Permission to Laugh: A Conversation with Belle Boggs

Belle Boggs is the author of The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood and Mattaponi Queen, a collection of linked stories set along Virginia’s Mattaponi River. The Gulf, her first novel, was published by Graywolf Press on April 2, 2019. The Art of Waiting was a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay and was named a best book of the year by KirkusPublishers Weekly, the Globe and Mail, Buzzfeed, and O, the Oprah MagazineMattaponi Queen won the Bakeless Prize and the Library of Virginia Literary Award and was a finalist for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences, and she teaches in the MFA program at North Carolina State University.


Belle Boggs’s comedic debut novel The Gulf combines relatable characters, realistic plots, lively pacing, and a rundown motel north of Sarasota, Florida, where anything quirky can happen and often does. Humor, a much-overlooked literary device, is Boggs’s artfully used tool to open up a conversation that explores the ethical layers of divisive topics. She examines the personal divides inside the political landscape of life by braiding them with wit and intelligence. Through poignant insights, Boggs’s characters break down stereotypes and encourage a more empathetic national dialogue anchored with hope. The Gulf’s seductive hilarity puts eyes on the rifts within education, politics, culture, faith, capitalism, climate change, love and even writing workshops.

Overview: Marianne, the protagonist of The Gulf, in a writing slump, is unable to make progress on her poetry manuscript. She is about to lose her ridiculously cheap Brooklyn apartment that is turning condo. When her novelist, ex-fiancé Eric, and his venture capitalist brother Mark, come to her with an idea, or rather remind her that years ago she had the idea, to open a writing school for Christians. Marianne reminds Eric that it was joke—taking money from Christians. Eric points out that no one is capitalizing on the Christian market and they could be the first. With limited options, Marianne, an atheist, signs on to become the administrative director of an “inspirational” low-residency school for Christian writers. She convinces herself she’ll find time to work on her poetry and rekindle her relationship with Eric. What could go wrong?

Via e-mail and in person, Belle Boggs and I discussed the psychology of humor in literature, unexpected points of connection, writing workshops and Florida.


Yvonne Conza: What are your thoughts about the psychology of humor in literature?

Belle Boggs: I used to teach high school, and I would read long passages of serious literature aloud to my classes, just so they could see that they were funny, so they felt they had permission to laugh. We’d read Dickens or Shakespeare, or a short story by Eudora Welty or Edward P. Jones, and the students were often surprised by the fact that they could laugh out loud. Connecting with the characters in that way helped bring them closer to the work, to the other things the writer had to say. I think when you’ve laughed over a book, it becomes part of your story, your identity.

When I first started teaching I worked with very young people—first graders, kindergartners—and they always connected first with the humor in a book. I’d gather everyone on the reading rug and read Arnold Lobel’s Owl at Home or Don Freeman’s Dandelion (“That was me! I was that silly lion!”), and my kids would roll on the floor laughing. They didn’t need permission to find the books funny—a sense of humor was something they had in common with the characters.

YC: Did a playful approach to your characters—their situations and their beliefs—offer you a more facile way to provide both sides of a story?

BB: It made writing the book more fun for me, and I think became a way of establishing the ridiculousness of Marianne and Eric’s business idea, the lack of seriousness they had in starting the school. Later, Marianne realizes that these people she has not taken particularly seriously are real people, with genuine artistic ambitions and a commitment to the school’s community. This book was written and revised over a kind of long stretch of time, when I was also working on a nonfiction book, and more than anything, I think the playfulness helped keep me going back to the story.

YC: How early on in the writing process did you visualize The Gulf through a humorous and relatable lens?

BB: Most of what I write, I write first for people closest to me—my husband, my friends, my parents. These are people who love storytelling and humor, and also have a strong interest in politics. I didn’t give my mother The Gulf until it was done and practically in print, and I was so relieved and happy that she liked it.

When I started writing the book, around 2011, I was observing things that were so alarming to me—these vaguely threatening, yellow and black Tea Party signs all along the roadside in my home county in Virginia, crazy letters to the editor in our hometown paper, a lot of right-wing messaging focused on the perceived threat posed by our first African-American president and “One World Government,” whatever that is—and I’d talk to my mother about them. Part of what drives our conversation is despair—how can our neighbors think this way? Who are these people? But I also feel like I get through it by watching the way these people in my life, who live in a rural, politically conservative place, interact with that world in this weirdly brave, funny way. The day after Trump’s election (a time period not represented in the book, but I think presaged by some of the corporate-political manipulation I’m interested in), my dad went to the 7-Eleven in Central Garage, Virginia and saw a very proud, excited man buying a newspaper to commemorate the day. My dad just cannot keep himself from engaging with other people he disagrees with. He told the guy, “Maybe you can meet him sometime. Maybe he can grab your wife by the pussy.” After her Democratic political yard signs got vandalized, my mother made a new sign the week before the 2018 elections that read “C U Next Tuesday, Lindsey Graham!” My husband once infiltrated a neo-Confederate Facebook group, became an administrator, and changed the group’s logo to a Confederate flag in rainbow colors with Hello Kitty on top.

