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The Rumpus Interview with Peter Rock

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Over six smart and beguiling novels and one terrific genre-bending story collection, Peter Rock has established himself as one of the most intriguing and talented writers around. Rock’s characters live on the edges of our comfortable world, often creating their own landscapes and language, and living always on their own terms. Rock’s last book, My Abandonment, based on the true story of a father and 13-year-old daughter who vanish from the civilized world of heating and plumbing and public schools, won the Alex Award and the Utah Book Award, and was published in Turkey, France, and Germany.

His latest book, The Shelter Cycle, also based on real people and real events, is about a church in Montana operating under the belief that the world might end in March of 1990. Once again, Rock has made a strange story believable and often beautiful. He talked with us about his fascination with the Church Universal and Triumphant, and about how his novel evolved.

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The Rumpus: First of all, the book is great. I love the vivid sense of place you capture, like always, and the way you get inside the heads and souls of these characters. Talk about when you had the sense you might have a book here, and whose story you began with.

Peter Rock: I could probably make a multicolored graph of when I thought I had a book here, and when I feared I didn’t have a book but just a gigantic pile of fascinating facts and beliefs—a kind of sine wave. In the summer and fall of 2007, I thought I had the makings of a book. Then for a couple years as I wrote the first draft, I wasn’t sure. In late 2009, for a moment, I was certain I had a book. Then for a couple years, I was alternately in despair and trying to maintain some hope, crying in my basement. Sometime in late 201,1 it started to seem possible again. I’ll talk more later about some of the challenges, but one indicator is that the current/published version is not a long novel, but it represents about 1/5 the length of the first draft. Every project starts out comprising everything it can possibly be, so there’s the series of compromises that bring it into what it can be, or what it is.

I lived in Montana, working on a nearby ranch, during the shelter cycle (roughly 1987-1990), so I knew about the Church Universal and Triumphant and their preparations for the end of the world at that time. I’ve written around them a few times (there’s a story in Carnival Wolves that comes close), but perhaps always I was holding onto this basic question—”How would it be to believe the world might end, and spend vast amounts of energy building underground shelters, to go underground and then to surface to live in a world you thought would no longer exist?”—for a long time, maybe until I was ready to take it on. It rose again, unconsciously, when I was ready for it. (Get ready for me to get all spiritual—writing this book and considering these beliefs has turned me into a much less cynical person.)

Anyway, at first, I just wanted to write a book that accounted for the shelter cycle, and to find out a little more about it. I had no sense of whose story it was. Perhaps one thing I knew from the beginning was that I wanted to see if I could tell a positive story. And early on, I was fortunate; I found out that a young woman who was a student at Reed College, where I teach, had grown up in the CUT, and that her father had built a pretty large shelter, for several families/seventy people. I knew her only a little bit, and she had graduated and moved back to Montana, but when I contacted her, she agreed to speak with me. Our conversations—and my conversations with her sister, her father, and various other ex-members and still-believers—informed every choice I made (or made my choices for me).

There was so much history and cosmology to get a handle on outside of the personal stories, and that, along with the real people, was an impediment to getting close to the characters, to figuring out whose story it could be. At some early point, I had lunch with Ursula Le Guin, and she was asking me about the project, and I said, “Well, I have a sense of the protagonist and then this other character, maybe the antagonist.” She said “Maybe you should give them names? And thinking of them in terms of protagonist and antagonist probably isn’t helpful.” At the time (like most advice), I wasn’t quite sure to do with this, but eventually I came to realize that every character is a protagonist in his or her own life, that of course I couldn’t just create them so they could impact another character in some way.

Rumpus: How close is this Church to the Church you encountered back in the early ’90s?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARock: I didn’t make anything up, in terms of the history or the belief system. At the same time, there’s a lot of simplification. The religion itself is so syncretic—its godhead, the Ascended Masters, comprises mystical figures like St. Germain and El Morya, but also Buddha and Jesus Christ—and was always changing, becoming more complicated. Early drafts of my book tried to provide a holistic sense of the beliefs, but that proved narratively untenable (things got too long and started to read like an encyclopedia, for instance).

