Chelsea Bieker cuts a striking figure as she makes her way into a coffee shop in Portland’s Foster-Powell neighborhood on a recent Sunday morning. It is impossible not to notice how put together she is, rather apart from the folks already gathered there who adorn themselves in sweatshirts and wind-breakers and general day-off, will-it-or-won’t-it-rain gear. Chelsea, dressed in a full-length gingham coat and looking as flawless as if she’s come from a photo shoot, reminds me of a movie star who has just appeared out of thin air, perhaps from a big city, which, in fact, she has. Our meeting lands on the heels of her having accepted a prestigious $30,000 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award on September 13 in New York City. As we stand in line next to each other, my first question comes out rather underwhelming: “Did you get taller?” Chelsea smiles. “Nah, it’s just the shoes,” she says in a sweet, these-old-things kind of way, pointing toward her feet (the shoes are lovely).
Returning into conversation with a person you haven’t seen in some time can be a powerful experience. Our relationships with peers provide a mirror, high-powered enough to reflect us back to ourselves while taking in the subtle shifts and differences in the other. As we order our drinks (she has tea; I have espresso), it occurs to me that this is not the same young woman I exchanged ideas with in workshops in Portland State University’s MFA fiction program years ago. Though she retains the poise and centeredness I associate with her early training as a gymnast, there’s a new dimension to her now, owed possibly to the fact that, since I last saw her, she has married a man she credits with fully encouraging her compulsion to write, and with whom she started a family (she is a mother two times over). She finds herself in that most wondrous place, past the threshold of “dabbler” and “aspiring” and “amateur,” and into the realm of bona-fide writer.
SHE’S LANDED AN AGENT SHE ADMIRES (“I love my agent so much; she is just amazing”) and a two-book deal with Catapult Books, and has grown into a woman who takes herself seriously as a writer and wields the sort of work ethic to prove it. On top of parenting and writing, Chelsea also maintains a full-time job as a composition instructor for the Virtual Campus of central Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg Area Community College, a position that, she says, “takes a lot of time. It comes in waves.” The waves can be challenging: She teaches four reading-intensive classes a term, yet she enjoys the work and recognizes her luck in finding a position that allows her to work from home. Unlike many institutions that offer no job security for adjuncts, HACC provides yearly contracts, lending some peace of mind for her young family.
A $30,000 literary award doesn’t hurt, either. The Rona Jaffe literary award is the only national literary award designed exclusively to support women writers. Since the best-selling novelist Jaffe founded it in 1995 (she died in 2005), the Foundation has dispersed more than $2.5 million to promising women writers. Each year, six writers are selected, and the prize is aimed at supporting what Virginia Woolf might call “A Room of One’s Own,” offering the financial support to encourage writers to finish projects or endeavor to take up new ones. Perhaps most inspiring is that, unlike many monetary gifts aimed at writers, this award targets “emerging” writers, those who have made some mark in the literary world but who probably most need the permission to write, as unencumbered as is possible–to find relief from the financial constraints that often steal from a writer the most precious gift of all, time.
Also unique is the selection process. The Foundation does not accept unsolicited applications: writers are nominated in a top-secret fashion by someone else. “I still have no idea who nominated me!” Chelsea tells me. “When I first got the email that I was being considered, I thought it was spam or maybe some kind of newsletter. That first email said that I had made it to the final round of consideration. That was in April, and they were requesting more work.” Surprised by the super-spy nature of it, I ask Chelsea if she has any guesses about who may have nominated her. She did initially think of a PSU professor, but later discovered her hunch was wrong: the ambassador of her work remains a mystery. Chelsea’s gratitude for the recognition is immense, and the award, she says, could not have come at a better time: “I just know these moments as a writer are so few and far between. And you work so hard in the dark for so long. It finally felt like, okay, I am doing the right thing.”
