What Courtney Summers Demands of Her Readers, and Herself

The author of The Project discusses false assumptions about cult members, the truths of surviving trauma, and how this “crossover” book really is YA.

Courtney Summers’s The Project (St. Martin’s/Wednesday) delves into the dark and convoluted world of a cult and explores the devastation it brings to the lives of sisters Bea and Lo Denham. Bea gives up everything to go join The Unity Project, led by the charismatic and persuasive Lev Warren, and, years later, Lo desperately tries to uncover the truth behind the group and save her sister. But when Lev’s messages of redemption and salvation begin to penetrate Lo’s skepticism, the path she is on changes and leads her to unbearable truths. Filled with lies and manipulation, this unflinching look at grief, loss, emptiness, and surrender will leave readers feeling destroyed, a trademark move of Summers. She spoke with SLJ about our false assumptions about cult members, the truths of surviving trauma, and how this “crossover” book really is YA.


What motivated you to write a book about a cult?
Most people don’t believe they’d join a cult. We’re determined not to see ourselves in the choices that can lead someone down that path. I think that response, as a whole, lacks empathy and I wanted to write a book designed to challenge that perception by asking readers to see themselves in its pages.

The Project coverTell me a little about the research you did for The Project. Is The Unity Project, the cult in this story, inspired by pieces of any real-life groups?
I did an intensive amount of research on cults for The Project, and as the story took shape, my focus narrowed on Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and Jonestown. I did a deep dive into its history, its victims, and survivors. I read historical accounts, academic texts, memoirs, watched documentaries, lectures, interviews, dug into the FBI’s archives, and spent countless hours on the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple website—its documentation, essays, audio recordings, and video footage. I think of research as an ongoing conversation with your work, so for as long as I was writing The Project, I was always engaged with content about Peoples Temple.

Lev Warren, like so many cult leaders, is charismatic and convinced he is doing good. His victims are nuanced, sympathetic characters who are more than just vulnerable or lost. As you researched and grew to better understand the psychology behind why people both lead and join cults, how did that carry through to how you presented your characters?
Thank you. Something I was continually struck by was how it often it felt like Jonestown survivors were re-traumatizing themselves to the press and the public in hopes they, and their dead, would ultimately be recognized as more than cultists—that they’d finally be seen as individuals with hopes and dreams of their own. This was the consequence of the media’s dehumanizing and sensationalistic treatment of Peoples Temple and the murders. So much of Jim Jones’s success at luring people in depended on the world’s failures and rather than examine the external factors and our own complicity in creating an environment that allows a cult like Peoples Temple to thrive, we shape narratives that better support the argument that cults and cult members are outliers, that they’re mindless and fundamentally emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically "weak." To write this book was to reject that thesis. I had to build my characters, not from those harmful assumptions, but from those individual hopes and dreams.

One of the most chilling and unsettling aspects of The Unity Project is how outwardly innocuous it seems, just a group doing acts of service and outreach. We see often see the sensationalized aspects of cults, their biggest moments, their worst aspects. And while plenty horrific goes on inside the Unity Project, we see the simplicity in which a person, even a skeptical one, can get caught up in a movement like this. Why take this approach (of showing the day-to-day generally low-key insidiousness) rather than a more dramatic one?
Just as Sadie asked readers to take a closer look at the media we consume, The Project denies them the sensationalism of its topic and forces them to reconcile with that expectation, if they have it. This is a book that asks readers to consider a new way of looking at cults, cult victims, and survivors. The Project doesn’t necessarily subvert the cult narrative itself, but is subversive in its execution. I was dedicated to honoring the humanity at the heart of this story but for readers to see it, they have to tap into and be willing to engage with their sense of empathy. If someone who finishes The Project feels cheated out of the spectacle—which is something altogether different than not liking the book—I think that’s worth unpacking.

Many people probably can easily envision what may go on in a cult or why a group like that may hold an attraction, whether that’s an informed envisioning or one based on stereotypes and headlines. Were there any specific tropes or themes you wanted to subvert or really explore as you told Bea and Lo’s story?
As I mentioned, I didn’t want to subvert the narrative itself so much as I wanted to subvert its execution and reader expectations. Cult novels sort of give themselves away by virtue of being cult novels. When you pick one up, you likely have a good idea of how it’s going to end. I wanted a novel that denied the satisfaction of that knowledge, in hopes of creating a sense of understanding, of grief, and loss, in its place. The Project is a very emotional thriller and a slow burn that relies on you to decide what’s happening between its lines. I always love to write books that make demands of, and challenge, my readers.

