The Rumpus Book Club Chat with Chelsea Bieker
The Rumpus Book Club chats with Chelsea Bieker about her debut novel, Godshot (Catapult, March 2020), Ina May Gaskin and learning that our bodies are not inherently wrong, writing about the place where she grew up, who she’d cast in the film or television adaptation of Godshot, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Tracy O’Neill, Alysia Sawchyn, Lauren J. Sharkey, Matthew Salesses, Alison Stine, Beth Alvarado, Jenny Hval, Mattilda B. Sycamore, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club’s chat with Chelsea Bieker about her debut novel, Godshot!
Chelsea Bieker: Hi Marisa, and everyone! Thank you for having me!
Marisa: Thanks for joining us, Chelsea! This is our first quarantine chat, and so I’m especially excited for the adult conversation. (I’m quarantined with a five-year-old who spent a lot of today talking about “fart trees.”)
Chelsea Bieker: Me too! So excited. I also have a five-year-old, and a one-and-half-year-old, at home right now. Familiar with fart trees and the like, haha.
Marisa: So, to kick us off: When did you start writing Godshot, and how long was that process from start to finish? Is this your first completed novel, or do you have “drawer novel” hidden somewhere?
Chelsea Bieker: I started writing what became Godshot in 2013, and wrote the first-ever draft really quickly. But it is unrecognizable next to the version today. It was from the mother’s perspective and right away I knew I’d have to write it again from the daughter’s. That first novel was so different that in some ways it became a drawer novel. I completely started over.
I liked the energy of Lacey’s voice and the tension felt more immediate to me in some way. I was able to get at the truth of the story easier.
Marisa: Wow, from the mother’s perspective! That would be an entirely different book!
Chelsea Bieker: It was! It was also her as an older woman looking back, so there were many threads.
Marisa: I love the teenage-girl energy of this book. I don’t know if you remember, but I first learned about Godshot at the Portland Book Festival last fall, when T Kira Madden introduced us, and I think she said something like, “Marisa, you will LOVE this book. It’s got teenage girls, a cult, and a glitter cover.” And I was totally sold.
Chelsea Bieker: I remember! T Kira is wonderful. I think she’s introduced me to at least five of my favorite books in the world.
Marisa: Can you share what a few of those favorite books are? (I want to make sure I’ve read them. She has the best taste.)
Chelsea Bieker: Yes! When I met T Kira in 2014 at MacDowell I had never read Cruddy by Lynda Barry which was life-changing, and Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips, and Melanie Rae Thon! First, Body by Thon, but then I read everything.
Kira was like, What?! How have you not? And then she’s the type of friend to hand you that book the next day.
Marisa: Well, I haven’t read Black Tickets or anything by Melanie Rae Thon, so I’ll be heading to Bookshop.org right after this chat!
Chelsea Bieker: Oh, I’m so so excited for you then! Dark and twisty and language language language!
Marisa: I’m all about dark and twisty, and language!
Okay, back to your book. I’m always curious about epigraphs. Can you talk about the Ina May Gaskin quote that prefaces Godshot, and how you came to choose it?
Chelsea Bieker: I’d love to. Ina May Gaskin is a real pioneer of home birth in the 70s. She ran The Farm, which was a birthing center and she wrote several books about birthing. Her message is very feminist and body positive. She sort of took back birth from the more male-driven, medicalized version and offered women more choice around their bodies and education about their bodies, and really the idea that you are an active participant in your worth versus a passive one.
Marisa: Did she inspire the character of Hazel at all?
Chelsea Bieker: She did! Yes. I think Hazel was a definite convert of Ina May’s for sure.
I read her famous book, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, in 2013 when I got pregnant with my daughter and it was really life changing. Her idea that your body is not a lemon stayed with me—just meaning that simply, your body is right and made right and there’s nothing wrong with you. In its most simple form, its empowering because I think as women we are programmed so early on to believe there is something we need to “fix” with ourselves.
And then I loved the imagery of the lemon and how agricultural this world is, and I just loved the sentiment as a mantra, sort of a secret code: your body is not a lemon.
Marisa: This novel deals a lot with women’s (and girls’) bodies, and how we’re told what to do with them by outside forces. So that makes a lot of sense!
Chelsea Bieker: Yeah, I think for me, reading Ina May honestly felt like the first course in sex education I’d ever had. It’s crazy! But I had never seen a woman giving birth before in my life, and I would be doing it. I felt that I needed to investigate this. I was really enraptured by this unknown world of women describing birth in ways I had never ever heard. I think being offered the whole range of description was important.
Marisa: Did religion play a strong role in your early years? Your handle on how religion can become a cult was really spot-on.
Chelsea Bieker: Yes, when I moved in with my grandparents at age nine, I went from zero religion to a fully committed Christian overnight, going to church and reading the Bible.
Marisa: The book is so clear on what the cult offers to Lacey—structure, and the safety that comes with it, especially if your home life is chaotic.
