Chelsea Bieker, HEARTBROKE

Chelsea Bieker, HEARTBROKE

Author of Godshot Chelsea Bieker joins Zibby to talk about her latest book, Heartbroke, which is a collection of short stories all set in California’s Central Valley where she grew up. The two discuss one story, in particular, that was partially inspired by Chelsea’s tumultuous childhood and troubled relationship with her mother. She also shares how she’s been working on these stories for nearly a decade as she procrastinated other work, what her writing process looks like after having two children of her own, and the new novel she’s working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Chelsea. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Heartbroke.

Chelsea Bieker: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s such an honor to be here. I love your podcast. I’m just so inspired by all the things you do and how you’re lifting up authors. It’s a joy.

Zibby: That’s really nice. Thank you. I have to tell you that I was putting my son to bed the other night when I was reading your book, right when I had started your book a few nights ago. Sometimes he asks me to read him what I’m about to read. Usually, I read to him. I put him to bed. Then I sit by the side of his bed, and I read. This time, he was like, “Read me your book.” I was like, “Okay.” I was like, oh, no, this was not the book I should be reading aloud. Next thing you know, I’m skipping all these words. Oh, my gosh, it was not the right book to do that, but it was delightful to read out loud.

Chelsea: I’m shaking my head no. That’s not the book for bedtime.

Zibby: Not the book. Not the book for bedtime. Although, he did fall right asleep. I don’t know what that says. Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about what Heartbroke is about?

Chelsea: This is a collection of stories. They all take place in California’s Central Valley. That’s the place that I grew up, mostly. It’s really a place that I’ve returned to a lot in my fiction writing. I think that when people think about California, they are not thinking about the Central Valley. It’s such an interesting place. It’s a unique place. It’s also where so much of the world’s food comes from. Mostly, people are like, yeah, I’ve passed through there on the 99 on my way to LA. It’s seen as this one-cow town that’s just there.

Zibby: What towns, from what to what, is the Central Valley?

Chelsea: I grew up in Fresno, which is really the center of it. It’s almost directly in the middle of California. Then I always imagine Sacramento being this northern point of it, all the way down to Bakersfield, so that swath right in the middle. A lot of the stories are set there, most of them actually. I’ve tweaked it a little bit where they’re kind of adjacent. I’ll use fictional names for towns. I really wanted the freedom to use that as my base and then make it my own. I did a similar thing with my novel, Godshot, which came out in 2020. They kind of exist in the same world. These stories, I wrote at the same time as my novel. There’s even some overlapping characters. There’s a lot of similar themes. Sometimes I would take a break from writing my novel, and I would write a story because stories began to feel like this great escape for me. Stories are really my first love and what I started writing originally. This book tracks the last ten or eleven years of my writing. A lot of these, I started so long ago. It’s been interesting to walk with them over the last decade and do one final revision last year and just see — a lot of it was like, whoa, where did I think of that? You change so much in that time. I would say a lot of the stories really center around this broken child-parent relationship. We’re hearing a lot from mothers and fathers and also from children. I would say the connecting sinew is really what happens when the bonds of those relationships are broken and tested. It’s hard to say what the book is about because each story’s about its own thing, but I think that’s what is uniting a lot of these pieces together.

Zibby: Basically, this is the product of your procrastination from writing novels. This is what you did on the side.

Chelsea: Yeah. I finished my novel. I was like, hey, wait, there’s actually this second book, too, that I love just as much and feels just as close to me. That was cool.

Zibby: That must have been very good news for your agent. You’re like, I also have this one just sitting here. How lovely. By the way, I love the cover of this and also of Godshot. Who is your cover designer? Do you know who it is?

Chelsea: Yes, she’s awesome. Her name’s Nicole Caputo. She does a lot of the Catapult covers. She does covers for other houses too. She really just had an immediate vision for both of the books. I immediately was like, yes. There really was no dancing around tweaks or different covers. It was only really after the fact of us confirming the covers that I would see what the other options had been. She got it right on the first try. I love the covers too. I think she had a real way of pinpointing a tiny, tiny detail in the book and blowing it up in a way that is surprising but also works. Thanks for saying that.