These are the people I am trying to entertain. I don’t know how relatable they are, but my sense of humor aligns with theirs, just on the page instead of inside the 7-Eleven.

YC: Were there any surprises that emerged for you as a writer when you delved into contentious topics, like with Janine, the poet in the novel’s Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch workshop who is working on a manuscript about Terri Schiavo, a prominent right to die case?

BB:  I really enjoyed writing Janine, who in many ways is unlike me—she’s a former stay-at-home mother turned home economics teacher, a poet, socially conservative, pro-life, skeptical of climate change. But so often, writing through a character’s point of view, we find unexpected points of connection, and that happened to me again and again with Janine. Writing about her anxiety, for example, over her loved ones’ safety and particularly the lives of her daughters, I realized how much I related to that experience, and I tried to use my own experience of maternal anxiety and intrusive thoughts to help me understand how she came to poetry and writing, and specifically her subject, Terri Schiavo.

YC: The Gulf’s main characters—Marianne, the administrative director, and Janine, an aspiring poet, and, impassioned by the Terri Schiavo plight, a believer in the right to life—raise a significant political issue central to the novel. What about that topic spoke to you and was key to you in that process/exchange?

BB: Terri Schiavo, who died in 2005 after cardiac arrest left her in a persistent vegetative state for fifteen years, was at the center of a long court battle pitting her husband, who thought she should have the right to die without extraordinary intervention, against her parents, who believed she should be kept on life support.

I was interested in exploring ideas around manipulation, and the Schiavo case felt like a good example of private, deeply held beliefs thrust into the public sphere and twisted by politicians. Janine, who empathized with Schiavo’s parents, found that she could no longer pray after the memo surfaced revealing that political strategists were considering intervention in the court battle as a way of “firing up the base.” Poetry eventually became a way for her to find her voice again, even though she had never been in a poetry workshop and never imagined herself applying to a writing program.

The issue gets even more complicated for Janine after one of her poems, inspired by Schiavo’s life, gets posted to the Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch website and used by a politician involved in a statewide personhood amendment, which would declare that life begins at conception and ban any abortion, and some forms of contraception and assisted reproductive technology. One of Janine’s peers at the school, a woman who also identifies as pro-life and happens to be infertile, is deeply opposed to this amendment because it would mean that she could not pursue IVF, and she’s upset that her school—a kind of home for her—would take a stance on a political issue that felt so personal to her. The same thing happens with Marianne, who interpreted her own mother’s life choices in a vastly different way than her younger, evangelical sister. I was interested in showing the dismay and betrayal these women felt at watching their beliefs and private feelings become a spectacle.

YC: What’s your interest in scams and bad business ideas?

BB: The Gulf emerged from my interest in ridiculous business ideas—I always thought a Christian-themed writing school had a lot of profit potential, but of course I would be a terrible person to run it. So bringing it to life (and destroying it) was fun to do. Obviously I think that businesses should be responsible and not scam people, and the government should be responsible and protect people from getting scammed. But since the government seems mostly uninterested in doing that, we all have to keep our eyes out for people who prey on hopeful artists. It’s hard enough to decide that you will make your life as an artist of some kind!

YC: Do MFA programs and writing workshops have a place on the list of scams and bad businesses? How can writers and artists of all races and economic backgrounds protect themselves from scammers preying on their hopefulness?

BB: In 2017, I saw an exhibition at the Whitney Biennial by the group Occupy Museums. It was a large installation based on interviews with artists about their debt, their careers, their education, and the emotional impact of their debt. The exhibit looked not only at the vast amounts owed, this artist debt owned by big banks, but also at the way that student debt influenced the kind of work the artists could afford to make after leaving their MFA or BFA programs. More than a third of the respondents owed more than $100,000.

I’m happy that I teach in an MFA program that is fully funded, but of course not all programs function that way. When I was applying to grad school, one of the MFA programs that I was excited to be accepted to offered me very little financial support, and when I asked how I was supposed to pay the huge tuition bill, the director told me that it depended on my “relationship with money.” I had no relationship with money, so I went elsewhere, but I sometimes think about how different my choices might have been if I’d entered my artistic career worrying about punishing student debt.

Those of us who teach in MFA programs need to advocate for more equity, more scholarships, and more opportunity for students who might be shut out of the conversation otherwise. And people with the ability to contribute to or raise money for scholarships at summer programs and conferences should remember how important those spots are for emerging writers.

