Thursday, July 29, 2010

Where Belle Boggs's Characters Come From

In the 21st in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Belle Boggs, author of Mattaponi Queen (Graywolf Press), talks about her characters' roots.

The stories in Mattaponi Queen take place almost entirely in two rural Virginia counties, and people from my hometown (of fewer than 100 people) have started wondering and guessing who is who, and asking my mother about it. “It’s fiction!” she says. “It’s made up!”

Away from home, too, I’ve been asked about my characters and where they come from, especially because so many of them seem so different from me. It’s hard to explain to a bookstore audience how I am in fact very much like the dutiful, practical Lila, or like George, the dreams-deferred carpenter-turned-custodian, or like Jeremy, a teenage boy in survival mode at a concert, but I’m sure that other short story writers can relate. I also think this feeling of connectedness comes from being a teacher (of everything from first grade to GED classes); teachers, like writers, are often empathetic outsiders who experience people’s quirks and character traits on an almost molecular level, while also imprinting their own.

But try telling that to people at a certain Middle Peninsula farmer’s market, where my mom sometimes sets up shop with copies of my book and the favors she’s made to go with it: jars of Mattaponi Queen preserves, bouquets of flowers in tin cans. In particular, people have wondered about Cutie Young, an old white woman who is cared for in her home by an African-American nurse, Loretta Johnson, who has come out of retirement in order to save up for a boat. Cutie’s home-care situation bears some resemblance to a local neighbor’s, but as a character she is more of an amalgamation of family members, particularly my grandmother and my great-aunt, who in fact went by the nickname Cutie. My great-aunt lived with her adult son (a Southern tradition), and would not let anyone in the house at the end of her life (another Southern tradition). And my grandmother, who is a New Yorker by birth but has lived in Tidewater for more than 60 years, is stubborn-minded and particular and, like Cutie, experienced the theft of some irreplaceable family silver a few years ago.

What I was not expecting, writing Cutie’s stories, was that my grandmother, Jeannie, would develop dementia and need the care of a nurse, or that my family would be drawn into the complex and very personal relationship that happens when you hire someone to take care of a family member in her home. We have just celebrated the first anniversary of Jeannie’s nurse, Ms. Joy Brinson, coming to work with her, but the celebration was of course bittersweet. Jeannie used to play the piano and correct your grammar and take you to the opera; now she sits in a chair with copies of The New Yorker in her lap and wonders where everybody is. She can no longer read The New Yorker, not even the cartoons, though she’s subscribed through 2013.

Ms. Joy (which is what my generation calls her) is just like her name sounds—bright and lovely and nurturing—and her relationship to Jeannie bears none of the prickliness of Loretta’s and Cutie’s. In fact, she knows a version of Jeannie that we never knew—she tells her freely, “I love you,” and Jeannie coos back something similar. But there is an invisibility at work there, too—the last time I visited, Ms. Joy told me that she worked for an entire day, trying to get Jeannie to remember her name. “What’s my name?” she kept saying. “You don’t know it? It’s Joy, remember. Say it, please. Say Joy.” Loretta would have never done that—she wouldn’t have cared—but she knew what it was like to be at once necessary and peripheral.

I signed Ms. Joy’s copy of my book last weekend, with great gratitude that she is part of our family and that Jeannie is a part of hers, but we didn’t talk about Loretta and Cutie, their story’s particular details. I don’t know how to tell her that Loretta is me, an outsider and a caretaker, just as Lila with her loneliness and George with his pride and Ronnie with her ambivalence are me, too.