Life After a Cult: Peggy Riley on writing Amity & Sorrow

Peggy Riley is an American author and playwright who has lived in the UK for some years. We talked to her about her new novel, Amity and Sorrow, the story of Amaranth and her two daughters and their flight from the polygamous cult where the children have been brought up.

Peggy Riley 2Tell us about how you came to write “Amity and Sorrow”.

I had the idea for a long time before I decided to try writing fiction. I had seen a picture in a newspaper of a wooden church on fire, on a prairie. I thought it would be a fantastic way to start a piece – but I knew it would be impossible to put it on stage. The idea made me want to change how I wrote, to tell the story that came from the picture when I began to ask “what if”.

When you first set out, did you already know that you would concentrate a large part of the story in the period after Amaranth has fled from the cult with her children? Why did you choose to do this?

I deliberately began with the fire and the leaving of the cult, as I had read too many books that ended there. Most books about cults are a build up to the leaving, with only an epilogue to cover what happened next. I was more interested in how the women would cope – or not – after leaving, as opposed to how they left and why. But then, the how and why were too important to the characters to leave out. The book moves backward and forward from the moment of leaving, the history chapters moving backward and the bulk of the book moving forward, into what happens afterward.

You have said that Amity and Sorrow is about ‘god, sex and farming’? Can you give readers a little bit of insight into this?

They are three strands that were particularly important in the writing of the piece. The words reminded me to keep them in balance, to play each one off the other. Most of my pieces come about as an odd juxtaposition of contrary or opposing elements. God and sex are often in opposition in books and dramas. Sex and farming are often found together. So, I combined the three, together and in opposition. Some might say, less of the farming, please.

All the characters, possibly apart from Sorrow, try to do their best, but all are hampered by their limitations. These are not people who ever had big chances and they’re doing their best to cope with what life has dealt them. You’re very honest and non-judgemental in your portrayal of Amaranth as a mother: what drew you to write a story based on these people?

I felt I couldn’t judge any of the characters. Even Sorrow is coping the only way she knows how. They are all making the best decisions that they can, using what limited resources are available to them. I had to follow the cause and effect of the cult on its people, on the children, on the women and on Amaranth, who is consumed with guilt for her own culpability. But in exploring the history of the cult, we see that she, also, made the decisions she did because of her own limitations. Her children, in turn, are far more limited because they have been so cloistered, so protected, so manipulated. I have tremendous compassion for all of them, for every woman who joined the community because it was the best option she had at the time, for Zachariah, who truly believes he can build a new Eden. I feel for Sorrow’s desire for power and autonomy and her inability to understand how and why all the rules have changed, all of a sudden. I couldn’t write them any other way.

amityandsorrowYou never say exactly when the story is taking place. This gives it an extra other worldly quality. We see Amity struggle with learning the basic signs and rules of the world outside the cult, but there’s also something in the world of the farm that doesn’t belong to the here and now.

I wanted to write a piece that didn’t feel modern, but that was in the modern world. The cult is living off the grid without technology, which also increases their isolation and their ignorance of the outside world. I also wanted Bradley’s farm to feel old fashioned, worn out. It is a failing farm and he can’t afford the equipment or technology that would allow it to compete with the larger farms all around him. And the ghost of the Dust Bowl, the ghosts of the Joads and the The Grapes of Wrath loomed pretty large while I was writing.

Indeed, John’s Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath figures in the narrative. How important was this book was for you when you were writing?

It was terribly important. You cannot approach Oklahoma or the Panhandle without dealing with it. My grandmother is from Oklahoma and I grew up with that sense of “Okies” and all the Oklahomans who left during the Dust Bowl, coming to the California where I grew up. My problem was that I wanted to write about men who had lived through the Dust Bowl, too stubborn to leave, perhaps, or unwilling to believe that life will be greener anywhere else. And I didn’t know if they actually existed. So, I also owe a debt of gratitude to Timothy Egan, whose book The Worst Hard Time, was about those survivors. And then I knew I was on the right track, luckily!

Do you think that readers in the US and readers in Europe may have a different response to the book because of the different ways that religious faith tends to be acted out on the two continents?

