An exclusive Authorlink interview by Diane Slocum
Fourteen-year-old Lacey May, her mother and her grandmother Cherry are faithful members of Pastor Vern’s church in the small town of Peaches in California’s Central Valley. Once before, Vern ended the drought by making it rain and now his disciples are determined to fulfill their assignments so he can end an even worse drought. When Lacey May gets her blood, she can’t wait to find out what Pastor Vern has planned for her. Then her life gets complicated. Her mother abandons her. She questions her faith. The shunned women in the red house at the edge of town show her kindness. She wants her mother back and she wants out of Vern’s control.
AUTHORLINK: What was the first thing about this story that came into your mind? How did you follow up from there? How did this reflect your own experience?
“For me, the first image that came to mind in telling this story was Cherry’s house.”
BIEKER: For me, the first image that came to mind in telling this story was Cherry’s house. I saw the old creaky flooring, the baking flour on countertops, the rotting fruit, the hard as rock raisins. I saw her taxidermy. For me, Cherry’s house was as real as anything, and I knew it would be a place in the story. Beyond that, I knew I wanted to tell a story about an abandoned daughter. From there, the place became really solidified to me. I wanted a lot of freedom—hence the fictional town name—but I knew it would still be grounded in the very real Central Valley, where I am from. At the same time, the voice of Lacey May was the main driver of the story for me, and her voice revealed everything else and how I would see it. It’s usually that way for me in writing: the particular voice will tell me all I need to know. The story reflects my own experience emotionally in many ways, namely the complicated longing of a lost mother/daughter relationship, and the aftermath of such a traumatic loss while navigating the realms of becoming a woman.
AUTHORLINK: How did Lacey May’s character and voice grow as more of the story developed?
BIEKER: She is very different by the end than the girl the reader first meets. For one, she has lost her mother, and then two, she has been forced to reckon with the falsities of her beloved church community. She has gone on a huge undertaking of self education around sex, feminism, the world, and her own spiritual beliefs. She has transformed in almost all ways, and so her voice deepened I think to reflect that experience, though she was, from page one, a very watchful narrator, very curious.
AUTHORLINK: In the story the supposedly “good” people in the town – the followers of Vern – and the “bad” people – the Diviners – play more the opposite rolls in Lacey May’s life. What does this say to us?
“In a lot of ways, she is beginning to listen to her intuition, her gut reaction…
BIEKER: I think for Lacey May it challenges her worldview and forces her to reckon with the ways the cult has not actually had her best interest in mind. In a lot of ways, she is beginning to listen to her intuition, her gut reaction, and she knows immediately that she feels better with certain people than others.
AUTHORLINK: Do any of the men in the town of Peaches and the others Lacey deals with have any socially redeeming characteristics?
BIEKER: I suppose that’s up to the reader to decide. I think we see in the patriarchal set-up of the cult, that the young boys are trained very early in toxic masculinity, and we can surmise and see in various moments that they don’t really want to comply but feel it is part of taking up their identity as men in the church. That said, I don’t believe it’s the job of this particular story to have a redeeming male character. There is no man that is going to rush in and save the day and restore our belief in men in this story. The story is about the prevalence of violence against women, violence that occurs at an astonishing rate, every minute of every day. Sometimes, for some women, there aren’t any good men around, and that is just a fact. In many worlds I believe this is true, especially those of women trapped in the psychologically traumatic cycles of domestic violence, which Lacey’s mother definitely is. I always loved the quote from Ottessa Moshfegh: “It’s not my job to please people who can’t tolerate anything but lukewarm baths.” In this way, I don’t believe it’s my job to soften the blow of this reality for women in my fiction. We can learn a lot as readers from being uncomfortable and reckoning with our own discomfort. It’s part of why reading expands our consciousness. On a craft level, having a “good guy” waltz in to save things would diffuse a lot of narrative tension too, I think. Lacey May has to save herself, just as we all do.
AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people come away with from your novel besides enjoying the story?
BIEKER: I hope they can enjoy some of the dark humor and the odd details; the sentences. Crafting sentences that are rhythmic and interesting is so important to me. I also hope the reader can see the redemption in this story, because I believe there is a lot to be found.
AUTHORLINK: What other writing have you done that helped you develop your craft to the level where you could write a novel that wound up on more than a dozen “best of” and “must read” lists?
“The only way to not improve as a writer is to stop writing and to stop reading.”
BIEKER: I’ve been writing steadily for a long time, and along with that, reading. Every time I come to the page, I know I am getting better. The only way to not improve as a writer is to stop writing and to stop reading. I can’t imagine my life without writing as an almost daily practice and reading whenever I can. A novel is something that takes a specific dedication, a long standing obsession, and I think the reward for showing up to the page over and over even when it’s hard, are those lightning bolt moments when the plot comes together finally, or that sentences feel just right. I don’t know how to do that other than by continuing to show up.
AUTHORLINK: How did the process of looking for an agent and finding a publisher go for you?
“To land with Jonathan Lee at Catapult was a huge dream come true—I have been a longtime admirer of the work they do …”
BIEKER: I was lucky in that my agent, Samantha Shea, found me, and I had the good fortune to work with her over several drafts of the book before we submitted it to editors. To land with Jonathan Lee at Catapult was a huge dream come true—I have been a longtime admirer of the work they do not only in book publishing but for the literary community at large. And my experience being published by them has been nothing short of excellent. I am very grateful to their powerhouse team there.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
BIEKER: I have a short story collection coming out with Catapult in 2022 that is finished, and currently I’m working on a new novel that I feel really excited about, but it’s really early in the process. Right now, I’m just seeing what comes. I’ve been doing #1000wordsofsummer, a writing challenge set up by the writer Jami Attenburg, which I love because doing those 1000 words a day is such a good rhythm to get into, especially with all that is going on in the world. It feels like something I can depend on. Writing has always been something I can depend on and I’m grateful for it.
About the Author: Chelsea Bieker received an MFA from Portland State University. She has published in Electra Literature, Joyland, Granta and many others. Her upcoming short story collection is Cowboys and Angels. She is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Writer’s Foundation Award and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. Godshot is her first novel. She now lives in Portland with her husband and two children and teaches writing.