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'Godshot' Author Explains How Fiction Helps Us Face Real-World Adversity

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.

Interview Highlights

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.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.