“Belle is an extraordinarily talented writer in both fiction and nonfiction. She is nothing short of brilliant.”
Belle Boggs welcomes a visitor to her Oakwood home as if she has all the time in the world. She offers up a slice of sweet potato bread she’s just baked, settles in for a free-ranging chat, and speaks at a thoughtful pace.
But Belle Boggs doesn’t have all the time in the world. She has a graduate fiction writing class at N.C. State to teach in a little while, she has a short story to finish, and she has a novel to write. Belle Boggs is in demand because she is a major talent, and because her books, including the recent The Art of Waiting, have brought her national awards, acclaim, and an ever-brighter spotlight.
“Oh, she is wonderful,” says celebrated Hillsborough novelist Jill McCorkle, who teaches with Boggs at N.C. State, “and people will know of her soon if they don’t already.”
Those who do are fans of her unforgettable short story collection, Mattaponi Queen, which won the prestigious Bakeless Prize for fiction, and her profound The Art of Waiting, which has been included on best-of lists by Publishers Weekly, Real Simple, Elle, The Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed, among several others; it was also nominated for a prominent PEN award.
A nonfiction exploration of infertility, medicine, and motherhood, the book follows the author’s own journey through that terrain, weaving in cultural history and journalism to create a poignant, clarifying collection of essays. With it, “Boggs joins the ranks of great American essayists, writing fearlessly about the personal and the political and where they intersect,” wrote O, The Oprah Magazine in naming the book among its top 10 picks for 2016.
“What I admire is the great wealth of material she pulled into The Art of Waiting,” McCorkle says, “biology, animal behavior, social injustices, art, and literature. She is articulate and insightful and compassionate.”
The widespread acclaim clearly hasn’t gone to Boggs’s head. Sitting at her dining room table one recent afternoon, she speaks with soft-
spoken modesty and good humor about her background: growing up the child of “hippies” and among artists in King William County, Va.; her summer job as a costumed cartoon character at Kings Dominion amusement park (she was Cindy Bear, Yogi Bear’s girlfriend); her years teaching elementary and high school students (“teaching, if you do it well, is a very intense endeavor,” she says); her unsuccessful attempts to get a first novel published; the surprise of her first major prize (her husband submitted Mattaponi Queen for the Bakeless without her knowledge); her happiness in Raleigh.
“I am delighted to be here,” she says, smiling as she sits back in her chair in the deep front-porched 1880s bunglaow where she lives with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, who was born after the years Boggs details in The Art of Waiting. The house is happy: Her daughter’s artwork is proudly displayed, toys lie about, and a warm scent of the morning’s baking lingers. It’s no surprise to hear her say that she’s found her place. “I love Raleigh, I love North Carolina. North Carolina is my home now. It’s a great community for writers, a really supportive community for writers.”
The community she describes in Mattaponi Queen is also tightly knit, if seriously dysfunctional. Her fictional landscape is a place where addiction robs parents of the ability to care for their children; where resilient offspring try to rise above their circumstances; where people seek purpose in menial jobs and find meaning in modest lives; where kindness comes from unexpected places, and cruelty does too.
In the book, Boggs “created a rich, capacious fictional territory,” The Daily Beast wrote, “about the lives of down-on-their-luck people…that we don’t often encounter in fiction but fill the world.” Southern Living named Boggs its “Best New Southern Author” when Mattaponi Queen came out.
“I tried to be true to the place that I’m from,” Boggs says. Her own childhood and her years as an elementary school teacher introduced her to more than a few “adults who were not able to be the role models or the providers or the source of strength that their children needed them to be,” she says, but Boggs’s own circumstances, and her parents – her mother is an artist, her father built roller coasters at Kings Dominion, where “everyone” in the area found jobs at various points in their lives – were different.
“My mom’s a very creative person, and my Dad is too, and they’re both great storytellers,” she says. “I love art, and the idea of making some kind of art was very appealing to me. I think having an artist as a parent makes that a possible identity.” Boggs started writing early. “From fifth grade, I wanted to be a writer,” she says. “It’s lucky that nobody told me it’s really hard to be a writer.”
On May 7, she’ll talk about that hard work, about the life that’s given her rich material to mull and mine, about motherhood, about her novel in the works, which is set in the world of for-profit edcation, and about her continued interest in fiction and nonfiction. “I like going back and forth between the genres,” she says. “They energize each other.”
Walter readers have the opportunity to hear Boggs speak about both and to join the conversation at the Umstead Hotel & Spa on May 7, where an elegant luncheon will be followed by Boggs’s reading, questions and answers from the audience, and a book signing.
As her fellow writer, friend, and fan Jill McCorkle says, we’re lucky to have Boggs in our midst: “In short, Belle Boggs is the real thing – a true star.”
Tickets are $75 each, or two for $100.