THE WRITING LIFE ... Belle BOGGS
INTERVIEW BY ERIC FORBES
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF BELLE BOGGS
Belle, heartiest congratulations on winning the 2009 Bakeless Fiction Prize and being shortlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize for Fiction for your first book, Mattaponi Queen. What is it like to be recognised for your literary efforts?
Thank you very much, Eric! It has been a dream come true.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I didn’t know anything about it until I was on the longlist. I’ve been reading about the festival, and I’m excited to hear so many wonderful writers read and give talks.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were on the shortlist for the Frank O’Connor?
I told my husband, did a little dance of joy, then walked around my property looking for cell phone reception so I could call my parents.
What do you think of the other titles on the shortlist? Are you familiar with any of them?
I haven’t read them yet—but I will. I’m already a fan of Ron Rash and T.C. Boyle, and I look forward to reading everyone’s stories.
Could you tell me a bit about your family history and yourself?
My parents live in Walkerton, Virginia, a town of fewer than 100 people on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. My mother is an artist, my father is a contractor, and my brother and I are both teachers. After college I moved around a lot—to California, New York, North Carolina and Washington, D.C.—but my husband and I plan to stay put in Chatham County, North Carolina. I live in a tiny house in the woods and teach in a small rural high school that’s housed in an old textile mill on the Haw River. I love reading, cooking, kayaking, and being outside.
Where were you born? Have you always lived in this part of America? (Tell me about this part of the world.)
I was born in Richmond, Virginia, and grew up in King William and King & Queen counties. When I was very young my family rented a house on a huge, weedy soybean farm, then moved to a 100-year-old log cabin, and finally to a 200-year-old house that was requisitioned as a hospital for Union soldiers during the Civil War. We sometimes find relics in the yard—a bone toothbrush, old glass bottles, Civil War bullets. My family has always lived close to the Mattaponi River, and we love to be out on the water. My very favourite place to be is out in a boat on the Mattaponi at dusk in the summer.
The Mattaponi Indians make their home along the Mattaponi and trace their ancestry back to Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas and ruler of most of Tidewater Virginia when Europeans arrived in 1607. They’ve maintained many of their traditions—especially shad fishing—and members of that community are very important to the protection of the Mattaponi, which is one of America’s most pristine coastal rivers.
(I have never been to America, but it is one country I have always wanted to visit.) What’s it like to live in America?
You should visit! I’ve travelled very little in other countries, so it’s hard for me to compare. I think it differs greatly from place to place, since it’s such a big country, but I really liked Peter Hessler’s piece in The New Yorker a couple of months ago about moving back to the United States from China, the surprises (after being gone for more than a decade) and differences between the two cultures. For the most part, Americans drive too much, read too little, and buy too many things. It’s very easy here to go back to somewhere you used to live and find it utterly changed—knocked down, built up, turned into a store, etc. If you visited me in Chatham County I would take you kayaking on the Haw River, and I can almost promise that we would see a bald eagle.
When did you know you were going to be a writer?
I have wanted to be a writer since I was 10 years old.
What does it mean to be a writer? What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer?
I think it’s often really frustrating. I like that Lorrie Moore line, from “How to Become a Writer”: “First, try to be something, anything, else.” But most serious writers feel it as a kind of calling, I think—they can’t do anything else. I love reading biographies of writers—one of my favourites is Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates. This past winter I read Carol Sklenicka’s biography of Raymond Carver, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, and was reminded again of the long struggle so many writers undertake, the hardships imposed on families, the small chance each writer has. For me, the greatest pleasure is in writing the work when it is going well, and giving someone you love something that you’ve written.
You have now published your first work of literature. Looking back, was it difficult getting it published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for it?
Mattaponi Queen was unagented—it won the Bakeless Fiction Prize after my husband submitted it to the contest, unbeknownst to me. I was very, very lucky to win—and luckier still to land at Graywolf Press, a wonderful independent press where everyone—writers, editors and publicists—functions as a team. I now have a wonderful agent, but that process can be so tricky. I wrote a blog post about my experiences with agents (and advice to other writers seeking an agent) in Poets & Writers’ Agent Action blog.
Could you tell me a bit about Mattaponi Queen? What was the seed of the stories?
Mattaponi Queen is a collection of twelve stories, many of them linked, set along the Mattaponi River in Virginia. Some of the stories are set on the Mattaponi Indian Reservation, and some as far as Washington, D.C. and Brooklyn. I wrote the very last story in the collection, “Youngest Daughter,” in a workshop at my MFA program at UC-Irvine and didn’t write the next stories for a few years. When I started the collection, I had just finished my first year of teaching in a public elementary school in Brooklyn, New York. It was summer, and I went to the New York Public Library every day and worked on the stories in the Rose Reading Room. Later I moved to North Carolina, taught General Educational Development (GED) classes, and finished a draft of the collection.
How did you go about creating the characters that people the landscape of your fictional universe?
I think the characters are influenced first by my family, then by the people I grew up around, and finally by the many people I’ve met as a teacher.
How detailed do you lay out the plots before you started writing the stories? Did you know where you were going with the stories as you were writing them or did they evolve on their own?
It depends on the story—sometimes I knew the whole story as I began, while sometimes the ending or another part of the story would reveal itself as I went along.
What are some of the themes you dealt with in the stories? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the stories?
I think the primary themes are things that I am very interested in as a person—race and class, ideas of home, abandonment, loneliness, the way the natural world changes. I don’t know that I was conscious of including them, though they are things I tend to think about frequently.
How much research did you do?
I was lucky to spend some time with Minnie-haha Custalow, of the Mattaponi Indian Tribe, while working on some of the stories set on the Mattaponi Indian Reservation. I go home fairly often, which helps, but in general most of these stories grew out of life experiences in a place I know well.
