The PEN Ten: An Interview with Chelsea Bieker
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
As a kid, I read countless Goosebumps and Fear Street by R.L Stein, lots of Stephen King (Rose Madder and Hearts in Atlantis being early favorites), but truly the first time I remember being completely changed forever by a book was reading White Oleander by Janet Fitch. It continues to be my favorite book, a book I will read again and again. I like to open to random pages and read from wherever. This book is magic to me. It offered me something that no book had before. I saw myself in its pages so clearly. I saw a narrator who had the same feelings I did, who was experiencing the same things. I also was able to understand motherhood in a different way, and as I get older, my read of it changes. Not to mention, the language is poetic and gorgeous, and the story itself is exhilarating. I fell in love. This novel does everything I want a novel to do. I will cry when I get to that last line every single time.
2. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
I love this question, and it is something I think about a lot—this idea of working with the truth to create fictional worlds. For me and my own work, the truth lies in what I like to think of as the “heart of the matter.”Usually, the heart of the matter is what is true for me in real life, something I am trying to uncover for myself. Usually it’s an emotion, something less definable than say, plot. In Godshot, for example, the heart of the matter is how Lacey May grieves her still alive mother who has abandoned her. Everything in the novel is really about that. The “what happens” in the book is fiction, but the truth is the feeling the narrator has. I also like to experiment with wild happenings in fiction—I’ve never felt drawn to writing a quiet story. I want to see how my characters will handle it when some seriously crazy shit happens. I want them in very hot water, and I want there to be an almost fantastically disastrous situation at hand. For me, this wildness is true. And so, I suppose I want to make art that entertains all of the ugliness life might bring and not leave any of it out.
3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
It’s impossible to talk about my creative process without talking about my kids. Things are always in flux with kids—they are changing very fast—so I try to remember that one week it might feel impossible to get creative work done, but that the next week something will shift, someone will sleep longer, stop teething, etc. and I will have a chance again. I’m a fast writer, and I hardly ever have “writer’s block.” Maybe I’m so starved for writing time that when I finally have it, it feels like a huge outpouring. There is nothing more fun to me than writing, especially in the creation phase of something new. There is nothing more relieving to me, either.
“For me and my own work, the truth lies in what I like to think of as the ‘heart of the matter.’”
In the most difficult times in my life, I have felt so clearly that writing and reading were the only things I could ever really have. I read a lot. Usually a few books at a time—one old and sturdy that I love, one new work of fiction or memoir, and then I like to throw in some self-help—and I’m currently reading Chani Nicolas’s new book on astrology. I read before bed generally, and sometimes, I try to read while my kids are around as an experimental joke. Although my daughter can now read herself, and we are starting to have more moments of silent reading time side by side, which is my dream.
Currently, I write at the kitchen table mostly with no special accoutrements—although I have some deep fear of being hungry so I always have snacks around—but mainly I stay inspired by reading. It’s very basic, really. I believe you have to read to write. There’s no other way that I know of. I am most content while reading or writing, but I understand more and more the importance of movement. I have to move my body regularly, or life gets hard. I’ve mentioned both food and movement as it relates to my process, and I think that’s because for me, there’s a relationship with the way I am caring for myself and my ability to be productive. They are all interconnected. The body is always directing, and I’m trying harder lately to listen.
4. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
I am sure readers of this site will know of Cruddy by Lynda Barry, but I will mention that book because if you haven’t read it, then oh wow, you’re in for a treat. I will always be grateful for the day years ago when T Kira Madden bought me a copy at Powell’s and said, “Read this right away.” I have since read it several times and will never get over it. It’s unlike anything else. The narrator, Roberta Rohbeson, is my hero. Lynda Barry super fan here.
5. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
I keep going back and re-reading the short stories in Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons. Her prose reads like the greats—Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, and Mary Gaitskill—but brings something all her own. This is one to study. I’m currently reading How Much of These Hills Are Gold by C. Pam Zhang and falling in love with her sentences and the sweeping family story. She is a tremendous writer. I’m also really excited for Real Life by Brandon Taylor and Imaginary Museums by Nicolette Polek.