The responses have been very different, yes. I suppose the book is less alien in the States. Americans are more aware of the faiths and cults that are referenced in the book. They are, perhaps, more aware of the impact that faith has on the lives of these women and how difficult it is to break free of it. In America, readers seem to feel it is more “true”. In Britain, readers seem to understand and respond to its darkness, and have less context for the history of handmade American faiths and cults. I wanted to create my own faith from all the faiths and cults that I remember while I was growing up, from the California cults of Charles Manson and Reverend Jim Jones, the Moonies and Hari Krishnas, the raids on the Branch Davidians in Waco and the recent raids on the fundamentalist polygamous compounds of Warren Jeffs. It is, I suppose, more exotic in Britain. I am simply grateful to have the book available in both, as my head is probably somewhere in between.

What impact do you think your work as a playwright has on your prose?

I felt like I had to learn how to write, all over again. And my first draft reads as if I’m describing what’s happening on stage, over there somewhere. I had a lot to learn and I’m still learning. Dialogue is still the most comfortable method for me to deliver the drama of a chapter. I still think and plan as a playwright, in terms of structure and time frames and character arcs – perhaps I always will – but I am enjoying the feeling of stretching out in writing prose, in writing fiction. I don’t have to fit my story on a certain stage and within a budget. If I want 50 wives, I can write them in and not worry about casting. I can add as many beds (a no-no on stage) and goats as I like.

What’s your response to the idea of the book making a good film?

Well, as a playwright, I would tend to agree! And I did try to put the story on stage, but it was never successful. I am a visual writer and my pieces begin with place, with setting, with the world of the story. I can see it. Wouldn’t it be lovely?


Amity & Sorrow is out now from Tinder Press. Read our review of it here.

Novel: Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley

amityandsorrowI wasn’t at all sure what to expect of a book about a cult. I’ve seen a couple of films about cults and somehow there’s always a point of view tinged with pity, which renders the characters a bit stupid and ends up making me feel uncomfortable. Not so in Amity and Sorrow. Maybe it’s because, in a way, it’s not a book about a cult so much as a book about the after effects of life within one. When I think about Peggy Riley’s writing, the words that keep coming back to me are muscular and sinewy. The style of writing draws the reader in and places them right up close to the characters and the location. It’s almost more visual than a film, the deep red earth, fire, rain, visibly parched heat. Amity and Sorrow is a physical story.

Amaranth is the mother of two teenage daughters, Amity and Sorrow. Down on her luck in her late teens, Amaranth marries Zachariah,  who was brought up in a polygamist cult. He promises her that he left the old way of life behind, yet over the years, he brings more “wives” home and finally Amaranth is one of 50. We first meet mother and daughters at the end of a four day non-stop car journey. Initially, it appears that the trouble that drove Amaranth away from the cult came from outside, in the form of the police and a fire, but the spectre of her husband, who may have followed them, is also there and it is because of him that Amaranth has driven so far without rest, that she falls asleep at the wheel of the car and crashes into a tree.

Bradley, a poor Oklahoma farmer, takes the three women in and slowly he and Amaranth develop a relationship of sorts. New possibilities open up for Amanranth and for Amity, the younger daughter, who develops an awkward child-adolescent relationship with Dust, a boy Bradley has more or less adopted. Only Sorrow remains determined not to look to the future. The only thing she wants is to go home, to her father, to her God.

Amity and Sorrow is the story a battle of wills between a mother and her two daughters as their allegiances change. It is the story of a mother who knows she has failed not only herself, but her children, and is struggling to do something about it. The backdrop is the fight to farm in an environment where nature does not want to be tamed, where it is dry and stubborn. Just like Sorrow.

Is it Sorrow’s inherent nature to be so uncommonly difficult or is the way she behaves more the result of what she has been through? She was brought up to be the cult’s oracle, she believes she has special powers and that she, therefore, is special. She has always treated Amity as if her younger sister is less than her. Will Amaranth be able to do anything to save Sorrow? Will she be able to stop her destroying Amity before she destroys herself? There is more to the situation than initially meets the eye.

What I like so much about the way Peggy Riley tells this story is the subtlety.

