The Harder, Truer Thing: Talking with Chelsea Bieker

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T Kira Madden describes Chelsea Bieker’s debut novel, Godshot, as “a truly epic journey through girlhood, divinity, and the blood that binds and divides us.” Set in the town of Peaches, California, the story follows fourteen-year-old Lacey May and her alcoholic mother. A drought has devastated the area so badly that residents turn to Pastor Vern, a cult leader who promises to bring the rain back with his mysterious “assignments.” Lacey May embraces the church, seeing how it brought order to her mother’s whirlwind life of boyfriends and drinking. But when her mother abandons her after being excommunicated, Lacey May is left to wonder whether Vern’s promises come at too high a cost. She sets out to win her mother back, even as her “assignment”—a bewildering act of violence that changes everything—becomes harder to ignore.

Chelsea Bieker hails from California’s Central Valley. She is the recipient of a 2018 Rona Jaffe Writer’s Foundation Award, and the author of two forthcoming books, the aforementioned novel Godshot—out from Catapult on April 7—and a story collection, Cowboys and Angels (2021). Her writing has been published in Granta, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Electric Literature, Joyland, and The Cincinnati Review, among others. Her work has been supported by the MacDowell Colony and the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. She holds a BS in Journalism from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Portland State University. Currently she lives in Portland with her husband and two children, where she teaches college composition, as well as fiction writing for Catapult and the Gotham Writer’s Workshop.

Chelsea was kind enough to talk with me recently about Godshot, knowing the body, and setting the seductions of total faith against the tumultuous backdrop of adolescence.

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The Rumpus: In an interview for The Collagist, you said something that really resonated with me: “Easy isn’t true.” I was wondering how that mantra played into the writing of Godshot.

Chelsea Bieker: When I first started writing, it was really clear to me when I would hit a point in the story where something big was going to happen, or it was a moment of reckoning for the character, and I could feel the tension in myself, wondering, Do I have the skills to actually write this in a true way? Or am I going to go down an easy path, like the character staring out the window of the train and the confrontation never happening? I started to be able to sense the ways that I would skirt around this harder moment in my own work. I began tuning my ear to those moments and knowing when they were arriving and happening. I really challenged myself to lean into the more difficult, more true results of the building of scenes and characters which had brought me to these points.

In Godshot, there are plenty of moments where I did my best not to take the easy path. The more you write, the more you can sense those moments within yourself where you’re dodging something that maybe, subconsciously, you’re afraid to write because it might be hard. When I read student work especially, I can feel so clearly when the writer didn’t really lean into the truth of the story as it was going and instead took the easier path. The tension slackens in a palpable way. So I wanted to do the harder thing, and that also equals the truer thing for the book.

Rumpus: How long did you work on this novel?

Bieker: About six years from the very beginning to when it’ll be published. I always look at the age of my daughter because I started writing it when I was pregnant with her. So it’s as old as my child.

Rumpus: That’s perfect. And it reminds me of a tweet I recently saw from Rachel Yoder: “Seems to me that novels take years to write because you are hard at work becoming the person who can write the book at the same time you are writing it.”

Bieker: I think that’s really true. It’s interesting, because at least in my MFA program, I was taking classes that revolved around short stories. We didn’t really talk about novels, and I wasn’t really thinking about the craft of writing novels until I decided to write one. So you have to teach yourself how to do it, and then each new novel is a container of its own lessons. The past six years of rewriting this novel so many times, with so many pages never meeting the light of day, was this labor of learning how to do this. And I feel like I’ve heard this a million times, but every novel is starting over; you have to relearn how to do it. I don’t know that I’ve unlocked any secrets through this process other than I know now that I can do it. I’m sure that the next novel will be its own bundle of surprises and its own challenges that I will have to teach myself how to conquer, as well. You are becoming a different writer as you’re doing it for a long time. And rewriting it so many times, it changed a lot. I’m sure it changed a lot in different ways because I was changing, too, and my understanding of different aspects of the novel—like motherhood and loss—was maturing and changing at the same time. But the last line of the book has always been the same. That has always been there. That was never changed, and other little lines or markers were always there. But all the filling has changed so much over these six years.

