“I want to hear the really ugly parts, too”

Godshot BY Chelsea Bieker. New York: Catapult. 336 pages. $26.
Chelsea Bieker. Photo: Jessica Keaveny

Chelsea Bieker grew up in California’s Central Valley, where agriculture and survival are intertwined, a landscape that leaves its mark on her debut novel, Godshot. Fourteen-year-old Lacey May lives with her mother in the fictional town of Peaches, California. The grape-growing industry, the town’s main employer, has been ravaged by drought. Enter Pastor Vern, a glitter-loving cult leader who exploits this desperation by promising that God will bring rain if the townspeople join his church, Gifts of the Spirit. Almost all the residents of Peaches are drawn in to the group, including Lacey and her family. But to bring fertility back to the valley, Pastor Vern requires his followers to take on increasingly disturbing tasks. Shortly after Vern begins handing out these twisted missions, Lacey’s mother, a recovering alcoholic, relapses. As a result, she is banished from the church and disappears. Lacey is left to live with her grandmother, Cherry, who hoards taxidermied mice and lost her own mother when she was young. As Lacey begins to realize the nefarious nature of the cult, she embarks on a long search for her mother. Bookforum spoke with Bieker about climate-change fiction, mystery, and the natural-birth pioneer Ina May Gaskin.

The idea of spiritual mystery is a major theme of Godshot. What, for you, is the connection between mystery, spirituality, and storytelling?

My first experience of spirituality was in a traditional church setting. I’m not speaking for the church as a whole, just my experience, but there was an emphasis on the idea that we would never know everything. There was almost something lauded or celebrated about leaning into not knowing and being OK with that. The more you could lean into this idea of mystery and spirituality as this undefinable thing, the more faith you had. I think there can be comfort in that.

But the mystery can become abusive. There’s a part in the book where Lacey and her mom are in the car and they’re talking about global warming and Lacey thinks that curiosity is “the first rung on the ladder down to hell.” It’s easier to not ask those difficult questions in order to maintain your world as you understand it. There’s so much danger in that.

Climate change is another main theme of your novel, one that seems to permeate every aspect of the story while rarely being discussed directly. How does the climate crisis influence your work?

Climate change is unavoidable, especially when writing about the Central Valley region of California, which is so dependent on agriculture. The weather is like religion there. My grandfather was a farmer, and, growing up, I remember him being so attuned to the land. Even after retiring and not having his whole life depend on the harvest, he was still so superstitious and always wondering about the weather—whether it would rain, or if there would be frost. The land required such a fine balance of the elements. There’s a lot of mystery and faith wrapped up in that. And yet, it’s interesting to see how the very real evidence of climate change is often denied in regions that depend on agricultural production.

Droughts became an important part of the book because it’s a really terrifying thing for farming. Writing about this region without discussing it would not have felt right to me. It’s either the celebration of getting a good rain that year or the destitution of not, and always the fear of what’s to come. I really wanted that tension with the land to be there.

Your book includes an epigraph from Ina May Gaskin, a midwife, cofounder of the Farm commune in the 1970s, and a leader in the natural-birth movement. Gaskin’s work, as well as your novel, highlight the blurry lines between cults, religion, communes, and shared identities. What do you think is so seductive about these kinds of communities?

I think there’s lots of existing formations of community in our society that function similarly to cults, because—at least in the beginning—cults can actually feel really great. We have a desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and we have a desperate need to feel like we know “the truth.” When you have a leader that’s saying, “This is the way and the truth and we’ve discovered it, we’re special,” it taps into those desires.

There are other groups that can find themselves acting in cult-like ways. When I was pregnant with my daughter, about six years ago, I found this whole world of mommy blogs that I never knew existed, which could be called the cult of motherhood. That’s how I discovered Gaskin. It was very profound for me to read her book, Guide to Childbirth, because I had never heard anyone talk about birth in any other way than, “It hurts like hell and it’s really chaotic and awful, but then it’s all worth it in the end.” Reading this totally different take on it—these women are having orgasms while they’re birthing. You could find women birthing by the river, birthing smiling, ecstatic, painless. They describe it as a pressure and not as pain. So reading this while pregnant, I’m like, “I want that. I don’t want to be cut open on a doctor’s table.” Who doesn’t want to birth painlessly in this lavender-scented room with a woman of wisdom? Her work was really empowering because she says that what Western medicine is telling you about your body is wrong, and that you should listen to your intuition and that you are powerful and strong. Even if her ideas can be problematic for some women, she was revolutionary because she tapped into something that wasn’t really being talked about and something that women wanted, which was more options and the ability to be heard—the opportunity to be believed in and go at their own pace.

Although the novel tells quite a sad story, it’s also very funny at times. Why it was important to you to add humor to the book?

To put it simply, a lot of bad shit is happening and that can feel really heavy and it’s a lot to take in. There’s a lot of traumatic things happening to this young girl. It’s very bleak. I wanted to write that difficult story, but also understand that there must be a balance between that bleakness, that hopelessness, and something else.

In my family, we use dark humor to cope. I’ve always had that in me. Even though despair is not funny, the circumstances surrounding it can be painfully funny—and that offers a little relief.

You’ve said that to write a successfully engaging story, a writer needs to put their characters into uncomfortable positions that they might otherwise avoid. What were you avoiding when you were writing Godshot?

If I had to point to one scene that felt the most daunting to me, it was reuniting Lacey with her mother. I knew that that would be a difficult scene to write without skirting around the emotional fallout Lacey would experience. It was super hard to actually get there, to find her mother and get them in the same room. I definitely spent a lot of time on that.

In general, I can sense those moments coming up as I’m writing. When I feel myself wanting to take a turn, when I think, “Well, maybe the character can just stare out the window and imagine what had happened, but not actually have to go there.” As soon as I feel that, I know that’s me shying away from the truth of this story. It’s a sign that I should write the more difficult scene. That’s the moment where I like to press a little harder.

Who do you think are writers who do that well?

I’m reading How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang. I was so struck by the first image of that book, where these siblings are transporting their father’s corpse through this untamed land—the writing is so graceful that you barely even register this awful thing that they’re having to do. But it’s so unrelenting.

The stories in Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons also don’t shy away from difficult spaces. I like feeling like I’m getting almost too much information. I don’t want to feel that something is being held back. I want to hear the full story. I want to hear the really ugly parts, too.

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic whose work appears in the Seattle Times, Electric Literature, LARB, Literary Hub, Buzzfeed News, The Believer, and Bookforum, among other outlets. She can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote, Instagram @readrunsea, and on her website,