All the characters are flawed, but no-one represents good or evil, no-one represents a point of view. And the history of faith is all about point of view. Sorrow is a character who would try your patience to the limit if you met her off the page. Amaranth looks the other way at crucial moments, just as she must have done within the cult at times. Amity tries too hard to please and suffers for it.

I would be curious to see how European and American readers interpret this book. Cults are a more widespread phenomenon in the USA and so readers may respond to that element of the story differently. For me, rather than a book about “god, sex and farming”, which is how Peggy Riley describes it, I think Amity and Sorrow is about the body, nature and hope. But that doesn’t mean I enjoyed the book any less than if I’d found it to be about god, sex and farming. I suspect that it may actually mean the same thing, the meaning is just worded differently on the two opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Amity & Sorrow is out now from Tinder Press.

Blackberry Picking

Sonia called for Martha on the way to school. As she went into the shop, all she could see of her friend was a shadow on the other side of the rainbow-coloured plastic strips that separated Martha’s private life from the sweets, magazines and cigarettes her family sold. The same shadow she saw every morning. Today, Martha hovered in the doorway, taking her time to step into the light. Sonia thought nothing of it, this delay. She only half-registered Martha’s awkward grin. Afterwards, she wondered whether she’d tried to smudge it out on purpose. Afterwards, it seemed to be the most important thing.

“I did it,” said Martha, once they were out of the shop.

Sonia’s bag had slipped off her shoulder. She stopped to pull the strap back up.

“Did what?” She started to walk on, but when Martha stayed put, she turned back to see why. Now, she couldn’t ignore Martha’s grin.

“Went all the way.”

Sonia had always been certain that she would have sex before Martha. Martha didn’t think about boys. Martha was good at maths and sport. She was the only girl in the school who got her Five Star AAA athletics badge every year. She smiled when she ran. She smiled when she did sums. Martha started her periods late and she never got pains. She wore her cat-green eyes and her freckles as if she didn’t know they were there. When boys looked at her and she tossed her head in return, it was because she didn’t care whether they looked. Sonia had been sure of this.

Their first class of the morning was double maths. Martha breezed through the equations on the board, just like nothing had happened. Sonia sat next to her, near the window, in the sun. She looked outside or doodled round the squares on her paper. When she caught herself drawing a heart, she stopped. She stuck to straight lines. Martha was too busy with her equations to notice that Sonia was doodling so hard she was digging holes in her exercise book.

When the teacher left the room, Sonia bent towards Martha.

“When did you do it?”

She tried to whisper, but her voice was louder than she’d meant it to be. Her breath pushed particles of dust ahead of it, darting like minnows in the bright light.

Sonia pretended to herself she wasn’t angry with Martha for being first. She pretended she wasn’t jealous.

“Where did you do it?” she wanted to know next.

Martha looked embarrassed for the first time that day. She didn’t look at Sonia when she answered.

Sonia rooted through her dad’s toolbox and found the old torch she’d loved so much as a kid. It had been her grandfather’s. The toolbox had been his, too, before he’d died. The pressed metal pattern on the handle of the torch had worn down over the years. Sonia stroked her fingers over the surface. She didn’t turn the torch on, but tucked it into her jacket pocket and left the house by the back door. Her footsteps echoed as she went down the alley. She sounded like two people. The echo normally comforted her, but now it gave her the creeps. She turned out of the alley into the street and at the end of it, she stepped onto waste ground. She forgot about footsteps and echoes as she picked her way through the rubble. There were blackberries forming small buds of flavour along the barbed-wire fence she had to straddle to reach the field that led to the embankment. She couldn’t see them, but she knew they were there. Like everyone who’d grown up here, she knew exactly what was supposed to happen, and when.

The hinges on the railway carriage door were rusted and made a tired noise as Sonia pulled it open. Sonia hadn’t been here for a long time. When they were kids, she and Martha would suck gobstoppers on the steps outside the shop in the mornings during the school holidays, and talk about the adventures they would have “down the bank” in the afternoon. They would fantasize about shimmying under the barbed-wire fence like paratroopers, and ousting the boys who’d probably already claimed the carriage as their territory for the day because Sonia and Martha never did set out as early as they intended.

