Belle Boggs’ debut novel, “The Gulf,” the North Carolina author and writing professor writes about the things that separate us.
The story centers on Marianne, a poet who is trying to support herself teaching who is on the verge of losing her Brooklyn apartment. Her novelist ex-fiancé, Eric, and his venture capitalist brother, Mark, offer her a job directing a low-residency school for Christian writers at a rundown motel they’ve inherited on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch is born, and Marianne, an atheist, soon is flooded with applications from writers whose beliefs she always has opposed, but whose money she’s glad to accept.
“There’s a gulf between believers and non-believers,” said Boggs, the director of NC State’s MFA program, in an interview. “Marianne believes she can run the school taking advantage of mostly politically conservative evangelical Christians.”
But she changes her mind, when students show up and she develops real relationships with them.
“The Gulf” was released April 2 by Graywolf Press, and Boggs has three upcoming appearances at Triangle book stores.
Kirkus Reviews gives her debut a starred review, calling it “a smart, slightly kooky exploration of art and money, faith and politics.”
Boggs said she was inspired to write the novel in part because of cases her husband, Richard Allen, has taken on as an employment and civil rights lawyer. Sometimes she answered his business line and heard complaints from employees describing shady businesses practices.
Boggs, as an instructor, knows a lot about teaching writing. Boggs has taught elementary school children to graduate level students in her professional career.
She is the author of the memoir, “The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine and Motherhood,” and the award-winning short story collection “Mattaponi Queen.” She won the Bakeless Prize for her fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in the Paris Review, Harper’s Magazine and Slate.
In between stops during her book tour, Boggs answered questions by email and a telephone conversation.
Q: Your main character, the underemployed atheist poet Marianne, is struggling with her own beliefs and the politics of the work place. Does she have to choose between paying the rent or sacrificing her beliefs?
A: At the beginning of the novel, Marianne is losing her home. Her landlord is converting her building into condos — and while she has reservations about the school, she tries to convince herself that the school does align with her values. She believes that finally she won’t let the world of capitalism run over her, and she’s willing to sacrifice relationships with the Ranch’s students to get ahead (and, she hopes, to pay back her own student loans). But this only works while the students are theoretical. Once they become real people to her, things get a lot more complicated.
Q: Talk about how you use the writing workshop as a microcosm of what’s going on in America?
A: Workshop can be such a fraught place. You’re bringing something that has been mostly private into this slightly more public, but still intimate space, and asking people to tell you what’s wrong with it, what to change. It’s also a place that’s invested with really big dreams — of finding an audience, making it big. Things are bound to go wrong, and sometimes they do.
I amplified that sense of what could go wrong by imagining a for-profit school marketed exclusively to evangelical Christians, which gets taken over by a business that develops for-profit schools (of anything, basically — medical billing or cosmetology or video game design) specifically for the Christian market.
Q: What were the challenges of writing your first novel after publishing a memoir and short story collection?
A: Oh, this isn’t my first novel. I have others in the drawer, which I think is true for most writers who finally publish a novel. I had the first draft of this book before writing “The Art of Waiting,” my nonfiction book, and decided that I would finish that before revising and editing this book.
Luckily, my editor at Graywolf, Katie Dublinski, is very patient and accommodating, and we worked on one book at a time. Unluckily (for the world) some of the issues I was interested in writing about when I started the book — for-profit education, corporate interest in politics, political manipulation of the faithful, the commodification of art — were intensified in the intervening years, so it was easy to get back to my characters and plot.
Q: You wrote an interesting essay on “Why Don’t More Writers Become Public School Teachers?” for Literary Hub. Could you talk about the best attributes of a teacher-artist?
A: I think the two most important attributes for both writers and teachers are curiosity about others, and empathy. Teaching (like writing) is something you learn from as you go — if you know all of the answers already, and aren’t open to learning and growing, it gets stale, and you lose your audience. And both realms (which have always overlapped, in my life) will introduce you to such interesting people.
Q: So many writers struggle with getting published. Could you talk about own challenges of finding a home for your writing?
A: I tell my students all the time that it was a long road for me. I had an agent, and then I sort of didn’t, and I had a collection of stories and a teaching job (middle school writing) that left me little time to submit my work. I was so lucky that my husband submitted my first book to a contest — the Bakeless Prize — which is how I found my publisher, Graywolf Press.
Boggs will discuss her new book, “The Gulf,” (Graywolf Press, April 2,) at several Triangle bookstores.
▪ 7 p.m. April 17, at Quail Ridge Books & Music, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, located in North Hills Shopping Center in Raleigh.
▪ 11 a.m. April 27, at McIntyre’s Books, 220 Market St., in Fearrington Village in Pittsboro.
▪ 7 p.m. May 23, at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.