YC: The oft-polarizing topics discussed in your novel have a mirrored relationship with our current culture. In this regard, is there a message in your book, something in particular you wanted it to accomplish?

BB: I don’t know that there’s a message, but I was interested in representing different kinds of manipulation, the way that—through our beliefs and our hopefulness, as you say—people are taken advantage of. I wanted to look at what happens when beliefs and art are commercialized and commodified, when they are folded into of a capitalist system that doesn’t actually care about art or belief. It’s so easy to be manipulated, and it’s not something that happens only to naïve people. I feel manipulated all the time by news stories featuring the president’s personality rather than his utterly destructive policies motivated by racism, xenophobia, greed, and disregard for the planet.

YC: Did anything from your own experiences in writing workshops inform the novel’s trajectory?

BB: I do have some familiarity, from my student days, with hot-tempered Cormac McCarthy acolytes and heiresses with exceptional coat wardrobes.

YC: What’s your approach to the “gulfs” that can arise around a writing workshop table?

BB: My friend, the musician and writer Tift Merritt adapted a Raymond Carver poem, “My Boat,” for her most recent album, and sometimes I play the song or read the poem at the start of a semester. I think Carver was writing about an actual boat, with an actual picnic of chicken, cheeses, rolls, and “a big basket of fruit, in case anyone wants fruit.” But the boat can be seen as a metaphor for artistic groups of all kinds, especially workshops: “There’ll be a place on board for everyone’s stories. / My own, but also the ones belonging to my friends.” I like Carver’s idea that “Maybe everyone / will have their own radio” on his boat—that’s sort of how I see workshop, as a place that is intimate and confined, but also expansive, with room for more than one way of approaching storytelling.

YC: Is there an art to bridging the gap between believers and non-believers? Can literature decrease the divide in our country?

BB: The central relationship in The Gulf is between Janine, who is a devout Christian, and Marianne, who is an atheist. They disagree about so many things, and Marianne lets Janine down catastrophically, but they bond over poetry. Without giving too much away, I would say that I’m interested in how people choose to forgive, and how non-believers seek redemption.

Studies show that reading literary fiction, and being immersed in storytelling and the minds of others, increases our empathy, which should point to decreasing the divide, but certainly there’s a lot of work to be done. I’m worried about the decline in reading culture in our digital/visual world, but as a teacher I’m also reassured and made hopeful by the courage and empathy and thoughtfulness of young people.

Lately I’ve been reading and listening to all of the Beverly Cleary books for young readers—and I mean all of them!—with my five-year-old. It’s been so much fun to watch my daughter get really into a book that follows a single protagonist and then see minor characters—or antagonists—show up as point of view characters in later books. I think that entering into different points of view completely is so natural for kids, and it’s a good way of seeing the way that literature develops empathy.

YC: Florida. Was Florida, sloganed by some as a “sunny place, shady people,” chosen in part for its chad-hanging election heritage and other quirky antics? Perhaps its flood-rise, climate change doomed zoning? Or because of its unique news headlines that have included: “Woman claims wind blew cocaine into her purse,” “Man makes beer run with live gator in his hand,” and “Some neighbors upset about Florida man who likes to do yard work in the nude.” Or did it offer your novel another appeal?

BB: My grandparents moved from West Virginia to Florida when I was a kid, and I’d stay with them every summer. I loved the landscape and the heavy humid feeling of the air, the sudden rainstorms and thunderstorms that would blow over in twenty minutes, leaving the sky completely blue, everything drenched. I’ve been rereading Joy Williams’s Breaking and Entering, which is set in the Keys, and has this dreamlike atmosphere of lush landscape and dissolute capitalism.

Florida is of course a Southern state with politics that will break your heart, but I’m from Virginia and have lived in North Carolina for the last fourteen years, so I’m not putting on any airs. I don’t think most states can put on airs—maybe people from Vermont or Massachusetts can, but most of us have something to answer for and reckon with.

And maybe because of where I grew up, I’ve always thought that the “Florida man” headlines seemed pretty normal, definitely like something I would not be surprised to read about in the Country Courier. I totally buy that cocaine could blow into your purse on the wind. And I can also see how someone might make a beer run with an alligator. No comment on the naked yard work.


Yvonne Conza

Yvonne Conza’s writing has appeared in Longreads, Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, Big Other, F(r)iction #5, and Funhouse Magazine. Her author interviews can be read on The Millions, Electric Lit, The Bloom, and Tethered by Letters. She has performed at The Moth in NYC, is a Pushcart Nominee, and a finalist for: Penelope Niven Prize in Creative Nonfiction, Cutbank Literary Journal, Bellingham Review’s Tobias Wolff, Barry Lopez Creative Nonfiction, Blue Mesa Review, and The Raymond Carver Short Story.

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