Chelsea describes herself as the kind of writer who just “launches right into” her work when she has the time (without the anxiety that can leave many writers staring at a blank screen or reorganizing their sock drawer again), and who “just physically enjoys the process of writing.” So it’s hard to imagine she experiences too many pangs of doubt. But at times, she says, the year 2017 left her with the sense that she was destined in her writing career “to always be the bridesmaid and never the bride. I kept getting so close to things, and then, no cigar! I started to wonder what I wasn’t doing right…I was getting sick of hearing, ‘this is exactly what we are looking for, but it’s not quite right’…then the [Jaffe] foundation came along and said, ‘You are right!’” She describes the moment she received the award: “I was at a playground, and I saw I had missed a call from the East Coast, and I got a voicemail to call them back, and in my mind I was like, ‘I didn’t answer the phone! They aren’t going to give it to me now!’ I was hugely pregnant and my daughter was doing who knows what…I just cried.” She adds: “The honor felt so nice.”
Chelsea has been well published and recognized for a writer just entering her fourth decade (she is 31). With an undergraduate degree in journalism from the California Polytechnic State University and an MFA in fiction from Portland State University, she has been nominated for an illustrious Pushcart Prize, and won a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire (an organization that provides time and space for artists to work, and, according to Chelsea, is a great place to be pregnant because they just “feed you and provide this beautiful cushion of ease”). Among a bevy of publications including The Cincinnati Review and Cosmonauts Avenue that have published her work, she currently has stories appearing in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and Granta, both highly competitive literary journals.
Her wrenching and timely essay Why We Must Believe Women: My Family’s Legacy of Violence and Murder, published by Catapult, made the New York Times’ What We’re Reading list. “I was so nervous,” she says about publishing that nonfiction piece. “I felt sick. I felt it was a mistake, but I got so much feedback from random people. Many people in my family had not seen it.” The essay explores the murder of her aunt, a complex subject that she says she may visit again, as more context has emerged since she wrote the piece. Chelsea, like many writers, struggles with the ethical questions that often arise when writing personal essays, namely whose story is this and how one remains allegiant to the writing, and all it may expose, without exploiting or causing harm to people near and dear to it.
CHELSEA COVERS VAST TERRITORY in her fiction, but as in her nonfiction, seems to circle back to some central sore spots that inform much of her work. With echoes of writers like Flannery O’Connor and Claire Vaye Watkins, place is central to her fiction. Born in Fresno, Chelsea relocated to Portland in 2010 to attend the MFA program, yet California’s Central Valley landscape figures prominently in her stories, which explore abandonment, family, faith, motherhood, hope and longing. They defy simple category, and arrive on a sometimes comedic slant. Her stories are easily accessible yet literarily complex. Preferring the first-person point of view, she has a knack for voice and a penchant for tossing in the more uncomfortable truths of life. Consider her story Keep Her Down, where the two lead characters, Baby and Dee, both ex-lovers of Flip and now co-conspirators in the caring of Roberta, spend a good deal of the opening trying to sort out where Roberta has discarded her excrement. The story reads true and provides some genuine catch-your-breath moments, but I will let you discover that for yourself. The McSweeney’s issue that contains it can be purchased here.
Chelsea describes her novel Godshot, set to be released from Catapult in 2020, as “a book I felt like I had to write. It’s a lot about motherhood, becoming a mother, having a mother leave you. All my personal issues are in the book,” she says, laughing. “It’s my territory.” She explains the premise as a first-person account of a 14-year old, set in a fictional California town, “based on different memories of certain areas there. I envision it in that rural Central Valley landscape…farming, raisin vineyards.” The narrator becomes embroiled in the small-town dealings of a controlling church and a minister who believes his ways can save the raisin crop from a drought. He offers secret “assignments” to members of the congregation to save the crop, with disastrous consequences. The novel, as Chelsea explains it, “was mostly completed, at least the first draft, at MacDowell.” (Her residency was five weeks long, in case you find yourself wondering how quickly an industrious first-time novelist can complete a first draft.) And writing the novel “teaches you how to write a novel,” she says. “I mean, why would you know how to do that? You are figuring out pacing and these long-brewing characters and how to sustain voice. There’s no MFA fiction class that can teach you how to write a novel.” She also credits Mary Gaitskill’s novel, Veronica, for being central to the impulse to write her novel a certain way in the early stages. “Now only about two pages of that first draft actually made it into the novel.”