Once, I confessed to one of my sources that I was having difficulty with understanding it all, putting together a coherent understanding, and he laughed and said, “Well, that’s impossible. That’s one way we were always off-balance, because things changed. And every person had his own favorite Master, or subset of the teachings that spoke to him.” That was incredibly helpful. Another helpful insight was just realizing how different everyone’s recollection was, how much contradiction there was amid my sources. So my first task was learning everything I could, and my second was understanding my characters well enough to understand how to filter the information about the church.

Rumpus: I found the incantations on your website from Elizabeth Clare Prophet, spiritual leader of the Church Universal and Triumphant, pretty mesmerizing. Can you talk a little about her—what she represented and how your sense of the church leadership evolved in the writing of the book?

Rock: Mother Clare, Guru Ma, The Messenger. Living with her was kind of like having Jesus amongst you, and the personal charisma and the power that emanated from her—the sheer physical sensation of being in her presence—was something a lot of people told me about. A few times, people compared her to Hilary Clinton when talking to me, “only thousands of times more powerful and focused.”

She was called “The Messenger” because she alone could translate (“dictate”) messages from the Ascended Masters—they communicated at vibrations so powerful that they would cause anyone else to literally shake apart—and share them with the believers of the church. It was such a dictation that suggested that the spring of 1990 was a dangerous time, and that preparations should be made, that the underground shelters should be constructed.

The Messenger makes a few appearances in my novel, but mostly her effect is felt by my characters. It’s true that her presence, even on YouTube, is mesmeric. A really great short documentary with some amazing footage is at http://vimeo.com/18367942. It’s easy to laugh at The Messenger’s intonations, or her pantsuits or eighties’ mullets, and there are many accounts of how she abused her power, but there’s no denying she had a huge amount of energy and presence, a vision that translated to people.

Several times, I asked people, “Did it shake your faith that the world didn’t end, when you went underground?” And in general people said no—either they said they didn’t expect it to end, or that the prophecy wasn’t written in stone, or that the preparations forestalled the apocalypse (or that the apocalypse did occur, and we are living in a simulacrum). But they mentioned that the Messenger’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, in the early nineties, was much more troubling. How could the most powerful person on earth be stricken like this?

And her gradual slip into Alzheimer’s created a leadership vacuum in the church that still hasn’t been filled (the church still exists, but largely looks back to her teachings). She lived quietly in Bozeman for almost twenty years, and was alive for most of the time I was writing the book. She died in the fall of 2009.

Finally, yes—the decrees (high speed chants, for the uninitiated) are so transporting! I encourage everyone to do a few quick Violet Flame decrees. And I’ve been told that decreeing for several hours with a few thousand people is extremely intense and transporting.  I believe it. The decrees are meant, after all, to shift the vibrations of the air so strongly that bad karma is changed to good. The beliefs of the church were all tied up in vibrations, and such transmutation. The change was not only happening on a personal level, however, but on a universal one. They were decreeing to save everything, to make the world better, to save it. For the destiny of the universe is going to be worked out on this planet.

Rumpus: In your depiction there seems to have been something noble and exciting about the preparations the church undertook, even though they were contemplating the end of the known world. Where did that come from, do you think?

9780547859088_p0_v1_s260x420Rock: It came from a combination of a few things, I think. I was extremely impressed with the people I talked to who were parents of children, back then, and their intentions were noble. They were acting on their beliefs, they were trying to find a better way to raise their children, and many of the ways they resisted the predominant culture made sense to me.

Related to this is that both of my daughters were born while I was working on this book, so I was made painfully aware that I really had no beliefs or ways to talk about some of these big issues. So parenthood opened me up to a lot of questions, and self-reflection, and also, thankfully, made me a lot less cynical.

Also, as a sidenote, I think I realized at a very early state that the easy or expected take on a church like the Church Universal and Triumphant would be a parodic or somewhat condescending one, a critical one. I had a desire to tell a happier story, from the inside, which seemed like it would be more unexpected and productive.

Rumpus: There are myriad spirits in the book, ones that watch over the flock and others living perhaps in Colville’s soul. And there’s often an eerie magic at work. It felt like you as a writer were honoring the idea so intensely alive in the characters that something larger than them was at work in the world.

