When Belle Boggs was an undergraduate creative writing student at Virginia Commonwealth University, her professor Gary Sange took the class to the small town of Walkerton in King and Queen County. There, he paired each student with a different local eccentric.
Originally from Walkerton, Boggs was terrified she'd be paired with her own mother, but instead she was introduced to Wilbur White, a man who delivered eggs. The poem she wrote about Wilbur was later transformed into the grand finale for “Mattaponi Queen,” Boggs' short story collection that her husband, writer Richard Allen, entered in the 2009 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless contest, unbeknownst to her. Boggs' manuscript went on to win the prize for fiction, was published by Graywolf Press in June and has been short listed for the international Frank O'Connor Short Story award.
“I still consider myself a Virginia writer even though I haven't lived in Virginia since '99,” says Boggs, who's writing a novel set in Richmond from her home in Chatham County, N.C., where she teaches 10th- through 12th-grade English at a public charter high school in Saxapahaw. “Where I grew up is still a really powerful part of my consciousness and I still think about it a lot,” she says. “It seems like I just keep writing about Virginia.”
Place and setting are central to Boggs' book, set on and around the Mattaponi Reservation in King and Queen County. But it's the rich inner lives of the characters that make her prose deeply compelling. Lila, a white elementary school teacher debates whether or not to enlist her ex, Byron, a black tour musician, for Career Day; Melinda's husband Jonas is in the process of becoming a woman; Skinny, an alcoholic Mattaponi-Pamunkey mechanic with hepatitis C is getting his portrait painted; Marcus, a young black high school student from New York City whose mother and her boyfriend have recently gone to jail on drug charges, joins the football team.
“I think all of the first-person stories are people externally very different from me, but internally there's something that feels very close to who I am. As a teacher you are constantly around people different from you,” says Boggs, who is certified to teach for general equivalency diplomas, K-12, and has worked intensively in struggling inner-city schools in New York and Washington. “Sometimes you're the only person that they can tell certain things to, even if you're an outsider. So I'm interested in that space of trying to get to know someone who is different from you, but the place to start is how they're like you.”
For these reasons, the new, local book-club initiative, River City Reads, has chosen “Mattaponi Queen” to focus on this fall. With online discussion forums and small book groups that culminate in a reading by a regional author every other month, River City Reads was hatched in February during a Frontier Session, a brainstorming forum for people interested in growing the community, sponsored by the Frontier Project, a leadership development coaching and strategy company.
“It's promoting conversation, to start, but it's also promoting literacy, literature and regional authors,” says Carra Rose, experience producer for the Frontier Project and coordinator of River City Reads. “I'm always diving in and trying to make community situations better because I love this place and want to see it grow.” The 28-year-old, who came to Richmond a decade ago from Warrenton, is pleased that the readings at Gallery5, in partnership with Chop Suey Books, have continued to draw a larger and more varied group of literature enthusiasts. “It's really cool to see the range of people that come in. It's surprisingly diverse.”
Belle Boggs will read from “Mattaponi Queen” at Gallery5, 200 W. Marshall St., on Sept. 26 at 6 p.m. For the discussion forum and information visit rivercityreads.org.