Sheltering: Chelsea Bieker Found Joe Exotic Way Too Familiar
The Author of Godshot Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Chelsea Bieker speaks with Maris Kreizman about her new novel, Godshot, the story of a young girl growing up in a Central Valley town in the midst of a terrible drought that has everyone vulnerable to the charms of a charismatic cult leader. Bieker talks about the desperation in the book that mirrors our current-day reality, having to hide books from her newly-reading five-year-old daughter, and how “in another life [she] could have written the Tiger King novel.” Bieker’s local bookstore is Powell’s; please purchase Godshot through their website or from Bookshop.
From the episode
Transcription generously provided by Eliza M. Smith
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m so happy to be talking to the author of one of my favorite books of the year so far, and I’m only sad that we couldn’t meet in person. Welcome, Chelsea.
Chelsea Bieker: Hi, Maris. How are you?
Maris: Good. First of all, that background! Your Zoom background matches your book cover, which matches the inside of your book so well. Just, wow. Can you introduce yourself and tell us how you’re doing?
Chelsea: Sure, yeah. My name is Chelsea Bieker. My novel, Godshot, just came out on March 31st. It’s really been a strange time, right? For everyone. Trying to promote a book in the midst of this total crisis that our world is experiencing is a challenging situation, full of real highs and real lows, and the continuing of altering expectations around what I imagined it would be like to have a book come out versus the anxieties of what’s going on in our world. It’s a real mixed bag, but I am so grateful for the way the literary community has—it’s beautiful how they’ve banded together. People are really trying to find solutions. Meeting with you over Zoom is a great solution, and I’m grateful for that. I’m trying to look at the good parts right now.
Maris: I’m so happy to have you, but also, I keep telling authors, “It’s okay if you want to feel a little bad about this.” I mean, in the grand scheme of things it’s not the biggest problem, but that’s why we’re here. Tell me—tell us, because I’ve already read it—about Godshot.
Chelsea: This book takes place in this imagined, tiny town in the central valley of California. I kind of renamed a place there; I wanted more flexibility with creating it in the way that I wanted it to be for the book. But the Central Valley is obviously a real place, and that’s where I grew up. The novel takes place during the midst of this horrendous drought, and the characters are finding their own solutions, and in comes this cult-leader preacher who seems to have the answers. The book is really about this mother and daughter and their journey through that cult experience and beyond. It centers on this 14-year-old narrator, Lacey May, who’s grappling with this ambiguous loss of her mother through the book. She’s experiencing grief but doesn’t really have the language to call it that. There’s also the possibility of her mother’s return, so it’s a lot of highs and lows for her. She’s also going on a real journey toward discovering her own sexuality and her own education about her body and lots of things like that. There are different elements, but those are a few.
Maris: Again, not to be all, “Wow! Kind of like now!” But one of the things that really captured me about your book is the way that people make do when they’re deprived of something. The preacher does his baptism in soda because there’s no water, and so it’s sticky and gross, and that felt so visceral to me. And now people are making do in other ways.
Chelsea: Yeah, it’s so true. I think the people of Peaches, for all of their faults, they are really intensely looking for some reprieve to the heinous situation they’re in, however misguided that might be. And the mother’s actions are really out of desperation. I feel like in the book, everyone is pushed to the brink, and they start doing these things to make it better, but it’s making it worse. Hopefully that’s not what’s happening in our current world.
Maris: Who’s to say?
Chelsea: Who’s to say!
Maris: I also love that your gold glitter background is on the book cover, but it’s also such a central part of the book. I feel like I’ve never met in literature a cultish leader who goes to the drugstore and buys glitter and ridiculous everyday stuff to add to his pageantry.
Chelsea: Yeah, I think that the goal of Pastor Vern with these people—the whole idea is they’re special and they’re set apart, and that’s kind of the psychology behind how he gets them to do some of the things they do. If they feel chosen enough, they’re more willing to do these crazy things. They’re not of this world, they’re different. There are these physical manifestations of the spirit falling from the sky, all this glitter. It’s also a reach, when they’re in a place that’s so dead and so devastated, it’s a reach for something different. Some life, with some color. Something to bring a little—I don’t want to say hope, but some contrast to all of that devastation. You see that a lot in the book with the garish way people are dressing, and the adornments, and the way they want to be seen by God as these special, shiny tokens.
Maris: Pardon me if you have or haven’t seen it, because I have to note that while I was watching The Tiger King—
Chelsea: Yeah, I’ve seen it.
Maris: —I was thinking very much of Pastor Vern.
Chelsea: When I saw Joe Exotic for the first time, I felt like he had been plucked from deep within me. I was like, this is an amalgamation of all the men in this book. Especially visually, with the way he dresses and his sort of bravado. I feel like in another life I could’ve written The Tiger King novel in some way.
Maris: Maybe there’s still some joy to come then. Tell me a little bit—where are you now? What’s your local indie? How are you surviving?
Chelsea: I’m in Portland, Oregon. We’re trying our best to support—we’ve got Powell’s Books here, of course, and Broadway Books, and Annie Bloom’s. It’s such a great literary city, and people love books here. I have to believe that on the other side of this, those bookstores will still be here.
Maris: God, I hope so.
Chelsea: I really, really hope so.
Maris: And tell me about, how big was your tour going to be?
