Chelsea Bieker's mother left when she was 9 years old. "Growing up, I was hungry for narratives that were tackling some of the things that I was experiencing and feeling," she recalls. Whenever she found those stories, she says it felt healing, cathartic — a release.
"It didn't feel like I was so isolated — it made my experience feel more universal," she says.
In Bieker's debut novel Godshot, a devastating drought in a fictional California town has led residents to seek answers in a charismatic cult leader. Narrator Lacey May is 14 years old when her mother abandons her.
Bieker understands that, at a time when readers are facing real world fears about coronavirus, it might feel like an odd moment to immerse oneself in a fictional world of drought, chaos and childhood trauma. But Bieker believes this difficult time of quiet and isolation is an invitation to look at ourselves in new ways.
"I believe that fiction asks us to turn toward the difficult parts in our own lives and our own selves to try to find some sort of grace ..." she says. "Art can help me ask the difficult questions of myself and then try to answer them."
Of course, there's time to watch Netflix — we all have to find the balance that's right for us. But "leaning in to some of the things that might be coming up during this time can be valuable, too," Bieker says.
On the challenges she faced growing up
I was raised by two alcoholic parents and all of the trauma and stress that comes with that. But mainly when I was 9, my mother left and she didn't come back. And so I was dealing with this grief of this really confusing loss. Because she didn't die — it wasn't like I could really have any closure with that grief. But she had just left and she was existing somewhere else. So around 9, I was kind of forced to reckon with this loss that I didn't know how to categorize at the time. Now I know to call it grief and I have a language for it. But when I was a child, I wanted to find books that reflected that in some way.
On why she decided the characters in the book would belong to a cult
I wanted those characters to have to grapple with the devastation of the land in a very deep way. And the way these people are handling it is through spiritual outlets. They're not looking to science. They're not looking to facts to explain what's happening around them. But they have this leader who's promising that if they behave a certain way, if they do certain things, they are in control, somehow. They will please God and restore the land. So while on one hand, these characters are really ignoring climate change, and facts, and politics — they're not in that space at all. [But] they're also taking this really intense responsibility in their own way — however misguided. And they're trying to make things right. ...
People want to feel like they're on the right track — that they're doing something meaningful in their lives. ... The promise of a future paradise is very alluring. And that's definitely what the characters in this book are being drawn to.
On the women who live on the outskirts of town and operate a phone sex line — and why they are a lifeline for Lacey May
It's her way out. It's a window into another way of living. And it's also a place that she learns about her body for the first time in a really practical way. These are women who are connected to their bodies. They are empowered in their bodies in different ways. And she's seeing that really for the first time. She's coming from a place of absolutely no sex education and being forced to kind of self-educate. And these women provide this other kind of door to this other way of thinking.
On Lacey May seeking out other mother-daughter relationships
I think Lacey May realizes after her mother leaves that she's going to have to go on sort of a search for another sort of mothering. And she does find that through these sort of unlikely friendships with these other women throughout the book. And I think in turn, she's able to understand her own mother in a different way through their lens — which is important because she begins to see her mother not only as her mother, who has failed her in many ways, but as a person who's fallible and someone that there may be hope for, compassion for one day.
On whether that mirrors her own experience
My love for my mother never wavered through any of it. ... When I look back over my experience — and the experience certainly isn't over, it's something I continue to process today, especially as a mother to my own children — but the love for my mother that I've had has grown and evolved in its own way and it's really never left.
So I wanted the book to ... characterize that. That despite all odds, there is still a remaining connection and love between this mother and daughter and the hope for it to restore in a traditional sense — where the mother comes back and life resumes happy as ever, that's never going to happen — but there can be a hope toward another kind of experience.
On her current relationship with her mother
I do have a relationship with my mother. We never really stopped having one. ... I've actually noticed since I had my own children six years ago, my mother and I are able to connect in a different way and I really enjoy our time talking when we're able to have it. ... I've been able to see the beauty in a really non-conventional connection and take what we can get, you know?
On what her novel says about blind obedience to charismatic leaders
I think part of what Godshot is doing is that it's prompting us to ask questions and not to accept a package solution that seems to be rooted in this big group think. I think that's dangerous. And I think the characters in the book slowly realize that. And they do begin to question, they do begin to access their own curiosity, and find their own answers. And I think that's important for all of us to do — to be critical thinkers and to not listen to just one voice.
