Author Jennifer Moffett may be a Mississippi transplant, but she knows the state from top to bottom — literally.
Originally from Arkansas, Moffett moved to Oxford in her 20s after a post-college stint in New York. After earning a master’s in creative writing from the University of Mississippi, she lived in Jackson. She now resides in Ocean Springs and teaches at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
Moffett’s debut young adult novel “Those Who Prey” takes her main character from a fictionalized version of Ocean Springs to a college campus in Boston during the 1990s. The young student’s new friends at school turn out to be recruiters for a cult, and she unwittingly follows them to Italy for the summer. Needless to say, the trip doesn’t go as planned.
In an interview with The Dispatch, Moffett described how she researched the world of cults to write “Those Who Prey,” which recently came out in paperback.
Moffett is now at work on her next young adult book. It also takes readers to Europe, but there’s one major difference, she pointed out: “No cults this time around.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Why did you start writing in the young adult genre?
I’m drawn to writing about characters in what I call their “starting points” — that phase when absolutely anything is possible in life. Teen characters can make horrible decisions and get themselves into a world of trouble, but in the end there’s always hope because they have their entire adult lives ahead of them. I think that’s a big reason a lot of YA novels have strong crossover appeal with adult readers.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve always been fascinated by cults, so I’ve been reading about them for years. Campus cults were rampant in the 1990s — and not just one in particular. It was a perfect time for cults to target college students who were far away from home because things like email, cellphones, social media and even the Internet were not yet widely accessible or utilized in the early ’90s. This made students who were isolated from hometown friends and families vulnerable prey for high-pressure groups pretending to be their instant friends.
“Those Who Prey” is full of psychological tension. How did you recreate the cult’s atmosphere?
I read a lot of personal accounts by survivors of different cults, and each one broke my heart. I also tapped into my own memories of experiencing dark emotions at that age. While the situations that triggered my own dark inner turmoil were very different, the resulting emotions are authentically similar, and sometimes as writers we just have to tap into those parts of ourselves and bring it to the page, as scary as that may be.
The opening chapters quote real cult recruitment tactics and cultic definitions to give readers a true behind-the-scenes look into how cults operate in real life — and how anyone could fall into one without realizing it’s happening in the moment.
How did you mentally switch between writing the characters of the college students who are being manipulated and the adult leaders who are taking advantage of them?
That was tough, actually. As a parent of teenagers and a longtime college instructor, it was difficult to write adult characters who set out to ruin the lives of vulnerable teens. I really had to “go into character” as a writer by remembering the adults’ motivations to make them feel as authentic as possible. Otherwise, readers would have questioned the main character’s intelligence, and that would be a disservice to the thousands of real people who have been tricked into similar cults.
What can you share with us about your next book?
It’s another college-YA thriller! The main character realizes she chose the wrong major. In exploring her interests, she joins what she thinks is a “voluntour” historic preservation project in a castle in rural Scotland, where things take a deadly turn. There’s an element connected to a very interesting piece of Scottish history that I’m super excited about but probably shouldn’t give away … yet.
Emily Liner is the owner of Friendly City Books, an independent bookstore and press in Columbus.