Rumpus: When you were writing, did those things that never changed serve as guideposts for the vision you were writing towards?

Bieker: Definitely. The word guideposts makes sense to me. There were certain guideposts that were the heart of the matter for me in the book. And those were always the same. In revising, I made sure that each thread or new section was tethered to those central points that were really integral for the story I was trying to tell. In the beginning, I didn’t know exactly what those guideposts were. As they became clear, that helped in revision—knowing what should stay and what wasn’t really necessary anymore, as hard as it is to cut a hundred pages or whatnot.

Rumpus: Absolutely. Speaking of guideposts, there were a couple of lines I found so central to the book’s themes. One is a thought Lacey May has while contemplating whether she should be more curious about climate change. She says, “Curiosity is the first rung on the ladder down to hell.” I can so clearly imagine a pastor saying this. Have you heard this somewhere before?

Bieker: I don’t know that I heard that said somewhere, but the sentiment, to me, felt really true in thinking of faith. At times, it felt that leaning into the mystery of the unknown was lauded or special. It felt like an achievement. If you could accept the mystery of the unknown and not ask these harder questions and instead just lean on faith, it was some sort of achievement, to not be asking questions and to just say, “No, the answer is faith. I just have faith that these things exist and I don’t need to know how.” It’s as if that is some sort of elevated consciousness versus having curiosity about global warming or wondering why there’s no rain. These sorts of really necessary natural questions would not really be valued in this type of church setting where the magic of mystery is more important than any actual question that we might ask or answer. That sentiment seemed familiar to me, and maybe I picked it up growing up in the church. I don’t know that it was explicitly ever said to me, but I almost liked the idea that there were mysteries and that I didn’t need to know all the answers. That can be safe and nice, but there’s danger in that, as well. If we’re not asking questions, there can be huge ramifications. I wanted Lacey May and her mother to be aware that their own curiosity was almost a damning quality. Lacey, more than her mom, starts to have awareness that curiosity is actually not a great thing. She starts to articulate it in a different way.

Rumpus: I also spent time in a church where curiosity was not lauded, but I find it interesting to think about how this crops up outside of religion as well. Throughout history, people have been charmed by big personalities with easy answers. How was the experience of writing a seductive leader like Pastor Vern?

Bieker: I like that idea of big personalities with easy answers, like you said. For me at least, growing up, finding a person like that or finding a church body that had this set of answers felt extremely comforting after coming from a world where there was no order and nothing really made sense and there was seemingly no greater meaning to suffering. I remember as a child really craving that order and that structure and some translation for suffering that would elevate my life to a different level of meaning. Not having that feels really discombobulating, and you’re untethered. Finding that in a person who’s very confident is attractive. Confidence is attractive. It feels easy—at least, it did for me—to fall in line with that. You also see it as being included. You see this group agreeing, and you think, Well, I will be one of this larger group, it’s not just me as an individual, it’s me joining this bigger movement. It must be right. I understand the attraction to organized religions and cults, and I really get how that happens because there is something satiating about joining. As humans, we just want connection, so joining and then also feeling like the suffering that I’ve endured means something greater and actually could mean something amazing, and feeling that I can have this salvation beyond my wildest dreams—I get it. I get how people fall into those spaces for sure. And I think Lacey—coming from this sort of meaningless existence where she’s in this day-to-day whirlwind of her mom’s boyfriends and alcoholism and all of this chaos and no real adult at the helm telling her how things should be—is craving that, so it feels really good to be part of a church for her at the beginning.

Rumpus: This reminds me of another line I saw as a crux of the book: “The body always knows.” As an adolescent, the body is very confusing to decipher; Lacey’s body is additionally subjected to so much from the men and boys around her, and her body is imbued with this bigger meaning. I’m thinking about how it’s very easy to doubt your own body and feelings. How did you approach Lacey’s journey of self-knowledge in writing the book?

