Chelsea Bieker received an MFA in fiction from Portland State University, where she teaches creative writing and composition. Her work is forthcoming in The Normal School Literary Magazine and Gold Man Review. She is currently at work on a collection of stories.
Her story “” appears in Issue Thirty-Six of The Collagist.
Here, Chelsea Bieker speaks to interviewer David Bachmann about losing beauty, the fierceness of loyalty, and refusing to check in with reality.
1. The characters’ life situations in these pages are unfortunately plausible. Where did you get these situations and where did this story begin? (Was this born of observation, or was it purely imagined, or neither, or both?)
I think it was a bit of both. The story began in my head with the image of this faceless former beauty queen. This sort of freak attack (sulphuric acid thrown on the face) has happened to at least two women that I have read about, and it has been widely covered in the news. I guess I always tend to think of what lies on the other side of that news feature. Who are they, really? There is usually an optimism in their interviews that I find interesting and admirable, but as people, we are of course so fluid, and I wondered what might be lurking in the darker corners of an experience like that, after the news cameras leave. So that was the ground I began on, but the characters that came forth and their particular situation were purely imagined. I have been long intrigued by the desperate mother-daughter relationship, and Daisy and Florin display these very strange and intimate practices in their day-to-day lives, that exhibit physical closeness, but emotionally, very little. A fierce loyalty at times, but a quickness to betray. I think many times in my stories I play with the mother role, either with her absence, or her damaging presence. This interview could quickly turn into a counseling session if I’m not careful, so I will stop there, but as for their actual situation—essentially forcing her daughter into underage prostitution—that came possibly from thinking about the problem of sex trafficking in the city I live in, and how it might look if I took away the images we see so often in the media of the traditional pimp, and girls on street corners dressed a certain way, and a certain clientele…what if it was in a small farming town and it was very quiet, and there were no drugs involved, and no leather knee-highs? And that life becomes Florin’s normal very quickly, because she is so young and has watched her beautiful mother do it, and seemingly been very “successful” at it.
I also thought a lot about the role of beauty, and how it plays out in women’s lives, and for Daisy, beauty is her God and it is all that matters and it has dictated her entire life. It is her trade. I’m interested in what happens when people lose their “thing” so to speak. And her thing is her beauty and the way she measures everything.
2. Perhaps because I was so invested in each character and where they would go next, this piece seemed to move quickly through time. As a writer, how do you think about pace?
As I was writing this piece, I remember feeling like the real-time story didn’t actually start until about five pages in, which for me felt like a long while to get the clock rolling. Florin gives us a long bit of backstory, detailing her mother’s attack, and setting up place before the first scene begins in the AM/PM with Quince. From there it moves quickly. I wrestled with that structure, but I went with it. I tried moving things around a bit, and eventually kept it that order. I think getting Florin on the page and painting their town and describing the accident, was important to me. I don’t think pace was really on my mind writing the story, but certainly something that I noticed later. This story felt different structurally than some other things I have written. I think I had more of a mind for sound in this piece. I like to think, ‘would I read this story after reading the first paragraph?’ On this one, I think I would. I want to know what kind of town this is! Ha.
3. I’d love it if you commented on what previous drafts of this work looked like. Did any drafts include drastic departures from what we read now? (For example, did you ever have Daisy delivering on her promise to end her life?)
The original draft was very similar to this version, aside from the end. The first ending involved Quince—the girls walking together up Olive Avenue and Florin realizing that Quince doesn’t accept her label as “town slut”, is totally unaware of it, and it illuminates her own denial over who she is and what she is doing. Later I rewrote it to include a final scene with Florin, Daisy, and Osbourne because it felt true. I knew in draft one I was avoiding that last interaction by separating Florin and Quince, and I think relied on the easier ending. But easy isn’t true, so I rewrote it with Daisy.
Also, one of my mentors, Leni Zumas, read the original draft and advised me to not over-tell it. To just immerse the reader in that world and resist explaining everything through Florin’s narration. This draft is cut down a bit from the first, on a sentence level.
