Peter Rock is the author of Alex Award-winning novel, My Abandonment, as well as The Bewildered, The Ambidextrist, This Is the Place, Carnival Wolves, and a story collection, The Unsettling. He lives in Portland with his family.
Rock’s most recent novel, The Shelter Cycle, fearlessly addresses the complexities of coming to terms with a fringe faith from childhood as the two main characters address their pasts and their involvement in the Church Universal and Triumphant during the pivotal years that the group prepared for the end of the world in Montana.
KH: What originally sparked your interest in the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT)?
PR: Originally—back in 1988—it was simple proximity. I was working on a ranch above Paradise Valley, near Yellowstone, in Montana. The Church was our neighbor. Driving up Highway 89, I could see the earth starting to get all humped up and paranoid as the shelters were built; in Livingston, the nearest town, the members were visible in their blue and violet clothing; on television, the Messenger, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, was often cast into my world. The people I worked for had some friends who were members, too, and I had some interaction with them; we only discussed ranch matters, though, not the end of the world. And as aware as I was that all this was happening around me, my immediate concerns—would I freeze to death, in my little bunkhouse? Would the elk destroy my high stretch of barbed wire again? Would my college girlfriend come and visit me? Would I ever become a writer?—kept me pretty distracted. So the basic question of how to prepare for the end of the world, then surface into and live in a world you believed might no longer exist—that festered and fermented and germinated inside me for almost twenty years.
KH: What was your perception of the church at the time you first learned about it and how did the research you did for this novel transform that opinion?
PR: I grew up in Utah, so the presence of large masses of religious believers wasn’t unusual for me. Still, like most people, I wrote these folks off as dwellers on the fringe. And I still felt that way as I headed into writing the book. In some unconscious, cynical way, part of my compulsion to write about them was probably “Hey, these are some people who did some crazy things—I’m going to mine that in a book, work that crazy seam.” But of course our preconceptions, or my fantasies about these people, fall apart when confronted with real people. Because when I started thinking about the book someone told me that a student who had graduated from Reed College, where I teach, had been a child in the church. So I contacted her and she was willing to speak with me, and through her I met others and interviewed them.
These people were so excellent—so smart, with such a great perspective on that time, a sense of gracious humor. I had to respect that. The more we talked, the more I had to respect that they had joined the church for good reasons, to find a better way to live and raise their children. They’d considered spiritual concerns and actually acted on beliefs in a way I certainly never had, so I had no position from which to judge. Finally, I realized that the cosmology of the church was so complicated that I’d have to do a lot of study to even know what questions to ask, or to be worthy to talk with these people.
KH: You present a remarkably even portrait of not only the history, but also the theology of the CUT. How did you maintain this even-handedness and why was that temperance important in your portrayal of the Church in the novel?
PR: Once I started doing interviews, the prospect of not being even-handed became impossible. I wanted to understand the inside of the church and its teachings as best I could; it seemed really counterproductive to simultaneously stand outside them and cast aspersions. My contact with people from the church colored the slant of the book. At times the book is caught somewhere between oral history and fiction. There are so many specific anecdotes or descriptions that are straight out of people’s lives. Two things struck me most when interviewing people who had been children back during the shelter cycle (1986-1990 or so):
Second, the people I’d talked to had left the church long ago, and no longer believed the teachings, and they had various relationships with that past. And yet they told me that in times of stress they’d often find themselves chanting the decrees from the past. Having children is one time that they’d revert, even against their wishes, to earlier beliefs. They spoke of this as a great frustration, this vestigial belief system that was stuck inside of them, that they could never really escape.
Ultimately I suppose another goal was to respect the reader, as well—to try to offer up a fair account of the history and cosmology and how it might affect people, and then allow the reader to come to her own conclusions…
KH: In contrast to the safety of “Shelter” in the title your book confronts a lot of unsettling themes including the loss of childhood (literally and also figuratively). Why did children play such a significant role in the book?
PR: One simple reason was that writing of that time from a person who was a child back then allowed me to simplify and focus. But it was also crucial because, as one source told me, “joining the Church was a choice for my parents, and part of a trajectory based on other beliefs and choices; so when we left they already had this sense of possible evolution—for us, we had nothing to go back to, no path to pick up from.”
Of course the prospect of the apocalypse is real to adults, but more as a threat or a series of possibilities; describing it from the children’s point of view allowed it to be seen as both more certain and more of an adventure.
Finally—I worry about children. During the time I wrote this, my two daughters were born, so that informed every decision I made while also opening me up in a way from a cynicism that was becoming ingrained.
KH: You wrote an essay recently about going to visit the shelters. What was the experience like?
PR: Completely disconcerting. For one thing, the main shelter I spent time in, Lifesavers, is truly amazing and beautiful. Forty feet underground, shaped like the inside of a donut, all this bent redwood curving up the walls. Just an amazing feet of engineering, a demonstration of huge amounts of talent and forethought and work. To see all the generators, the classroom far underground with windows painted on the walls, all the families’ rooms withbunkbeds and encyclopedias and so many years worth of shoes and clothing for the children who would be getting incrementally larger, growing up underground.
To me, who’d been spending a lot of time imagining and thinking and writing about the shelters, to actually be inside them was surreal. It was as if I was inside my own head, inside my story in a physical way I’d never encountered before. And then at the same time I was standing in someone else’s history, all these pieces of evidence, these artifacts, this planning, and it felt a little like a crypt.
KH: I did look up a number of Prophet’s decrees after reading your book. They’re mesmerizing. Did any of them get stuck in your head while writing? Which is your favorite?
PR: Yes, they’re amazing. I recommend that people go on youtube and seek them out. Just to see the Messenger, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, hold forth is so powerful.
The descriptions of my sources of the power of decreeing at high speed for several hours with hundreds of people all together—the amazing vibrations that were generated, that could shift all bad energy to good—were some of the most compelling evidence, for me, and decreeing became one crucial way for me to try to empathize. So I was down in my basement, invoking the violet flame and tube of light.
The most basic Violet Flame decree—these typically transmute bad energy to good—is:
I am a being of Violet Fire
I am the purity God desires…
I recommend you try this out for 10-15 minutes. You really will feel better.
Kristianne Huntsberger is a writer, performer and educator who, when not roaming the world, makes her home in Seattle. She has worked with the Elliott Bay Book Company in various capacities over the past ten years.