There are very few things in this world that are more fascinating than cults, if you ask me (for the sake of this article, I’m pretending you asked me). A charismatic and often insane leader? Weird religious/spiritual beliefs? Manipulative scare tactics? Distinct fashion statements? Where do I sign up?!
I don’t actually want to sign up for a cult, but that’s part of why they’re so intriguing. No matter how crazy they initially seem, upon closer inspection it’s pretty easy to understand what could make someone join one. I’ve watched a lot of films about cults (Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Source Family, a documentary about the Manson family that I had to stop watching because it scared me too much, etc.), and they tend to illustrate just how a person might get sucked in. Maybe they’re lonely, or lost, or scared, and the cult provides a sense of belonging, community and structure. I mean, who among us hasn’t felt like that before? If I was a directionless Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene and I ran into a charismatic John Hawkes…well, I would do anything John Hawkes said, because John Hawkes is a major babe. And also maybe I would join his cult.
So when I found out that there was a YA book about cults, of course I had to read it. As it turns out, Amy Christine Parker’s Gated is an awesome, creepy book that reminds me of my favorite cult films while still being surprising. In Gated, Lyla and her family join a cult after 9/11 and the disappearance of Lyla’s sister. The cult lives an isolated life under the leadership of Pioneer, a magnetic, sort-of-John-Hawkes-ian guy. They’re preparing for the end of the world, when they’ll retreat into their underground bunker. But as the end grows near, Lyla starts to question the cult’s way of life.
You’ll have to pick up a copy of Gated when it comes out on August 6th if you want to know more. Until then, Amy Christine Parker was nice enough to answer a few of my questions about cults, writing and tacos.
Since a lot of HelloGiggles readers are still in high school, can you tell us what you were like back then?
I was one of those people that no one would probably remember very well because I sort of ghosted through high school. I had a few close friends who I hung out with all the time, but spent most of my time with my church youth group. However, even with them, I wasn’t as involved as I could’ve been. I wasn’t shy really, but I think I was/am an introvert and tend to keep to myself by nature. I remember being completely panicked senior year when it was time for graduation and we were supposed to find a boy to walk with during the processional part. I had no idea who to ask or who would even consider asking me. I was sure that no one would. But then a friend of mine said that she knew of a boy who’d just broken up with his girlfriend and so she fixed us up as partners (no romance involved). I didn’t go to any of my own proms. I was just a really late bloomer. College was where I finally learned to open up more. Looking back now I sort of regret it, but at the time I was pretty much content to keep to myself.
So let’s talk cults! Personally, I love reading or watching any book or film about cults because they’re just so creepy–it’s easy to imagine getting sucked into one. What drew you to writing about a cult? Have you always found them interesting?
Cults have always fascinated me for sure. I was six when the Jonestown Massacre occurred and although I don’t remember the moment it happened per say, I do have memories of my parents talking about it. Then there were all those interviews with Charles Manson that Geraldo Rivera, Diane Sawyer, and others did that seemed to have been in the background of my growing up years. Later, when I moved down to the Clearwater, Florida area the public library I used to take my daughter to was located right next to the Scientology headquarters. I remember how eerie it felt to see all the people walking around downtown Clearwater dressed all alike in white shirts and black pants. It seems like I’ve always wondered about them, been curious about how they develop. I think I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that someone can so completely control a group of people. Maybe because I am such a control freak and can’t imagine willingly giving up my control to someone else. I have real difficulty understanding the mindset and find that part of me wants to just dismiss cult members and make myself feel less unsettled by my own potential susceptibility by labeling them as weak minded or easily swayed, when if you do any kind of reading on cults at all you’ll find that’s just not the case a lot of the time. Fairly brilliant people have gotten sucked in. I think writing the book was my way of exploring how it could happen.
What sort of research did you do? Were there any specific books you read or films you watched?
