironic laughter.

* * * * *

The first call to prayer comes around 4AM. I know because I’m having trouble sleeping. I know other things: that walking is for orang kampung, and that it will always look strange for a white woman to do so, no matter how many kilometres she’s accustomed to walking in a day. That the sides of drains, nevertheless, may be traversed, if you’re able-bodied and watch out for potholes.

I know that sleeveless tops and shorts – even short-shorts – are generally acceptable, but a woman is liable to be mocked or ignored if she bares her midriff. I know that look of polite pity that greets the linguistically-challenged, no matter how articulate they may be in their native tongue. I know that mice squeak, but so do geckos, bats, and large cockroaches, so it’s best not to think about it too much.

I know, even as my brain shapes itself around a new language, certain words remain familiar: rasisme, sekte, harmoni. Others seem too quaint for what they’re describing, like pemimpin, leader. I know Jonestown is still called Jonestown.  

I know the novel isn’t perfect; though the structure is strong, there are reasons I need an editor. I know I must look at it again soon, with fresh eyes. I know I’m afraid to.

I know every novel is a palimpsest, under which the personal is written. I know I can read sections of my own work and know precisely where I was sitting, what I was wearing, drinking, listening to. I know it is difficult to place these things in strangers’ hands.

As for that other difficult thing, leaving – I haven’t done it yet. Don’t expect to, though life demands to go on.

(Laura Elizabeth Woollett is an Australian writer. Her Peoples Temple novel Beautiful Revolutionary is due to be published in Australia in early 2018. Her guest blog for the Melbourne Writers Festival about her research trip to the United States is here. Her other piece in this edition of the jonestown report is Danger Cycle. Visit her website at http://lauraelizabethwoollett.com.)

Last modified on November 14th, 2018.
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