Portland author Chelsea Bieker’s ‘Heartbroke’ mingles loss, desire, pain and resilience

The stories in Portland author Chelsea Bieker’s new collection, “Heartbroke,” each have unique origin stories.

A college essay by Bieker’s mother inspired “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Miners.” A news article about a missing girl was the spark for “Say Where Ella She Is.” Bieker’s grandfather’s work as a raisin farmer infuses “Raisin Man.”

But these stories all inhabit the same world as Bieker’s debut novel, “Godshot,” in which a patched farming town falls under the sway of a charismatic preacher who swears that his mysterious instructions will summon rain. Both “Godshot,” a 2021 Oregon Book Award finalist, and “Heartbroke,” whose stories were written alongside the novel, are set in a place dear to Bieker’s heart from her: California’s Central Valley, where she grew up.

“Heartbroke” is an apt title for this story collection, as its characters have had their hearts shattered: by a mother, by a best friend, by an unattainable lover. But they’re not about to let that pain define their lives. “Decide now,” one character tells another. “You gonna go forward and forget about her? Or wallow in the past worshiping all your ghosts? Me, I’m moving on. Are you coming or not?

Here are excerpts from a recent conversation with Bieker about “Heartbroke.”

Q: These stories circle around some common themes: losses, desires, power dynamics in relationships. What appeals to you about these themes?

A: I wasn’t always tuned in to where these characters were coming from or where the circumstances were coming from. They felt almost like they were coming to me fully formed.

It’s only in revision and the process of critically looking at the pieces as an art form and bending them and moving them and changing them that I can see that I was exploring themes that for me, growing up, were not explained and were not explored and left me with a lot of questions and not very many answers.

If I get in a psychologist chair now and I look back at the stories, I see the way that my subconscious was working hard to figure out some narrative that had never been closed for me.

Q: What is it about the Central Valley that inspires you?

A: I would call it in some ways a misunderstood place or perhaps not a known place. People think they know about California and they have some ideas about what California is, but the Central Valley is so specific and it’s so different than other areas of the state.

It’s really this Bible Belt in the middle. And it’s where most of the world’s food is produced. It’s definitely cowboy land. I mean, you’ve got the Clovis Rodeo. And it’s also such a diverse place, with so many different cultures.

It’s so hot. The summers are so intense and the way the sky looks is really specific. The air quality is really bad. So you’re surrounded by the Sierra Nevada mountains, but you often would have no idea because they’re covered with smog. And then maybe we’ll get a rain and suddenly these beautiful mountains are just right there. That always both intrigued me and scared me growing up.

There’s a physical sense of being when I’m there that feels like nowhere else that I’ve ever been.

Q: When you read short fiction, who do you read and why?

A: Annie Proulx, because her command of language and place is — it feels like each story is actually this epic novel. I love the sense when I finish a short story that I have encountered a really deep world and that quite a bit has happened.

I think so much about voice. So any short story that is bringing in this incredibly vivid and alive and specific voice, I’m a fan of. I think of short stories by Alice Walker, for instance.

Denis Johnson, “Jesus’ Son,” was a really early influence for me, what could be done in a really short space. Melanie Rae Thon: One of my favorites is called “In This Light.” “Milk Blood Heat” by Dantiel Moniz — that was one of those that feels very voice-driven and just really exacting in the language and the place.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about “Heartbroke”?

A: This is a story collection that I really did write from the heart, and I hope that I can be felt in the reading of it.

Chelsea Bieker launches “Heartbroke” in conversation with fellow Portland author Kimberly King Parsons at 7 pm April 5 at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St.

awang@oregonian.com; Twitter: @ORAmyW

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