Interview with Belle Boggs

belle-boggs

The Art of Waiting is a hybrid memoir from Belle Boggs, author of the 2010 novel Mattaponi Queen. It tells the story of Boggs’s journey through infertility and IVF, but it also examines fertility, motherhood, and assisted reproduction, and how these fit into our society and culture. Drawing from medicine, theater, literature, personal experience, anecdotes, and biology, Boggs writes about motherhood in a smart, unsentimental, incisive way.

I knew from the moment I read about this book on a friend’s Facebook post that I had to read it. As a medical writer with a degree in maternal-child health and a background working in ob/gyn, and as a new mother who used assisted reproductive technology to conceive my son, I can tell you this: The Art of Waiting does not disappoint. Boggs’s prose is quiet but powerful, and she did her research in every way.

Jamie Rochelle Herndon: This is not merely a memoir; it feels to me like a cultural exploration/commentary/criticism, almost a sociological memoir, if that makes sense. What made you decide to write it like that, instead of a straight memoir?

Belle Boggs: As a reader, I’m interested in current nonfiction writers who use their own history and experiences as an entry point for exploring issues that matter to them and to a wider audience—writers like Eula Biss, Andrew Solomon, Leslie Jamison, Claudia Rankine, Janisse Ray. I love the way their books weave in personal experience—to varying degrees, but always so effectively—with research and analysis and reporting the stories of others, and I wanted to challenge myself to try to do that too. Also, as a fiction writer, part of the appeal of writing a nonfiction book was the opportunity to go out and interview other people, to do research, to get outside of my own head for a while.

JRH: You mention Adrienne Rich’s book Of Woman Born (which I read while trying to conceive, and found it comforting) and Woolf (one of my favorites). What other books and movies did you explore while writing this book?

the-art-of-waitingBB: I also wrote about the film Raising Arizona, by Joel and Ethan Coen, a favorite of mine (and my husband’s); a local production of Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which I saw with my high school English students; and about the common readings we teach to young readers and writers, which often focus on the primacy and importance of the mother-child relationship, and often portray childless women as outsiders or deviants. I also wrote a little—and read a lot—about the work by the brilliant biologist Sara Hrdy, whose work on mothering and evolutionary biology I was introduced to by a biologist friend. Everyone should read Mothers and Others and Mother Nature—both books are fascinating, accessible, and great debunkers of many assumptions about mothering and the maternal instinct. I thought a lot about Hrdy, for example, when people were making corrections about the way some in the media called the great gymnast Simon Biles’s parents her “adoptive parents”—we know, of course, that they are her parents, and that is what she calls them. But there’s another correction that didn’t get made: some went on to describe her birth mother as her “biological mother,” when in fact all of her parents are biological. “The biological mother,” Hrdy writes in Mother Nature, “nourishes, nurtures, and provides the environment” in which a child develops. Language matters, my biologist friend tells me. In science and in our broader culture.

JRH: One of my favorite passages is on page 9. “In the clinics, they call what the doctors and lab technicians do ART – assisted reproductive technology—softening the idea of the test-tube baby, the lab-created human. Art is something human, social, nonthreatening. Art does not clone or copy, but creates. It is often described as priceless, timeless, healing. It is far from uncommon to spend large amounts of money on art. It’s an investment.” I never thought of ART this way. But once I read this, I couldn’t stop thinking about it this way. Even the title of the book now has a double meaning. And are there other parallels between art and infertility/its treatments?

BB: Oh, thank you! I think that reproductive endocrinologists usually say “A-R-T,” but I’d always just read it (in my head) as “art.” One of the most profound experiences I had, which helped me make the decision to try IVF, was visiting this wonderful, enthusiastic, effusive embryologist and researcher who worked at my clinic. She was so warm, but also so obviously delighted by her work—she listens to bossa nova while she’s in the lab, which helps her focus—and she gave me these images of embryos that I still have. Listening to her talk about their beauty, about what was happening at each stage of cell division, was captivating.

I think that what helped me during my ART and treatment cycles was the same thing that made it inconvenient and time-consuming: going to regular appointments, monitoring the body, anticipating change after so many months of disappointment. I also found the way that women talk about their cycles and their embryos online, in support communities, fascinating—there was a whole language of acronyms and euphemisms that I learned, a set of images and emojis, too. At the same time, I’m sure that all of this—my meeting with the embryologist, my time in the clinic—would have felt different if I hadn’t had success. We were very lucky, and that isn’t true for everyone.

mattaponi-queenJRH: You discuss the dearth of literature for the infertile or the childless, and you talk about how childless women are defined by what they don’t have. There seems to be more talk and more acceptance of IVF, adoption, and infertility now, although barriers and prejudices definitely exist. Do you think things are getting better? Where does the conversation need to go from here?

BB: I hope they’re getting better, though obviously we still have a ways to go. I was so cheered and happy, back when I was teaching high school, when a student of mine talked about what he wanted—and expected—for his life: to fall in love, get married, and adopt a child with his (future) husband. He was only seventeen years old, this was before marriage equality in North Carolina, and he lived in a rural county with plenty of prejudice (as well as acceptance). The fact that he could envision a happy life for himself that also looked not much different from the happy life a heterosexual peer or sibling might envision is good news. I hope people like him, people full of hope and love and an innate sense of fairness, start to be in charge of things soon.

JRH: There’s been a lot of discussion lately about creativity and parenthood, and whether the two can mix. Obviously, you wrote a book while being a parent and you teach, so it’s possible. But what are your thoughts on that debate?

BB: I teach full-time at N.C. State University, where I’m an assistant professor, and I think a lot about how to balance it all: writing, parenting, working, living. I wrote a piece for LitHub about the difficulty I’ve had trying to manage the various components of my career since my daughter was born. Much of the difficulty for me, and for many people I know, is financial and logistical: I’m great at multi-tasking (I used to teach first grade), but quality childcare is expensive and hard to access, and too many venues for creative people don’t take childcare into account. Think about AWP (their lack of childcare is one of the issues I talk about in my piece), or the lack of on-campus/on-site daycares at many workplaces, or even writing residencies—they don’t make room or space for kids, which means they don’t make room or space for parents, especially mothers, of young children. Obviously making that room is hard and expensive, but it’s a discussion we need to have. It’s a discussion they’re having in evolutionary biology, for example, where many conferences often provide either a stipend or on-site childcare for parents of young kids. It’s a sign that they take women and their work seriously, that they value them, and that they recognize the work that they do at conferences—attending, presenting, participating—is serious work. I’m excited to take the Creative Capital webinar on “artists raising kids” soon. I really like that organization’s treatment of the arts as serious work that needs to be compensated, accommodated (in terms of time), and balanced with a life that feeds you creatively.

JRH: What advice would you give to a writer parent?

BB: I don’t know that I’m qualified to do that—but I guess, hang in there? Reach out to other writer-parents, and other parents, and find someone to remind you not to be so hard on yourself. I’m a big fan of coffee.

JRH: What’s your next project?

BB: I’m working on a novel set in the world of for-profit education. It’s called The Ugly Bear List, and it will be published by Graywolf—sometime!

Jaime Rochelle Herndon graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia and is a writer and editor living in NYC. She is a contributor at Book Riot and a writing instructor at Apiary Lit, and her writing can be seen on Healthline and New York Family Magazine, among others. Her book Taking Back Birth is forthcoming in 2016 from Microcosm Publishing.

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