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.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The $2 trillion economic relief legislation enacted last month is a virtually unprecedented government intervention into the U.S. economy. One especially notable feature - taxpayer dollars will go directly to financially troubled churches and other religious organizations. That provision raises the question of whether the separation of church and state has been weakened.
Well, joining me now is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Hey there, Tom.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Hey. So what exactly are we talking about here? How exactly will the stimulus bill aid churches?
GJELTEN: So it includes about $350 billion for the Small Business Administration to provide loans for small businesses, mainly to help them meet their payroll and pay their utility bills. And what's new is that nonprofit organizations, including churches and other religious organizations, under the legislation are actually treated as businesses. So the federal government will be able to extend these loans to churches, mainly to help them pay pastors' salaries. And some of that loan money can actually be forgiven. They won't have to pay it back.
KELLY: And how did this get in there, Tom - the government money going to churches?
GJELTEN: Well, keep in mind that churches have been really hard-hit with this coronavirus shutdown - so many of them closing. And smaller ones in particular depend on weekly offerings for their revenue. Big churches have moved more to online giving, but some small churches are actually facing bankruptcy. And this came up on a call that Vice President Pence had with pastors recently. He told them the administration's very concerned about the economic impact this is having on churches. And when Treasury Secretary Mnuchin announced this program last week, he made clear the idea of giving money to churches came straight from the White House.
KELLY: Still, though, I called this virtually unprecedented in the intro. A government paying pastors' salaries - I mean, I can't think of anything like this before.
GJELTEN: There isn't anything like this. Now, the federal government actually - at least under this administration - has made some moves toward giving money to churches. For example, two years ago, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, changed its rules to allow churches to get grants to help them rebuild after natural disasters.
But as far as the SBA is concerned, this is totally new in two different ways. First of all, the SBA has always given money only to for-profit institutions, not nonprofits. And even where for-profit businesses are concerned, any religiously oriented business was not eligible. So this is new. And not surprisingly, it's causing some people to say the First Amendment to the Constitution is in jeopardy. That's the part that says that Congress can't establish a religion.
KELLY: Right. And to the concerns we mentioned about separation of church and state...
KELLY: ...Where does this go? Will there be a constitutional fight?
GJELTEN: You know, I raised that question with a law professor I know, John Inazu. He teaches religion law at Washington University Law School. He said you have to consider this in the context of what the Supreme Court has already been ruling in this area.
JOHN INAZU: In the last 15 years, the court has moved increasingly in a permissive direction of government funding of religious institutions. We've seen past eras where the arrangement has been different. There's an increased willingness by the court to allow for direct funding of religious entities.
GJELTEN: So - and this is just one more move in that direction, Mary Louise. But whether there'll be a court case around this program is not clear because to challenge it, somebody would have to show they have legal standing, to show they'd be injured by it. And that can be hard to demonstrate.
KELLY: All right. Thank you, Tom.
GJELTEN: You bet.
KELLY: NPR's Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.