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On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Fiona Cane talks about her new doomsday cult book, Angel Town, and what inspired her.

JJ Barnes editor of The Table Read online creativity, arts and entertainment magazine

Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed author Fiona Cane about her life and career, her new book, Angel Town, and what inspired her story about a girl trapped in a doomsday cult.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

Fiona Cane on The Table Read
Fiona Cane

I’m a middle-aged married mother of two adult children, who lives in a village in Sussex, and who writes books.  When my children were born, I gave up working as a publicist in Film and TV and began coaching tennis. I’d played tennis most of my life, competed in the sport and, along the way, had qualified as an LTA coach. I thought it was the perfect job to fit in around the children’s schooling.

Initially, I thought of it as a bit of a hobby but it quickly snowballed into a full-blown job.  Last year, after twenty-four years of hitting yellow fluffy balls, I finally gave into my injuries, gracefully retired, and took up golf and paddle boarding, both of which I love.

When did you first WANT to write a book?

I must have been in my early teens, perhaps younger. I remember starting one in a little notebook but never finished it. Thank goodness for computers!!

When did you take a step to start writing?

I was in my thirties when I finally decided to take the plunge. A friend, who’d obviously grown bored of hearing me say I wanted to write, told me to get on with it. 

At the time, I’d been diagnosed with 4th stage endometriosis and there were periods when I was in so much pain, I struggled to leave the house. It seemed to be the perfect time and soon became a great distraction. So, when I wasn’t in too much pain, coaching tennis, or looking after the kids, I sat at a computer bashing out what I hoped would be my first novel.

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

It took about seven years. During that time, a neighbour introduced me to local author Peter James who was about to publish his first Roy Grace book, Dead Simple. He took me under his wing and, in the early years, helped me get started.  In 2006 my first book, Killing Fame, was published by a tiny company set up by one of my tennis pupils.

Shortly after publication, Peter James suggested I take it to the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writers Festival in Harrogate. I joined in the festivities with great enthusiasm, and met loads of crime writers, all of whom were incredibly welcoming, began a lifelong friendship with Dreda Say Mitchell, and was signed by Jane Gregory.

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What made you want to write Angel Town?

I wanted to write Angel Town because as a teenager in the eighties I wanted to travel the world, but my mother wouldn’t allow it. She was concerned that I might fall in love and join a cult. ‘It’s what girls did in those days,’ she is fond of telling me. She had a point.

The mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, in the late seventies – when over nine hundred people seemingly willingly ingested poison-lace Kool Aid – but which was later deemed to be a ritualistic murder, had just made international headlines. Young people who’d been ‘love-bombed’ were rushing off to join the Moonies to marry in mass weddings, while young married couples headed to The Children of God, whose leader, David Berg, told its members that God was love, and love was sex, so there should be no limits, regardless of age or relationship.

Then there was the guru, the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who moved his followers from Poona, India, to Oregon, where he set up his Rajneeshpuram commune.  The attempted assassination of US Attorney Charles H, Turner – following his investigation into sham marriages and immigration fraud – and the deployment, by the Bhagwan’s members, of salmonella bacteria to infect salad products in local shops and restaurants, eventually led to ‘Osho’s’ arrest and deportation. 

And, perhaps, the most famous of them all, the Waco Siege of 1993 – where a standoff between the FBI and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, whose practice of taking spiritual wives, some as young as eleven, had led to accusations of child abuse – which resulted in almost 80 deaths.

I’d read Philosophy at university, where my religious beliefs were actively drummed out of me, and was convinced I would never be taken in by the nonsense spouted by a superficially charming person and give up everything – family, wealth, possessions – to blindly follow. But I was intrigued to find out why plenty of sane, intelligent people are. 

Were the faults in society to blame? Self-proclaimed Messiahs, unlike politicians, often maintain that capitalism and social inequality, the two mainstays of society, will lead to mankind’s destruction, so the idea of living in a utopia under the auspices of a charismatic guru is simply more appealing. Or, for a talented young career woman, perhaps it’s a way of seizing control of their destiny because life has been mapped out for them.

You don’t have to be depressed to find the world an intimidating place, and if a handsome man tells you the world is about to end but can offer you eternal life in a spiritual realm, then he’s a superhero, which is exciting and a bit sexy. By the end of my research and having read countless stories from survivors of cults, I reached the conclusion that no one is immune.

What were your biggest challenges with writing Angel Town?

My biggest challenge writing Angel Town was trying to get myself inside the head of an intelligent woman who, despite things not going the way she’d imagined when she joined the cult, chose to remain and bring up her daughter in it anyway. Who in their right mind would do such a thing? And how could I make her likeable? Or, at least, arouse my readers’ sympathy. I also found it incredibly difficult trying to show how a normal, kind, sane and loving individual could be brainwashed by a madman.

 Another challenge was to create a cult that people might be inclined to follow, and a charismatic leader who was both appealing and inspiring. I realised I was doing quite a good job when I started liking ‘Michael’ a little too much. It was then that I felt I had to reveal his dark side.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?

Lola, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Angel Town, was inspired by all the authors of the books I’d read who’d grown up in cults. My Life in Orange by Tim Guest; Not Without my Sister by Kristina Jones, Celeste Jones and Juliana Buhring; In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott; and Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall.  It was also inspired by Scout, the young protagonist of To Killing a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Angel Town by Fiona Cane on The Table Read
Angel Town

Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?

David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians; Jim Jones, head of the People’s Temple; David Berg leader of the Children of God, Warren Jeffs, the leader of The Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints; The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh; James Taylor Jnr, of the Exclusive Brethren; and Michel Rostand, leader of the Bhuddafield Cult.

What is the inciting incident of Angel Town?

The chilling moment when Lola starts to doubt everything she’s been told and held to be true all her life, and to see things as they really are and the heart-stopping danger she is in.

What is the main conflict of Angel Town?

When Lola and Jos fall out over their differing beliefs.

Did you plot Angel Town in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?

A bit of both. I tend to have an idea of the central narrative, but as the characters come to life, they tend to start writing their own stories.

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Angel Town need?

A friend of mine, Fran Kazamia who has worked on lots of screenplays, gave me feedback on the initial plot. Emmy Ellis did two copy edits, and Damian Thornton proof read it. Angel Town didn’t seem to need as much as all the others.

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?

The first draft is only the beginning. Don’t be scared to edit your work and keep going.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

My next book, inspired by Where the Crawdads Sing, is a mystery about a young woman living in a wood.

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

I never thought I’d manage to write one book let alone six so, yes, I am proud. I love writing, so, yes, each book is always worth the effort.

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