Rock: Is it too much to say that I came to entertain the idea that so much is happening around us, invisibly, that we can’t understand? There’s a fine line between getting close enough to my characters to see and understand the world as they did, and believing it all myself, and certainly there were moments where there was no line at all.

Do I believe in the Ascended Masters? No, not really, though I think they said a lot of insightful (and some scary) things. For instance, in the teachings, there’s a constant awareness of energy, rising and falling. We must become sensitive to harboring and gathering and protecting our energy, and generating positive energy to help ourselves and others. We must be sensitive to vibrations, try to discern good energy from bad. These may not seem like major insights. To some, they may be easily dismissed, and to others, they may seem quite obvious. All I can say is that entertaining them in my heart has been a helpful way to proceed, to recognize and follow my path. Here I mean not only the future of my fiction, but also the way I want to live my life.

Rumpus: There’s a tightrope you walk here where you take strange beliefs seriously without entirely endorsing them. You never ridicule your characters. Can you talk about this?

Rock: The first few people I interviewed had left the church some time before, and I came to assume that the teachings and beliefs were largely a thing of the past for them (the Church does still exist, as do the shelters). As I earned their trust, they recommended that I speak with other people they knew. I asked one of these new contacts a question I’d used before: “Do you think your previous beliefs still inform your decisions, affect your life?” His quick response: “I still believe it all, what Mother taught us. I may have left the church, but that doesn’t change the truth of what she had to share.”

Shortly after this admission, he told me, “Listen, you and I are not these physical beings; we’re envelopes, we’re vehicles of skin in which our souls reside for a short period. We’re fortunate to meet here and have this conversation, but this isn’t really who we are.” A chill passed through me—a wave of what, fear?—before we moved on to safer topics. But then thirty seconds later, as the conversation drifted in another direction, I thought, “Actually, that makes sense to me, that’s not so different from how I feel.” From this moment, my proximity to the teachings became much more personal.

My respect and admiration for the people I was interviewing really grew over time. And respect for one’s characters—that’s a fundamental tenet in how I understand fiction writing.

Another reformulation: I grew up in Salt Lake City, a non-Mormon, and my relationship to religion has primarily been developed in opposition and resistance. I had never really formulated a belief about spiritual matters, never dared to. In writing my novel, I had the opportunity to interact with people who not only conceived of a different way of understanding the world, but also were brave enough to act on this belief. And as a new father, I had begun to ask a lot of spiritual questions to myself—questions I’d been skating over for my whole life.

Rumpus: Where would you place the church within a wider discussion of cults and fringe churches? I thought of Julia Scheeres’s terrific book on Jonestown as I read The Shelter Cycle, but there is no sinister Jones equivalent here. The beliefs seem to have been genuine, if misguided.

Rock: Depending on who you talk to, I guess the church leadership could be understood as sinister. That’s just not the route I took. A crucial difference, though (and I echo your appreciation of Julia’s book), is that unlike in Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate or at Waco, the Church Universal and Triumphant never had their big cataclysm or showdown with the government. They came close, many times, but it was a much more peaceful disintegration. This really interested me, and I think it’s also a reason that the Church, which was larger than most “fringe” churches, is not as well known.

It’s also important to note that the Church springs out of some fascinating, old-time American religion. The “I AM Activity,” which still exists and publishes its green books in Chicago, was founded by Godfre Ray King, who, in the early 1900s, while hiking on Mount Shasta, came across the mystical figure Saint Germain. So the notion of the Ascended Masters predates the CUT, and was picked up by Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s husband, Mark Prophet, in the fifties and sixties. She began receiving dictations from the Masters before he died in 1973, and then was the sole Messenger after that. How much did she believe, and how much was she a master manipulator? That’s an interesting question. I prefer to think it wasn’t entirely one or the other.

