Over the last two and a half years – since first starting this column – I’ve had the privilege of interviewing authors of climate fiction about what inspires their work. Their answers usually point to an extreme weather event or a horrifying news story about flooding, drought, or wildfire, and their novels, in turn, feature these impacts prominently.
Belle Boggs’s smart and timely The Gulf is set during the Obama administration against the backdrop of a climate change-imperiled Florida, but she focuses less on the impacts of climate change than on the conservative rhetoric that feeds climate change denial – a fascinating and engaging focus reminiscent of Ashley Shelby’s equally wonderful South Pole Station. The novel stars Marianne, an underemployed New Yorker who’s offered a job by her ex-fiancé directing a low-residency writing school for Christians on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Housed in an old motel, the school is called The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch and attracts hundreds of applications from writers whose political and religious beliefs couldn’t be more different than those of liberal, atheist Marianne.
As time goes on, Marianne grows closer to her students, including Janine, who explores her feelings over the death of Terri Schiavo in her poetry. All seems to be going well until seedy allegations mount against the school and their problematic investor, God’s Word God’s World, a business that develops for-profit schools in predominately Christian communities. As Marianne considers what to do about her unsavory investor, a hurricane barrels toward the Gulf, heightening tensions between conservative students and liberal teachers, and highlighting the difficulty of discussing climate change in a strongly politicized atmosphere.
In this interview, Boggs discusses the political influences of her book, her thoughts on climate change, and why voting is more important than ever.
Amy Brady: Your novel explores all kinds of political and ideological divisions between the left and right, divisions that feel stronger than ever under the Trump administration. But your novel is set a few years earlier in the age of Obama and Occupy Wall Street. What inspired you to write a work of near-historical fiction?
I began a revision of The Gulf after the 2016 election, and wondered at first if I’d be able to return to this novel, or even write anything at all for a while. Like most everyone I know (and also like Janine, when she recognized the political machinations close to the Schiavo case), I was in a state of despair. Thinking about the Tea Party, whose members still post these bright yellow road signs in the part of rural Virginia where my parents live, was almost quaint – but then you look at their suspicious, greedy, conspiracy-minded rhetoric, and you can see the seeds of what we have now. I mean, these same people were around when I was a kid – they blocked a free breakfast program at our school (they said it was the parents’ responsibility), but wanted us to say the Lord’s Prayer at school functions. Political manipulation on religious terms, for-profit schools bankrupting students, the influence of dark money after Citizens United. It all builds on itself.
Amy Brady: The novel plays out against a backdrop of a climate-changed Gulf, where even the weather becomes politicized conversation – the characters’ share a hyper-focus on certain words like “climate change.” What kind of research did you do to get the rhetoric of climate science deniers so right?
Belle Boggs: It’s a little hard to avoid this rhetoric, even if you don’t watch network news and choose a treadmill far from the one in front of the Fox News television at the gym. I’m from the rural South, and live now in North Carolina, where the reality of climate change – climate crisis, as the Guardian is now calling it – is all around us. Last year we had two major hurricanes threaten our whole state. The eastern part of the state is in crisis. And yet we have a Republican majority in our state legislature that remains uninterested in addressing the environmental catastrophe that is flooding more communities and imperiling the economy – the one thing they seem to care about – more every year.
Amy Brady: Do you think about climate change beyond what you write about in your fiction?
Belle Boggs: I think about it all the time, because I’m a parent and because I work with young people – my kids, and my students, are going to be so deeply affected by climate change. I can remember learning about greenhouse gases and global warming when I was in elementary school. We learned that we would have to do something, or else – and we did nothing, and now we can see what will happen, very soon.
We can see what’s happening now – not just the glaciers melting, but intense, destructive weather events close to home. I live close to the Haw River in North Carolina, and in the past nine months the river has exceeded flood stage twelve times. I’ve lived here for thirteen years and I’ve never seen the river like this: I graphed its U.S. Geological Survey site, and then compared the graph to years past – last year’s graph shows the river past eighteen feet, and in other years the graph itself stops at ten feet. I think most people have something like this in their lives – some element of nature and climate that is alarmingly different. Stronger wind storms because of deforestation. Record-breaking heatwaves. More intense snowstorms. More destructive hurricanes.
Amy Brady: I’d love to hear about what inspired you to set the novel on the Gulf side of Florida. What is it about this place that drew you to it?
