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Literature : Interview

Taking Shelter

by Rachel Mercer

Peter Rock on the collection and distillation of information, the interplay between fictional and real worlds, and the dogged process of revision in his new novel, The Shelter Cycle.


Underground shelter. All images courtesy of Peter Rock.

In the fall of 2011, Peter Rock sent me an early draft of a book he was working on, asking for thoughts and comments. Subsequently, I read two more versions of what has become The Shelter Cycle, which will be published in early 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The novel centers on the lives of children who grew up in the '80s in Montana and whose parents, along with many others, were involved in an organization called the Church Universal and Triumphant, led by a woman named Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Prophet warned about an imminent nuclear holocaust and offered salvation to those devoted to the Church, inspiring monumental efforts to build underground shelters for when the disaster reigned. On March 15, 1990, thousands of people disappeared into the subterranean shelters, believing they were bidding the world as they knew it goodbye.

While the past is the foundation for the story, the novel takes place twenty years later, focusing on several characters, now adults. Francine is happily married and about to give birth to her first child. She has been reticent about her past with her husband, Wells, but is forced to reckon with it when her childhood friend, Colville, appears at their door one night after the strange disappearance of a young girl in the neighborhood. This encounter spurs each of the characters on separate journeys, during which they must attempt to reconcile the past—all its contradictions and unanswered questions—with the present.

It was a pleasure to witness the development of The Shelter Cycle through its various drafts, to see the process by which the story and characters came into themselves. Pete’s work is highly attuned to the strange, the eerie, and he treats his subject matter—which is often off-kilter to begin with, and involves characters that exist on the fringes of society—with language that is spare and quiet, yet forceful. In his storytelling, Pete upends expectations and opens up possibilities, suggesting unforeseen and unfamiliar ways of seeing, thinking, feeling. I always feel unhinged after reading Pete’s writing, but also refreshed and invigorated.

Rachel Mercer In writing The Shelter Cycle, you did a lot of research in Montana to learn about the Church Universal and Triumphant—the people who were involved, and their practices and beliefs. You incorporated this research into the novel, using it to inform your characters, especially Francine and Colville. While Francine has tried to put her past behind her for the most part, Colville is still very much beholden to the teachings he learned as a child. In writing a character like Colville—someone whose belief system and worldview are so divergent from the norm—how did you strike the balance between staying true to his perspective and maintaining enough distance from him so as not to alienate the reader, who might not see the world as he does? How do you write from within a cosmology without getting bogged down in it?

Peter Rock Perhaps the easiest way to put it is this: When I first feel drawn to something, I spend a fair amount of time approaching it from every angle, learning about it. I knew I was interested in the Church (I worked on an adjacent cattle/sheep ranch between 1988 and 1992), and the period of time they call the “shelter cycle,” and I spent a couple of years reading everything I could, visiting Montana, and especially interviewing people, trying to get all the particular, personal details, the contradictions and confusions.

At a fairly early stage, I made a kind of arbitrary, hunch-like decision to not allow the historical events to “inspire” or serve as a rough kind of influence on my book, but to try to stage my story within the constraints of this history, and these beliefs. I ended up with a surfeit of information—thirty hours of interviews, hundreds of pages of notes from books (both Church related and cosmological, but also survival manuals, etc), pictures, propaganda, and internal documents—which came back to bite me later.

The next step was to figure out the characters, to get inside the story. I’ve always tried to be guided by the central insight of Julio Cortazar’s great essay, “On the Environs of the Short Story”: “Tell the story as if it is only of interest to the small circle of your characters, of which you may be one. There is no other way to put life into the story.”

