In her 1999 memoir Seductive Poison, Deborah Layton (pictured, l.) described her involvement with Jim Jones’s notorious Peoples Temple and how she extricated herself from an increasingly terrifying—and certainly life-threatening—situation. Here she and narrator Kathe Mazur discuss the new audiobook version. See the review (LJ 3/15/14 p. 86).
KM: What was it like for you to be in the studio listening to your story being narrated?
DL: Watching you become me and listening as you painted my words into cinematic images of a life once lived was often surreal. On several occasions I had the tingling sensation that I was about to awaken from a fantastical dream. Your rendition of Jones is alluring, believable, seductive, and terrifying. You seamlessly transitioned from the early days when he seemed honorable and benign to his essence—suspicion, paranoia, and a seething anger at the world he believed had turned against him.
Your interpretation of my mother—that longed-for voice I had not heard in 30 years, with its soothing European lilt—allowed me a few more precious moments with the gentle, innocent woman I left behind when I escaped. I understand…why I had to do what I did, but in my subconscious, where sorrow hibernates, memories of Mama sometimes filter up, begging to understand why. As odd as it may sound, when the audio version of Seductive Poison went on sale, I bought a copy. Now, as often as I want or need, I can listen to my mother’s melodic voice and feel her encompassing warmth. You granted me the gift of “one last time” for as many times as feels necessary.
KM: What was the hardest part?
DL: I found it hard to again bear witness to my injurious teenage behavior and to watch with painful hindsight how it would impact the life of my mother, father, and siblings. I have never sat down and actually read my book—why would I? It’s my life, I already know everything—yet hearing you become that young, troubled, and impressionable me was difficult. I could see so many places where, if only someone could have stepped in, mentored me, and helped me navigate a world I was misreading, my story could have been vastly different.
While reading my prolog, epilog, and a new 2014 afterword, I had to stop several times to even out my wavering voice and tamp down the demons. I was “here again” and not a day had passed.
KM: What was the biggest surprise for you?
DL: Although my story is about my experiences in Peoples Temple, it is also a cautionary tale about family secrets. In writing Seductive Poison, I believed it was time to break the legacy of well-intentioned deceit handed down from my mother to me. By coming out with the truth of my own past, I could safeguard my daughter’s life forward. And, still, having stepped out from behind the shadow of Jonestown to bare all, as I listened to you read my words, I was surprised how many times I wanted to contest the story and shout, “… Stop… Cut… Edit that part out…” I did not expect the overwhelming tug to resubmerge my past, take it all back, pretend it never happened, and, at the same time, feel pride in the courage it took the younger, frightened me to run… to tell the truth…to speak out…to take a stand…to live.
DL: Have you ever found midway through the book that the characters you’ve created are not who you thought they would be?
KM: I read the book first, so I am not often surprised by what happens to the characters, or story, but I am often surprised by what happens while recording. As a narrator, I am inside every one of the characters, the author’s point of view, the story, and the writing. It can be incredibly moving, or funny, or exciting, and I never know what’s going to hit me…where I am going to emotionally go with it. None of that is planned. Sometimes something that seems fairly innocuous when I first prepare the book will reach out and grab hold of me in ways I could never have expected. With your book, the entire experience was unexpected. Having you in the studio while I acted out scenes of such horror and heartbreak, acting out these intense relationships and events that happened to you, in front of you, and with your input, was a landmark for me.
What was so surprising to me about this book is that it reads like a thriller. Often with nonfiction or memoir we don’t do full characterizations, with accents or voices, but this book really called for it. You have written it so much like a novel, and it mattered that the voices were just right. It’s such a complex and scary story. And almost everyone in the book is no longer here to add their own voices. I owed it to them to represent them with as much heart and truth as we could get.
DL: How do you prepare to do a reading?
KM: It depends on the book. I am always, above all, representing the writer. So the book itself always leads preparation. I read it just once, but I am looking for clues to every character. How does the writer describe them vocally, physically, in terms of personality? These are the jump-off points for choosing voices. By reading the book I am also going to get the point of the book, the tone, the passion of the writer for their subject, a sense of the audience, the mission of the book. Writers often spend years on these books. They have put so much of themselves into them, and I want to be inside that experience and be the conduit for the listener.
Sometimes I will need to research accents or words. I make choices about every character. We need to be aware of which characters interact and make sure we are differentiating. I base the voices on anything that comes up—people I know, people in the news, voices from my whole life. These characteristics have to be supported in the text. It can really bring together so many things I love about acting. The imagination, emotional connections, and the beauty and thrill of language. There are people in Seductive Poison from all over the world, so I needed to be familiar as well with all their accents.
Listeners are pretty great about this, too. They know that we are not natives of every country on Earth. What is most important is that we can lift this story and these characters off the page and bring it all to life.