Daisy never delivered on the promise to end her life in any draft. I imagine that people have three parts—body, spirit, and mind—and within those, many other things are going on as well, but generally it’s good to have all three rocking and rolling. To me Daisy doesn’t have all three. All three of hers have dwindled, been tarnished, are perhaps totally gone. She’s floating around, she’s lost her body, the trauma has caused her to lose her mind, and her spirit was tied to her beauty, which to her, has been lost. It’s a recipe for disaster, and suicide could be an option for her, but there is still a vanity that thrives within her. To me her threat was more about power and control over Florin. Making her fearful, making her want to preserve her mother. Daisy is also very dramatic. Many of her lines are so regal and absolute that (to me at least) it’s almost comical.
4. Florin’s voice seems like it should be one of desperation given her circumstances, and yet it feels very matter-of-fact, almost empowered, perhaps because she has been trained to so readily accept facts by her mother. Is this how you would expect the reader to interpret her character?
I like to write about people who are down and out, but refuse to check in to reality. There are moments when Florin feels sorrow and desperation, and the story revolves around this idea that she might move to LA to escape, but overall, she clings to her role as the expert on her trade. She may not have a traditional education, but she was schooled by Daisy, who is very prideful, and she can tell you all about it with assuredness. I also didn’t want to make her whiney. I don’t like to read whiney characters. Her situation is terrible, but I wanted her to be pushing against the urge to roll over and cry about it in some way.
As for how I expect her to be read, I don’t think much about that as I’m writing. I do think about psychology and the various ways we adapt to our surroundings to survive. Children will adapt and defend the parent even in dire situations. To me, Florin has adapted. It’s all relative. This is what she knows. But there is of course deep pain in that, which I do hope comes through as well.
5. Is there such a thing as actual love between any of the characters in this work? (Is there supposed to be?)
Great question. I think about love in fiction a lot. To me as a person, I have come to understand love as an action word, but in my fiction, I think most of my characters are not capable of that, and they cling to ideas of love as a mode of desperation and control. Actual love exists in a form here, maybe, but mostly it is shown as means of avoiding aloneness and escaping fear. I think Florin loves her mother and wants to please her. But you can love someone and despise what they do at the same time. We are just that complex, and it’s fascinating. I wrote a story with a psychologically disturbed/sociopathic narrator, and she tries to explain this difficulty getting feelings to go from the head to the heart. To go from cognitive awareness, to a felt thing. And she can’t do it, though she wishes she could. On some level, Daisy falls into that a bit, too. Her obsession with self renders her incapable of caring for another truly and with abandon.
6. What are you reading these days? When you read something compelling, do you ever think I want to write like this, and do you ever find yourself writing like the writer you are reading, even if you don’t intend to? If so, what is your reaction to discovering this trend?
I just finished Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. I can’t say enough good things about it. They are amazing stories, so rich and so multi-layered. I am in awe.
Reading amazing work makes me want to write. I don’t know that I intentionally mimic the writer I am reading, but I know if affects me. Reading opens up new alleyways in my mind for writing, like oh! Look what they did! Now I want to! Reading the Watkins has reinforced my urge to incorporate many different narratives in one story. She does it so well, and it is worth studying. I remember reading Why I Live at the P.O. by Eudora Welty, and it affected the way I was writing voice in a big way. Reading during a difficult writing time is usually a good massage for my brain. I can come back to the work refreshed. I want to go read now.
7. What are you working on these days? Work of length? More short stories? Both?
I am pretty rooted in stories at this stage in my life, though I hope to write a longer work at some point. I am working on a collection where the stories take place in the Central Valley of California. I grew up mostly in Fresno, and as a teenager hated it, but once I moved away and got some distance, I was able to examine it through a new lens. I am trying to dig deep into the rich landscapes there. There is so much history. I am also so inspired by my family history as well. My dad and older sister have stories that just trigger my writing bone. I am trying to mix some of that in, too. It all feels very legend-like. And you can’t make up some of the names he throws out there! In Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor, she talks about taking advantage of what’s yours, and I am trying to tap into that in this collection. Life can be tragic, or it can be fodder for great stories, and I’m trying to do the latter.