So for the time of actual writing, I just try to stay inside, to see it through all these different characters’ eyes, to feel like them. To follow them. To live in their world. This, I think, is the reason we read and write—to really get close to how it might be to think and feel like another person, to empathize. This may be something like what people describe as the “escape” of literature, but I suspect it takes us further in. In some interview, Raymond Carver is asked about his concern about confusing readers and he says, “I’m more worried about the people in my stories, the characters, than any potential reader.” And so for long periods of time with The Shelter Cycle I was completely caught up/bogged down, lost in some kind of psychic time capsule . . .

Of course, part of writing is translating this other world to a reader, and just as with our own inner worlds, it’s often surprising what is not clear or consistent to someone coming from the outside. As my college professor Don Faulkner once said to me, “All this that you’re writing is very interesting to you, but no one else knows what you’re talking about.” And this is, again, a translation and frustration that one must learn to enjoy. I was just reading where Misha Glouberman, in The Chairs Are Where the People Go, says “you have to learn to enjoy yourself while trying to communicate with people who don’t understand you and don’t know what you know.” He’s talking about the game of charades, but that lesson holds for both writing and living.

So, once you’ve been lost inside a story, you must then emerge and try to translate it. You must recognize and own confusions—this is where it gets hard—where you’re both trying to get sufficient distance from your own work, and listening to others’ opinions, without losing your connection to the inside. That’s revision: half in and half out of the story.

RM The novel deals with the paths that people’s lives follow, how they deviate from or stick to the original plans or ideas/intentions they started out with. The paths of the characters in the book—Francine, Wells, Colville, and Maya (Francine’s sister)—revolve around the past and shift in relation to one another and to the present. How do these pathways map themselves out over the course of writing the novel? Do you begin knowing where each character will start out and end up?

PR Originally I wanted to just write a book about the specific time of the shelter cycle—the years of building the shelters and gathering food and supplies, years’ [worth] of clothing, figuring out how to teach children, deal with waste and animals, etc. But the more I interviewed people, the more I became interested in a) the stories of people who were children during that time, and b) how they were dealing with it, twenty years later.

I guess one of my early attractions to the story—to writing about it—was simply the question, “How would it be to believe the world would end, go underground to avoid it, and then emerge into the same world you left, one you thought would no longer exist, and go on living in it?” So where I ended up isn’t really so far from that, but I had to travel a long way to get back to it.

A digression: Once I was on the radio, talking about My Abandonment—for the uninitiated, [my] novel about a thirteen year old girl and her father who live a very solipsistic life in the wilderness—and a child psychologist called in and said, “You know, the ages between 12-15 are when we conceptualize who we are and how we understand the world, how we fit into it; no matter what, that stays with us, and it really doesn’t change, it can’t change much for most people.”

I was struck, in my interviews for The Shelter Cycle, by how many people who were children during the shelter cycle remembered it as being a period of intense expectation and excitement. Not only did they live in a beautiful place, their beliefs were so vivid, so lived—here they were, surrounded by invisible nature spirits who looked out for them, who helped them, and angels, and then more malign entities, and their actions and thoughts were not only able to affect their future lives, but also events on the other side of the world, the karmic balance of the universe, etc.—and their parents were involved in building very, very cool forts, a huge process that was actually going to save the world.


Shelter cycle locations.

And then there were the remnants of this in 2010. The people I was talking to were largely not believers anymore, and weren’t members of the church anymore. They were, to various degrees, angry or bemused or somewhat apologetic for/embarrassed about this period in their past, however good their intentions. One thing that kept coming up was the tendency of these folks, who had cast off the beliefs, to find themselves decreeing (a kind of repetitive chanting) at moments of stress, despite themselves, as if the belief was still in them and couldn’t be cast out, expunged. And then other beliefs—say, the very specific things pregnant women would do, or how newborns should be treated/handled—surface at other times in these peoples’ lives. They find themselves doing things against all logic, “just in case,” or because it comforts them.