Rumpus: What was your thinking behind including Francine’s journal entries, which I think work well in the book?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARock: I’m glad you think they work well. In truth, these fragmentary entries, or pieces of a letter, were once continuous. Whereas now they total maybe 25 pages, the initial document that she wrote was close to two hundred. How did this happen? Originally, I wanted to write about the three to four years of the shelter cycle, only, but then in interviewing people who were kids then, I realized a few things. One was that these people, who are now about thirty, remembered that time as being so fantastic and wonderful. Surrounded by invisible nature spirits that protected you, out in a beautiful wilderness, your parents are busy building “the coolest fort in the world” underground, and you and your family are possessed of truths that few have access to. I wanted to capture that wonder.

And then the flipside of that was that many of these people, years after being out of the church, still felt these weird vestigial effects of the beliefs, all these sudden decrees and other feelings rising up unbidden in moments of stress, which is why my book operates in this other temporal frame, where the children have grown up. The first thing I wrote was the shelter cycle section from Francine’s POV, which is now spaced out in those fragments. It was like a little novel in itself. The child perspective allowed me to winnow and explain and simplify the teachings, and it also allowed me to convey the necessary wonder, and it let me know about my characters as children before I tried to write them as adults…

But one wise reader of an early draft said, “This might be the most coherent section of this huge novel, but I’m not sure it belongs in it.” I disbelieved this, but it took a lot of work to figure out how providing Francine’s thoughts about how she grew up could be incorporated.

Rumpus: There’s a great moment in which Francine is recalling the warnings they’d all been given to avoid pictures of animals doing anything like a person, “since animals were incomplete expressions, still changing to be like us one day.” She says watching a talking fox might make a young viewer become “foxy or cunning or deceitful.” And then when they watched the hippos dancing in Disney’s Fantasia, “we were all told to cross our arms across our heart, and to cross our legs, so that we wouldn’t absorb what we were watching.” It’s so absurd on one level, and so apt on another in terms of the effects of what is absorbed by a young mind.

Rock: This is one of those places where I’m just taking a true story and appropriating it. I was told about this Fantasia-watching, and also of reading books in school with pages missing, or passages blacked out. Depictions of talking animals were extremely dangerous. Rock music, because of its drums and bass, could make your chakras spin backward. Sugar made your energy fall. For me, even in beliefs that could be read as absurd, there hummed some recognition.

Rumpus: Can you talk about your move into a different sort of storytelling in the last two books. With both My Abandonment and the new novel, you were working from real life. What were the advantages and challenges in doing this?

My Abandonment_0-1Rock: The decisions I make when setting out on a project are often fairly naïve or accidental. With My Abandonment, I don’t think I knew how blessed I was to have such a limited amount of information—this father and daughter were found living in the wilderness, relocated, and then they disappeared. So there was a lot of freedom. But one of the benefits, I realized later, of having my story inspired by this true one was that it really shifted how readers approached it (and perhaps how I did). We approach nonfiction with this understanding between us and the writer—these things happened, and I’m trying to relate this to you truthfully, to show why it’s important and entertaining—whereas fiction starts in a different, trickier place: these things didn’t happen, but I’m going to try to make you forget this fact, and to make you feel and care in a way that will make it real to you. So there’s something in the way I’ve been proceeding that is somewhere between these extremes. It appropriates some of the force or draw of nonfiction (“These people are alive right now; I remember what I was doing when this was happening”) but it also complicates and obfuscates in ways that can be confounding.

When I began thinking about The Shelter Cycle, I had a sense that I’d write a novel that took some cues from the history of the CUT.  I didn’t think my book would be so faithful to the history and beliefs. This was because I didn’t know much about the history or beliefs! When I actually began to interview and talk to ex-members, I realized right away that I was hopelessly unprepared, and so I came back to Portland and spent about a year reading texts from the church, trying to understand the beliefs enough to ask better questions, to learn more. And in the midst of that, perhaps inspired by the relative success of My Abandonment, the thought suddenly occurred to me that I should really be as loyal to the facts as I could—to fictionalize the characters, but stick with the actual history and belief. Which was a really crippling decision, in hindsight, and probably a necessary one. Things would have been much, much easier and perhaps less interesting had I fictionalized more freely.

