Author Sharon Maas discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown.
Sharon Maas was born to politically active parents in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1951. She was educated in England, Guyana, and, later, Germany. After leaving school, she worked as a reporter with the Guyana Graphic in Georgetown and later wrote feature articles for the Sunday Chronicle as a staff journalist.
Sharon has always had a great sense of adventure and curiosity about the world we live in, and Guyana could not hold her for long. In 1971 she set off on a year-long backpacking trip around South America, followed by an overland trek to South India, where she spent two years in an ashram. She lived in Germany for 43 years and now lives in Ireland. She is the author of The Violin Maker’s Daughter, The Soldier’s Girl, Her Darkest Hour, and many other novels. Find her at her website sharonmaas.com, and follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
In this post, Sharon discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown, her philosophy on when a book finds the right time to be published, and more!
Name: Sharon Maas
Book title: The Girl from Jonestown
Release date: June 23, 2022
Genre/category: Book Club Fiction, Suspense/Thriller, Women’s Fiction
Previous titles by the author: Of Marriageable Age and 12 others
Elevator pitch for the book: A journalist infiltrates a locked community in the backlands of her Guyana homeland: a fictional take on the horrific 1978 Jonestown mass suicide, in which 917 cult members found a most gruesome death—but told from an original perspective and with a new twist.
What prompted you to write this book?
In 1974 I’d lived on a farm in the Guyanese interior not far from where this took place. I was a journalist at the time, always looking for new stories, so later, after this happened in 1978, it was natural to ask: What if I’d been living nearby? What if I’d investigated, for an article? What might have happened? From there, my imagination took off!
Apart from that, it’s an unfortunate fact that before Jonestown, most people the world over had not even heard of Guyana and could not place it on the world map. Since Jonestown, whenever you say Guyana, many people immediately make THAT connection. It’s not a good connection, as Jonestown was a foreign body in our midst: They were all Americans. I wanted to depict the story from a Guyanese perspective.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
Almost 20 years! I first had the idea back in 2003-2004. The story came to me as a whole entity, and I knew I had to write it. It was very visual; I saw it as a film playing before my inner eye. So, it had to be a screenplay—but I first had to learn the craft of scriptwriting. I wrote the script, titled it White Night, and tried to find entry into the film world. I soon learned that as a beginning screenwriter with no credits or important contacts, it’s practically impossible to break into that world.
So I re-wrote the story as a novel—I’d already had three novels published by HarperCollins at the time, and so I had the necessary skills and experience, though I no longer had ties to HC and no agent.
I finished the novel and started to query it, again under the title White Night, in 2006. I was looking for an agent and a new publisher. The response was actually very good; many agents requested the manuscript, and I was soon taken on by an agent from the leading U.S. agency, Writers’ House. She loved the book and immediately began to pitch to publishers. The feedback from editors was excellent; one Ballantine editor was enthusiastic and wanted to publish, but her proposal was rejected by staff from the Ballantine sales and marketing department. As for the other editors: Most of them said, according to my agent, “Wonderful book, gorgeous writing, but not sure how to make the project commercially successful.”
Finally, that agent moved away from Writers’ House and I was on my own again.
I spent most of 2007 trying to find a new agent. There was much action, much enthusiasm, but no bites.
I finally gave up and wrote another book; several other books, in fact. Every now and then, I would dig up that manuscript, dust it off, make amendments. I added a whole new character thread: the Jonestown resident, Lucy, got a loud voice which wove in and out of the main story. I moved from U.S. agents to U.K. agents and one was very interested; we had a long back-and-forth in which she told me to ditch the “Lucy” plotline, which I did. She finally declined, and I put Lucy’s thread back into the story.
This process went on for many years. I always believed that the book would eventually find a publisher and the story would get told. It just seemed to have an energy, a presence of its own, and would find its way out into the world. But I had learned patience by then. When I found my present digital publisher, Bookouture, in 2014, I thought the time was still not yet right. I published all my other books and kept this one on my hard drive till the time was right.
This year, the time is right.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
Yes—the Lucy episode, as explained earlier. I learned just how subjective the opinion of editors is. Some loved the Lucy thread, one told me to remove it. Editors are not gods, yet they hold your fate in their hands. It really is a matter of hitting the spot: finding that agent or editor whose vision aligns with yours, the writer. Is it luck, or destiny?
I’m a great believer in there being a “right time” for a book to come out, which I suppose puts me in the destiny camp! I still can hardly believe that it’s on its way into the world. And what I learned most from the process is patience. I could not have done more to put this book forward, but only after almost 20 years is it about to see the world.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
I’ve always been interested in cults, in the mentality and inner process that drives people to join them and live in them. To follow cult leaders, even in situations when it is clearly against their better interests.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an inner void in many, if not most, of us, a void that leads some to find a solution, even an illogical one, even a clearly harmful one, as in this case and as presented in my story. I do believe that the decline in the influence of religions is a part of that; once, people prayed and believed as a matter of course, and once society moved on to science and facts, an emotional gap was left behind. It’s this emotional instability that leads people to fall for cults and cult leaders and cult messages. There’s a sense of safety there.
I’m hoping that through this story of how hundreds fell into the hands of a maniacal leader we can all explore a little more the very concept of emotional void. I think it is far more common than we suspect, and we need to address it.
If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?
My advice would be to find your own voice, your own story, and not to follow what might be the latest trend in publishing. Trends come and go; algorithms tell a story that is not yours. Your story is unique to you alone, and only you can tell it. Find that story, those stories, and write it, write them!
And be patient.
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