My book follows two people, Colville and Francine, who share this past but are processing it in the present in very different—neither more or less “true”—ways. It’s that simple. I knew that the two would be very close as children, and then they would be apart for many years, and then be brought together (no coincidences!) at a time when a) Francine is about to give birth, and b) a neighbor girl (the girl from My Abandonment) has disappeared, and people are searching for her. Colville at that point doesn’t have much of a life, and comes to search for the girl, sees Francine, and just being together casts them back into the past . . .

One problem was that I just had way too much cool information about the beliefs and teachings of the church. Once I’d found it, fought for it, I wanted to use it. I had to figure out who could carry and provide it for me. Ultimately I had to cut a lot of the facts/beliefs that were attached to certain characters, specifically Francine, because I had to recognize her resistance to her past. I had to let those things that surface be less in number but more important. I had to let her live her life.

Which is kind of what you want from your characters, as you write . . . and this is basically how I feel about writing in general: you want to have some idea of where you’re going, some guesses and intentions, but you have to stay open to being surprised, sensitive to the unexpected tendencies being generated. Which is to say that you have to let them become the people they want to become. It’s so great when I’ve arranged and prefigured and set up what a character will do, where they’ll end up, and they pretty much turn around and say to me, “Hey, you’ve been traveling with me all this time; do you seriously think that’s something I’d do?” So then I have to see where the character’s momentum is going to actually take her.

There’s a push and pull between “the novel,” or one’s intentions for the novel, and the directions the characters want to go, or end up going, in spite of these intentions. So if one is sensitive to various momentums, then those lives become the novel—so in their nascent stage the characters and the “novel” (the idea or concept of the story) are separate, but with luck they become the same thing. And at the beginning sometimes you know more about the characters than about the story—this is more ideal, though perhaps more rare—and you follow; or if you know more about the story than the characters, at the outset you must ask “what kind of people would be in this situation, would do these things?”

This is a long answer, but I do fear that these questions are related to a bigger one, or tied up in a trickier one, because the novel, like a life, is really just a collection of individual lives intersecting . . .

If the characters become the story and vice-versa, as I said before, the complication of having different versions, and many moving parts (in time and space), is a real headache and pleasure.

RM The story in The Shelter Cycle overlaps in certain ways with the story of your previous novel, My Abandonment. Were the characters that emerge in both books the starting point for The Shelter Cycle? What kept them interesting to you, after you had already written about them? What does it mean to you to have the same characters appear in multiple books that are not overtly related to each other as in a series?

PR Pretty much all of my books have such connections; for the most part, this is not for readers or “future scholars,” but for myself. It’s a simple way that I continue to build a world, to show that it’s all contiguous. Often I have a sense of minor characters that fascinated me in a previous work, people I’d like to know better, whom I’d like to follow and interrogate. Or major characters that have disappeared—or whose past was never explained . . .

The relationship between My Abandonment and The Shelter Cycle is like this, but also a little bit different. At some point I was just so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of outside information that I’d accumulated and I needed to make the project seem like [it was still] mine, to somehow find a balance or a personal way inside the story. To meet its authority with my own? So by embedding my previous characters in this world, integrating them, I managed to bring my world, and myself, inside the story—to give myself confidence.

RM There are many elements in your books that are somehow out of the ordinary, and yet they appear alongside what would be considered by most “normal reality,” and they fit rather perfectly. Occasionally, time behaves outside of the usual accepted laws, geographical space shrinks and expands, animals communicate with a kind of human directness, and certain people operate beyond the normal rules and regulations of the Newtonian universe as we understand it. Crudely put, do you consider yourself a magical realist? Or, how do you deal with things that are extraordinary in the ordinary world?

PR I feel like we make a lot of compromises in order to communicate and live with other people; we generalize and we generate expectations so that the world will behave, but it’s really strange. So for me part of being a writer is being attuned to other possibilities and explanations. I think of how, in the teachings of the Church Universal and Triumphant, they are so conscious of babies and young children having access to their previous lives and other insights that the waking world—that this plane—will try to beat out of them. Where we might say, “No, that’s a mistake,” or “you’re making that up,” or “you don’t remember that,” or “stop talking and thinking that way,” the members of the church would encourage the child and listen closely.