Zibby: That’s funny. I love it, maybe because I used to eat these candy things, candy necklaces constantly as a child and all of that. The first story at least, “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Miners,” this story, it’s dark. It’s hard. It’s very sad, about a miner and a relationship and how an injury really affects the relationship. That’s something that I feel like is super relatable and applicable to so many situations. Even something as simple as a knee injury or something today, it changes the dynamic. Everything that happens to each person in this unit really can throw off the whole thing, in a way. Talk to me about that and how it takes so little, almost, for a relationship to be stressed in this way and how to repair it, or maybe not possible.

Chelsea: This story, I was really wanting to examine — the narrator has grown up under her parents who had this abusive, controlling relationship. She’s feels like because she’s seen this and knows what it’s about, she won’t fall in the same trap. Then she kind of finds herself in the same trap. The shiny veneer of the relationship is sabotaged by this injury. That marks this moment where this miner that she’s with, his true personality, his true addiction, all of that darkness is able to really come out because he’s been couch-ridden. Everything’s taken away. He relies on her in this extreme way. It highlights what was always probably wrong in the relationship that she just wasn’t quite seeing. We watch her journey through this — often, as it is in abusive relationships, it is this journey of reckoning with the truth that you really don’t want to look at. I wanted to examine that up close with this story. It was just such a pattern that I would watch my own mother go through again and again with men. As a child watching that, you’re like, do you never learn? We know logically, the warning signs. We know the red flags. Then when you’re in it, something else takes over. It is this whole psychological thing that you could talk about for hours. From the child’s perspective or the young woman’s perspective, it’s more black and white. You’re just like, you’re stupid if you fall into that trap. I’ll never do that. Then she finds herself right there. I wanted to look at that in this story.

Zibby: I’m sorry your mom went through that and that you’re the child of this situation. Have you had moments where you had to fight against that in terms of your own choices of partner? Has it come up? Have you just examined it to death and now it’s not even a fly on the horizon or whatever?

Chelsea: It’s really funny because people always say you marry your father. I was actually raised by, primarily, my grandparents from age nine to seventeen. I definitely did not marry my father. My husband is so different from my dad. He’s different from this stereotype of the abusive man or any of the controlling. I definitely went in this other direction. Then lately, I’ve been like, I think, actually, I married my grandmother. I still kind of did that, but not the way that you would think. I continue to think about the domestic violence that I grew up around because I’ve really seen the ways in my adult life, the way that that trauma and that violence doesn’t just die out because it’s over. I’m still affected by it. I may not be affected by it in this present relationship, but it’s still sort of there. I think that’s how trauma works. It’s that daily work of unpacking that and processing that. I think a lot of this book is my subconscious doing a lot of work around those bigger questions.

Zibby: We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want. Although, you said you could talk about it for hours, so let’s just give it two minutes.

Chelsea: Totally. I’m happy to talk about it.

Zibby: What happened between ages zero and nine? Then when did you end up living with your grandparents? How much were you privy to? How much do you remember? All of that.

Chelsea: From about zero to six, I lived in Hawaii with both parents. There were some times where we would come back to Fresno and leave my dad and then return. There was some back-and-forth. Primarily, those were the solid years where my parents were still trying to coinhabit. Then when I was six, my mom and I moved to Fresno and lived alone from six to nine. Those were some really dark years because she was very addicted to alcohol and drugs. She was alone. It was not good. Eventually, I was taken away and placed with my grandparents when she left. Then they raised me. My grandfather had lived in Fresno for most of his life. He founded the agriculture department at Fresno State. I always think about how they really did save me from a lot more trauma that I would have accrued if I had stayed with my mom. My mom leaving is still this greatest heartbreak of my life. It’s something that’s always there. It’s super difficult, especially when raising your own kids. As my daughter gets older, she’s reaching the ages that I was when so many of those things were happening. It’s almost like I resee it. You’re like, oh, my god, I can’t believe that was going on in my life at her age. She’s almost eight. You almost have to rewrap your head around it. That’s why therapists exist. I think that’s also why I’ve always been drawn to writing. You’re asking me, how much do I remember? I think the truth was always skewed. People were always there to tell you, well, that didn’t really happen. It wasn’t that bad. From a young age, I just felt like I needed to write things down to make sense of them. I needed to see them on paper to see what was true. That was really a driver from a super young age.

