Fort Worth-based author Jeff Guinn has written about some of the most enigmatic characters of our time: Bonnie and Clyde, Charles Manson, and now, Jim Jones. “The Road to Jonestown” revisits the story of the Peoples Temple. Clay Smith, editor-in-chief for Kirkus Reviews stopped by the Standard to talk about his recommendation this week.
Why this book now?
“He had a national best-seller with his biography of [Charles] Manson that was out a few years ago. So it’s not really so much that Jeff Guinn just loves dark twisted characters, but he’s trying to tell a story about America in the 1960’s and 70’s through these dark figures. Because those were dark times. He’s an interesting writer to follow, so that’s why I picked him.”
Is this more about Jim Jones or about the cultural phenomenon?
“I think Guinn is maybe less interested in the sort of political, cultural, or even sociological explanations, he’s really interested in telling you a gripping story about this man. It’s a much more nuanced story than he could tell in the Charles Manson bio because Manson as pretty much evil from the get-go. Jim Jones though, in Indianapolis, in the late 40’s and early 50’s, he really was fighting for some great causes. He was working hard on integration during segregation, he was trying to house the homeless – so, it’s a very dark story about how he went from those admirable causes to a much darker life.”
Does Jim Jones’ motivation come through in this book?
“This is probably too simplistic but it can kind of be boiled down to this idea that if you ask to be considered a god, unfortunately, some people are going to believe you. And then once people start calling you god, it’s really hard to tell yourself that you’re not. And that’s what happened in November of 1978 there was this camp or colony in Guyana off the South American coast where Jim Jones had brought almost 1,000 followers. And they lived in very poor conditions. And they couldn’t afford Kool-Aid – it was this cheap flavorade. And unfortunately, it got to the point where most of the people drank the liquid themselves and it was laced with cyanide. Including – out of 1,000 – there were about 300 children and infants. But the ones who refused were injected with it.”
Did Jones truly believe he was a god or was this a sort of theological experiment?
“One thing that’s very clear in this book, throughout the book, is that Jim Jones was a great performer. As a kid he used to produce these sorts of stagey funerals for pets, his parents were not religious and yet he was always drawn to the church. At one time he became Methodist because his wife was Methodist. But then he starts sleeping with other women, you do see him warp into this other person.”