Contributalks features conversations between two or more previous No Tokens contributors. This month, Evan Rehill and Chelsea Bieker are in conversation, discussing their stories Clients and Say Where She Is, respectively. You can read them here: Evan Rehill – Clients , Chelsea Bieker – Say Where She Is,
REHILL: I’m so jazzed to be doing this because I’m such a big fan of Say Where She Is. When T Kira Madden first asked me, “Do you want to do some kind of interview…” I said I just wasn’t really into that. But then she mentioned your name, and I said, “Oh, well why don’t you just let me interview Chelsea Bieker?” And she said, “Well, why don’t you two just have a conversation?” and I said, “That’s a great idea.” So.
BIEKER: Yeah, I love it.
REHILL: The way I feel about your story, and how I feel about all the art I care about, is because it’s emotionally true.
BIEKER: I think the truth is really interesting. In some ways I think my character as well as your narrator was kind of grappling with the truth of their situations in different ways, and that idea of guilt and what the real truth really is. I could see that a lot with your…with your main character is the name ever said? I was looking for…
BIEKER: It’s not. Okay, good, because I was thinking, “Why can’t I find it?”
REHILL: I think that character is successfully hidden for the entire story. And I think this goes back to that idea of the truth, the truth of how we hide out, because with your story, your character…she’s sort of hiding, right? This narrator? But she’s hiding in plain sight. Something else that I think parallels both of our stories is they’re both about young people, and what I think is so successful about your story is that it completely terrifies me because I think it’s so true—not that I think this really happened, but it’s emotionally so true that I believe this could happen.
BIEKER: I recently reread this story because I wrote it about 4 years ago, so it feels kind of far away but rereading it was interesting. I finally have distance. I’m able to see that character a little bit differently than when I wrote the story and was so close to her, and see the complications of the lie that she wanted to believe versus the truth of her horrible action. The huge ramification that she couldn’t have possibly imagined.
REHILL: That’s so interesting too, having that kind of relationship with characters. It’s one of these amazing things about writing, that you can have that kind of relationship where you gain perspective on the person in this story by having 4 years between when you wrote it and now. I’m curious about where something like this comes from.
BIEKER: With most of my fiction I can’t describe where the ideas come from, but this case actually came from a really specific place. My sister used to live in a town in the Bay Area and I’d go to visit a lot and one spring I had just been there and I went home and found out on the news that this teenager had gone missing. That was in 2012, and her case is still ongoing.
BIEKER: I became fascinated by it, just because of the proximity to how close my sister lived to where the missing girl went to school and would walk every day and it felt really close to me. I would Google it every night to see if she’d been found. What I found instead, though, that surprised me, was that you could find this social media record of this girl online. You could see her Twitter, her Tumblr, and we have that now. We have this imprint of “Here I am at 15, online, just blasting all my thoughts as they come” and I thought to myself, “Dear God, if I had had access to that at that age, what would be on there for me?” And she was just a normal teenage girl, she had bad days and she would broadcast them, and had some not nice thoughts about people, and she would broadcast them, but it was so normal, I think. We always want to paint people who die or are who are abducted as these really pure and perfect kind of displays of “the girl next door” or “she was just so wonderful” and I think she was all those things too, but like for any person, there were these other sides, and for her they were ALL there. I could see all these days she had had, and all these fights she’d had with her friends, and they’re still there. So it was fascinating to me, in our day and age now, we don’t have the same advantage of the privacy that we did years ago, and so her legacy lives on on Twitter, which is strange and interesting too, but I think it was the breeding ground for this story. The facts of this story are totally different, but I carried that idea: teenagers acting impulsively on the Internet and not understanding that there could be real-life ramifications. That idea was interesting to me, and terrifying because I could see myself at that age not having the wherewithal either. I mean, who does?
REHILL: I think that’s what is so fascinating about reading and writing. For young people—these girls are, what? 16 years old in this story?
BIEKER: They’re about the same age as the characters in your story.
REHILL: That age, right up until adulthood—18, 21—is such a crushing, confusing, difficult time emotionally, hormonally, socially. For me, all these things were firing in a way that I did not feel equipped to deal with. So when I think about these kids today I feel the same way as you do: thank GOD the internet didn’t exist, because—for me—that technology would have just made everything even more confusing than it already was. And to have a record of it would be terrifying. In your story I really believed the emotional truth of this character, and the reveals of her character feel incredibly honest in terms of her confession. Which is what I think we get to, because I don’t think she really understands at that age, or believes, that she is actually responsible, even though she knows. It’s the instinct for any teenager when you’ve done something “stupid,” or when you just didn’t know any better, to cover it up.