Zibby: They should really just pair you with a therapist when you get an MFA or submit an article or an essay. It should be a required part.

Chelsea: One hundred percent.

Zibby: Everybody’s got stuff that needs to be worked through. Although, maybe not because maybe then the literature wouldn’t be as good. I take it back.

Chelsea: You never know.

Zibby: You never know. You could do a before-and-after experimental control group or something. That is really, really hard. I’m sorry that that happened. Are you in touch with your mom? Yes?

Chelsea: I am. We’ve had a phone relationship, mostly. I’ve only seen her a couple times since I was nine. She lives in New Mexico. As she gets older, it’s evermore heartbreaking to watch, what does late-stage alcoholism look like? I can tell you it’s really ugly. People have a stereotype of the alcoholic. In my mind, I was always like, well, some of those are correct, but then some don’t even begin to touch it. It is really hard. I have to be boundaried, especially through the pandemic and going through the stress. My dad died. Everything just seemed to hit in those two years. Everyone’s had a really hard time. Then it’s compounded by loss and grief and all these different things. I’ve had to really practice and learn just how much I can handle energetically with her and, really, how powerless I am with her choices. That’s been the great lesson of especially my early twenties when I really wanted to save her. I was willing to go on this road trip to New Mexico and do this intervention and do all these big gestures thinking that it would be the only way I could sleep at night or feel guilt-free, if I had just done everything I could. I do feel like, in some way, I’ve done everything I could. No matter what, you’re still going to feel bad about it, so might as well protect yourself at this point. It’s about boundaries. On her good days, my mom is so funny. She’s such a storyteller. Actually, the story you mentioned, the miner story, was totally inspired by her and a college essay that she wrote that I found in our storage unit. She was such a good writer. She had many talents. I try really hard to look at those good parts of her when I can because there were many. Her life, it’s a sad life.

Zibby: What do you tell your daughter?

Chelsea: She’s never met my daughter. I will buy Christmas presents on behalf of my mom, things like that. My daughter has maybe a vague idea that a grandmother exists somewhere in the distance. She hasn’t asked too many questions. I’m kind of waiting for the questions to roll in. I’ll tell her little anecdotes here and there when it seems fitting. I really wanted to not put too much of it on her. She did see me reading this Al-Anon day-by-day book the other day. She was like, “I’m going to read it too.” She read it. She’s like, “I don’t really get what they’re saying.” I was like, “It’s kind of written for people who –” I tried to explain addiction. She just looked at me blankly and was like, “Whatever,” and walked away. I’m like, oh, that’s so wonderful that you don’t even register what this means. Already at your age, I’d been to thousands of AA meetings crawling under everyone’s chairs. It’s cool, on one hand, that she isn’t tuned into it. That was the whole point of me having kids and having a better life. At the same time, I know there will come a day where I’ll tell her more of the story and more of her family lineage.

Zibby: Have you thought about writing a memoir?

Chelsea: Oh, yes. I’ve thought about it. I don’t feel ready yet. I’ve written some essays that have been — it’s been really amazing, the feedback I’ve gotten from the essays that I’ve written. People just respond so much to those real stories. So many people would write, oh, my god, I grew up like this too. That really felt like, oh, okay, maybe there would be a time where I would want to write a book about this. Right now, fiction feels like the way that I can explore some of these things in a way that feels more free for me at this time, but you never know. Maybe I just need a little more time to process some things first.

Zibby: There’s no rush.

Chelsea: There’s no rush. I have a lot of friends who write memoir. I’m like, that looks hard. All writing is hard, but a memoir is its own particular thing. It’s very vulnerable.

