At thirty-two, Belle Boggs waited for the right time to tell her gynecologist that she didn’t want to take birth control pills anymore and that she planned to get pregnant. Boggs’s thoughts then turned to being afraid that things wouldn’t go smoothly. And they didn’t.
The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs features twelve companion essays that build with surprises from everyday life and are delivered through artful prose. Her fresh style takes an accumulative approach to parceling out her IVF journey. Spoiler alert: her narrative tension will not be will she or won’t she conceive.
I appreciated that Boggs’s experiences are within realities of everyday life struggles. She guides us into places reflective of our own lives. My husband and I weren’t the only ones with stuffed animals that we treated like imaginary children. Boggs’s stuffed family, larger than ours, and all with invented personalities, included a scarfed-engagement ring-bearer bear, a toy panda, two stuffed hamsters, and a rabbit dressed in a pirate costume. Her plush kids would have loved our wisecracking Mr. Monkey. He wore ties and was his funniest whenever we drank margaritas. Playful pretend is how many of us start our families.
The Rumpus: What books and writers influenced you while writing The Art of Waiting?
Belle Boggs: I love writers who approach nature in a surprising way, so Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood were important to me. Writers who approach the intellect of animals in a deep and respectful and intensively researched way, like Sarah Hrdy and Jane Goodall and Sy Montgomery. Brilliant essayists like Joan Didion, Natalia Ginzburg, Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison. Adrienne Rich’s writing about motherhood in Of Woman Born, and Tillie Olsen’s Silences. Nonfiction writers like Andrew Solomon—the depth of his research and wisdom is breathtaking to me, but I also love, in both Far From the Tree and The Noonday Demon, the delicate way he weaves in his personal connections to the material. I also thought a lot about the writing about fertility and motherhood and childlessness that I’d taught in high school, from Macbeth to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to Sula, and saw it in a new light.
Rumpus: Did you have the concept for this book when Orion Magazine published your essay “The Art of Waiting”? Also, when you submitted to Orion were edits suggested? If so, how did that help you shape the piece?
Boggs: Hannah Fries, my first editor at Orion, approached me about submitting a short story after Mattaponi Queen was published, and I told her about this half-formed idea I had, to write an essay about fertility and fertility treatment in the context of nature and the environment. I’d been dealing with infertility for a couple of years then, and I wanted to know about the function of infertility in other species, and the ways that other animals—especially other primates—responded to living without offspring while others around them were fertile. Hannah was very game and encouraging, while acknowledging that my subject matter, especially writing about things like IVF and fertility treatment, was pretty different from Orion’s usual content. She’s a wonderful editor—everyone I’ve worked with at Orion is so terrific and patient and smart—and she helped me shape the piece as I researched and wrote it. I had no idea at the time that I’d write an entire book, but questions and ideas kept suggesting themselves to me.
Rumpus: Your narrative embraced infertility issues with a purposed intensity to bring awareness to the cultural, emotional and financial plight of others. Two related questions: Was there any consideration to write this book as a memoir? And, what went into your decision to write this as nonfiction?
Boggs: I think a book that focused entirely or primarily on the story of my own experience would not have been true to how infertility affected me, which was always to look outside of my own struggles, or at least to look at the struggles and challenges of others alongside my own. Because infertility is hard for many people to talk about, it can be incredibly isolating, and I was interested in how this disease and the experience of longing for children affected other people, how stereotypes about infertility were communicated through literature and film and politics. I love reading memoirs, but I think that the book would not have been as interesting to write—not as interesting for me, anyway—if I’d approached it that way. The story would have been “did I have a child?” Which is not the story I wanted to follow.
Rumpus: Many of the essays in your book have this terrific juxtaposition/link to every day life struggles. For example: in “The Whole House” where “the meagerness of our wells” echoes and creates a narrative tension to your IVF treatment, sharing in depth the “unknown” as well as “cost” factors. Did you realize and begin shaping the essay in real time as it was unfolding—seeing the “connections” and their willingness to exist on the page? Or, did “The Whole House” and its narrative tensions evolve afterwards—more contemplative and reflective?