BIEKER: Or you believe still that your intentions weigh over the reality: “I didn’t mean for that to happen, so that should trump what actually happened.”
REHILL: That’s the scary parallel between what’s real and what isn’t, especially in your story, because of the kinds of means that are available in terms of communication today. What’s real on a screen must only be real inside the screen, as though you can always walk away from the screen. But what happens when the people come out of the screen to get you? That’s the terror of this story, and when I talk about “terror in your story” I hope you take it as the highest compliment. But I feel that same sentiment about young people with Clients and what led me to write that story a long time ago was I was thinking about this concept of people who seem doomed.
BIEKER: It seems like your narrator clearly senses that in the story, the idea that Chauncey didn’t have a chance. That last line “but it wasn’t him, it was me” is this feeling that he has some kind of opportunity, or hand of cards, that was just different from Chauncey’s. He aimed the gun, but it’s Chauncey who is going to die. It’s almost beyond anyone’s control. It seems he felt the sort of guilt that never leaves you for a lifetime, this odd sense of responsibility.
REHILL: That’s the impetus for Clients, really, it’s: “Why me?” And I mean “I” in the universal. Why did I make it out and this person or this one or that one didn’t? Is that just luck? Was this determined early on? And when I think about youth, in your story and mine, I wonder: at that age who can save you besides your friends? At that age, there is no one we are closer with—no one—than our friends, because in many ways our friends replace that element of family that has been thrust upon us.
BIEKER: Reading both these stories made me think about being that age, and friendships at that age and how intense they are. You’re with each other all the time. My best friend in middle school and high school—when I woke up, she was the first person I contacted, and I would see her until 9:00 on school nights, or I’d sleep over—we were always together—and that sort of intimacy is hard to recreate, because we don’t have that as an adult with a friend in the same way. And the betrayals feel so intense.
REHILL: Well, they are.
BIEKER: They are. They’re heartbreaking. I just remember feeling so far from being an adult but wanting to be an adult so acting this way that maybe wasn’t true to who I was but doing things I thought an adult would do. And you’re looking to adults to see what to do. You’re watching, and it sort of feels like you’re in some theater production every day.
REHILL: That really rings with both these stories in a way I’d never thought about. Because in Say Where She Is and Clients, the adult examples are not necessarily ones the young people want to emulate. I love that all the adults in your story—like all adults in life—are flawed. We don’t think about that as kids, because adults are this other country. As our “protectors” we believe they can’t, or shouldn’t, be flawed. And yet, we don’t really understand the context of what that means at that age: that the parents and adults who surround you are just other human beings. And that’s what I love about the misdirection in this story, which is so terrifically crafted. First and foremost we’re misdirected to this character nicknamed Daddy Marc. Right? We’re led to consider him the villain in the beginning, and then in the eyes of the community of this story he becomes the villain. And it’s a wonderful device to hide her—the narrator—since she’s the one telling the goddamned story. I love that. That too is also true. We never know if Daddy Marc has this inappropriate relationship with Celina or not. The ambiguity is what is so powerful. Then there’s the mom, whom I really feel a lot for. The mom is such a clear mirror as warning point for your narrator. Right down to the prom dress. And this is really important for the narrator’s stakes, because it seems that becoming her mother is the narrator’s worst nightmare, which I think all kids feel at some point, once those flaws start to get recognized.
BIEKER: Both the girls in this story have an idea of a life that could be, but not a lot of examples toward that, so it’s a great mystery, like maybe a man from the internet could come and change things for her, but I think there is also a seed where she knows that that’s probably not true either. But the mother/daughter relationship is something I grapple with in all my writing.
REHILL: You always have a mother/daughter dynamic?
REHILL: Well, it’s a theme that never goes away.
BIEKER: It really never goes away. The desire to be saved or protected and have that person not save and not protect you over and over. Disappointment is really profound at that age—everything is really profound at that age. What were you like at 16?
BIEKER: I love the use of the first and last names in your story. That really struck me because it created this sense of a tall tale, or legend, that will live on for this guy forever. And that’s sort of how I remember the “characters” from my own experience with high school.