In Cowboys and Angels, the title story of her collection due to be released from Catapult in 2021, the lead character comes face to face with a possible self in the form of a decidedly wounded and uncaring cowboy who may be one step too far past decent to even be lovable. Yet we identify with the lead character, who risks the life she has known to reform him into a version of himself that her soul can live with, just because he has shown her the slightest nod toward attention.
In much of Chelsea’s work, the characters–blue-collar and aimlessly stuck in their circumstances–yearn for that moment of grace that might propel them past their own biography, into something longed for and maybe even possible. The divine figures in: characters sometimes grapple with it, or even toss notions of it out the window altogether as they launch heedlessly toward some future actions that are bound to inflict moral injury on themselves or others.
I REMEMBER TO ASK HER about something I have always thought of as crucial to her success. Of all the writers I studied with in the MFA program, I recall Chelsea’s stories taking huge leaps forward from draft to draft. She displayed a gift for accepting and incorporating feedback wholeheartedly, and reimagining a story without any of the anxieties that often attend revision in the early stages. “I guess I just went into the program like a sponge,” she says. “I wanted to soak up as much as possible. I didn’t have an English major background. I wasn’t as classically read as some others…I guess I just assumed everyone knew what they were talking about, and I didn’t really have expectations yet about what I thought my writing should do.” I find the answer refreshing, the way she approached the program with a wide-open beginner’s mind. “I would be more discerning now,” she adds. “In fact, the workshop model wouldn’t work for me now. I am more selective about who I share my work with. I would prefer like one trusted person.”
It is a credit to her, and speaks to a necessary resilience, that she did gain so much from the workshop model during the program, especially with Portland State’s compressed and truncated quarter system: Just as a classroom begins to coalesce, and writers get a real sense of one another’s work, the term ends. The truth is, though, she values the skill of editors, describing all the experiences she has had as positive. “My editor with McSweeney’s,” she says, “just made the most subtle changes, but it made the story so much better. I really value editors. I really like changing things, and the process.”
Chelsea explains how, as a wife, a devoted writer, an instructor and a mother of a preschooler and an infant, she finds time to write however she can now. “With my daughter, it was all about the sleep schedule. I used nap time and I would put her to bed at exactly the same time every night.” This go-around, with her son, is a little easier, because when she feels frustrated by her lack of time, she recognizes that the stages change so quickly and she can be present with all of it without too much worry. She also expresses gratitude that her husband, after a day at work himself, encourages her to get out of the house to write whenever possible. “I know that if I can’t write, I can read. And if I can’t read, I can think about my writing.”
“At this stage,” she says, “I can just sort of type over my son.” She demonstrates with her arms, and I can imagine her reaching for a keyboard over his resting body. “He doesn’t move around a lot. He just lays a lot and nurses.” When she mentions her daughter, now a preschooler (Chelsea describes her as “an adult. If she could get in my car and drive away, she totally would”), she recalls something that proves inspiration can sometimes come from the most unlikely place: “When I went to the MacDowell Residency, I was pregnant with my daughter and there was a performance artist there who told me I would be at least five years behind my cohort because I was having a baby. I was determined not to let that happen.”
By now we’ve long finished our drinks. We’ve shared a good number of stories and laughs, plus one mishap, when the lid to Chelsea’s teapot took a nose-dive into her cup, a comical moment made more funny by her response. “Oops,” she said, without moving a muscle. “That just fell in there.” Her background as a gymnast is evident in this moment, somehow, and also in her physicality in general, and most certainly in her steely discipline. I am already thinking ahead to her books, her readings, to that day that will inevitably come when she steps even more fully into the air of destiny that seems always to have surrounded her. Oregon has no shortage of writers, established and up-and-coming, but Chelsea Bieker is an especially gifted one, with important stories to tell. Something tells me she is just getting started.