“Maybe I’m so starved for writing time that when I finally have it, it feels like a huge outpouring. There is nothing more fun to me than writing, especially in the creation phase of something new.”
6. What advice do you have for young writers?
I find that with my students, there seems to be concern over how to log in the hours it takes to write. It’s a legitimate concern as most of us have busy schedule and jobs. There’s always something you can do instead of writing. The fact for most of us is, writing will likely have to occur alongside a whole lot of other obligations, and there’s not a way around this that I have found. Also, that’s okay because you are in control. We can’t control everything, but we can control more than we think. When I had my first child, I knew I would have to take charge of my time, or elseI would never write. It would be all too easy to do anything else.
I started small. Two hours a week, like an appointment. I think making too lofty of goals—I’m going to get up at 5am every morning and write for two hours every single day!—is a setup for failure. Start with: I’ll write for five minutes a day. I’ll write one sentence a day. I’ll go to the coffee shop, disable the internet, and write for two hours once a week. See where that goes. Ask yourself why you are writing in the first place. Get clear on why it’s paramount to you. And then don’t let anything get in the way of that, if you can. Saying no to lunch dates thing is real. I wrote most of my novel, stories, and essays in chunks during unpredictable nap times and then at night. I knew if I went out to dinner, I was losing two hours of writing time. It’s an exchange. Make sure that dinner is worth it. Don’t say yes to things that aren’t truly what you want to do. I love the slogan: If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.
And secondly: You of all people should love your own work. If you don’t, how can you expect anyone else to? I see many writers emit a sort of self-conscious repose when discussing their own work, or in workshop. I have never pretended to be someone who didn’t think much of their own work. That’s not to say I’m not open to criticism. I want and need that—what I mean is different. This is about a deep trust in your artistic instincts and a love for what you are reaching for.
I love reading my own writing, and I love the act of writing. I always have, long before I wrote anything that met the light of day. I write cackling at the screen. And why not? Why not have some swagger for your own art? There’s a lot of rejection along the way. Don’t reject yourself. YOU must love your work. There is nothing you can lose by doing this, and everything to gain. When you love your own work, there is meaning far greater than acceptance or rejection. There is a soul satisfaction going on—something that brings you back to the page time and again, chasing that high of the delight in art making, which for me is as close to high as I can get.
“When you love your own work, there is meaning far greater than acceptance or rejection. There is a soul satisfaction going on—something that brings you back to the page time and again, chasing that high of the delight in art making.”
7. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
I love this question because there are so many writers right now doing inventive, important work. I am dazzled again and again by the work of T Kira Madden—her memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, is a revolution. I had the luck of meeting Gabriela Garcia in 2018 when we both won a Rona Jaffe award, and she has a novel coming out that I cannot wait for, Of Women and Salt. Also, the poetry of Alison Rollins—who was a fellow Rona winner—is heart-stopping as well. There are so many, truly. It’s hard to keep track of. I constantly have the feeling of FOMO looking at all the listicles of what to read. I’m a big fan of the writing of Genevieve Hudson and her magical spin on queer love, and I’m really looking forward to Otessa Moshfegh’s new novel along with every single other person, and Stray by Stephanie Danler.
8. Why do you think people need stories?
I know that I need stories in order to move past my own understanding of the world and spend time in someone else’s. To find the ways I can re-see something or see for the first time. Stories are avenues we can and should take away from our own lives—only to be led back into them with greater compassion, understanding, and vigor. When I read things that pull at me, that startle me with how accurately they see something; whenI learn something new, there is a thrill and an expansion. It has been said a million times, but that is because it’s true: Stories save lives. As a child, reading stories alerted me to a world beyond my own and my own understanding. They said, “Hang on, there’s more coming”. I think stories give us hope and order and offer resilience. We all need that now more than ever. There is nothing truer to me than fictional stories; no better way to inhabit another experience, or to escape my own. We all need that escape sometimes. I need it every day in the form of books.