REHILL: Me too.
BIEKER: You’ll always think of them that way. They’re frozen that way. In your story it created this layered technique for me.
REHILL: From the very first draft of Clients all these characters had first plus last names. The names were different in those drafts. Names I knew, from childhood. Not necessarily the people, but their terrific names. I had to change a couple of names before this went to press.
BIEKER: I often use names of people in my family or friends in my work, and I don’t think about it until it’s about to get published.
REHILL: And by then it’s a difficult thing to change.
BIEKER: Because that’s who they are to you now. It’s hard to explain to somebody that when you write fiction that you’re not writing directly about your own life. I have to explain that to my dad.
REHILL: Part of the reason I carried the story that ultimately became Clients around for so long is because year after year when I pulled it out and reread some passages, it always affected me. From the very beginning I felt that in writing it, that these kids, these “sweet metal boys,” as I used to refer to them—I felt so much for them. And I understood emotionally where they were coming from. Somehow they had come into the world, and I wasn’t ready to let them go.
BIEKER: Well, I don’t think I’m going to let them go, either. Some stories really stay with you, where the world is so finely created that you are in that world also. And I feel that way with this story where you’ve created such a full landscape, and I’ve written down “stories within stories,” which is something that I love in short fiction.
REHILL: Me too.
BIEKER: When it’s done you feel as though you’ve left the piece but visited many many places. Here, with Lucky and Maureen, the clients upstairs, the boys in the graveyard…there are so many places we go. There’s a whole rich soil there that could have gone on and on. And the narrator is such a close watcher. I know you said earlier that he’s hidden, but that serves the story in this way in that the story faces outward. A long-reaching feeling. Not only does the story go so many places, but there’s a lingering sense that the narrator will be thinking about this for a long time to come. There’s a desperation to finally find a reason. And it becomes the only story the narrator’s able to tell—where he is reaching out and grabbing the reader by the throat to say, “This is my story! This is my one story I have to tell, and I’ll tell it again and again—”
REHILL: Right, while still searching for the one he wants to tell. He’s saying, “This is the only story that I have to tell,” which is a frustrating thing. I’m sorry I just cut you off; I just got real excited about what you were saying.
BIEKER: No, go.
REHILL: It’s just that these characters are looking for answers, for explanations about the world.
BIEKER: You keep looking for an explanation and there isn’t one, and that kind of disappointment is profound.
REHILL: In art that kind of disappointment is profound; in life it isn’t profound at all. In life it’s just—disappointment. But in a story we can have moments that go to a level that is difficult to get to in life. Maybe that’s because of distance. I’d like to talk about gender in terms of your story and mine, because—and T Kira Madden brought this up; it’s her idea—your story focuses on the lives of two teenage girls, whereas mine gives most of its attention—just about all of its attention—to a group of teenage boys. For me, as someone who grew up in a family of boys, the access your story gave me into the lives of girls is totally fascinating. The bond we talked about earlier is so evident between your two characters, and so it broke my heart when Selena breaks the pact. Because Colt feels betrayed by Selena over the boy they both like.
BIEKER: A tale as old as time.
REHILL: Right? There’s the scene with the mom when Colt says to her mom about Selena, “She gets everything she wants,” and that is so emotionally accurate, for any age, but particularly at that age, and we see with your story what that jealousy can lead to, so permissibly, in this day and age. This story, besides having so much impact emotionally, also contains such a marvelous lesson. It’s an important story for young people to read.
BIEKER: Personally, when you were talking I was thinking about the teenage mentality…I remember thinking that car accidents or abductions were things that happened to other people. And then having that shattered, being in a bad car accident with my best friend on Senior Ditch Day—I realized, “OH FUCK, this shits happens to me.” And it changed everything for me. But it did shift, and these girls in my story might not have had that yet, that feeling of, “Oh, this stuff can happen to me.”
REHILL: That’s what’s so scary for these girls. Because if they’d had more accidents or made more mistakes before, this event might not happen. And this is a big one. This is an irrecoverable mistake. I’m fascinated by the element of suspense in your story. I’m thinking about feeling lifted into the air, not knowing when we’ll be dropped. And this story does such a terrific job of lifting the reader up, and keeping us in that “carried place.”
