Some writers skip about the globe taking you from St. Tropez to Mongolia with a stop in Tehran all in the space of a novel or even a story. Others settle into one, circumscribed geographic area and make it their own. Belle Boggs is the latter tradition. In her debut collection of short stories, Mattaponi Queen, she has beautifully captured rural King William County in Virginia. These interlinked stories are a great achievement as she has created a rich, capacious fictional territory about the lives of down-on-their luck people (forlorn principals, vengeful nurses, junkies trying to be good parents) that we don’t often encounter in fiction but fill the world.
“I love place, landscape, the local, weirdness, gossip, meanness, alcoholics, slow drivers. People who still live with their mothers. People who get dressed up to go to the post office.”
Place is essential to Boggs. She grew up in King William County so her stories can be read as a return to home (she’s lives in North Carolina now). A love letter to her youth, and, one imagines, a salute to some of the people she knew growing up. In an e-mail note, Boggs shared more of her family history: “Growing up, I always lived very close to the Mattaponi River. My family first lived in King William County on a farm, and then we moved to a log cabin that had been built a hundred years before as a hunting and fishing lodge. When I was fifteen we moved across the river to a pre-Civil War house in Walkerton, a town of fewer than 100 people in King and Queen County. The Mattaponi Indian Reservation is just one of the settings of my book, but it's an important part of the community, and the Mattaponi are great advocates for the river and the natural resources of the Middle Peninsula. I wanted to represent the people of my community—black, white, Native American.”
The clichéd pronouncement of creative writing teachers everywhere—“to write what you know”—has served Boggs very well. As she relates, “In graduate school in California, before we had workshop, Geoffrey Wolff wrote on my welcome letter, "Are you lonesome for the Tidewater?" I thought it was a crazy question at the time—I was 23 and had just left the Tidewater, but I gradually came to understand what he meant as I moved from Long Beach to Los Angeles to New York.”
Her writing is careful, often spare, but these stories, while never maudlin, are filled with great affection and heart for their characters, even the least worthy among them, as they go about their confused lives. These stories are about people—a father too drunk to drive his son home from a Bob Dylan concert, a teen trying to make it on the football team and ending up in prison—that are rarely written and certainly not so well. But she avoids creating mere caricatures (the drunken father, for instance, is not a hell-raiser) and imbues them with a remarkable naturalness. A result it seems both from her childhood as well as her work as a teacher in North Carolina. She writes, “Working at these jobs (I'm still a public school teacher) taught me to value my writing time and also taught me about the people I wanted to write about: lonely school principals, gentle custodians, parents who are doing their best, which may not be enough.”
I was reminded reading these stories of Edward P. Jones’ acclaimed short story collection, Lost in the City. While the style of their writing and the setting are quite different (Mattaponi is all more or less rural), Boggs shares Jones’ remarkable ability to drill into a specific place and make it feel like a whole world, filled with endless stories and characters worthy of their own sequels, prequels, and sometimes even a whole novel. (As I learned later, Boggs counts him as probably her “favorite living writer.” Here’s to critical insight.)
Of course, the most obvious echo of a writer setting a series of stories in one particular (fictional or otherwise) place is surely Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. This only raises the question about whether Boggs sees herself as a Southern writer. “Of course! I'm a Southern writer and a Southerner,” she replied. “I love place, landscape, the local, weirdness, gossip, meanness, alcoholics, slow drivers. People who still live with their mothers. People who get dressed up to go to the post office. People with a dread of having their names in the newspaper. I know this sounds old-fashioned, but where I'm from this world still exists. I hope I'll be able to write more about the changing landscape, the changing environment, encroaching development, because it's important and it has worried me all my life."
With an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, a story published in the Paris Review, and the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize (to which her husband submitted her manuscript without telling her), Boggs is quickly accumulating accolades. She is a writer to read and to watch (a novel is in the works) for in Boggs’ capable hands there are surely a thousand more stories to be told about King William County.
Lucas Wittmann is the Books Editor at The Daily Beast.