Bieker: There’s a part of the book where she’s talking about the ways in which she feels her motherloss in her body. She says, “I was fine and things would be well but my eyes grew black with insomnia and I peeled the skin from around my nails and had taken to eating it.” She describes the ways that trauma and loss are living in her body, a knot in her neck where she stores her motherloss, in contrast to what she’s saying on the outside. It’s something that I’ve experienced myself: you can ignore the signals of the body only for so long before they announce themselves. You can’t continue forever, not acknowledging that knot in your neck. The knot in your neck means something more than just a knot in your neck. That’s where your stress is living. That’s where your sadness from that loss, or that break up still lives or whatever. I believe that’s how our bodies and minds work together. I wanted to express how Lacey is coming into this growing awareness of how her body is both disconnected from her but also screaming out for her attention. Then the pregnancy pulls her into a much more physical space because it’s very hard to ignore a pregnancy. So she’s confronted over and over again with the ways in which this trauma is manifesting in her body, and I did want to explore it. I thought it was an interesting phenomenon, like what’s described in The Body Keeps the Score. I love the idea that our bodies are record-keepers, and we have to attend to the ways in which they’re holding onto things, the way that our bodies are asking us to pay attention.

Rumpus: Absolutely. And Lacey is being given so many conflicting messages about her body within the church specifically. But at the same time, there are so many vibrant, funny details dealing with bodies and their parts, like the bull penis cane and the chinchillas.

Bieker: Yeah, I don’t really remember where the bull penis came from. I think I saw some sort of weird infomercial. I love infomercials for fictional inspiration. For me, that’s the fun part of writing—having these really colorful bizarre details and bright colors in the midst of devastation and drought, like Cherry’s pink hearse and the taxidermy animals. That contrast was important to me as I was writing. I really wanted some dark humor in there because I myself wouldn’t want to read a book like this without it being a little bit funny. So I felt like Lacey’s grandmother, Cherry, really had to bring it with some of her oddities.

Rumpus: She certainly does! And I think part of what makes this book so darkly funny but also devastating is how it’s set in this very unsettled time, in terms of Lacey’s age. The teenage years are just so rocky, so uncomfortable.

Bieker: Yeah, there’s so much natural tension with the teenage years because you have a character who’s experiencing so many firsts. There’s so much tension even in a normal teenage life—your first love, first period, first whatever. Those are, under the best of circumstances, still really high-stakes moments, so having them occur in this really unsettled world heightens everything to an extreme.

Rumpus: Yeah. I was reading your interview for No Tokens with Evan Rehill. You were talking about the power of adolescent friendships, and the question came up, “At that age who can save you besides your friends?” I was quite taken by how you crafted the complicated work of salvation, when the people who should perhaps be saving you are just as lost as you are. How did you approach that?

Bieker: Whatever belief system you subscribe to, there is an individuality and aloneness when it comes to defining it, to deciding how it will take form in your life. Often faith is unexplainable to others. There are so many nuances. Ultimately we all have to answer this question for ourselves and no one can do it for us. And I didn’t want Lacey’s journey to reach a conclusion that felt either in or out in terms of her faith journey. I hope it’s clear by the end that she’s still searching for this idea of what faith looks like for her. It’s not that she no longer believes in anything; it’s that she’s allowing herself this journey to find out what exactly she believes in. I wanted some of that to continue. I feel like I’ve encountered a lot of narratives where a character is a believer and then by the end they’re not. It’s a simple switch. For Lacey, I felt like it was important to show this other path, where she is still looking and she still has some semblance of faith in something, even though it’s undefined. There’s a sense that the journey of searching will continue. I didn’t want to close the door there. I wanted that to seem like another door opening for her at the end. I liked the idea that it remains a little bit undefinable, but there’s something that she can still lean against, a mystery of its own.

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Photograph of Chelsea Bieker by Jessica Keaveny.


Kate Finegan is editor-in-chief of Longleaf Review, novel/novella editor for Split/Lip Press, and author of the chapbooks Ablaze (Sonder Press, 2020) and The Size of Texas (Penrose Press, 2018). She lives in Toronto. Find her at http://katefinegan.ink and on Twitter at @kehfinegan. More from this author →