Perhaps writing is a way to try to think backward, to get back there, to entertain these questions. Otherwise, we might not have time for them, or they wouldn’t occur to us. In Baudelaire’s journals, he’s always asking these basic questions and insights like “Where do our dead friends go?” and “What a loss it is that we are unable to communicate with our friends the animals,” that are stated so baldly, so honestly—in a lot of conversations, bringing these things up might give rise to cynicism or resistance, accusations of childishness. These are the questions that make us uncomfortable, and that’s why we have to go there.

Growing up in Salt Lake City, surrounded by Mormons, I feel that my awareness of spiritual possibilities or claims was always present. Which is to say that questions of “normal reality” and apprehensions or descriptions that veer beyond these conventions is really more a question of spirituality and emotion for me than it is a literary strategy. In the Church Universal and Triumphant, for instance, there are the Elementals; the Nature Spirits who are constantly, invisibly around us, trying to help; and finally more malevolent Entities. There’s a constant awareness of energy, rising and falling, and becoming sensitive to harboring and gathering and protecting your energy, and generating positive energy to help yourself and others.

I wouldn’t say that I personally am looking for an explanation of how everything works—I welcome some confusion—but it’s been really helpful and interesting to me, in writing this book, to consider these possibilities. And to see that some of the more extreme beliefs were closer to ways I already felt than I’d acknowledged to others or myself. In one interview, for instance, a believer in the Teachings said “Listen, you and I are not these physical beings; we’re envelopes, we’re vehicles of skin in which our souls reside for a short period—we’re fortunate to meet here, and have this conversation, but this isn’t really who we are” and I thought “I’m going to die, now, out here in Montana . . . ” but then thirty seconds later, as the conversation drifted in another direction, I thought, “Actually, that makes sense to me, that’s not so different from how I feel.”

The complication and challenge of The Shelter Cycle, as described a little above, is to convey a world in which many people accept a really different understanding of the physical world—to describe this understanding and also the many variations that individuals’ beliefs might find within it.

My goal is to be attuned to the interior world and needs of any given story, rather than to consider myself any particular kind of writer. One danger of including elements of what some might consider the “fantastic” is that it allows a flight from the interesting limitations of the “normal reality” that we share. It can be abused as a means to escape tension or to simplify things; rather than making a story more interesting, [fantastic elements] can make it feel more contrived—the author’s hand can show. Which is to say I think I write plenty of things, and will, where exaggerations or deviations aren’t so physically present.


Saint Germain and the All-Seeing Eye.

And while I don’t consider myself a magical realist—I kind of consider that term to be tied to Latin America—maybe it helps to say that when I was in college two writers to whom I was paying close attention were Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Julio Cortazar. I loved and love them both, but for me Garcia-Marquez’s work, as it gains wonder, can lose tension because it loses a connection to the “normal reality” that I know. It loses context. Here, I suspect the cultural and certainly the political dimensions of what he does are part of the equation, and reveal my naivete. Instead of thinking “I’m worried about these characters and what might happen next,” the overriding concern can become, “How will Garcia-Marquez top this?”

This is something of an unfair generalization, but I’ll play it out. In that same essay, “On the Environs of the Short Story,” Cortazar warns against the “full-time fantastic”; he says, “the extraordinary must become the rule without displacing the ordinary structures in which it is inserted.” So the power of experience and description that might diverge from “normal reality” is contingent on these flights and windows being connected to the world we’ve agreed to share. And in my writing it’s always been important to embed any more fantastic element within the physical world in a way that hopefully is continuous, that doesn’t supplant our ways of understanding things, but deepens as it questions them. I don’t want a reader to assume that we’re in a fantasy world where anything is possible; I want the reader to recognize it as his own world first, and for that connection to be the bridge that reveals the familiar world as unfamiliar. Because I really don’t believe in the agreed-upon world, wholeheartedly.