Zibby: I feel like fiction is much harder. I’ve tried to do both. I start trying to write fiction. I’m like, all right, who can I dress up but is really an actual person that I can now disguise? Conjuring up completely false people, or not false, but just making a person out of nothing, I’m not good at that. That’s a real gift. People are like, oh, yeah, I know what she eats for breakfast. I’m like, how? How do you know that? How do you know this much about a person who doesn’t exist? But it’s true. Then you read novels, and you get to know them just as well. Then I feel like they’re real people. It’s a gift. All I’m saying is I feel like that is a true gift. I shouldn’t say that. Now I’m denigrating memoirists. I’m including myself in this category. There are beautiful memoirs. Let me get myself out of this hole. All I’m saying is, for me, fiction seems harder. End of story.

Chelsea: I totally understand. There’s something for me that feels scary or entrapping with the details already set. With a memoir, the story is set. What happens has happened. It’s already there. I think some people are comforted by that and can really work with that structure. Then maybe someone like me is like, that feels really confining. I actually want to be able to change the names of towns and blend two people into one. That feels more comforting to me. Many people do both. There is that inherent difference.

Zibby: Interesting. This is probably why I haven’t built a house from scratch. That’s so overwhelming to me. I would much prefer to take a house and make little tweaks and decorate. What else are you working on now? Anything else you have stored up to delight your agents with?

Chelsea: I am working on a new novel. It’s pretty different than these last two books. It has an adult narrator perspective versus a more adolescent perspective. It’s all about motherhood. It’s sort of looping back to how we started the interview. It’s a lot about, what does it mean to mother your own children with this haunting past behind you? What are the effects of that? Most of the effects of that are not seen day to day. You just see this mother in the grocery store. She looks like a normal mother, whatever. What’s behind that? What’s informing a lot of that? It’s really inspired by — after I weaned my daughter from breastfeeding when she was two, I had weaning-induced anxiety and depression, which I didn’t even know could happen. I hadn’t really had traditional postpartum depression. It really hit me unexpected. I was like, what is going on? Then come to find out, it’s a semi-common thing that happens. I was like, I really want to write about that too. It’s a lot about that experience of motherhood, all the things that nobody tells us, and then this character who’s really dealing with some extreme past secrets. There’s kind of a twist in there. It’s been a really fun book to write. I’m still in the midst of writing it. I can’t wait.

Zibby: It sounds amazing. Is this where you write, where you’re doing this now? This is your desk?

Chelsea: It is. I’ve got this little corner in here. We moved into this house in July, so still kind of figuring things out.

Zibby: Where are you in the world? Are you still in California?

Chelsea: No, I’m in Portland, Oregon.

Zibby: Nice. Awesome. At least you have beautiful light. You have beautiful light in there.

Chelsea: It’s coming in, yeah. We had some sun yesterday. Today, it’s raining again.

Zibby: When you’re working on a novel or when you’re working on short stories or whatever, do you get up? Are you very structured with your time? How do you do it? How do you approach it?

Chelsea: When I was writing these two books — I have two children. My son is almost four. When I started this, I had no children, and so my work approach was so different then. A lot of it was written when my daughter was born and in those first years where I was just so scared of losing that practice that any minute she had her eyes closed asleep, I was at the keyboard obsessively. I really developed this pretty exhausting productivity where anytime she was asleep, I felt that I had to be writing. I think that served me well for many years. After the birth of my son, my body was just like, I’m tired. I need more balance. Now it’s this question of, how do I get a little more balance? I don’t want to only use their sleep time for work. They get older. Your time changes. You get more space, which is slowly now happening for me with my son being back in school. Now I’m shifting into wanting those longer stretches a little bit. Now it’s like, if he’s in school and I’m paying for preschool, that has to be my fiction-writing time. It’s kind of the same pressure I’m putting on myself, but a little bit different. I’ve always said, never underestimate thirty minutes. Truly, you can get a lot done in thirty minutes. You can really crack open a scene in thirty minutes. You can figure out one detail of a character that’s going to carry you for the next writing session. For me, it’s all about just taking advantage of the time that I do have. It’s a lot of piecing together. It honestly doesn’t look graceful at all.

