Last week I reviewed the The Shelter Cycle, the newest book from Portland author, Peter Rock, and got to attend a reading of the book at Powell’s. It was the second author event I attended where the writer is also a teacher and it makes for a unique evening. To begin with, there are often a lot of students in the crowd—especially for Rock who teaches at a local private college. This night looked to be no exception, as the young couple next to me unloaded backpacks and took out spiral notebooks and pens. This was interesting. Didn’t all students type on tablets or record classes? Who wrote with a pen anymore?
The second surprise was to see Rock wandering around before the event. Because I relate everything to how I would act, the words bathroom and throwing up are the only things I can imagine. However, Rock, like Natalie Goldberg the previous week, was comfortably sitting and talking to people. He was equally mellow for the next 40 minutes, handling questions and surprises with a deadpan sense of humor that was initially startling given how not-funny his books are and how serious his photo appears on the dust jacket. He maintained this relaxed demeanor, despite the events coordinator informing us in her opening that one of Powell’s sales staff had said that he was “the hottest author who’d ever been at Powell’s.” So began an evening that would end with just as much surprise and humor. An entertaining event all the way around.
Before he read from the first chapter Rock gave us a bit of his background and that of the book’s subject. In the 1980s he knew he wanted to be a writer and decided that to do so he should live in Montana, so right after college he got a job working on a ranch. There he came into contact with members of the religious sect, the Church Universal and Triumphant , who had relocated their headquarters from California to Montana and were preparing themselves for the end of the world by nuclear missiles, on March 15, 1990. The three years when they worked on preparing for the apocalypse was known as “the shelter cycle.” The novel stems from his curiosity about “how it might be to believe that the world was going to end and to prepare so long and hard for it and then to go underground… and then to surface into this world you believed wouldn’t exist anymore.”
Six years ago, Rock discovered a former student had grown up in the church during the shelter cycle. She agreed to be interviewed and what was a question in a writer’s mind began to become a novel. Through the interview process he saw that the people were “so smart and had such a sense of humor about their previous experiences and were so helpful to me and, one of the main things that I found, was that they really considered spiritual questions in a way that I never had and I didn’t have a way to talk to them.”
As I started to talk to people I realized that was also really interesting to me was the fact that many people who were children at that, but were now about 30, had left the church shortly after the shelter cycle but were still very much haunted by the beliefs they had and they would say, “I would head out into a situation that became intense or in moments of stress I would suddenly find myself chanting or saying these prayers and they came out of my body unbidden, like this vestigial belief, that I wish I could get rid of.”
This “vestigial belief” seemed to be more pronounced amongst former members who had become parents, as there were so many tenets regarding pregnancy and child rearing. How you could shift your child’s DNA when it was the womb, where and when you could touch them and “what children say when they first begin to talk. One of the first beliefs of the church was that what children were talking about was their previous lives and we try and correct them and bring them back into alignment rather than allow them to tell us what is going on in the spiritual world and what’s happened in their past.”
In addition to giving this background of the church, Rock also played an audiotape of a church ritual called decreeing and a clip of an interview with Elizabeth Clare Prophet, the church’s leader who was known as the Messenger. From there the discussion moved into the writing of the book, which he says is the book that “beat me up the most and that I’m most proud of.”
During the book’s research he went back to Montana three times for interviews, became a father and was “becoming less cynical and a lot more confused as I went.” The third time I went I couldn’t sleep anymore and I was spending so much time trying to understand the beliefs and trying to make the book work and at the same time I had all these relationships with real people in Montana.
The father of the original girl he interviewed said, “You know the first time you came to talk to us you really had it together, I was really impressed. You looked good and you had these questions that were sharp and now, you’re a mess, you look terrible, you can’t put sentences together. I think you might get closer to what it was like. You might be getting somewhere on this project.”
In talking with another one of his sources about the difficulty of trying to put these beliefs together in a coherent way, this person replied, “Well that was the point, that’s how they kept us off-balance, they kept changing things so there was no end to it.”
Ultimately, he needed to spend time away from the sources so that his “characters would feel as real to him as the people did and so they would take control in a different way.”
The evening closed with Q&A and an offer from Rock to join him at a bar across the street. Oh, and a final question that brought down the house.
Have any of the people you interviewed read the book?
“Yes, it’s really kind of intense for them. They had an ideal version of what I was doing, that it would legitimize them or tell their story so it’s going to be dissatisfying for them no matter what. They’re pretty sophisticated people, a lot of them just appreciate how hard I tried and that I stuck with it as it got more and more confusing and stranger. There are definitely people who wanted the Messenger to be punished, who wanted to name names and wanted me to expose things but I was more interested in telling a happy story which seemed like more of a surprising story, given the history. I was kind of stricken, over and over, with how gracious and smart these people were and what a great sense of humor they had, especially the people who were kids. If you’ve ever studied a church like this, a really serious, extreme set of beliefs you start feeling like the people you meet are so impressive, everyone should have grown up with a set of beliefs like this.
Have your own views been challenged by the process of writing the book?
Absolutely. I grew up in Salt Lake City and because I’m not Mormon but was always surrounded by Mormons it always felt like this spiritual pressure pushing down on us. I was very defensive and was opposed to organized religion of any kind. I think it just took a while for me to reengage in some way. I think probably people who have had me as a teacher in the last four or five years have seen that I’ve become stranger and stranger. I’ve started talking more and more about energy rather than productive fictional techniques.
What made you decide to set this story in Idaho?
Good question. I come back to Boise often and sometimes I think it’s because maybe I don’t want to write about Salt Lake City, where I’m from. A portion of my last book, My Abandonment, takes place in Idaho and it overlaps in this book and part of that was I learned so much about the church and had so much information and wrote so much and I just got lost. I was really overwhelmed and so I had this desire to find something of my own that I could crash into it or that would give me a place to stand on, so I brought this other story that I knew well, that I felt comfortable in and that story happened to take place in Idaho so that’s where I was.
Last question. Rock points to the very back of the crowd, which was substantial, and says, “Arthur?”
The man says, “I was listening to your radio interview this afternoon with my wife who is the sister of your wife and…”
Rock interjects, “Oh really?”
After the laughter dies down, Arthur continues, “You were talking about how you when you were in Montana working on the ranch and all these things were going through your mind and one of the things you said was occupying you quite a lot was your college girlfriend and my wife, especially, was curious to know more about that.”
Rock doesn’t miss a beat, just looks down and back up, “That’s a clown question, bro. Don’t even remember her name.”