Norah Hoover / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
In the late 1980s, Peter Rock worked as a ranch hand in a town in Montana that was also home to many members of the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT). Among the church's teachings was a prediction that a Soviet missile strike would bring about the end of the world. During a period of time known as "the shelter cycle," members of the church built underground bunkers stocked with years worth of food and supplies to weather the nuclear holocaust.
Rock's new novel, The Shelter Cycle, is a fictionalized telling of the lives of two members of that church, Francine and Colville. They were both children during the shelter cycle, and the book looks at how their experience with the church affected their lives as adults. Francine has left the CUT while Colville still believes many of the teachings. The book is an exploration of our ability to change, but also of the ways our pasts continue to shape our lives.
When he first started working on the novel about six years ago, Rock realized he didn't know much about the church and the beliefs of its members. He embarked on several years of reading and research, returning to Montana to interview former members and even experimenting with their practice of ritual chanting -- called "decreeing" -- in his basement. "I was trying to get as close as I could to the teachings and trying to understand it as best as a non-believer could," Rock said.
Rock told Think Out Loud's Dave Miller that he often struggled to figure out how to depict the complexity of CUT members' spiritual lives. "[The challenge of writing the novel] was trying to get a handle on how to convey something about religious beliefs that was not cynical and was not a parody or super critical. I wanted something that was going to be fair and was going to entertain these ideas in a way that didn't seem condescending."
On the practice of chanting or "decreeing":
"What they are trying to accomplish when they are decreeing is to change vibration, so a lot of the teachings have to do with color. St. Germaine's ray is the violet ray which is the violet fire which is the spectrum of light where there is the highest vibration. So they are trying to change bad to good through their chanting as it speeds up."
"One of my sources told me if you can imagine doing this for five or six hours in a room with thousands of people -- it's so surreal it's more intense than putting two hits of acid on your tongue."
On how he decided to write the novel:
"I had been thinking about [the church] because there was always this question of 'how would it be to believe that the world might end and then surface into the same world and have to live in it for all this time?' That is sort of where I started. I began gathering a little information and then I remembered that a student that I knew had been a child in the church during the time that I had been living just a mile or so away. So I started to talk to her and eventually went to Montana and worked my way through a series of interviews."
"I thought it was a great idea and I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do with it, but when I returned [from conducting my first set of interviews] I realized that part of the problem was I didn't know anything about it. So I spent about a year just reading and studying the teachings just to try to get the slightest bit of a handle on it ..."
On the challenge of turning real lives into fiction:
"It was a real pressure to figure out how to simplify without changing the beliefs and what to focus on ... I cared so much about the people and I had real relationships with them ... and I felt a responsibility to them. I'm still uncomfortable about the fact that there are places in the book that are somewhere between fiction and oral history. There are sentences and paragraphs that come out of interviews; there are details of people's lives. It has to be really unsettling to hear or read about a character saying something that you said or taking some piece of your experience. So for me one of the challenges was having enough time to write the book that the characters became as real to me as the real people did."
On his own spiritual journey while writing the novel:
"I wouldn't say that I exactly believe in the Ascended Masters, though I think they said a lot of great things and some scary things. I think it has made me more aware of just energy -- if that's not too New Age a thing to say -- and trying to recognize good energy in other people and trying to figure out how to express it."
This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.