'Godshot' author Chelsea Bieker on mothers, daughters, resilience, and cults
Bieker's powerful debut novel is the perfect quarantine read.
Nationwide social distancing in response to the coronavirus pandemic has led to the frantic postponements and cancellations of countless film releases, concert tours, and fan events; a book, however, can shoot right through the uncertainty plaguing the cultural calendar.
Godshot, the debut novel from Chelsea Bieker, came out March 31 — a week early. “We just wanted to shake things up a little bit. We don’t really know what’s coming, and the sooner we can get the book in people’s hands, it just felt like, the better,” the author tells EW of the unexpected early release. “They were ready to go, so why not? It felt sort of like anything goes now. There’s really no order, so let’s just do whatever we want!”
In fictional Peaches, California, 14-year-old Lacey May lives with her alcoholic mother and belongs to a cult led by the charismatic Pastor Vern, who promises to bring rain back to the environmentally devastated town. A fierce believer, Lacey is eager to devote herself to her church, but when her mother abandons her at the height of Lacey’s vulnerability, the teenager’s faith — in everything — is tested. Guided by her own instincts (and a stash of her mother’s old romance novels), she embarks on a colorful journey that will reveal the truth of her community.
EW caught up with Bieker about the powerful novel, the unique circumstances of its release, and of course cults. Read on for her insight into Godshot, which is available now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m guessing this was not the climate in which you expected to release this book. How has that been?
Chelsea Bieker: I mean, it’s certainly not what I imagined. At the beginning of figuring out the tour, my main concern was really that I’d be leaving my kids for the first time for kind of an extended period. I was really focused on that and really mentally preparing for that, so this felt like kind of the opposite shock, where it was like, ‘well, just kidding, you actually will have no time away from your children, ever.’ So that was strange. I mean, it’s been really heartening to see the way that the literary community has rallied. I think everybody knows this is a less than ideal time to debut a novel, but I hope that there’s a silver lining just that people are turning inward and maybe more apt to actually sit down and read during this time.
At the heart is really this story of mothers and daughters. Why did that speak to you as the sort of soul of this book?
I mean, the answer is really personal where, growing up, my mother left when I was nine. So for the rest of my life, I kind of was dealing with this ambiguous loss, where I didn’t really know how to define the feelings I was feeling for a long time. As an adult, I recognized a lot of what I went through was grief, but I didn’t know to call it that at the time. Also, regardless of the situation, Lacey’s love for her mother almost intensifies as the book goes on. Lacey feels angry, of course; she feels a myriad of emotions around it that will only complicate as she ages, but the love never goes away, even when she wants it to. And that’s really my experience — my love for my mother never really wavered. So those were really important cornerstones for me to touch on.
Beyond the female relationships, it’s a sort of chronicle of womanhood in general. I mean, it starts with Lacey getting her period. What did you want to express about the female experience?
I think we watch Lacey go on a real journey from having absolutely no sex education in any helpful way, viewing her body as almost this property of their church, kind of only in terms of servitude, and then by the end, she is able to see herself in a much different way and see her sexuality in a different way. And a lot of that is through sort of this underground education and self-education. When Lacey’s experiencing things for the first time, it’s really mysterious, but it shouldn’t be. And I think that that’s actually a really common experience for women, even today, which is depressing, but I guess I just wanted to show the truth of that, and also the damage of what that does.
How did the cult setting serve those ideas?
I wanted to create a real claustrophobic situation for these characters that would heighten the tension, would really heighten their desperation for solution, for salvation, for some other reality. A part of the psychology of the cult is that, if they really believe that they’re truly special and different from the rest of the world, they are more willing to defy the logic and rules of the world. And having that isolation, it becomes clearer how something like that could really happen. We like to think that we wouldn’t be susceptible to some of this programming, but I think that at various points maybe anybody could be kind of looped in. Especially in these environmental times, where the land is dead. Everything around you is speaking to this sort of apocalyptic, almost religious insanity, and so it can make sense.
Did you do a lot of research about cults?
In the beginning I did. I was particularly interested in the Children of God cult, in the way that they used women to proselytize and pull in new converts; [in] their literature, they call it ‘flirty fishing,’ where the women would kind of go out and seduce men and bring them in into the faith. I was really intrigued by that, and horrified, and I think that that must have embedded in me in terms of then writing this and thinking about how a group like this might utilize women in those terms.
Why was the environmental disaster element so important?
Well I think when I consider the central valley of California, it’s impossible to have a story there that doesn’t in some way acknowledge the land. It’s an agricultural epicenter. It’s where so much of the world’s food comes from. And it’s also a place that is usually very droughted. And we have all these small farming communities going on but many of them are very impoverished and really suffering and don’t have water and don’t have the resources that they need. It’s also where I grew up and I was raised; after my mother left, I was raised by my grandparents, and I remember [my grandfather’s] obsession with the weather and his worry over the harvest and the crops — and that’s the way the farmers live. It’s a very difficult existence, and I wanted that to be a part of the book because I didn’t see how it couldn’t be. It’s just part of that place.
Why is this a good book to read while self-isolating?
For me personally, I feel really comforted by narratives that are showing someone go through sort of this dark night of the soul and coming out on the other side. I think we can learn from characters who are resilient and who are making their way through these sorts of things. I think it’s good to see that, and I think the book doesn’t really hedge away from the truth of difficulties, in the same way that our life circumstances don’t do that either. We can really choose to face those things head-on or not, and it’s personal for everyone, but I think it can be inspiring, in a way, to face the ugliness of truth and come out on the other side.
Godshot is available now.