Belle Boggs: I love Florida – humidity, thunderstorms, weirdness – and spent summers visiting my grandparents in Jacksonville after they retired there. If I were to start a low-residency writing school, I’d probably put it in Florida. I wouldn’t put it in Jacksonville, though – I’d put it in Sarasota, which I think is a little more appealing to outsiders. My husband and I spent Christmas there when I was just getting started on this book, when we were at a low point in our struggles with fertility. I liked the distraction of the holiday decorations and the big show everyone made of watching for the green flash of light that you can sometimes see when the sun goes down. My characters renovate a motel a little north of Sarasota – I wanted the school to have a beautiful natural setting, but with a distinct down-at-the-heels quality, so that the students (the “clients,” as Marianne is taught to call them) show up and think hmmm, what have we gotten ourselves into?
Amy Brady: Your novel reads as a satirical send-up of conservative hypocrisy, but you don’t let the more liberal characters easily off the hook either. Is it fair to say your novel is in some ways about bridging the, excuse the pun, “gulf” between political opposites?
Belle Boggs: I think it’s about bridging the divide between individual characters – Marianne, an atheist and liberal, is challenged by her relationship with Janine, a devout Christian who comes from red state America. Janine parrots her husband’s Fox News ideology and willfully ignores climate change (she thinks if God wants to burn up those mountains, that’s His business), but is at a point in her life when she wants more independence. She’s questioning the sacrifices of her life, the dependence of her (nearly grown) children, her husband’s inability to understand or connect meaningfully with her poetry. She’s looking for community, which she finds in the Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch, a place that happens to be full of people who challenge and change her: Lorraine, her poetry teacher, is unexpectedly harsh but also pushes her to go deeper in her work; Davonte Gold, an R&B star, saves her life on a field trip; she meets a woman in workshop whose husband consulted on the Schiavo case. Marianne, who betrays her and is in many ways most different from Janine, challenges her the most – she’s a test of Janine’s ability to forgive. And Janine and her example – this woman who has left her home and spent money and time to be at the Ranch, which is a mess – is a test of Marianne’s courage and ethics.
Amy Brady: Your novel features writers wanting to express their ideologies through writing, and you yourself are a writer whose novel is in some ways about the absurdity of some aspects of ideology. At the end of the day, do you think that writing can affect people’s political or ideological views? Or put another way, can novels bring about social change?
Belle Boggs: I’m not willing to bet the farm on that proposition – writing and art are both so important, and reading certainly increases our empathy – but I think that a lot of what we read and watch and pay attention to tends to reinforce ideas we already have. There are books that challenge those ideas – one that always comes to mind for me is Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree and his incredibly moving, difficult chapter about Dylan Klebold’s family. I’m really interested in how entrenched ideas get changed – through education, through reading, through exposure to people with diverse backgrounds and experiences.
I also think that having the tools of self-expression – writing poetry, writing fiction, writing memoir or research-driven nonfiction – can change people, which is an idea in The Gulf that was inspired by my experiences in the classroom. I’ve seen students of all ages changed by the experience of telling their own stories, or the challenge of inhabiting other people’s stories in fiction.
During election season I canvass with my children (now ages one and five), and I am making sure that at every election-season reading we host at my school – I direct the MFA program at NC State – we have an on-campus, nonpartisan voter registration group there to register and educate new voters. So people attending – some of them have just turned eighteen – have the experience of listening to poetry or fiction, having their minds and empathy stretched in that way, and then they are reminded when and how to vote or how to help their neighbors vote.
Amy Brady: Finally, what’s next for you?
Belle Boggs: I’m working on a short novel – it takes place over five days – about the choice to have children (or not) in a damaged and maybe doomed world. And after that I have a nonfiction research project in mind – exploring some of the questions we’ve talked about, like how people’s ideological views become entrenched, and how they change.
The Gulf, by Belle Boggs, Graywolf Press, published April 2, 2019
Belle Boggs is the author of The Gulf, The Art of Waiting, and Mattaponi Queen. 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 Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, the Globe and Mail, Buzzfeed, and O, the Oprah Magazine. Mattaponi 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. Boggs has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences. She is an associate professor of creative writing at North Carolina State University.
Reprinted with permission of Amy Brady and Chicago Review of Books, a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.