11/17/2013 09:51 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

35 Years After Jonestown: An Interview With Author Julia Scheeres

Julia Scheeres is the New York Times Best Selling author of Jesus Land. Her second book, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, is the definitive account of life at Jonestown. Her meticulous research of over 50,000 pieces of information released by the FBI recreates in vivid, painful detail what conditions at Jonestown were like, as well as Jones' descent into drug addiction and insanity. A Thousand Lives also puts to rest once and for all the common misconception that what occurred on November 18th, 1978 was a mass suicide. It was, in fact, a mass homicide.

Julia talked with Court Haslett, the author of Tenderloin, a crime novel set in 1970s San Francisco about life in Jonestown, the Temple's power in San Francisco, and her trip to Guyana.

CH: Julia, your book absolutely floored me. The amount of research and detail alone was impressive enough, but the way you drew out the human element really grabbed me. How did you decide to take on this project?

JS: I was actually working on a novel about a charismatic preacher when I recalled Jim Jones was from Indiana and Googled him. In short order, I found out that the FBI had released its files on Jonestown, yet no one had used them to fashion a history of the doomed colony. I started reading them and couldn't tear myself away.

CH: Did you always know you wanted to focus on a few people at Jonestown, or was that something that evolved as you began writing?

JS: The best way into a big story like this is through the individual experience. Otherwise it's too vast and hard to wrap your head around. I wanted to find a group of people who represented the various demographics of Jonestown -- black, white, young, old. To do deep portrayals of these folks meant I'd have to know a lot about them -- meaning they'd either left behind a precious primary source, such as a journal, or they were alive and willing to be interviewed.

CH: Are there one or two people that you found yourself particularly empathizing with?

JS: Yes! Tommy Bogue, who was sent to Jonestown as a teenager to "straighten him out." I could empathize with his story. My first book, Jesus Land, is a memoir about being sent as a teenager to a horrific reform school in the Dominican Republic. The punishments we both experienced at our respective camps were uncannily similar. In both places, troublemakers had their hair shorn for running away, were forced to do physical labor to the point of exhaustion, and were forbidden from speaking to others.

I understood his feeling of powerlessness, his feeling that the adults surrounding him were either blind to ghastly environment they were in or bought in.

CH: I'm not sure even I, as someone who enjoys the research process, could take on what you took on for A Thousand Lives. Would you mind sharing a little about your research. What was involved? How long it took you? Any parts your particularly enjoyed or were more tedious than others?

JS: The FBI released their Jonestown documents on three CDs. They released 50,000 pages of documents and almost a 1,000 tapes. It took me a year to wade through that material, determine what the story arc would be for each of the people I followed. A lot of the files were numbingly boring -- shipping manifests, for example. But then I'd find a whizzer, like a note from the camp doctor to Jones discussing different ways to kill everyone, and the subsequent order for cyanide.

The most heartbreaking files to read were letters to Jones from residents begging him to let them return to the States, or saying they didn't know how to explain the concept of "revolutionary suicide" to their children.

CH: Before the FBI released the documents, there was so little known, for obvious, tragic reasons, about what conditions at Jonestown were like. Those details can be difficult, at times, to read about in A Thousand Lives. Were they difficult for you to write about?

JS: No. They helped shore up my argument that Jones systematically planned to kill his followers long before sequestering them in the Guyanese jungle. He made them so desperate, so hungry, so deprived of hope, that, to many, death seemed more appealing than life.

CH: Daily life in Jonestown was not at all what the members were thinking it would be. Could you talk about what daily life was like for them, and how that changed over time?

JS: Before Jones arrived, folks said Jonestown was actually a pleasant place to live. There was a good sense of community, of a common effort to create a working farm. They'd work in the fields, or building cottages, then gather in the evening to listen to music, play board games, etc. Once Jones arrived, everything changed. He started rehearsing them in the notion of "revolutionary suicide" almost immediately.

CH: You detail the deterioration of Jim Jones's sanity, something the members were well aware of after a certain point.

JS: By the time residents realized Jones was intent on killing them, it was too late to leave. He confiscated their passports as they arrived, and told them that if they wanted to return to California, they could "swim back." Toward the end, when there wasn't enough to eat and Jones was keeping them up all hours of the night to discuss his suicide plan, residents tried to flee into the surrounding jungle, only to be hauled back by Jones' security guards. The jungle was too thick. They had no idea which way to run. Today, of course, there's cell phone reception at the Jonestown location, but back in 1978, it was extremely isolated.

CH: You really blow to pieces the public perception that this was a mass suicide and not a mass homicide. I'm not talking about just the despair that the members had from their horrible experience in Jonestown, but the armed guards who forced people to drink the Flavor-Aid. I'm sure you listened to "the death tapes." That must have been a tough listen.

JS: I was only able to listen to it twice. I was pregnant at the time and had a small child at home. On the tape, you can hear kids in the background. You can hear them crying -- and dying -- as they're forced to drink poison. It's the most horrific thing I've heard in my life. You just want to reach back in time and somehow stop the madness and rescue them.

CH: Not many people who are under a certain age really understand how powerful Jones was in San Francisco in the 1970s, despite the fact that allegations of wrongdoing by the Jones were widely-know. Why do you think the politicians were so willing to look the other direction? Do you hold them accountable in any way for what happened in Jonestown?

JS: Jones helped elect several important city officials, including Mayor George Moscone, and Council member Harvey Milk. He mobilized hundreds of his followers to canvass neighborhoods, cross district lines to cast their ballots, etc. Nobody could have predicted, for all Jones' foibles, however, that he'd actually kill nearly 1,000 people. And nine days after the massacre, Dan White gunned down Moscone and Milk at City Hall.

CH: Tell me about the trip you made to Jonestown, photos of which can be found on your website, Was it as emotional for you as I'd imagine it would be?

JS: Funny, I was expecting some great emotional faucet to turn on when I finally reached Jonestown, considering the enormous tragedy that occurred there. But the place where Jonestown once stood is now an overgrown field. I arrived as a thunderstorm brewed overhead, but the place was utterly peaceful under the dramatic sky. I hired a couple laborers with machetes to show me around. They hacked a path through the bushes to the place where the pavilion stood (the pavilion is the place where the mass mass murder-suicide happened), and we found the gutted remains of a couple tractors and trucks. But it was pretty anti-climatic over all.

CH: What are you working on now? Hopefully something a little more upbeat!

JS: Ha. I'm drawn to dark stuff. I'm actually writing a follow-up to my first memoir. This one is about my wild sexpot adventures in Spain. Kinda sorta.

Court Haslett is the writer of Tenderloin. Follow him at The Rogue Reader.