BIEKER: I think a lot about it. It’s tricky in that first person POV to not seem as though you are withholding information from the reader, but I wanted the reader to go on that journey with the narrator who is also coming to terms with her reality. She’s not withholding truth or waiting for a surprise—she doesn’t want to confront her reality until she has to. And having the reader go through that with her creates some element of suspense.
REHILL: We have to become close to this character and care about her in order not to simply judge her. By the end of this story, we really are in her shoes. We feel her dread and desperation and the secret that she’s trying to keep.
BIEKER: She loved Selena deeply, but also wanted her away, for multiple reasons. Jealousy, the fear of what Selena was experiencing at home, and just sort of a desire to have that big change to kind of fix everything, then having that backfire. At that age I remember solutions to problems being really high stakes and having a really unrealistic, amplified solution. Whether or not we ever carried those out, they were certainly discussed, and this story is her way of carrying something like that out.
REHILL: I think everything at that age is high stakes. Whether that’s hyperbolic or dramatic—that how it is. Your best friend betraying you? There’s nothing worse than that, because it’s your whole world. It’s your whole world that comes crashing down.
BIEKER: I think about these pop culture interviews that ask, “What would you tell yourself as a teenager?” And everybody says, “I would tell myself not to take anything so seriously or that those people didn’t matter at all!’ But when you’re living in it, there’s no talking yourself out of it. That world is very small in a certain way. Earlier you were saying who else can direct us at that age but our friends? And you hope you’ll have that friend who is that mature soul who might say, “Hey guys, this is a bad idea; let’s not do this” or “Wait, what will your parents think?”
REHILL: Where was that person when I was growing up?
BIEKER: These girls don’t have that person either! So everything is grasping with desperation. Those are the kind of stories that make any reader ask, “What was I like at that age?”
REHILL: Or “Who did I let down?”
BIEKER: Yeah. I can think of all kinds of scenarios.
REHILL: Me too. And that’s the hard part. Because when I look back at that age, it’s easy to go to that place with all the people who wronged me. But when I start thinking about who I wronged or who I didn’t save or help—that’s when I want to write a story.
BIEKER: That’s all we can do now.
REHILL: It’s the only productive place to put those feelings.
BIEKER: It’s also a place to indulge emotionally.
REHILL: Giving a character permission to act badly.
BIEKER: Or the ways in our darkest parts we can see ourselves. That part is there, however far away it might have been from our true actions. So putting those on the page is kind of thrilling in its own sick way.
REHILL: Or it’s most therapeutic way. Because it’s definitely sick, but hopefully you come out of it with that enlightenment of disappointment—that enlightenment of things that are not enlightening. So tell me, do you find that young people are still part of the landscape of what you’re writing?
BIEKER: I’m working on a novel whose protagonist is a teenage girl, again. A different teenage girl, in a different world, but that teenage sentiment is still there. I worked on a novel at MacDowell about a mother/daughter relationship from the mother’s perspective, and I remember finishing the draft and going to bed then waking up in the morning and knowing it was wrong—knowing it had to be from the perspective of the teenage girl.
REHILL: I love it.
BIEKER: I had to start over.
REHILL: I don’t even think of that as starting over. You couldn’t have come to that conclusion without writing the whole draft from the point of view of the mother.
BIEKER: I also like to write stories from older men’s perspectives.
REHILL: I’ve always enjoyed writing old ladies. And my new novel is all women. But I’m thinking about what you’re working on now—is it the same novel that moved from the mother’s point of view to the daughter’s?
BIEKER: I see them as two completely different projects now. But the heartbeat and the longing for connection between the mother and daughter is the same. I can’t get rid of that; that’s always there.
REHILL: Well, you shouldn’t. It sounds like that’s what both books are about. Let me ask you, do you ever think about theme when you’re working on a project. When, if at all, do you wonder, “What is this story/novel really about?”
BIEKER: In short fiction, no. When I’m drafting a short story it’s such a different animal. My experience writing novels is newer, the past several years. But I think with a novel there comes a point in writing when I do ask, “What is this book about?” I need to know, in a more critical way, to carry it so far. Almost in a practical way. That’s the part I don’t really like—figuring things out like chapters, and different tension points. I feel like that’s someone else’s job to tell me. But with this novel I have thought about what I’m getting at here. I don’t know how much that question informs the scenes or the actual writing itself. I think the writing for me has always had to be off the cuff in a certain way. I have put little landmarks out ahead of myself when drafting—I would like to hit here, or here—and whether that happens or not, I don’t know. It’s more in the later drafts, toward the end, when I ask finally “What’s it all about?” And that kind of question keeps me up at night, because sometimes the answer I feel is, “I don’t know. Maybe I’m not doing anything. Maybe this is just…”
REHILL: You go back to work.