The beliefs and actions of Lev’s victims may feel foolish and unfathomable to readers, but of course, they are very realistic decisions made by victims of trauma and abuse who have been gaslit and groomed. Some readers, particularly those unfamiliar with the inner workings of cults, may struggle to buy into believing someone could fall for what Lev is selling. What would you have them keep in mind as they watch Bea and others fall prey to Lev?
The very foundation of The Project, its framework and the behaviors and the progression of the behaviors of its characters—however sudden or incomprehensible they might seem—was modeled off the extensive amount of research I did. Everything that happens in The Project happened in some way, shape, or form in real life. I intentionally made choices, and had my characters make choices, that aligned with the real experiences of cult victims and survivors. I couldn’t have written this book if it had been at the expense of that truth. Unfortunately, when it comes to survivors and victims of trauma and abuse, in many cases, their truth is something we’ve been culturally conditioned to reject. One character, in particular, will push that button for some, but I hope they stop to consider that rejecting the “sudden” twist of that character’s arc denies the greater context and history of their trauma. Lev is not the only one who wears a mask—and we’re all capable of lying to ourselves.

Bea and Lo’s story features dual narratives and a nonlinear timeline. Why did you structure the novel like this? Was it difficult to craft and track the story this way?
The first draft of The Project was told linearly and through one perspective only: Lo’s. And the story was much poorer for it. I think this is one of those rare instances where the addition of a second perspective, Bea’s, and how it pushed me to reconsider and be more ambitious in approaching its structure, made it overall easier to track! It still had its own challenges of course, but it was much less difficult to tackle than before I knew what I was doing.

Courtney Summers headshot
Photo by Megan Gunter

For the bulk of the story, Lo is beyond high school age, as are all of the secondary characters. This has led to many talking about the crossover appeal of The Project, putting in an untidy space somewhere between YA and an adult novel. Why have your main character be 19, alone in an adult world full of people older than her, yet still, ostensibly, aim this at a teen audience?
The question of whether or not The Project is appropriately targeted to teenagers is one I find fascinating because I’m not sure what about Lo’s story precludes it from being YA. At nineteen, Lo is still in her teens. No, she’s not in or of high school age but when I myself was high school age—I wasn’t in it either. I dropped out at 15. I also don’t think Lo’s experiences of being alone in an adult world are too unique to be relatable to teen readers, though her entanglement with The Unity Project might make them less common. For me to deny The Project the categorization based on this kind of criteria would reinforce a type of privilege that demands I overlook how varied, diverse, and “grown up” the teen experience actually is and can be. The Project might be a YA with adult crossover appeal, but that doesn’t make it any less YA.

Any recommendations for those looking to learn more about cults, whether fictional or real?
Since my research was centered on Peoples Temple, my recommendations will be too—but I also think it’s a perfect case study for readers interested in learning more about cults. Peoples Temple appealed to people’s better nature and worked to improve the lives of so many, and because of this, you get a real understanding of the insidious dualities of a cult. Survivor accounts highlight how varied everyone’s reasons for joining, leaving, and staying are—and these reasons are complicated and heartbreaking and they’ll challenge any misconception you might have.

To learn about the history of the Peoples Temple and Jim Jones, I recommend Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People by journalist Tim Reiterman, which is incredibly thorough, and The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, which is less overwhelming comparatively. The two books complement each other well. Watch the documentary Jonestown: Life and Death in Peoples Temple, which helps put faces and voices to its members. Because survivors have differing and sometimes contradictory perspectives and feelings about most accounts of Peoples Temple (and even each other’s accounts inside Peoples Temple) I would suggest reading as many of their individual works as possible. It really drives home the range and scope of experiences. A good starting point, and particularly illuminating for me, were Stories from Jonestown by Leigh Fondakowski and Dear People: Remembering Jonestown edited by Denice Stephenson, as well as reading through the many essays and remembrances on the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple website. To begin understanding the public and press’s misconceptions of Jonestown, and the impact, I recommend Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple by Rebecca Moore.

Amanda MacGregor holds a master’s degree in children’s literature from Simmons University Center for the Study of Children’s Literature in Boston, Massachusetts. You can find her blogging at www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com and on Twitter @CiteSomething.

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