9. In Godshot, the people of Gifts of the Spirit Church receive secret“assignments” as part of coming-of-age. Where did this idea come from? Though different than how the device is used in the novel, do you think all people have assignments—callings, if you will? What would you list among yours?
To me, the idea of assignments in the book both unites the members of the church, while at the same time, it divides. I think this is central to the way this church—or cult—works, where there is a need to be uniform but also the uncontrollable human desire to be favored. Having the assignments be secret from one another added, I think, a layer of tension between members so that their primary servitude was not to the whole, but to a singular leader. It was a way for Vern to create intimacy with each member while enacting a larger plan. A way, perhaps to get the members to do things they might not have done otherwise, had it been one large group announcement. The idea of secrecy and intimacy is important to their group; it’s the disease that allows the maneuverings of this church to carry on and not be questioned.
I think as far as callings go, we are all bestowed with gifts that are unique to us, and leaning into those gifts rather than denying them probably creates a more meaningful existence. Personally, I have always felt called to express myself through writing. The basic instinct to write comes naturally to me. I have always heard the sound of characters’ voices and felt compelled to transcribe them. This transcription almost feels like a channeling of sorts—it’s my job to get their voices onto the page. I love to be surprised by them and the places they go. I don’t question too much where this impulse or where ideas for stories come from. I like that magic mystery.
“Stories are avenues we can and should take away from our own lives—only to be led back into them with greater compassion, understanding, and vigor.”
10. Your debut novel, Godshot, is told from the point of view of the sharp and observant 14-year-old Lacey May. Can you explain the choice to have her narrate the story and how it impacts, if at all, the reader’s perspective and understanding of the multiple female relationships that are central to the novel?
The very early fledgling first draft of what would become this novel was actually written from the mother’s perspective as an older woman looking back on her life and trying to reconcile her relationship with her estranged daughter (Lacey). I wrote it in several weeks and woke up one day with a clear understanding that I would need to start over, writing from the daughter’s perspective instead. It was her story to tell, I realized. Once I began to write in Lacey May’s voice, I knew it was right for the story. I think this is the story I had to tell before I could tell any other, but perhaps I was reluctant to. Perhaps I was scared it would be too real, but there was no other way. I also love writing from this age because there is the lovely natural tension of someone who is too young to be grappling with these things but has to anyway. The pain of watching someone morph and stretch to meet that ability is heartbreaking.
I also think this was an age for me in life that was all about survival and trying to interpret the adult world around me in order to find understanding to the pain I felt. I wanted my pain to mean something, to equal something greater than what it was. I think that’s why I loved stories and writing so early, and why I continued to feel compelled to create in this way. Something to do with the need for pain, longing, and unrequited love to have some physical embodiment, something to show for itself. I suppose that’s what this book is for me.
In terms of the multiple female relationships in the book, I think seeing these relationships form and deepen from this young perspective is intense because at this age, you are often experiencing so many firsts—first loss, first heartbreak, and first deep friendships. I loved something about that point of view being the lens through which we see the other women in the book, a lens that is deeply wise at times but still naively optimistic about how people might change. The highs and lows of that expectation, as it meets reality, is something that feels really charged to me, and interesting. It’s also something most people can relate to, I think—that age where everything feels so raw as the world charges at you, and you are starting to be seen as an adult. I also wanted Lacey to experience care and mothering in different ways beyond her own mother, to have her find that camaraderie in unexpected places with other women, and to have her ideas about what motherhood means expand and shift.
Chelsea Bieker is from California’s Central Valley. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Foundation Award and her fiction and essays have been published in Granta, McSweeney’s, Catapult magazine, Electric Literature, and Joyland, among others. She has been awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship, and holds an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University. Godshot is her first novel.