Chelsea Bieker: It was such a contrast, and at the time, it was very comforting. My life prior to this was so chaotic but religion seemed to offer purpose and answers. It also offered the idea of a loving father, someone who accepted me. All of that was what I wanted at that time, and it also provided a language for overcoming my circumstances after my mother left. I wasn’t talking about it with anyone in a direct way but at church there seemed to be some higher understanding of life that I was very attracted to.
So, Lacey in the book has a similar experience, and the church cult is a safe haven for awhile, and seems to change her life for the better.
Marisa: Right up until it doesn’t. I think that’s probably something a lot of readers can relate to.
Chelsea Bieker: In the book I wanted for Lacey to have to realistically struggle with what the church means to her and have it be a gradual understanding, and a complicated one.
When you are that devout, it’s not an overnight turn to unbelief. In fact, you may never make that turn all the way. I think often I see narratives where the person starts out a believer and ends a non-believer, but it’s not always so simple. I don’t think it’s that simple for Lacey May.
Marisa: And it’s interesting to see that struggle, and to see that she is still able to hold on to a kind of faith, even as she moves away from the church.
Chelsea Bieker: Yeah, I liked the idea that she was willing to grapple with what her belief was without knowing.
Marisa: The landscape of California’s Central Valley is very important throughout the novel; the weather and land are almost characters themselves. You also grew up in the Central Valley (but live in Oregon now). Was this always the setting for Lacey’s story? Did you visit the area while writing Godshot?
Chelsea Bieker: I grew up there, yes, and my grandfather helped found the agriculture department at Fresno State and he raised me from age nine to seventeen, so I was immersed in his knowledge of the land, and though by that time he was retired, he always maintained his concern over the harvest, and the weather. Weather was a huge topic of conversation, always.
It was always the setting. It’s where most of my work travels back to. I think there is such a particular feeling of being in the valley. For me it’s a place I only love from a distance. I can long for the landscapes only when I know I will leave them. But it’s a place that haunts me, too.
It’s also a fascinating place that gets joked about a lot in the media but the food on your plate may have come from there. I visit regularly because I still have family there and my husband does, too. But I don’t feel the need to be there to write about it. That heat, the haze of the sky, the flatness, and the crops. Those images are deeply etched in my mind.
It always felt to me like a place to escape, and that’s probably because I experienced a lot of childhood trauma there.
Marisa: I’ve yet to write about where I’m from (Long Island). I suppose in essays I’ve touched on it, but for me, the trauma is the defining factor of “there” and I don’t really ever want to go back there—although I also don’t live that far from “there” now.
But I lived in northern California (Oakland) for a few years, and that landscape and weather have been a preoccupation ever since.
Chelsea Bieker: It’s interesting. I’ll note that Peaches itself is a fictional town. I did want some freedom with it, but it exists in a real region. There is something about California… many writers have been obsessed!
Marisa: Totally. “California novels” could be a genre.
Chelsea Bieker: Absolutely!
Marisa: So, I love to ask this question but haven’t in a long time because not every book inspires it: Could you see Godshot being adapted for film or television? I kept thinking as I read, Wow, this would be a great movie, or miniseries.
And, if you could choose, who would you cast as Lacey May? As Cherry? As Pastor Vern? And as perhaps my favorite character, Daisy?
Chelsea Bieker: Oh yes! I can see it, and I hope one day I actually get to see it! It would be so amazing. Well, I’m obsessed with Julia Garner (who plays Ruth on Ozark) though she’s older than Lacey May of course, there is something kindred in their connection I believe.
Possibly an Alexander Skarsgård for Vern… Ann Dowd as Cherry! I envision Margot Robbie or Amy Adams for Louise. Gosh, Daisy… great question. Any ideas?
Marisa: Do you watch Riverdale?
Chelsea Bieker: I don’t; should I?
Marisa: Hmm… it was a really funny-bad show, but now it’s kind of just bad-bad, so maybe not. Although we do all have a lot more TV time, so maybe? I was part of a fun chat at Barrelhouse about it a while back.
Anyhow, I don’t know the actress’s name, but she plays Cheryl Blossom’s mom, Penelope, and she was in my head as Daisy, I think.
Chelsea Bieker: I’ll have to look it up!
Chelsea Bieker: Okay just looked her up and I’m sold!
Marisa: Well, I would happily watch this movie or series! Hulu, Netflix, you reading The Rumpus these days?…
Chelsea Bieker: Hello!
Marisa: And speaking of what we’re reading/watching/listening to these days—what were you reading, listening to, watching while writing Godshot?
Chelsea Bieker: Well, I have this Spotify playlist for the book here:
Chelsea Bieker: It was a long period of time, so there were various things, but at the start I was reading a lot about different cults, namely the Children of God cult and I was watching lots of teenagers on YouTube doing online pregnancy vlogs.
I love the movie Heathers and watched that many times. I read White Oleander again, and Bastard Out of Carolina.
Marisa: Omg that sounds like kind of amazing book research to be doing while also pregnant/having a new baby? Or maybe I’m a weirdo new-mom. But I could totally imagine reading about cults for hours while my kid slept on me.
