Belle Boggs is the author of the new novel The Gulf. She also has written The Art of Waiting and Mattaponi Queen, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic Monthly and Orion. She is an associate professor of English at North Carolina State University.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Gulf, and for your character Marianne?
A: Marianne is a poet, broke and living in Brooklyn, when she is invited (by her ex) to run a creative writing school for Christian writers--the Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch. With no other jobs on the horizon, and facing imminent eviction, she makes the leap to do something ethically dubious.
She's pushed along by her own anger at right-wing evangelical Christians, who abound in the place where she grew up, where her father and sister still live.
I began working on the novel in 2011, which is when the novel begins, and was really preoccupied with the Tea Party backlash to Obama's election, which was especially evident in rural Virginia, where I'm from and still visit often. I was also interested in scams and bad businesses and the negative impact of for-profit education, as well as the precarious financial position of artists.
I wanted to create a character who would participate in that world, and be ethically implicated by it, but also someone who would question her role and feel a sense of dread and responsibility about her choices.
Q: The book takes place primarily in Florida, at a Christian writers' school. How important is setting to you in your writing?
A: Setting is essential--I need to picture the place where my characters live, the grocery stores they go to, the newspapers they read, the weather they encounter, the neighbors they have and accents and turns of phrase they hear and speak, in order to picture the characters themselves.
Though I'm not from Florida, I spent time there growing up, and it's a place I love to travel to in real life and on the page--for both its natural and man-made strangeness (I wrote recently about Joy Williams's Breaking and Entering, a favorite of mine).
Q: What do you think The Gulf says about religion?
A: The book's central relationship is between two characters, one who is devout and one who is an atheist.
Janine, an Evangelical Christian, mother of two, and home economics teacher, has on the surface little in common with Marianne, an atheist who has been pretending to be a person of faith--little except for their work as poets, and the fact that they are both lonely and isolated.
Marianne is in fact quite jealous of people who have faith, and wishes--she still grieves the loss of her mother--that she could believe too. And even though Marianne doesn't change her belief system by the end of the book, she's profoundly changed by her relationship with Janine, and the fact that Janine was willing to forgive her.
I was really interested in looking at betrayal and forgiveness in the context of Christianity, and also the impulse to create art--Marianne wonders why Janine writes poetry, when she believes in God, and Janine wonders how Marianne writes, when she doesn't. They aren't able to cross that gulf of understanding, but they still share a common struggle.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I did make many changes! But I knew fairly early on that Marianne and Janine were the central characters, and that the book would need to bring them back together somehow. For the final chapter of the book, I was able to draw on some of my own experiences as a teacher in Brooklyn.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A short novel, which combines a lot of my abiding interests: nature, the environment, the choice to become a mother (or not), and education. I've just started it recently, but have been thinking about it for a while.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: So many great books are out are there right now, from presses of all sizes!
I've read with some truly amazing writers on my book tour, including Katy Resch, whose collection, Exposure, was published by Kore Press a couple of years ago; Joanna Pearson, whose new collection Every Human Love is just out with Acre Press; and on June 3 will read with my press-mate, Kathryn Davis (The Silk Road), and Jessica Francis Kane (Rules for Visiting, Penguin). All of these books are excellent, available (or ready to order) from your favorite independent bookstore...
--Interview with Deborah Kalb