Aubri Juhasz and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The book "Godshot" is set in a sort of apocalypse - not a pandemic but a severe drought. The characters seek answers in a charismatic cult leader. This is Chelsea Bieker's debut novel, and before we dig into the meat of the story, I ask the author to make a case for reading fiction about tough times when so many people are struggling in real life right now.
CHELSEA BIEKER: I believe that fiction asks us to turn toward the difficult parts in our own lives and our own selves to try to find some sort of brace and life for ourselves beyond those difficulties.
SHAPIRO: Chelsea Bieker told me that after she went through a childhood trauma, she found solace in books that reflected hardship back at her.
BIEKER: Growing up, I was raised by two alcoholic parents. But mainly, when I was 9, you know, my mother left, and she didn't come back. And so I was dealing with this grief of this really confusing loss because she didn't die. It wasn't like I could really have any closure with that grief. But she had just left, and she was existing somewhere else. So around 9, I was kind of forced to reckon with this loss that I didn't know how to categorize at the time. Now I know to call it grief, and I have a language for it. But when I was a child, I wanted to find books that reflected that in some way.
SHAPIRO: So how do you explain the difference between the desire to reach for tragic stories that reflect a tragedy that we're living through and the desire to reach for joyous, escapist nonsense that takes our mind off it?
BIEKER: I actually think "Godshot" is really funny in its...
SHAPIRO: It is.
BIEKER: ...Own way.
SHAPIRO: I don't mean to portray it...
SHAPIRO: ...As not.
BIEKER: (Laughter) Yeah. But humor is actually really important to me. I think humor is a way that I dealt with my own grief and loss. And my family, you know, constructs stories in a funny way. And so it was important for me in writing "Godshot" to have some really wacky details in there and...
SHAPIRO: Give us an example.
BIEKER: Well, we have this really bleak landscape. You know, everything is dead. They're in this awful drought. But the grandmother is driving around in a magenta hearse, and she's collecting taxidermy. And there's a lawn painter painting people's lawns neon green.
SHAPIRO: Do you know? That reminded me so much of a desert town in California that I visited years ago called Hemet that was so dry, people had concrete instead of lawn in front of their house. But they painted their concrete green. That detail has never left my mind, and when I read this in your book, it took me right back there.
BIEKER: Yeah. I think it's a reach for life in contrast amid the worst of circumstances.
SHAPIRO: Tell us about how the world of this book took shape in your mind. I mean, how did the notion of environmental catastrophe lead you to this cult that your main characters belong to?
BIEKER: I wanted those characters to have to grapple with the devastation of the land in a very deep way, and the way these people are handling it is through spiritual, you know, outlets. They're not looking to science. They're not looking to facts to explain what's happening around them. But they have this leader who's promising that if they behave a certain way, if they do certain things, they are in control somehow. They will please God and restore the land.
SHAPIRO: I just think about a problem that seems insurmountable and unsolvable and the desire to find a person who can provide an easy answer, whether it's, do this spiritual practice, and the problem will be solved; or, treat your body in this way, and it will all be fixed. That seems universal, but, like, it's really proliferating right now especially.
BIEKER: People want to feel like they're on the right track, that they're doing something meaningful in their lives and also that perhaps when life is so dark and life is so devastated like it is in this book in many ways, the promise of a future paradise is very alluring. And that's definitely what the characters in this book are being drawn to.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. You know, the book makes it clear that the blind obedience to a charismatic leader who has all the easy answers is not the way to address challenges that face the world today. I wonder, did you come away with an idea of what it is?
BIEKER: I don't know that I have an answer for everyone in that sense. I think part of what "Godshot" is doing is that it's prompting us to ask questions and not to accept a packaged solution that seems to be rooted in this big groupthink. I think that's dangerous. And I think the characters in the book slowly realize that, and they do begin to question. They do begin to access their own curiosity and find their own answers. And I think that's important for all of us to do - to be critical thinkers and to not listen to just one voice.
SHAPIRO: Chelsea Bieker's debut novel is called "Godshot."
Thank you for talking with us about it.
BIEKER: Thank you so much, Ari. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.