Books

Portland Author Chelsea Bieker Discusses Her Short Short Collection “Heartbroke” and Her Next Novel

Don’t be fooled by the candy necklace cover. The stories in Portland author Chelsea Bieker’s Heartbroke are brimming with grit and misery—and just the right amount of wildness.

After the success of Bieker’s debut novel, Godshotin 2020 (which was a finalist for both the Oregon and California Book Award, and was longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize), she wrote Heartbroke (Catapult, 288 pages, $26), her first short story collection.

At first, Bieker—whose fiction often deals with domestic violence—didn’t consider how all the stories were connected or whom they were “for.” “But it became pretty evident that I was really continuing to inhabit the same spaces again and again,” she tells WW. “There are a lot of these men that end up being awful, essentially. I became curious about how one arrives there.”

One of those men is Pretty, a character featured in several stories. First, we see him as the abusive ex-husband of Jan and Baby, two women with different addictions who wind up living together years after their respective divorces. (“Once her pride was gone,” Baby says.) Yet we also glimpse Pretty’s childhood and hear from his mother, who attempts to apologize for all the ways she put her sadness into him, as she phrases it.

“When I got to the character of Pretty I was really curious, in general, about generational trauma,” Bieker says. “These are stories about people at really difficult crossroads, and people who are still trying to access resiliency and still trying to attune to their own desires, even in really difficult circumstances.”

Like Godshot, Heartbroke takes place mostly in California’s Central Valley, where Bieker grew up. Her next novel, however, will take us to other places she has lived or explored: Hawaii, San Francisco and Portland.

While Bieker thought the lessons she learned from Godshot would make writing her upcoming novel simpler and speedier, that hasn’t been the case. It wasn’t until about four years into the process that the new book started to reveal itself to her.

“This book really had a set of its own lessons for me,” Bieker says. “There is an element of surprise, even in the past four or so months, where I’ve had so many realizations about what the story is actually doing and what this book is about.”

Bieker says that going on walks with specific playlists puts her in a meditative rhythm and gets her geared up to write. “Then I can visualize scenes kind of cinematically in my mind, and that’s really helpful for me,” she says. “I can trick my brain into kind of entering that more subconscious state.”

Getting to that state is especially important when Bieker is writing a particularly difficult scene. Driven by a desire to create empathy, she often helps readers inhabit a point of view they might otherwise never experience, particularly when it comes to stories that look at how family dynamics affect children their whole lives.

“In writing a lot of the stories in Heartbroke, I was not only exploring these children’s worst fears and worst-case scenarios, but also that sort of inherent love that exists, despite everything,” she says. “I’ve felt that so much in my life and understand the nuance of what it’s like to have, say, who are alcoholics and really mired in their own addiction—and still really love them despite reason.”

Bieker’s latest book recommendations include Things They Lost by Okwiri Oduor, Ghost Lover by Lisa Taddeo, and Black Light by Portland author Kimberly King Parsons.

“I would really just call people to seek out fiction from perspectives that they’re not usually accustomed to,” Bieker says. “It’s just the easiest way—and the most entertaining way—to learn about a different culture or experience. I think it changes our brains over time to have those exposures, in a good way.”

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