Zibby: I am ridiculously impressed that you got it done with such little kids, all this work. That’s really awesome. Hats off.

Chelsea: Hats off to you. Look at all the things you’re doing.

Zibby: I know, but my kids are older now. My littlest one is seven. It’s different.

Chelsea: I look up to mothers who their youngest is seven or eight. I’m like, wow, you’ve really entered a different dimension.

Zibby: It really is.

Chelsea: My son is still walking into traffic. He’s still a baby. We’re still in that moment where there’s a lot of physicality that goes on. Now with my daughter, I’m like, oh, you’re just this person in the world. It’s a totally different — not that we don’t have a lot of things with her, but it’s more emotional. It’s less picking you up from the slide and all that intense watching.

Zibby: The fear shifts.

Chelsea: The fear shifts. The fear is still there in some ways, but it shifts.

Zibby: I’m not worried they’re going to fall down the stairs if I turn my back or something.

Chelsea: Which is nice somatically to let that go a little bit because that is where I carry a lot of my stress, is just that constant worry.

Zibby: It’s this evolutionary imperative to be alert. What you were saying about post-weaning anxiety, I feel like I have had postpartum anxiety for fifteen years, almost.

Chelsea: It may be true.

Zibby: Then again, mine predated my kids too, so I can’t really use that as an excuse. There’s a lot to be nervous about. That sounded depressing. I don’t think I realized just how much better it would get when all the kids were seven and up. I think seven is the big turning point. That’s my two cents. I thought it would be kindergarten, and it wasn’t. Sorry. Sorry to push the goalpost for anybody hoping for kindergarten to be the saving grace. Give it a little more time.

Chelsea: I agree with you. Five was still hard.

Zibby: Seven is the turning point. Last question. You’ve kind of answered this already, but advice for aspiring authors?

Chelsea: I did talk about taking advantage of the shorter times. I would also say that what I hope for aspiring writers is that they can really love their own writing. One thing about writing that I go back to is that it’s a joyful practice. I’m having a lot of fun writing. I’m laughing out loud. I’m rereading what I wrote and dying laughing. Sometimes I’m crying when I’m writing. It’s this whole-body experience. At the end of the day, I love my own work. If you don’t really love your own work, why would you expect somebody else to want to read it or love it? I think it’s important to try. As writers, we’re so self-critical. There’s this stereotype of the writer who’s just embedded with nothing but doubt. There’s a lot of talk about how hard writing is. It is hard. I’m not saying it’s not. I’m saying there’s also room for another perspective where actually, it’s joyful. Actually, you love what you’re doing. You have that confidence. I think that can help you see through the difficult parts of writing, like rejection and times where it doesn’t feel easy. Really hone in on those moments where it’s fun and you’re loving the project that you’re working on. Have the confidence, I would say, or aspire to.

Zibby: Aspire to confidence.

Chelsea: Yeah, aspire to confidence.

Zibby: You don’t have to answer this either, but is that your natural hair color? Are you naturally blond like that?

Chelsea: As a child, I probably was more of this shade. I definitely have some highlights going on.

Zibby: But it was never brown?

Chelsea: No. I guess my natural color, which I did see during the pandemic finally, which grew out to my ears or my chin, is sort of this strawberry blond. There’s a lot of red that I didn’t know about.

Zibby: That’s so cool.

Chelsea: As soon as I could, I got into that salon and was like, brighten me up, baby.

Zibby: I get it. My hair has turned black as I’ve gotten older.

Chelsea: It changes too. The texture changes, all of that.

Zibby: Obviously, these are the good problems to have.

Chelsea: Absolutely.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you for being so open and honest and letting me dig into your past and being so kind about it. Thank you.

Chelsea: Of course. It was my joy to talk to you, Zibby. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks a lot. Bye.

Chelsea: Bye.

Chelsea Bieker, HEARTBROKE

HEARTBROKE by Chelsea Bieker

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