Chelsea Bieker: Yes it was great!
Marisa: Heathers is canon. And I love White Oleander, too!
Chelsea Bieker: I love the dark humor of Heathers.
Marisa: It holds up, too. It’s still dark, and still funny.
Chelsea Bieker: I think Godshot is funny, in my opinion. It’s dark but they are saying some batshit crazy things and doing weird things. I love that stuff.
Marisa: It’s very funny! I mean, there are going to be people, I guess, who aren’t into that kind of dark humor, but those people aren’t my people.
Chelsea Bieker: Right. There definitely will be.
Marisa: But look around, right? The world is batshit crazy. Gotta find the humor in it for some relief.
Chelsea Bieker: I mean, if people are obsessed with Tiger King and Ozark then do I have the book for you!
Chelsea Bieker: I read in an interview with Otessa Moshfegh, she said: “It’s not my job to please people who can’t tolerate anything but lukewarm baths.”
I feel that deeply
Marisa: I met Otessa once, and she’s as amazing and deadpan funny and smart as her writing.
Chelsea Bieker: I would love to meet her. She’s one of my favorite writers. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is amazing.
Marisa: You’ve got a story collection titled Cowboys and Angels out next year. Can you give us any teasers about this second book? Are you still working on it now?
Chelsea Bieker: I’m not still working on it, it’s pretty finished at this point though I’m sure there will be edits and possible additions/replacements. This book inhabits similar, and sometimes the same, places as the novel. I see the two books very connected, sort of holding hands. There are repeat characters. There’s a whole story about Daisy and Florin pre-Peaches in there. Side story about Grampa Jackie. I wrote most of them while I wrote this book, but many I wrote before this book. By the time the collection comes out some of the stories will be ten years old, or nearly.
There’s a winky reference to the book in Godshot, actually.
Marisa: Ooh that is super exciting news! I’m here for the continued Peaches drama.
How often and easily do you move between short fiction and long-form fiction/novel when you write? Do you have a preference, or do they feel similar in process for you?
Chelsea Bieker: I move between them pretty easily. Short fiction is my first love. It’s an escape for me. It’s so much fun. I love these really intense voices in short fiction and I can usually tell when a certain voice will be a story.
Marisa: We’ve got just a few minutes left. Before I ask the question I always close with, I wanted to ask what it’s like to have a book come out right now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Are you finding ways to celebrate the success of having this brilliant debut in readers’ hands?
Chelsea Bieker: It’s a very strange time. It’s not what I imagined, of course. Writing is very solitary, and I was excited to finally go into the world and meet readers and other writers and bookstore employees and all the people I have only known online. So there’s a loss there, that I do have faith can be made up down the line. I want to see my book in a bookstore. Things like that.
It’s weird to have this personal excitement amid so much tragedy but I am trying to find joy where I can. I don’t believe any joy I might feel over this negates the sorrow or grief I feel for those suffering or for our current situation. Both can exist together. Both/and. And when this is over, I want books and bookstores to be around. I’m trying each day to focus on the positives and the way people are banding together to support debut authors and I just look forward to when I can thank those people face to face. Seeing peoples pictures with the book give me so much life! Thank you to everyone who has posted.
Marisa: Yes, both/and. I do think you’ll get to see this in a bookstore, and I’m super excited for our online event on April 15th with T Kira!
Chelsea Bieker: I cannot wait for that!
Marisa: Okay, last question, I promise! What are you reading right now? Any new and forthcoming books you want to shout out?
Chelsea Bieker: I just finished My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. WOW. It’s something else. So propulsive. So complicated.
I’m excited for Boys of Alabama coming in May from Genevieve Hudson. The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels. Stray by Stephanie Danler. Those are just a few! There’s so many. It feels like a really rich time for books. I get anxiety figuring out how I will read all the books I want to read this year. I need to learn to speed read.
What are you reading?
Marisa: I have MANY to-read piles in my house. I’m always behind. I just started Quotients by Tracy O’Neill, our next Book Club selection. And I’ve been dipping into Sam Irby’s Wow, No Thank You—I love her, and her writing brings me such joy, so I’m doling it out slowly.
Chelsea Bieker: Amazing!
Marisa: Also very excited for K-Ming Chang’s Bestiary, and just finally got my hands on Heather Christle’s The Crying Book. I’m really excited to read it. I’ve been told it’s right up my alley, and I love when poets write prose.
Chelsea Bieker: Oh yes, I loved The Crying Book! I’ve been interested in Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami.
Marisa: That wasn’t on my radar, so thank you! Will check it out. And thank you so much for your time tonight! I promise to think up some new questions for our event next week! (I will try not to mention fart trees.)
Chelsea Bieker: Thank you! And thank you so much to The Rumpus Book club for having me. It’s been an honor and a joy.
Marisa: Any time! Have a good night!
Chelsea Bieker: You, too!
Photograph by Chelsea Bieker by Harper Gipe.