A Richmond native, author Belle Boggs grew up in King William County. Her first book, Mattaponi Queen, was published in June 2010 by Graywolf Press. Mattaponi Queen won the Bakeless Prize, was short-listed for the 2010 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, was one of Kirkus Review’s top fiction debuts for 2010, and is a finalist for the 2011 Library of Virginia Literary Awards for Fiction.
JRW Board member, Gigi Amateau, recently posed these questions to the Tidewater author. Belle Boggs will speak at the 2011 James River Writers Conference.
Gigi: Belle, I really loved Mattaponi Queen. Each story is so distinct, yet interconnected with the other stories in the collection and well-rooted its setting – King William County. Even those that physically take place outside King William are grounded in the place. Did you envision a book of interwoven stories or did the book start with one story idea and grow from there?
Thank you, Gigi—it means a lot to me to have readers who know and appreciate the setting for Mattaponi Queen. The first story I wrote was “Youngest Daughter,” which happens to be the last story in the collection. It grew out of a poem I’d written in Gary Sange’s advanced poetry workshop as an undergraduate at VCU. He took all of us to Walkerton, my hometown, and matched us with a local resident (Gary lives in Walkterton, too). I spent the day with Wilbur White, who used to deliver eggs. When I got to graduate school, in California, Geoffrey Wolff scrawled across a letter of introduction, “Are you lonesome for the Tidewater?” and I felt surprised—it hadn’t occurred to me to miss my home yet.
I didn’t begin the other stories until years later, when I was teaching elementary school in Brooklyn. I think it was after I’d written “Good News for a Hard Time” that I realized I wasn’t done with some of the characters. I began the collection without thinking about publication, but it was comforting to return to some of the same characters in other stories, so the collection grew with my interest in those characters.
Gigi: Are there any stories that you wrote but left out of the book?
Yes—I wrote a few short shorts, which helped me define for myself the themes of the book. Some of them I liked a lot, but they weren’t necessary when I was putting the manuscript together.
Gigi: As a native of a Mississippi county quite similar [ but sans river] to the setting of Mattaponi Queen, I appreciate the respect and affection that you hold for the rural south, which is so evident in how fully and thoughtfully you write your characters. Sometimes, I read characters from the rural south that I feel are flat and one dimensional, not much more than stereotypes. How do you approach characterization, particularly in the short story form?
I love to read. I’m a big fan of Southern short story writers who handle their characters in subtle or unexpected ways—Edward P. Jones, Flannery O’Connor (of course), Jayne Anne Phillips, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tony Earley, Jill McCorkle. The writing I like the best allows some space for humor, and I think that’s key to interesting, rounded characterization.
I also love living in the rural South, the friendliness of the people and the pace of life. I live in rural North Carolina now, but have found pockets of what felt like Southern life in Brooklyn and D.C. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always looked for that—somewhere people will nod their heads and say hello, or tell you some odd story while you wait for the train.
Gigi: The characters who live in Mattaponi Queen are wildly diverse – young, old, male, female, transgender, Indian, black, white, poor, wealthy. When you feel called to write a character way different from you and your life experiences, how do you approach that from a craft perspective and also from just a personal, human perspective? Is there a character you won’t write? Do you think about these things?
That’s a good question. I try to write about people who are in some ways like people I’ve known in real life, and I tried, with this collection, to represent the community where I grew up. As a teacher of everything from first grade to GED to college, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of different people, and sometimes they find their way—sort of—into my writing. For example, Marcus grew out of worry for some of my former students: would they be let down by the adults in their life? Would they persevere, if they were let down? Could they rise above their circumstances? Lila, from “Opportunity,” grew out of fascination with the principal of my school in Bed-Stuy, a beautiful woman who was so mean and cold we called her Darth Vader behind her back. Internally of course the characters are a lot like me. I relate strongly to Loretta and Ronnie, but also to Melinda, George, and Jeremy.
Gigi: The pacing of Mattaponi Queen made for a fantastic reading experience. For a good ways through the book the stories felt warm and gentle – like a lazy river lapping at my ankles. Other stories most definitely felt like I was shooting through Class IV rapids! How did you design the pacing?
As an avid kayaker, I love this question! I didn’t think about the pacing of the collection very much as I was writing each story, as I mostly worked on each story one at a time. Putting together the collection, though, I had to shift the order of the stories until it felt right—not just revealing the characters in a way that made sense, but also modulating the pacing so that, hopefully, the reader has a sense of place and time and themes.
Gigi: When I think about the common elements of each story, the King William County world is one of them. I definitely feel that I’m reading about a community of people all living, working, loving, trying together. But, I also feel like the idea of ‘leaving’ can be traced through each story – leaving King William or leaving employment, leaving addiction, leaving a limb, leaving gender. What do you see as the common themes or central theme in the collection?
I think leaving is definitely one. When I began the collection, living in New York, I was starting to come to terms with what it meant to be apart from and a part of that place. I think anxiety and helplessness is another: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had started, and people I knew from home were getting called up. I’ve always felt anxiety about the environment, particularly around the Mattaponi River, and so that fear is part of the book, too, along with gratitude for the Mattaponi Indians, who demonstrate that we can live in harmony with the river.
One of the stories is named for the Bob Dylan song, “Buckets of Rain,” and his lines, “Life is sad, life is a bust, all ya can do is do what you must,” apply to so many of my characters. Many of them are really talented people—George, the dreams-deferred custodian and new homeowner, Loretta the nurse, Ronnie the painter, Marcus as a runner and even Skinny as a musician and chef—but things have gotten in the way of the lives they thought they’d lead, and now they’re making the best of what they have. They’re surviving.
Gigi: You teach writing to middle school and high school students. This summer you were in Richmond, teaching with Richmond Young Writers. What do you observe are the biggest challenges that young writers face? What have you seen work in the classroom that helps students get excited about starting to write or most encourage them to continue to grow in craft?
I think the biggest challenge for my students is finding enough time to read widely, to find literature that sparks a desire to write. I tell my students that my greatest matchmaking pleasure (other than finding someone the perfect dog) is putting just the right book in their hands at just the right time. I can look on my bookshelf today and see books suggested to me by Pat Hoppe at West Point High School, Sally Doud and Marita Golden at VCU, and Michelle Latiolais from UC-Irvine, books I still read for inspiration. I try to do the same thing for my students, introducing them to writers they might not find in a textbook, and this year my goal is to help them make more space for passionate, independent reading.
Gigi: What are you working on right now?
A novel! Two novels? One is set in Richmond in the 1920’s, and the other is contemporary. I also love writing essays and have just finished editing one for Orion magazine.