Chelsea: Well, for me it felt really big. I think by most standards it was probably not that big, but I have two little kids at home, and it was going to be the first time I was going to leave them, ever. All of my worry and anxiety was really plugged into this idea that I was going to leave them, and then all this happened and I’m like, oh, I’d give anything to leave them now.
Maris: How has homeschooling been?
Chelsea: Well, my son is 1½ and my daughter is 5½, so she would probably thrive with more of a routine and some more instruction from me, but it feels almost impossible when we have this tornado of a 1-year-old running through whatever we’re doing. It’s kind of been crazy. We’re just living day to day right now. I can’t say I’ve done a lot of focused homeschool, but my daughter can read. She can pick up any book and really read it, which is kind of scary now because she can pick up any adult book and read it, and she’s like what does this mean? And I’m like, okay, it’s time to hide things. She’s a real self-learner, a real go-getter. She’s been doing her workbooks.
Maris: What kind of book does she like?
Chelsea: She is loving the Owl Diaries right now, it’s a cute series. She’s into these early chapter books. Her ability to read has really sprung forth in the last few months; it’s like overnight suddenly, it just clicked. It’s been so cool to watch. She’s loving it. But she picked up a parenting book the other day and was reading aloud passages, and was like, “I don’t know if I agree with that, actually.” She was like, “This is how you’re supposed to talk to me, Mom.” She’s a little ahead of her time, I think. But she’s amazing, and I hope we hit a stride because I’m pretty sure school’s not going to come back for a long time. We’ll see. It’s really hard, actually.
Maris: I can only imagine. What have you been doing? And again, it doesn’t have to be anything big. Have you been watching TV? Have you been reading some? Have you been staring at the walls? Running after your 1-year-old?
Chelsea: The funny thing is, I worked from home before. I teach online, writing classes, so I was already in this routine of working whenever the baby was napping and she would be at school. It was always a scramble to find little moments to squeeze in work or my own writing or reading. Now it’s much harder just because having my daughter home all day, she just wants engagement and she wants to interact. It’s felt really difficult to be like, “hold on hold on hold on hold on.” I know she’s feeling really pushed off, and she’s extremely social and really extroverted, so I know she’s missing that interaction with her peers, naturally. It feels like it’s what we experience during summer vacation when she’s home all the time, but with no outlet.
Maris: No break.
Chelsea: No playdates or no places we can go. I’ve realized things that bring me so much comfort, like going to the grocery store and just putting the baby in the cart and taking some laps. Simple things like that, for my life—I don’t know about other mothers—that kind of stuff normalizes a day, and your little interactions with other adults are important. Not having those is really crazy making for me. I know other parents are experiencing this. It’s really jarring. My brain wants an ending. My brain is really desperate for when it will end, and since we just don’t know that, I’m trying to stay in this day-to-day mentality, where every day’s like Groundhog Day. It’s over, and here we go.
Maris: And compared to other outcomes that’s good, because at least having it the same level of—anyhow, wow. I’m really bringing it down. Chelsea, was there a question you were hoping to be asked on your book tour, by a member of an audience, at a bookstore, that I could ask you now?
Chelsea: Well, let’s see. I think something I’ve been thinking about a lot, almost after having written the whole book and just looking over it and hearing other people’s responses to it, is a lot about my own experience growing up and not having any sex education. I don’t know what your experience was, but I don’t remember any real sex education around pregnancy prevention or anything like that, or even the phases of your menstrual cycle, things that would be useful to know as an adult, and things I had to teach myself. In the book, we see Lacey May really grasping at education around pregnancy, birth. She kind of runs into these other women who are more tuned into their bodies, and they guide her. She’s really hungry for that information, and I think I was too, growing up, but didn’t know where to get it. There was a lot of messaging around abstinence. Even getting a period was this weird thing, the way I grew up. And how opposite I want to teach my daughter, and how I see that Lacey comes out on the other side with a different idea about her body, or at least the message that her education may continue past this really patriarchal view of women’s’ bodies and what they’re used for. I don’t know if that answers your question, it’s just something I’ve been thinking a lot about. And how absurd it is. I was thinking the other day how in high school, we dissected little baby pigs—or no, little kittens or something.
Chelsea: Yeah, or something. It was horrible. It was horrible. That was fine, but talking about how to prevent pregnancy was not fine, or was not happening. That, as an adult now, is just so bizarre to me. I don’t know how it was for other people growing up.
Maris: Did you go to a religious school?
Chelsea: No, just a public school in a pretty conservative town. It was just not a focus at all. And how harmful that ultimately is. When I wrote this book, especially in the beginning, I was watching a lot of YouTube videos of real young teenagers who are pregnant doing these YouTube dairies, documenting their pregnancy. I did a real deep dive into these, and how earnest they were, and how hopeful they were. Shocked by some of the maturity in these 13- and 14-year-old girls, showing their bellies off. They’re trying to make it this happy thing. Also, sharing their heartbreaks and their sadnesses. It’s so vulnerable, and I don’t want to say I loved watching those—they broke my heart—but that was something I was tuning in a lot. Even watching them, it seeming like they were finding their own way to figure out what was going on—this intuitive reaching that women do, even in the midst of absolutely no support and no education. I think that’s what’s going on in the book a little bit.
Maris: Well, thank you so much this was such a pleasure.
Chelsea: Thank you!
Maris: I’m going to hold up your book. It’s going to just be gold glitter everywhere! Thank you so much.