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Author Interview: Julia Scheeres

Julia Scheeres

Julia Scheeres is the author of the New York Times Bestseller Jesus Land, published in 2006. Today she is working on a book titled Jonestown, due out in 2011.

(Jonestown was a utopian community formed by Americans in Guyana, South America, under the leadership of a Bay Area preacher named Jim Jones. On November 18, 1978, 913 of Jones followers died in a mass murder/suicide by drinking a cyanide-laced punch. Jonestown will explore what happened during Jonestown’s last year as Jones became more drug-addled and paranoid, his followers became more disgruntled, and the Socialist utopia they attempted to create deteriorated.)

How did you get interested in writing about Jonestown?

I was working on a novel about a fundamentalist minister, a charismatic preacher, who takes over a small Indiana town, and then I remembered that Jim Jones was a charismatic preacher from Indiana, so I Googled him as part of my research and found out that the FBI had just released all these documents. Then my journalist side kicked in, and I knew I could sell the project because no one had written a book about the documents before. They included 50,000 pages of diaries, letters that were never sent home, crop reports, meeting notes and suicide notes that they picked up off the ground in Jonestown after the massacre. The FBI held onto them until they were sued to release them under FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act). The problem was they released them on three CDs but without an index. So a letter might start on page 235 and end on page 687. It took someone working at San Diego State University about ten years to put them in order. He had completed the index not long before that, so I got the index from him.

Last year, you went to Guyana to visit Jonestown. What was it like?

There’s nothing there now except for the rusted-out carcasses of a few vehicles. You look at the pictures of Jonestown, and they built this town in the middle of the jungle, with cottages and kitchens and wood shops. It was a town. Now it’s just a big field that the jungle has mostly reclaimed.

How did it feel being in Jonestown?

I almost passed out from the heat. I can’t imagine in Jonestown there were people working from six in the morning until six at night, doing agricultural work. After being in the sun for fifteen minutes, I swooned. I thought I would feel more since 913 people died on the place I was standing, but the grassy field that’s there today is so incongruous with the magazine pictures of the bodies piled up.

What happened to Jonestown after the mass suicide?

It burned down after people left. The locals are really poor, so they carried away the pieces of the corrugated metal roofs and anything else they could potentially use.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about Jonestown doing your research?

The extent of the lies that Jones told the people to goad them toward committing mass murder/suicide is the most troubling. A third of the people were children, a third were seniors, and all of them were lied to to some degree about what was going on. They were told that they were surrounded by mercenaries who were going to torture and kill them. It was a lie. There were no mercenaries in the jungle.

What is your process for paring down so much information?

It took me a year to read through the FBI materials and organize them and decide what the story was going to be and which characters I was going to follow. I’m mostly interested in the people who got to Jonestown than in Jim Jones himself. I am basically following five people, some who live and some who die. Thanks to my training as a journalist, I know how to do research and track people down, to organize massive amounts of material, to write tightly and to tell a true story.

How has writing Jonestown differed from your experience writing Jesus Land?

It’s a lot easier in that I have no personal involvement in this story. It’s also been a thousand times more complicated because I had to do such a massive amount of research, reading through 50,000 pages of documents, tracking down the survivors and talking to them. Jesus Land was very personal, and this does have some personal elements. Jim Jones’ church was supposedly socialist, all about equality, eradicating the isms—racism and sexism, elitism and classicism. They were going to banish all of that and be truly equal. The race element was huge. If you’ve ever been to Glide in San Francisco, there are blacks and whites worshipping together, and you never see that (anywhere else). Having had black brothers, we were always longing for acceptance, a place to fit in. The Peoples Temple was a place where blacks and whites lived and worshipped together.

Looking back on your career, is there anything you would do differently? Any advice you have for nonfiction writers who are just getting started?

It’s really difficult to balance all aspects of motherhood and career. I feel like I’m doing a good job at both, but my goal is to stay really focused and when I’m at work. And I’m a big fan of setting writing goals. Even if I don’t meet them, as long as I give it my best shot to meet those goals, I feel better about myself. Otherwise the project seems really overwhelming. It’s easy to be mediocre, and to make your living as a writer, you have to go to the extra mile. One thing I do when I’m writing is use those ear protectors to filter out any outside sensation so I can really hear my writing as I’m writing it, and it works. It looks crazy, but it really works. So I’m not interrupted by horns honking on the street and people talking in the other offices. I just have this uninterrupted thought process.

What is your work day like?

