At age 78 and as the oldest prosecutor in California, Timothy Oliver Stoen decided it was time to write his memoir to “give hope to people who have made huge mistakes in their lives—to give them hope that their lives are not over.”
In 1970, Stoen, who graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as an assistant district attorney in California, joined a utopian movement called the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ and became the pro-bono attorney for its leader, Jim Jones. After seven years and a falling out with Jones, Stoen left the group, while the majority of the cult migrated to the Jonestown settlement located in Guyana. In 1978, over 900 Jonestown inhabitants died in the now-infamous mass poisoning. Among the dead was Stoen’s six-year-old son.
The grief and guilt Stoen felt following Jonestown led to a decade-long depression. Stoen says writing his memoir, Marked for Death: My War with Jim Jones, the Devil of Jonestown, was difficult because he had to “revive memories that had been pretty much buried.” However, he says the situation was “manageable because I felt God’s forgiveness for all my mistakes, and because I had encouragement from people who love me.” Additionally, he spread the writing process over nine years, so that “when the memories got too much” he “could take a break and later get back to it.”
After finishing Marked for Death, Stoen found a literary agent who tried to sell the book, but many of the younger people Stoen encountered in the publishing industry told him they had never heard of Jonestown. Eventually, his agent encouraged him to self-publish, which Stoen did despite fears that it would be difficult for his memoir to find a wide readership.
And while Stoen recognizes that he should have hired an someone to help him market and promote the book from the outset, he is pleased with the reviews Marked for Death has received, including one from Publishers Weekly that called the book a “deeply moving memoir.”
We asked Stoen to share his advice for other indie authors:
“Make sure your book is honest even if it is not a tell-all…More than one publisher [pressured me] to go into intimate details on my marriage to my former wife, Grace. In the book I tried to make the main point clear: that the breakup was entirely due to my wrongful pressures on her to become a principled socialist…Any specific arguments we had on that score were confidences, and were irrelevant since I owned up in the book to my being in the wrong. Bottom line is that I love Grace, and when you love someone you don’t violate confidences.”
Research Is Important
“Make sure your book is well documented and, if you are [writing about a controversial or historical matter in which you were involved and] using diary entries and documents not publicly known, have them presented to a neutral library (in my case, the California Historical Society) for readers to verify. Also, go to the expense of hiring an indexer.”
Write in Your Own Voice
“Use a vocabulary that is natural to you, even if above the recommended level. In my case I quoted from a lot of diary entries, so it would have been a jolt to dumb down my vocabulary between such quotes.”