RM In terms of your process of revision, how much to do you write in the beginning and how much do you erase? What kinds of things get to stay? What kinds of things have to go?

PR I feel like my usual breakdown is about 40-50% researching, collecting things, gathering notes, preparing to write, then about 10-15% writing, and the rest of the time is revision. But I guess writing is revision, if you believe Faulkner, or whoever said that. Perhaps it’s in revision that we take writing that we’ve done for ourselves and try to figure out how it could be an emotional and sensical experience for a reader.

The nature of an individual writer’s talents/strengths and the nature of any project really changes that, too. For instance, I’m a writer who’s always been somewhat successful as a ventriloquist—passing a voice through me, or letting it pass through me—and as soon as I have a good handle on a voice I make fewer missteps, or find more flexibility—we have more patience for less plot with a voice-driven book that is developing character or environment as it digresses—or just have a better internal handle on what is important. So with a book like My Abandonment, I maybe spent a year gathering information and daydreaming about it, organizing notes, then I wrote it in three to four months—pretty fast. The revision took place over the next six months, but it wasn’t too major—I had pretty much followed the narrator, Caroline, and those places where I, the author, had tried to make her do something she didn’t want to, were obvious. With that book, there was very little outside information or facts that needed to be borne, so pretty much everything was organic to the story.

With The Shelter Cycle, on the other hand, I had a vast amount of information; I had so much cosmology to explain, and history to detail, and cool facts that I wanted to include, and individuals’ stories I’d come to admire and feel affection for. The result was, once I got to the end, a manuscript that was about 1,000 pages long. Reading it was maybe akin to having been in the church, it was so confusing and overwhelming and encyclopedic. I felt like William T. Vollmann.

Again, in figuring “What kinds of things get to stay? What kinds of things have to go?” I return to the idea of figuring out the internal logic of the piece—what the story and the people in it need, rather than what I want the story to do or include. One thing that was really helpful was when one of my interviewees said, “Well, no one could possibly understand it all, all the beliefs—they were always changing. And everyone had their own favorite Ascended Master, or a part of the beliefs that they were invested in and focused on, what spoke to them.” So I had to really simplify the cosmology, but I tried to do it in a way that was sensitive to my characters and their beliefs.

So, revision, it takes a lot of time and sensitivity, or figuring out how to be sensitive in a slightly different way. The hardest part of revising is finding perspective; time helps, but one is never going to become a person who didn’t write the text in question . . . and another thing I’ve realized is that I get closer to the story as I write it, that the last third of any book is more like the rest of the book should be, since I’ve figured out and learned so many things about the characters and the world—things that were not so clear to me in the beginning. Revision is partially the process of bringing the rest of the book into alignment with those lessons . . .

The final version of The Shelter Cycle will be about one fifth the length of the first draft. About two hundred pages. It’s a much better novel for it.

Sometimes I hear writers, even myself, say things like, “Well, it was necessary to do all that writing in order to get it right. A lot of over-writing had to occur, to find out what I needed.” Is that true? I kind of don’t think so, or hope not, or think it’s a bit of an after-the-fact palliative statement. I’d kind of like to believe that we get better at finding our focus, of doing less over-writing. Then again, each project is different, and puts different pressure on a person, or it should. I mean, I spend a lot of time before starting a project trying to figure out how to avoid starting it in a similar way as I did the last one, to confuse myself enough that I can be surprised, so that I make new mistakes.

Peter Rock is the author of the novels The Unsettling, My Abandonment, and the forthcoming The Shelter Cycle, among other works. He teaches Creative Writing at Reed College and lives in Portland, OR. For more on Peter Rock, visit his website.

Rachel Mercer is a fiction writer from Taos, New Mexico. She now lives in Brooklyn and writes for BOMBlog.

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