Sometimes I’m researching, and sometimes I’m writing, but when I’m at the Grotto, I get there at 10 and leave at 5. I never leave the building. I always bring my lunch and spend 30-45 minutes eating with everyone else and then return to my office. It’s not an ideal situation, but I’m working on a book deadline.

Jesus Land was published by Counterpoint, an independent publishing house. Jonestown will be published by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. How has your experience varied working with two very different types of publishing houses?

At Counterpoint, I got paid a lot less for the book, but I knew everyone from the sales team to the promotions department to the other editors. It was kind of like a small family, which was great and really warm. I know from my initial dealings with Free Press that they’re too big to coddle me like that. My editor has too much on his plate, too many authors. Both types of houses have their pluses and minuses. I’m just happy to get published at all!

Do you feel a strong connection to your editor?

I’ve never met my editor. When I sold my first book, I flew myself out to New York to meet my editor. I probably blew a twentieth of my advance on that silly trip, but it was worth it. I met everyone, and they were all nice. Then you have this personal connection so when it comes to publication time, if you have a problem, they all know you. I’ve never met my agent either. I will at some point fly out to New York and meet them.

Do you have advice for a writer looking for an agent?

My best advice is to see who is representing writers you love or who is writing in similar genres. Chances are the agent likes a particular genre or subgenre and will be interested in looking at your stuff if it fits that genre. I think the best thing is to do something to get your work recognized, to get excerpts of your book published or to win an award. New York publishers are all so timid to take any chances, but if you win an award or get your stuff published in a journal or a magazine, then slowly the attention starts to snowball, from what I’ve heard.

When you were working on Jesus Land, you attended the Squaw Valley writers’ conference and then joined a writing group. Were they helpful? What is your feeling about writing groups and conferences?

The writing group was the best thing I got out of Squaw. Squaw was okay, but the writing group was the best benefit. Having writing goals and getting feedback was really valuable. If you can find a couple of people in a writing group whose critiques are helpful, then it’s good. A lot of times there are people who don’t get what you’re doing or hate what you’re doing, but you need to find two or three people whose opinions you trust and disregard the others.

You are a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. What are the benefits of working alongside other writers?

Commiseration. Writing is such a lonely activity, that it’s such a great thing to have someone to eat lunch with and to have someone to talk to during the day besides your spouse. Plus there are no reminders of home. It’s all about work, which is mentally helpful.

How have the downturn in the economy and the publishing industry in particular, and the growing popularity of e-readers, affected your life as a writer?

I needed an additional six months to finish my Jonestown book and was told by my publisher that it was probably just as well because books aren’t selling right now.

With bookstores closing and e-readers selling like hotcakes for the holiday season, what do you see in the future of publishing?

Writers will always need agents and editors to shape and promote their work, so I don’t see those factors disappearing. As far as e-readers, I’m somewhat of a Luddite. I have no interest in getting one. I’m tactile, I like to read in bed and can’t imagine curling up with a stiff piece of plastic. And I’m an incurable underliner—I take a pencil to most books I read to underline inspiring phrases or passages. Also, what about folks who can’t afford such gadgets?

7 comments to Author Interview: Julia Scheeres

  • m++

    This is a great interview! I really like the questions, the answers, and the depth of topics covered — from the intimacies of the creative process, to finding an agent, to pondering the future of publishing in general in the face of e-readers. Interesting; thanks!

  • I agree with Julia on E-readers – i enjoy reading electronic documents when they are short – such as blogs or news.. but when it comes to a book – i want a book- because I mostly read after i am in bed – and I like turning the pages and marking things up both with post-its and pencil.. I hope the two technologies can exist side by side.. and yes, Glide rocks…

  • Meghan Ward

    Check out this article about e-readers. I am getting one for Christmas! Jingle bells, jingle bells!

  • Todd Oppenheimer

    What a wonderfully satisfying and thoughtful interview — on the part of both parties. I can't believe I'm lucky enough to work with both of them. Congrats, and thank you!

  • Ani

    I loved the interview. It's always fun to get "The Making of…" view of a creative product. I really liked Julia's first book and look forward to reading this one about Jonestown.

    I have always been intrigued by Jim Jones & the Peoples Temple. I learned about him soon after moving to San Francisco. Recently I met someone who moved to San Francisco when the Temple was in the process of moving to Guyana and who actually attended the big garage sale they held before the move.

    P.S. See the PBS documentary about Jonestown:

  • She actually have a command of information. I am impressed. Thanks for sharing.

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