The boys used the carriage as a climbing frame, or a mountain. To them it represented a challenge to be scaled. Sonia and Martha preferred to play inside. They pretended to be Victorian ladies in India. Sonia “borrowed” her elder sister’s china tea set one day to make the game feel more real. She dropped it on the floor of the carriage, and even though she tried to collect up all the pieces, it was beyond repair. At home, after her mum had sent her to her room, her sister sneaked in and gave her a Chinese burn.

Sonia had never been in the carriage at night before. The seats were of worn, faded velvet. She sat down on the tatty cloth that didn’t even feel like cloth anymore, let alone velvet. She rubbed her fingers over it and when she came to a hard bit, pulled her hand away. She didn’t know what she was touching. It might be where he’d come, where it had dried. Whoever he was. Sonia hadn’t been able to make Martha tell her.

Even if she’d never touched a boy herself, Sonia had heard all about how it worked, listening at the door when her sister was gossiping with her mates. She’d never asked Martha if she wanted to eavesdrop with her; she’d assumed she wouldn’t be interested.

Sonia pulled her jacket tighter round her. She was cold. She swivelled round and lay down on the long seat. Its whole surface was ridged and bumped with age. She let the little lumps press against her; they were uncomfortable, but she wanted to be uncomfortable. She wondered if he had lain on top of Martha. Perhaps not. Martha was the sporty type.

Where exactly they had done it? How they had done it? Sonia couldn’t get it out of her head.

She stood up and pressed her spine against the back of the seat. Maybe they had done it like this. She imagined the push of a boy’s hips against hers; she let her hips move back. The rack where people had, once upon a time, put suitcases and picnic hampers pressed into her neck. No, they couldn’t have done it like that. She didn’t think so. She walked over to the window and pinioned herself up against it with imaginary hands. How did a boy hold you? Well, he didn’t really hold you did he? His hands were busy with other things.

Sonia was still pressed up against the window when the sound of giggles reached her. Martha was by the barbed-wire fence. Sonia could judge the distance perfectly. A boy laughed, too. There were three compartments in the carriage. Sonia was in the middle one. It had been her and Martha’s favourite when they were little. Which would Martha choose?

Sonia sat with her eyes shut, waiting to be discovered. As she listened to the giggles come closer, she decided she would stand her ground if they found her there. She was allowed to come and sit here on her own at night if she felt like it.

They chose the first compartment.

Desperate, thought Sonia. She wondered what it was like to be with a boy and to feel desperate.

She heard them lie down next to her, on the other side of the thin wall. She couldn’t hear them kissing—she was relieved about that—but then she heard a zip, and then another, and something that must be trousers being pulled down.

Martha giggled again.

“Martha.” Sonia’s voice was quiet, but loud enough.

It went still on the other side of the wall.

“Martha, can you please go somewhere else.”

Martha didn’t reply, but Sonia heard movement. One zip. Another. Whispers.

Footsteps walked away towards the door to the carriage, but Sonia knew it was only him who had gone.

She looked up and saw Martha looking at her through the cracked compartment window.

Martha pushed the door open. She came in. She was about to sit down beside Sonia, but Sonia turned sharply.

“I said, go!” she shouted.

Martha flinched backwards and knocked her elbow hard against the door, but she didn’t make a sound.

Her footsteps padded down the corridor. The door groaned. She went down one step, then another. After that, all Sonia could hear was the swish of uncut grass. Then, even that was gone.

Sonia wanted the sound to come back. It was too quiet.

She put her feet up on the seat and wrapped her arms tight around her legs. She tucked her head hard down between her knees and her chest, thinking of what she’d seen birds do when it was cold. She listened to herself breathe. She wished she could decide not to go home, to leave, to never come back, but she knew she wasn’t strong enough.

Sonia unfurled herself, fumbled for the torch and switched it on. The beam of light was narrow, the bulb weak. She pointed it up at the ceiling. It must have all looked very neat and fashionable once, she thought. Maybe she was in first class? Now, strips of torn upholstery dangled towards her, and a porn magazine lay spread-eagled, upside down in the luggage rack, a breast and one ginormous nipple all Sonia could see.