As you were putting the stories together, how did you know when a story is completed? Do deadlines determine this or do you feel a sense of confidence that there is no way you can improve on the text any further?
That’s a good question! Sometimes I will feel that a story is done, but later an early reader will suggest elaboration and I’ll go back into the story. Revision is hard, but so important. A lot of times I’ll go back into a story and add a scene, or delete a scene, a while after I thought the story was done. I used to teach first grade, and the common refrain in writing workshop was “when you’re done, you’ve just begun.” My kids knew it (groaningly) by heart.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing your first book?
I think I learned that I should write what most compels me at the time. Also, almost all of the characters in Mattaponi Queen—from George, the elementary school custodian who has moved his family to Washington, D.C., to Cutie Young, who spends almost her whole life in one house—have something in common with me, a quirk of personality or feeling that unites us. I also learned that the work itself is more important to me than the publishing of it; for a while I did not think my collection would be published, and that had become okay for me.
I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age? And have they in any way contributed to the making of you as a writer today?
The first books I loved as a child were stories about animals: Arnold Lobel’s wise and funny Frog and Toad series, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. I read and reread Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, identified with Jo and wanted to be good, like Beth. I started reading Southern writers, like Clyde Edgerton and Lee Smith, when I was pretty young. I liked finding humour and idiosyncrasy and surprise in books, which influenced me to become a writer, to try to represent the world I came from.
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction? What do you think distinguishes the great novels from the merely good?
For me, great novels leave something for the reader to create or fill in, and they also have an element of surprise and newness. The writing must also be beautiful. This is why a book like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, for me, is a great novel—or Halldor Laxness’s Independent People or Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country.
Tell me a bit about some of the contemporary authors and books you enjoy reading.
My favourite living author is Edward P. Jones, partly because he writes about a part of the world that is very important to me—that Washington, D.C.-Virginia-North Carolina corridor. I had the chance to meet him at the University of North Carolina this spring and I was absolutely star-struck. Some contemporary authors I love are Maile Meloy, William Trevor, Alice Munro, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ha Jin, Ron Hansen, Percival Everett and Michelle Latiolais. I can’t wait for Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood to come out this summer.
Right now, partly because I’m preparing for classes, I’m enjoying a lot of narrative nonfiction. This year I was crazy about Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which has a lot to say about class, race, education and health care in America. On my list of (relatively recent) great contemporary nonfiction are Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Ron Suskind’s A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League, David Simon and Edward Burns’s The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood and David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
Who are some of your favourite American authors? What are some of your favourite American classics? Why?
As a Southern woman writer and a lover of the short story, I always go back to Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. I also love Richard Yates, William Styron, Edward P. Jones and Wendell Berry. Some of my favourite American classics: Evan S. Connell’s Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I think Edward P. Jones’s The Known World will be an American classic.
Could you suggest a couple of good reads that you think haven’t received as much attention as they should?
I don’t know how many people read Salvatore Scibona’s The End, but it is utterly original and beautiful. All the work of Wendell Berry should be read—now more than ever. I can also recommend Mary Yukari Waters (The Laws of Evening) and Michael Jaime-Becerra (Every Night Is Ladies’s Night), two writers of wonderfully delicate short-story collections who also have recently published fantastic novels (The Favorites and This Time Tomorrow respectively).
Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading it? And do you reread books you enjoy the first time round?
I think my all-time favourite book is William Maxwell’s slim, beautiful, enigmatic So Long, See You Tomorrow. Whenever I go to The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York I always visit Alberto Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 a.m. and think about the passage from that book in which it is described. I reread books all the time—some books and stories I reread almost every year.
What about nonfiction? Do you enjoy reading them? What kinds?
Yes! See above, my answer about contemporary things I’m reading—lots of narrative nonfiction. I’m also getting more into essays and creative nonfiction. I loved Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays: what a smart, elegant, tough book.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just finished Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a fascinating memoir and history of the disappearing longleaf pine forests in the American Southeast.
Do you think more creative writing programs are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I don’t think they’re imperative, but I do think that—ideally—they bring new voices to the table, people who might not have the same amount of access to the literary world or time to write. I think it would have been difficult for me to develop as a writer without the three nurturing years I spent at UC-Irvine, the wonderful professors who taught me, partly because I would have been supporting myself at a job. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to go into debt to get an MFA—luckily, my program was free. And we probably don’t need more of them.
Do you think there are differences between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you prefer working on?
I think characters in novels have a way of living in your head that feels more all-consuming than characters in short stories, and for that reason I love working on novels best. In fact, I’m working on one right now.
Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
My favourite short story is Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” I love the elegance and surprise of this story. It’s so short but reveals a whole world—like a novel.
I buy a lot of books and live in a tiny house, so I can see the benefit of e-readers, though I don’t have one. I can’t imagine giving up the real thing, though—I like the heft of a book in my hands, turning the pages. And I think that e-reading—having dozens or hundreds of books available on the same device—might encourage a frenetic, inattentive reading style, the same way Internet reading works. I like one book, a chair or a spot on the ground, the computer far away ...
Readers often say how literary novels lack plots. Do you think literary novelists should put more emphasis on plot and less on stylistics? Why do you think there’s a perceived divide between popular and literary fiction?
No, style is absolutely why I read and why I write. I don’t read a lot of popular fiction—though I think it’s great when sometimes a literary book transcends that audience, and everyone reads it (Yann Martel’s fantastic Life of Pi comes to mind)—partly because of this. Popular fiction seems too concerned with plot, not enough with originality and writing, and it doesn’t change the reader. It’s a passive experience, and I’m not interested in passive reading.