The sheer amount of fascinating information was a real problem. I had all the green books of the I AM Activity, so many books written by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, official church books, and also a lot of internal, more secret documents that people gave me access to. And then I had all the survivalist material, and books like The Art of War, which was important to the believers. Maps, portable altars, you name it. There are whole areas of the cosmology that are no longer referenced, in my book—I’d love to write a book about the Mechanized Man! About the Cosmic Clock!—and it’s definitely true that I’ve never cut more fascinating facts out of anything in my life. The original manuscript was quite Vollmann-esque, over 1,000 pages, encyclopedic and ragged. Between 2009 and 2012, the length went from there to 800 to 700 to 350, to 300, which might be when I sold it, and then I took it back from the publisher a couple times until it was at its current length, just over 200 pages. Much of what I cut was sheer information, though it wasn’t quite so simple as that.

In terms of getting the information under control, or bringing the world of my book to life, letting it come to life, the real people I interviewed were a blessing and a real problem, too. I loved them. I love them. One reason the book took so long to finish was that I had to be with it long enough where I wasn’t in such direct contact with the teachings, the real people, or that landscape. The novel itself, its characters had to become as real to me as the real world.

Rumpus: Can you talk about that process of interviewing ex-members, and have any of them read the book since it’s completed? If so, what was their response?

Rock: The process of interviewing was completely new to me. I’m sure I proceeded in a way that would make journalists cringe. But I was fortunate in my interviewees. I think if I had more of a clue, they might not have talked to me. I also think that if I was planning to write a non-fiction account, some of them wouldn’t have talked to me. And finally, I think it was apparent to them that I didn’t have an ax to grind, and that even if I did, I probably couldn’t get it very sharp.

I was lucky that I hit it off with the first people I interviewed, and the world slowly opened up to me as one person would recommend to someone else that they should talk to me. With several people, I interviewed them at various times in the process, and we traveled around to various sites, so one of the largest benefits of the project was just the relationships that developed, how much I learned about people. I thought so much about them that when I’d return to Montana, I felt like I’d been in constant conversation with them (whereas they probably hadn’t thought of me for months), and that must have been kind of creepy.

Anyway, the simple act of doing the interviews was very startling. I had very hypothetical and romanticized ideas in my head, but actually talking to people, sitting down with them, was much more complicated. It made the story harder to tell, but it also gave me something to push against, to leap from. I’m more worried about how these people will react to the book than any critical or commercial reaction to it. I guess if I were smarter I’d have been more cognizant of the fact that everyone I interviewed, to varying degrees, had an ideal version of what I was doing in their mind—a story that might make sense of their involvement, or be true to their experience, or punish evildoers and name names—and that ultimately I was going to betray everyone in my quest to tell a dramatic story.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhich isn’t to say that the betrayal was avoidable, because it wasn’t, and these people are sophisticated and have less riding on the book, emotionally, than I do, and are certainly less worried about what I wrote than they are about their own lives and memories. Still, in the responses I’ve gotten from earlier drafts, I think there’s a respect for the work I’ve put in and what I’ve done, but also a sense of unease. Because they can see parts of their lives—really specific details—surrounded by details that other people gave me, and surrounded by completely fictive elements. Of course, the characters are fictional, but honestly, there are sections where the book lies somewhere between fiction and oral history—there are sentences and paragraphs that I took straight out of interviews. (I have mixed feelings about doing this, but I did it because that’s the way the energy was pulling.) I have to believe that for my sources, reading some of it has to be really strange and disconcerting, if not infuriating. Reading one’s own words come out of a character’s mouth. So we’ll see.

Rumpus: Can you discuss the role of the land in your work, specifically the stark landscapes? Do you consider yourself a “Western” writer? In some ways, I think of you as the voice of those who live on the edge or off the grid. Is that valid? 

Rock: I remember when I was in a writing class at Yale, how startled I was that all my classmates wrote these stories that took place entirely within apartments. At that point in my life, I may never have been in an apartment! And I was writing all these stories where no one ever went indoors. Around that time, I had a two-person independent study with my great friend Susan Choi, an excellent novelist. The professor leading us, Donald Faulkner, once gave us this advice, over beers: “Don’t end up being a writer who’s confined to the West Coast or the East Coast, or be defined that way.” What was he talking about?