She pointed the beam of light down at the floor. Dust, pebbles, a few bits of grass, then something else. Sonia stopped and moved the beam back. She got up and bent down to look more closely. A small fragment of blue and white china was nestled among the stones and dust. She hesitated before she reached out and picked the shard of china up off the floor. She turned it over in her hand, then as fast as she could, she shoved it in her pocket. She got up and left the compartment, banging her elbow against the door, just as Martha had. The carriage shook as she ran down the corridor.

Outside, Sonia stopped. She stood quite still; then, as quickly as she had come to a halt, she set off again. She started to whistle. Loudly. There was no tune to it. Expelling air served one purpose alone. It prevented the pain in her throat from turning into a sob. As she swished through the uncut grass, she listened to the sound of her step. She knew it probably sounded just like Martha’s.

She stopped by the barbed-wire fence. There was no more whistle left to come out. She reached down to where she knew the blackberries were nestling, just beneath the line of wire. Her fingers were clumsy and the berry she picked was half crushed before she got it into her mouth. She flattened each pocket of sweetness between her tongue and her jaw. She wondered where Martha was, whether she’d gone home, whether she’d cried, or whether she and the boy had just found some other place to fuck.

When Sonia got home herself, she discovered that Martha hadn’t done any of those things. She was sitting on the back step of Sonia’s house, waiting. She moved over to make room for Sonia. When Sonia didn’t sit, Martha picked up a twig and fiddled with it. She looked up at Sonia, then looked away. She dropped the twig and retied a shoelace that didn’t need tying.

Sonia sat.

The step was cold.

She remembered sitting next to Martha in class, that morning, the sunlight falling across them, keeping them warm. She felt the pain start in her throat again. A cat howled further down the alley. After one howl, it stopped, as if it were waiting for an answer. When it didn’t get one, it tried again.

“Why there?” Sonia asked.

Martha didn’t answer. She picked up the twig and started fiddling with it again. Sonia could almost feel her thinking.

When Martha finally turned and looked at her, she said, “It’s where everyone goes. There isn’t anywhere else.”

Martha was right, of course, Sonia knew it straight away. Where did you go when you wanted to have sex with a boy? It wasn’t like you could just take him home.

That wasn’t what she said to Martha, though.

“I didn’t know you were like everyone else,” she sneered, knowing Martha wasn’t, knowing it was a horrid thing to say.

She got up and barged past Martha. She felt her foot kick against Martha’s leg as she opened the back door, squeezed through the gap and went inside.

In the kitchen, she stood quite still. She waited for what seemed like minutes, but was probably only seconds, until Martha got up and walked off, until the quiet, double echo of her footsteps turned to nothing.

Sonia went over to the cooker, took the matches down off the shelf, turned on the gas and lit a flame. She stared at the blue claws of fire until footsteps overhead reminded her where she was.

The next day in class, Martha sat next to Sonia just like she did on a normal day. She even said hello. Sonia didn’t reply.

At break, Sonia went outside, even though it was raining. She watched some boys playing football. She wondered about sex. She went and sat where she could watch another group of boys, behind the gym, smoking cigarettes. But neither the footballers nor the smokers made her want to go where Martha had been. She wondered why she’d always thought she’d be the first.

When she saw a movement at the window of the classroom where she and Martha had their next lesson, she looked up. Was it Martha at the window? Was she watching her? When the bell rang and she got up to go inside, Sonia looked up at the window again. There was no-one there.

Going up the stairs, Sonia took her time. Splattered raindrops clung to the dirty window. A tiny spider crossed a ragged cobweb. When she got to the top of the stairs, she stopped. She hovered outside the classroom door, peered inside.

Martha was standing at the board, drawing on it. Sonia knew, without looking, what it was Martha would be drawing. A cartoon dog. Martha could draw them well, but she couldn’t draw much else.

Sonia wanted to go over to Martha, to stand really close, to reach between Martha’s fingers, to take the piece of chalk. Sometimes when Martha drew her dogs, Sonia would draw speech bubbles coming out of their mouths and, in the bubbles, she would write silly jokes. She imagined reaching out for the chalk, the sound of the chalk on the board. She imagined writing something really funny, something that would make Martha laugh. But when Martha turned and looked at her, all Sonia could do was look away. There was a map of the world pinned to the far wall. Sonia focused on Africa. Concentrating on its shape and central position, she allowed the country to pull her into the room and guide her, away from Martha, towards the back of the class.