BIEKER: It’s hard. Then other days I see clearly that maybe this is still just about a young girl missing her mommy, which is like—there you go, because that seems true to me.
REHILL: So often, that’s what novels are about. That longing. The themes are actually incredibly simple. It’s in our nature as readers or critics to want to intellectualize them, to make them seem more interesting, but as human beings our themes—the things that drive us—are pretty simple. They haven’t changed too much, regardless how much the world has changed. I remember a writer I respect a lot saying to me, “The way I learned how to write a novel was by writing one.” I thought that sounded kind of profound and kind of pretentious at the time, until I understood what he meant. The novel forces the writer to ask those questions, in a way that a story does not. When I’m writing a story, it’s actually better if I know less, if I don’t know the characters so good, if I don’t understand the story that well, because then there’s more mystery in it, by the nature of the form.
BIEKER: There’s no better feeling than getting to the end of a story and being surprised by what happens. To plan would take that away. Not that with a novel I haven’t been surprised too, but it beckons different questions, for sure. What is your process like when drafting a novel? Is it a fast process? What kind of writer are you?
REHILL: Slow. That would be the best way to describe me as a writer, and my process. Slow. I’m trying to think of a fast answer. My first novel took me almost 4 years, and I didn’t know where I was going or what the story was about until 2 years into that. I had a lot of pages and got to know the characters really well, but I didn’t start asking those questions I needed to for a long time. So after I finished that book, I thought the next novel would get written so fast, because I’d made so many mistakes I could learn from, and I didn’t want to spend another 4 years writing the next—but when I started a new novel everything I did failed. Every time I started writing, the story just stopped. Stop. Stop. Every scene. Stop. So I went back to stories—that’s where I’ve been the past 9 months. So this past month, let’s say, I decided to try another novel, and I’d show up to the writing desk every morning with my pen (I write long hand), and nothing was happening. Then I was talking to this writer I know, a great writer and dear friend, and told her my problem, and she said, “Stop trying to figure out the story. Write into—” I can’t remember her exact words; I think she said “where you live as a writer,” but I took it as “Write into what haunts you.” Write into that, she said, and let the story grow out of that. The next day I sat down and wrote into this family of Long Island women I did not know, and I’ve been with them ever since. So I’ve come to accept that my process with my second novel will be exactly the same. Slow.
BIEKER: I love the idea of writing into what haunts you as a mantra. That’s so important. I don’t know what your experience with grad school was like, but now, years removed, I think back to my MFA and those workshops, and I think maybe what people thought were my weaknesses were actually my strengths in disguise that I just had to work harder on, or that I had to keep knocking at those doors instead of removing them completely.
REHILL: I love that.
BIEKER: Maybe that goes hand in hand with the idea of what haunts you. Some of the negative criticism I got, I’d think, “but that to me is the heart of the story. So how do I take that out?” Today I feel it’s not about taking it out, it’s about pressing into it even harder.
REHILL: You should start your own MFA program and make that the banner for it, and I’ll go. That’s great advice for any writer.
BIEKER: It’s something I thought about writing my novel, because I felt myself doing things they told me not to, but I thought, “Fuck it. Those are the places I need to go.” And whether they’re working or not is something I can grapple within the work—that’s the work of it: figuring out how to make it work. It’s not that I think the advice I got was wrong, more that it was hinting at something I was maybe doing right, or something in me I needed to explore versus shy away from.
REHILL: I’m so jazzed to continue teaching your story SAY WHERE SHE IS to my writing students. And now that I’ve talked to you I’ll sound real cool in front of the classroom when I say, “Well, Chelsea Bieker says…”
BIEKER: It’s so exciting to me that you have classes that have read that story. I love that fiction goes far and away.
REHILL: Teaching for me is so much about exposing students to work they otherwise might never read. I guarantee you’re not going to find any of the stories I teach in your Contemporary American Short Story class.
BIEKER: Right, in your Norton Anthology.
REHILL: The Norton Anthology that’s had the same stories in it since 1970. Wonderful stories! Don’t get me wrong—wonderful stories. But there are other stories. And yours is one of them.