I watched a lot of documentaries on cults. I focused primarily on Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Warren Jeffs, and David Koresh, but I also watched a documentary about a suspected cult leader currently operating in Australia, a man named Wayne Bent and his followers from the USA, and an isolated cult in Russia. I read the final transcripts from Jonestown, watched the exit videos from the Heaven’s Gate cult, and read quite a few books on the subject. I tended to avoid films——Martha Marcy May Marlene came out while I was writing and I forced myself to wait to watch it until I’d finished. I didn’t want to be influenced in any way while creating my own vision of cult life. It was the right decision since there are definitely a few similarities between Gated and the movie. That might’ve freaked me out if I’d known they existed while I was writing and made me abandon the idea.
I know this is your first published novel, but is it the first novel you’ve written? And can you describe your journey to publication?
Gated is actually the second novel that I wrote. This is not the norm, I know. I fully expected to have to write a bunch of novels before an agent would pick me up, if one ever did. The statistics are really daunting if you do your research and so I went into the process with my eyes wide open. My first novel was green enough that I only queried five agents and quit after all of them came back with what amounted to form rejections. About that time I had the idea for Gated and deep down I knew it could make a really great novel. I mentioned the concept to an agent that I’d met in a writer’s group and she seemed to think so too and said that I should query her with it when I got through writing it. The scariest thing was realizing even if the idea was a highly commercial one, there was a good chance that my inexperience would keep it from getting written well enough to be published. I spent a lot of nights wandering around my house, scared to death that I’d fail. Once I was finished, I sent it to the agent I’d pitched it to originally because I knew her well enough from writers events and such to know that I’d be lucky, lucky, lucky if she offered to sign me. I gave her a month of exclusive consideration time (unbeknownst to her) thinking that if she disliked it I could use whatever comments she gave me to strengthen it before I queried widely. Within that first month (which was around Christmas time) she read the manuscript in less than twenty four hours and offered representation as soon as she finished. We went out to publishers within the next month and then the book went to auction shortly after that. The whole experience was a Cinderella moment for me. It was the only time in my life where I felt like a character in a movie, it was that surreal.
What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired or burnt out?
Go to the movies. I like to go in the middle of the afternoon—alone—and just let my mind wander while the movie unfolds. I have some of my best moments of inspiration when I do this. Listening to music helps too and so do long showers or drives. I think reading other books help me most when I’m burnt out. There’s something exciting about discovering or rediscovering another writer, especially one who is far beyond my ability level. I end up with a fire in my gut to try and work to get close to where they are someday.
What YA writers do you think everyone should read?
Oh man, this list could get so ridiculously long. John Green, Maggie Stiefvater, Libba Bray, David Levithan, Gayle Forman, Suzanne Collins, Ellen Hopkins, Ruta Sepetys, JK Rowling (of course), Louis Sachar, Judy Blume, Christopher Paolini …I could literally go on and on and on. I feel like there are so many great writers labeled as YA whose stories really have universal appeal.
What advice do you have for HelloGiggles readers who want to be writers?
I have no new advice here to give. Reading is key. It’s mandatory. Write for sure, but also get out and do things. Open yourself up to new experiences. Live fully. Living fully is maybe most important of all. You need lots of stuff to draw from when you’re writing. The more you drink in the world around you, the fuller your stories will be.
What writing project is next for you?
I’m currently revising Gated’s sequel which comes out next fall and then I’ll be working on something completely new. I have several ideas that I’m exploring right now. All of them are ones I’d like to make into novels at some point. The real question is in what order. The one constant is that all of them are dark and creepy. It’s my sweet spot as a writer.
And now for the most important question: if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Tacos. Yep. I could easily live on tacos for the rest of my life.
HUGE thanks to Amy for talking to me, and thanks to the amazing Lauren Donovan for getting everything set up. You can follow Amy on Twitter @amychristinepar and be sure to pick up a copy of Gated when it comes out on Tuesday, August 6th. I know you guys will love it as much as I did.
As always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.