Award-winning author and professional speaker, Nicola Morgan, has recently released two of her earlier Young Adult novels – Sleepwalking and The Passion Flower Massacre - as a double ebook.
The first book, The Passion Flower Massacre, is a chilling thriller which challenges all traditional views of God and Christianity. It questions, at its heart, the very concept of God, and is a disturbing and powerful novel. Written in a style which is sinister and mesmerizing, it lures the reader in and holds them captive, and doing so it echoes the subject matter on which it is based. It is, simply put, quite brilliantly done.
Matilda has been looking forward to leaving school and leaving home – her childhood has been tough, thanks to the early death of her brother and her parents’ grief and religious strength, which has helped them but not her. To earn money to fund her gap year, she goes to work on a fruit farm in Devon. However, all is not as it seems and she becomes embroiled in a sinister religious cult.
Entwined through the story, we see glimpses of Peter about to be released from prison twenty-five years later. An old woman has been visiting him. She has her own ideas of God’s will, faith and justice. Who is stronger? Who is right? Who will win?
The Passion Flower Massacre covers several key themes – the nature and concept of a God, religious cults, brainwashing, psychopathy, madness/evil and maternal sacrifice. In this interview I’d specifically like to explore religious cults.
Nicola, thanks for being my guest on Absolute Vanilla today, it’s a pleasure to be hosting you again! The fridge is still groaning from the fizz I bought for you when you visited Cape Town a few weeks ago, so let me pour you a glass and let’s begin!
Oooh, thank you. I’d like to say “I never say no to fizz” but, as you know, occasionally very bizarre things happen. (Yes, she said no to fizz - can you believe it!?)
Today’s teens face infinitely more pressures than we ever did, though the emotions remain the same. Anyone with a “hole in their heart” might easily fall victim to a religious cult. But in the modern world there are more ways than cults to assuage the pain many teens feel, so what particularly inspired you to write about religious cults and how did you see the appeal of a cult to a troubled teen?
|YA Author, Nicola Morgan|
I guess I didn’t start with “how might a teenager assuage pain” but “how do religious cults draw people in and what sort of person would be vulnerable.” And there are aspects of adolescence which make people perhaps more vulnerable. Not just biological aspects, but the external pressures of adolescence, particularly the (evolutionarily driven) desire to break away from the boundaries of family. But humans are social creatures who work in groups, so a young person will look for a new group to “belong” to. I don’t think, however, that I’m really saying much about adolescence, just imagining a type of character and set of life circumstances that would lead a person to fall into the arms of a cult. So, although Matilda happens to be a teenager, she is also bereaved, looking for love, looking for warmth, and those are the things that make her vulnerable. The same could have applied if she’d been 30, 40 or 50.
There is always something mesmerizing about cult leaders – a kind of charismatic madness, which starts with religion, goes beyond and ends with damnation. What is your sense of where religion ends and cults begin?
I may not be the right person to answer this, as I have a pretty negative view of religion! But a cult, as I see it, is something outside the “orthodox” churches and religions and tends to focus on a living leader who exercises charisma and holds sway partly through this and partly through fear. If the group tries to prevent members from leaving, this puts them into the category of a cult. So, I see cults as being a part of religion and created by and for religious belief and practice, but as in various ways crossing lines. Fear is an enormous part of religion anyway, (fear of what god might do) but when there’s the added fear of what the leader might do to you if you try to leave, that seems to put it on a whole new level. And yes, the leader has to be charismatic in some way, otherwise people wouldn’t swallow the ideas.
Peter, the cult leader, believes everything he does is to the glory of God, he is the archetypal “religious nutter” – yet he is also so much more. He believes he does good, even though to the eyes of the world he does evil. What is your view on the very fine line that often exists between the concepts of good and evil?
I assume most “religious nutters” think they are doing good. I think this is when and why religion (even when not a cult) becomes a problem: because religion lends a sense of inviolate truth and power to whatever measures of good that religion has chosen. It’s precisely why I object to religion in general: because it imposes morals as if from “above” (though, in my view, there’s no higher being) rather than allowing humans to search their hearts to find the morals there. And I don’t think there’s a fine line between good and evil, though there may be blurry lines of disagreement. I take a somewhat existentialist and relative view, that we will all come to some different conclusions as to what things are good or evil or to what extent they are good or evil. What I do have a problem deciding, however, is where the line between madness and badness lies.
You pose a question on your website: “How could people believe one man so strongly that they would take their own lives and those of their children, believing that they would go to heaven?” How do you think this happens, what do you see as the mechanics of the thing?
Probably somewhat differently for different individuals but I suspect the mechanics involve repeated statements and arguments reinforcing the belief, coupled with meditative/hypnotised states of mind which allow the belief to take hold further, eventually creating neural pathways which entrench the belief. Some people must be more suggestible than others, I assume, but I think we probably all have the potential for being convinced of a false truth if it is presented to us in a certain way, often enough and by people we trust. Most of us would not easily be convinced of something so obviously appallingly wrong, but logically some would be and this is how I assume it happens.
You challenge the very nature of God in The Passion Flower Massacre. There is the God of Matilda’s parents and their minister. There is the God of Peter’s parents. There is the God of Peter. And there is the God of Matilda’s mother as her own story unfolds and draws to a close. What is your view of the nature of God, and more particularly, what is your view of the ways in which so many people have so many ways of interpreting God, and in this instance particularly, the Christian religion?
My view is simple: that gods are manmade constructs, designed either to make sense of the world (though they don’t make sense of it for me), give comfort (though they don’t give comfort to me) or make people behave in a certain way. If everyone around the world had the same way of interpreting these things, that would make me think there might be something in it. But different societies have different views and different stories because the stories and views are manmade. I don’t want to cause offence to those who believe – it’s entirely understandable. But I have a different faith.
You show a remarkable insight into both the charismatic and drugged world of the cult, and the girl who needs it. How did you set about researching the novel?
I didn’t! I made it up, all of it. It was only when I’d finished writing it, and I needed to find facts for school talks, that I even went to look at the details of the Jonestown Massacre, and discovered that they’d used a red liquid, too. But for me there was no research. At all. Except when I accidentally – and, again, very late in the process – discovered some amazing symbolism about passionflowers.
|Nicola Morgan at a school event|
I honestly don’t know. When I was in my 20s, there were several stories of people being taken in by cults, but since then we’ve just heard of a couple of dramatic examples, but I’m not aware of what the situation is.
I have to say this book really staggered me with the intensity of the style you employed, it strikes me that you deliberately, through choice of words, plot construct and story arc, sought to lure your reader into the story, as much as Matilda is lured into the Garden of Eden fruit farm. Were you aware you were doing this when you first wrote the story or is it something which evolved as the story progressed through various stages?
I’m afraid it was all helpless inspiration, rather than perspiration. I wanted it to feel a certain way, so I applied butt to seat, put on some music and out it came. If only every book were born as smoothly! Thank you so much for your comments, – I’m delighted the language worked so well for you.
Many thanks, Nicola, for giving Absolute Vanilla readers a greater insight into this remarkable novel.
No, THANK YOU! I’m absolutely delighted that you enjoyed it. I loved writing it.
Next week, I’ll be speaking to Nicola about Sleepwalking, the second book in this amazing two for one deal, so be sure to come back then.
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