So yes, I was born in Utah, and I’m more comfortable in the West. It makes a kind of sense to me. When I’ve lived on the East Coast, I always felt I was visiting. And growing up in Utah, surrounded by beautiful Mormons, I think there was a spiritual intensity in the air, a kind of pressure pushing down on us, all the invisible things we couldn’t see. Which is partly, I think, what drew me into studying the CUT, whom I’ve heard described as “Mormons on steroids”. The spiritual, to me, is more obvious in a wide open landscape, because there’s more air in which invisible things might hide?

It’s also true that the survivalist tendencies of the CUT manifested how the spiritual and the physical are so deeply connected. To preserve the earth, to learn how to survive in this physical plane, is not a metaphor for our spiritual survival, and not just running parallel. It is the same thing.

I often see the description of landscape, the way characters move through it, as the best way to show how their minds are working, what’s up with their emotions. And sometimes, like when I was in a shelter, far underground, I had this deeply eerie sensation that I was inside my own head, walking around in it, traveling through a story that I was writing and also a story that had already happened in other people’s lives.

But back to the East/West thing. Even though I made fun of all those apartment-writers in college, they probably knew things I didn’t. I think there was a tendency in a lot of my early work for characters to suddenly drive to another state and pick things up, then drama would build, then I wouldn’t know what people said to each other past a certain point, and then doors would slam, people would drive, drama would rise again, but only to a certain point. When I lived in Philadelphia, I set myself the task of writing a novel (The Ambidextrist) that was in an urban environment, and where no characters could escape the few blocks where the action would occur.

This dynamic of escaping and not knowing what to say definitely ran parallel to how I dealt with various relationships I was in. So being married has definitely helped me stay in a situation, to learn what people say to each other when they might try to flee. That’s kind of how I feel about the way my writing’s developed. I mean, I hope I’m getting better, but the main thing I’ve noticed—and this book is, in a way, the ultimate testament to it—is that I’m more comfortable in chaos and total confusion for much longer periods of time. I don’t bail out or anxiously simplify like I used to. I’m more patient. Having kids has helped me so much, too.

I’m pretty sure those off the grid wouldn’t claim me as their voice! But I’ve never been a very autobiographical writer. I need to get fascinated by something, convince myself of it, and hopefully, in the process, translate my fascination to the reader.

Rumpus: I get the sense with each of your books that you lived them intensely, and I wonder what the feeling is each time as you let them go off into the world. A sadness it’s over, a relief they’re done, pride, a fear for their future?

Rock: It’s weird, I’m answering this a couple days before the book officially comes out. At this stage, the actual beautiful book seems like a kind of physical reminder, a talisman of the years spent writing it, all the struggle and people I met and loved and the hopes and disappointments, rather than a story or a product or whatever. Which is to say, I’m really proud of the work I did on the book and think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, but I’m still close enough that it still feels like such a series of compromises, and for every page that’s printed there’s another four vestigial ghost pages in my mind.

That the actual book would be interesting or make sense to someone, that’s a blessing. But for me, the more books I write, the more I realize it’s the actual writing where I’m learning something, how to live in this world, where I’m really lost in it, that’s the best part. This part now, of dealing with the actual book and surfacing to talk about it and construct the marketing narrative of how it was written, it’s a little tawdry, don’t you think?

I guess the last thing I’ll say is that I’ve learned that to write well, I really do have to get bewildered, deeply confused, to have no idea where I am or who I am or what is going on. Perhaps one last anecdote will be enough: I took three main trips to Montana, talking to people, walking in those mountains again, going underground. On my third trip, one of my sources said, “Man, you look terrible. That first time you came out here, you knew exactly what you wanted to do. Now you’re all confused, you look all fucked up—now you might actually get closer to how it was, how it is.”


Tom Barbash is the author of the novel "The Last Good Chance" and the non-fiction book, "On Top of the World." His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Tin House, One Story, The Believer, The Observer, The New York Times, Narrative, Story, VQR, Storyquarterly and other places. He is on the faculty at California College of the Arts. More from this author →