Originally published in Ladies of Leisure.
Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s recently released collection of short stories The Love of a Bad Man explores women throughout history who have loved “bad men”. By “bad” Woollett doesn’t mean a ragamuffin in a leather jacket who rides a motorbike – we’re talking Charles Manson, Hitler and Jim Jones. LOL spoke to the over accomplished 26-year-old writer about her long running fascination with the macabre, interviewing survivors of the Jonestown massacre, and the limitations of portraying women who do bad things as either femme fatales or monsters.
Tara Kenny: Hi Laura! The idea of being a novelist is so romantic to me. Do you balance your creative projects with other writing?
Laura Elizabeth Woollett: I got intro screen writing for a while and originally wrote a TV script of what has become my current novel. I was a semi finalist in a screen writing competition, but eventually decided that I want to be writing rather than endlessly applying for grants and getting script assessments.
I don’t really write a lot of articles, and when I do write non-fiction it tends to be memoir style. I think that comes from enjoying playing around with language and characters who aren’t me. I like getting into other people’s heads.
TK: You’re obviously very good at that! How long have you been writing seriously?
LEW: I started getting stuff published around 2012…short stuff. Everything I wrote before then is not great.
TK: That’s so important though! I’m horrified by my early writing and the fact that people can still read it, but I also think it’s part of the development process. Are you strict about setting specific time to write or does it come in creative bursts?
LEW: I write everyday. Yesterday I wrote about four sentences. I at least sit at my computer for a while. When you’re working on something so big like a novel you can kind of come and go. It’s different to starting something totally new, which is harder.
TK: It must be an amazing feeling to produce something so tangible rather than little Internet thoughts! Do you do a lot of research?
LEW: Yeah, especially for the book I’m writing now which is about Jonestown [1978 Jonestown mass suicide/murder led by Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple]. It’s set ten years before it happened and focuses mainly on Jim Jones’ mistress. There’s a short story from his wife Marceline’s perspective in The Love of a Bad Man.
With The Love of a Bad Man it was mainly reading and watching whatever I could find on the Internet. With this book I took it further and decided to go to San Francisco for a month and actually speak to people.
TK: Did Jonestown start in San Fran?
LEW: It actually started in Indiana back in the 1950s, but I’m focusing on the 60s and 70s.
TK: Were people surprised that you were researching Jonestown?
LEW: Yes! I was waiting to speak to a survivor outside the California Historical Society where I did my research and he just walked straight past me. He was like, “I wasn’t expecting you to be so young!” Also because I’m Australian…
TK: So you spoke to survivors? Wow!
LEW: Not too many, but yes. They were all really intelligent and from different walks of life. I mostly spoke to men and mainly white men, which was a shame. They were all very educated. One of them was about to do a PhD at Stanford but he didn’t feel like it and ended up getting involved with Peoples Temple instead.
TK: Was there a lot of information available and were people up for talking about their experiences?
LEW: There’s a website called Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple that has so much information – even transcribed FBI tapes – which helped me a lot. I ended up staying with the couple who run it for a couple of days in San Diego. The woman had two sisters who died in Jonestown and one of them was Jim Jones’ mistress.
TK: Are they trying to present a particular version of events?
LEW: They’re trying to be objective and include all sorts of things. One amazing thing they do is name everyone who died, with pictures and testimonies.
TK: How many people died?
LEW: 918. It was the biggest loss of American civilian life before 9⁄11.
TK: The psychology behind that is so amazing. Was Jim Jones just this incredibly charismatic person? Do you think he intended for this to happen?
LEW: He was definitely charismatic. I feel like he wasn’t completely bad from the beginning. He was really messed up by the end and was on a lot of drugs as well.
TK: When did you first hear about Jonestown?
LEW: I remember seeing something on TV back in 2008, which was the 30-year anniversary. I remember thinking I would research it eventually…
TK: You were right! Your subject matter – Jonestown and the women in The Love of a Bad Man – is very dark. Have you always been interested in the dark and macabre?
LEW: I’ve always been interested in crime. It’s interesting to explore the psychology of how people get to that place.
TK: The women in the book are all very different and you really re-contextualise the reader by writing from their various perspectives. Were you initially interested in these particular women, or did you have the idea for the book and then find them?
LEW: The first woman I was interested in was Myra Hindley, the British Moors murderess, followed by Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress. I wondered how many of these women I could find.
TK: I just noticed that there’s an appendix at the back of the book with all the materials you used for research. It’s cool that you included that so people can get really deep into it, which I think they will. Did any particular material stand out?
LEW: There was one really great book – Paul’s Case by Canadian poet Lynn Crosbie – about the serial killer Karla Homolka. She also wrote from the victims’ perspectives. I wanted to write something as good as that but not the same.
There’s also a lot of writing around the Manson family, like Emma Klein’s The Girls, which I’m looking forward to reading.
Downfall is a movie set in Hitler’s bunker that’s pretty good.
TK: Were you concerned about sticking very closely to the women’s lives?
LEW: I tried to do as much research as possible, which was easier in some cases than others. When there wasn’t as much information I had to make stuff up.
TK: Were you trying to write these women’s perspectives because they might not be considered too often?
LEW: Women who have committed crimes are usually presented as either femme fatales or monsters. Some of these women are iconic and people have set ideas about them; I wanted to see what was behind that.
TK: Did you feel that as you researched you came to a conclusion about how people become embroiled in these situations or is it more like “oh life”?
LEW: They were all very different people. I think I’m interested in people who do bad things but don’t have terrible childhoods, people who have a nice family and things like that.
TK: Nature or nurture and all that. You don’t present the women as inherently evil, but do you think they have responsibility for what happened? Or are they less accountable because they’re so in love?
LEW: The idea of a world that no one else inhabits is kind of appealing; something that’s all you and your lover. Doing bad things can be part of that. In some of the stories the women were young victims who went along with things, other times they had more autonomy.
TK: It was interesting to see that some of these women have gone on to remarry and lead pretty normal lives…
LEW: It was challenging to think of how to present these women who have done such awful things. There were a few cases were they were pretty remorseless – Karla Homolka and Catherine Birnie – I wondered how to present them.
The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett is available through Scribe Publishing at Readings and other good bookstores. See more of Laura’s work here.