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Local author tackles cult mentality with new book

2016-04-25 Source:visaliatimesdelta.com Author:Zachary Newcott

Local author Janet Nichols Lynch

To summarize what the astronomer and author Carl Sagan once said, we are all passengers on a pale blue dot traveling through space.

Some people take the whole pale blue dot thing too seriously, though.

Take for instance Marshall Applewhite, who pointed to a speck of light shimmering on the tail end of the comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 and convinced 39 of the believers of his cult Heaven's Gate to evacuate this very blue speck traveling through space and instead hitch a ride on another insignificant bright speck by committing mass suicide.

Cults like Heaven's Gate are the focus of "Wheel of Fire," the latest young adult novel by Visalia author Janet Lynch. The story revolves around a 17-year-old aspiring detective named Kori who is fascinated by a cult based in California's San Joaquin Valley.

The Church of the Wheel of Fire is lead by an enigmatic leader who draws Kori into his grasp. But it's the seemingly insignificant Kori who remains in the position of power to not only save herself, but all of the members of the cult.

Local readers are well aware of Lynch who has written 11 novels, including the acclaimed "Messed Up" and "Racing California." Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Seventeen, and elsewhere.

In addition, she is well known among local young readers as a high school English for 15 years and just finished a class organized by the Tulare County Office of Education to critique and improve creative writing skills among young adults.

Choices caught up with Lynch to find out more about her new book and her pursuits in educating the local community.

Question: First off could you tell me a little bit about your new novel “Wheel of Fire?”

Answer: It’s a story of a teen girl, Kori, who sees another teen, Flicker, involved in a doomsday cult. Kori believes Flicker looks miserable and needs rescuing. She begins to attend Wheel of Fire services and becomes embroiled in the cult herself.

Question: What inspired you take on the subjects of cult and the mentality of cult members?

Answer: I’m fascinated by the concept of mind control, but two incidents inspired me to actually write the novel.

When my daughter was seeking employment in law enforcement some years ago, she went on a ride-along with a Corcoran cop who pointed out a cluster of people on the street, including a young woman in her 20s. “That’s the family,” he said, “at Charles Manson’s beck-and-call.” I was astounded that Manson was still attracting young followers after all the atrocities he and his followers committed over 50 years ago.

My major inspiration, however, is my friend Laura Kohl, a Jonestown survivor. Imagine 900 of the people closest to you dying in one day, murdering their children and committing suicide. Laura is a courageous woman who has written a memoir, "Jonestown Survivor,' and travels to universities and organizations all over the country giving lectures about her experience in People's Temple. My novel is dedicated to her, and she was my first reader of an early draft. Her input gave me a much better understanding of the inner-workings of cults and cult members.

Question: What kind of research did you do while working on the project? Were they any real-life cults in particular that influenced your novel?

Answer: Besides talking to Laura and some other People's Temple survivors whom I met through her, I did a lot of reading including an insider’s look at the Branch Davidians, a memoir of a defector of the Unification Church (the Moonies), "Helter Skelter" about Manson family, Elizabeth Smart’s uncle’s book "In Plain Sight," Patty Hearst’s memoir about her abduction by the SLA, "Under the Banner of Heaven" about Fundamentalist Mormons, and other reading about Scientology, Heaven’s Gate, and Al Qaeda.

Question: Do you think the book might raise some “red flags” for your readers?

Answer: There is a major red flag in this novel: "Wheel of Fire" is a Christian cult, just like the Unification Church (Moonies), Fundamentalist Mormons including Smart’s abductors, the Branch Davidians, and the People's Temple. What could be wrong with a Christian church? Plenty. It’s fine for a person to have faith, but no religious leader deserves to be followed without question. I want my YA readers to come away from my novel realizing they should never give up their free will and sense of conscience to anybody.

Question: Your work is so varied in both their subjects and their tone. What do you think tends to inspire the next project?

Answer: I write to find out answers to questions I have. In writing "Wheel of Fire," I wanted to explore mind control, people blindly following a leader who may order his or her followers to inflict harm on others or themselves, even death. The most alarming example of this in the world today is ISIS.

I also write to have fun. "Wheel of Fire" is set in my imagination in Yokohl Valley, which I call Tule Valley in the novel. As a triathlete, I often train in Yokohl Valley, and my running and biking friends will recognize the fictional version of it.