In ‘Heartbroke,’ Chelsea Bieker Conjures Empathy in Unforgivable Circumstances

Chelsea Bieker writes as if sorting through old photographs; she knows the images well, but the scenes where they take place are stretched and warped by memory. She deploys this curiosity to fascinating results in her new short story collection Heartbroke, which, similar to her excellent debut novel Godshot, plants its protagonists in California’s Central Valley, where Bieker herself spent a frequently chaotic childhood. The sun-baked raisin farms, tiny churches, and shimmering highways seem to glint under the influence of Bieker’s astute prose, but its the characters themselves—often men and women in crisis, their children tossed inadvertently into the fallout—who confound and allure. They are bartenders and cowboys and phone-sex operators, alcoholics and domestic abuse survivors and drug addicts, each with a distinctive voice tied to their story. Frequently these characters are mothers, or otherwise children reeling in the wake of their neglectful, “unfit,” or traumatized mothers’ choices.

These are not happy fables; they are grim and hellish and heavy, but that doesn’t mean they’re without beauty. Bieker writes to make sense of her characters’ worst inclinations, to conjure empathy even for unforgivable choices. That’s no easy task for an author to attempt, especially one who is pouring snapshots of her own history onto the page. But Bieker pulls it off in both of her haunting works. Somehow, in all its depravity, her Central Valley hums with life. Below, the author discusses her approach to storytelling, why she favors unsympathetic protagonists, and her love and disdain for her former home.

How would you describe your relationship to the Central Valley now?

I think about the Central Valley in the same way I would think about a lot of the characters in my work: There is always this deep undercurrent of love and affection and compassion for a difficult place. For a difficult person. The Central Valley is a place where I experienced a lot of really difficult things and a lot of trauma. So going back there as an adult, it’s really complicated for me. It’s such a visceral place. It’s so hot. The air is so dense. Emotionally, when I’m there, it’s hard. I don’t love it. But yet I do have a love for it, if that makes sense.

Given the memories you have of this place—and the complicated emotions surrounding them—how much of yourself did you need to separate from the work?

I love that question. For me, I remember reading a quote from Ann Patchett. She quotes her mother saying about their life: “None of it happened, and all of it was true.” And when I read that, I was like, Oh. None of this may have literally happened, but all of it is somehow true to me. So while I never became a traveling bank robber, like in one of the stories—I know it’s such a disappointment I didn’t do that.

But there’s something about that character that I really relate to, that feels true to an experience I had as a child with a caregiver. A lot of these stories really do stem from my earlier life. I feel like I can tell, especially this far removed from the writing of them, that I was really circling some big questions that I had about my own life. I was really circling some of the fears I had as a child of what could happen—or what was on the brink of happening.

Why choose to keep Heartbroke in the same fictional universe as Godshot? And even to bring back some of the same characters?

I wrote them at the same time. I actually started writing Heartbroke before I ever wrote Godshot. And often in the writing of Godshot, if I would just need space from it, I would go write a short story. Short stories were always my first love. I feel [the form] lends itself so well to explore these heightened voices that may not be easy to sustain for 300 pages, but are perfect for 20 pages. It was sort of this fun way for me to feel like the two books were holding hands a little bit.


Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker

You said earlier that a lot of your fiction is about answering questions for yourself, about yourself. If this isn’t too intrusive, what questions did Heartbroke answer for you—or begin to answer for you?

I think when you’re growing up in an alcoholic home, there’s so much of the truth that gets skewed. There’s so much of your experience that you’re told isn’t really true, and that feels really disorienting. So I think I did have the impulse to get things down so that I could see them, so that I could explore them for myself.

So much of my early life—and definitely work in therapy—was all about, How could certain people have done what they did? It was really hard for me to settle on any answer for that. It felt unknowable. It felt unreachable and really heartbreaking, because there are these people you love, but they’re doing things that you just cannot seem to make sense of.

In fiction, I guess, I was able to make my own sense of it. I don’t know if that would be evident to a reader, but it’s like, for me, when I look at the stories, I can see that I was maybe curious about why my mom did X, Y, or Z. And then there’s a story that goes with that question. By the end, it’s like…I don’t know that I really came to answers, but I came to some sort of expanded compassion for the people in my life, through writing. It’s not necessarily totally cathartic, but it offers…I don’t know. It feels like a brain massage for me.

So it was a really intentional choice to pick protagonists who aren’t necessarily sympathetic characters—or common narrators in fiction.

Yeah, definitely. Going back to that idea of early childhood feeling like a carnival fun house of alcoholic adventure. Later, when I came out of that and was living with my grandparents in a pretty normal life in the suburbs, it was black and white from where I had been. What I remembered and the characters and stories from that “before” life, I felt like, Could these have happened? They just seemed so improbable and so extreme, but they were really real. But I couldn’t seem to place them in this new, more structured life.

In my writing, I’m going back to some of those places and tapping into those different characters that maybe now exist as a wisp of a memory or a story I was once told that sounded so larger than life, but actually I would come to find out really happened.

Your books are beautiful; there’s no question of that. But they’re also about the beauty in ugliness, or beauty found in spite of ugliness. Most of your stories are written from a primarily female perspective, and the female experience is so often about uncovering beauty in ugliness. There’s a naïveté to that, but a courage, too. Why is the intersection of beauty and ugliness a theme that fascinates—and perhaps vexes—you so?

The first word I thought of when you were talking was just “survival.” The simple need to survive your circumstances. Often that is, like, finding those little moments of beauty. I think a lot about how desire continues to exist in unimaginable circumstances. It’s like, How is there room for that, too? But yet there is.

I think a lot of the characters in Heartbroke, especially, are… they’re grasping for a way out. Often it’s the choice between a bad choice and another bad choice. So it’s like, What’s the least bad choice to make? And so I’m curious what happens in between those two bad choices. Often, what the characters have access to, for whatever reason, offers them a limited scope. As a reader, we’re gritting our teeth.

But, for them, it’s like, that’s the best there is in this moment. I feel always so curious what people will do in moments of desperation. I think of that so much in the story “Women and Children First,” where it’s about this woman who steals another addict’s baby from a shelter and runs off with it. On paper, that’s an awful thing to do. That sounds totally insane. But the story is all about understanding why she would do something like that. By the end of it, we don’t feel that it was really that crazy that she would want to do that. We understand the desire behind it. And I guess…I’m more concerned with the desire behind a certain action than the action itself.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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