Boggs: When you’re experiencing infertility or the unfulfilled longing for a child, it can feel like life is always reminding you, around every corner, that the world is a fertile place. Nature offers so many examples, like the bald eagle pair my husband and I saw nesting and raising eaglets near our house every spring. But there aren’t as many ready-made reminders about fertility treatment, which can seem so alien to everyday life—injecting yourself with drugs, watching (on a screen, in a doctor’s office) as your ovarian follicles develop, having your blood drawn until you develop scar tissue.
We knew, when we bought our house, that we’d probably have to have one of our two puny wells drilled deeper. Our house is very near the top of a steep, wooded hill, and we’d run out of water during droughts. We were careful, and conserved, but we also knew that if our family grew (as we intended and hoped) we’d probably need more water. I never expected the experience of well-drilling to present itself metaphorically the way that it did, and was so surprised that I just started writing about it. I was literally ordering my medication while the well drillers (bless them) were shaking the house with their huge machine. There was no way to know whether they would hit more water; there was no way to know how my body would respond to the drugs I’d be injecting. It was expensive, uncertain, and scary. We just had to wait.
Writing about the experience, as it was happening, was hard but also probably helpful for me—I think finding metaphors and making connections is what we do as humans (not just as writers) to feel okay about the world. I started working with a magazine editor soon after finishing a draft, a conversation that began before I confirmed my pregnancy and continued through my first trimester, which was complicated and worried. I don’t think I’d do that again, though I was glad for the opportunity to publish it, which also probably almost paid for one box of Follistim. The essay grew a lot when I returned to it later as a book chapter.
Rumpus: How “real time” is tackled in your book is masterful. Chronological time has a lyrical and thought-provoking progression. It aligns the narrator’s emotions and her experiences within a filter contextualized through nature and specific events. The material uses tools of a memoirist economically, as needed. So instead of leaning onto years solely as placeholders, time takes on a more nuanced, poetic, and observational quality. For example, the beautiful opening:
It’s spring when I realize that I may never have children, and around that time the thirteen-year cicadas return, burrowing out of neat, round holes in the ground to shed their larval shells, sprout wings, and fly to the treetops, filling the air with the sound of their singular purpose: reproduction.
The paragraph continues and the year this takes place is shaped around Jamani, an eleven-year-old female gorilla, and her miracle pregnancy. It is the first gorilla pregnancy at the North Carolina Zoo in twenty-two years. The date of 2011 is not provided or needed in this instance.
Were you aware of your handling of time? If so, how did you make this decision? Or, did it just evolve that way?
Boggs: I thought that I could organize the book seasonally, like Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Living in a rural place and spending a lot of time outside connected these experiences, in a sensory way, to particular years and times of year—the loud cicadas you mention, for example. And there are little time/seasonality echoes that just happened by chance—the book begins in spring, and I also finally got pregnant in spring (really, late winter, but I think of spring as when the banks of the river start greening, in February). Katie Dublinski (Graywolf Press, Associate Publisher) helped a lot with organizing the book, determining how to remind readers of facts and details without being repetitive. It also seems to me that fertility—trying-to-conceive time, or gestational time—marks time in an unusual way. It’s both approximated (counting by menstrual cycles, which I used to do when thinking about how long I’d been trying to have a baby) and precise (the calendar of IVF medications, for example).
Rumpus: Throughout the read I found myself thinking of Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful and layered writing style that pushes into politics, social issues, and art. Is there any connection, homage to Solnit’s “The Art of Arrival”?
Boggs: I love that essay but didn’t intend (despite the similar titles) to reference it—“The Art of Arrival” appeared in Orion after I published “The Art of Waiting” as an essay—though I do think I was influenced or at least inspired by Solnit’s way of weaving in commentary, research, and astute, surprising observations about art and politics and nature. I met her at Bread Loaf, years ago, and was so taken by her work and reading, along with the other brilliant nonfiction writers who read there, like Kim Dana Kupperman and Jane Brox. I was about to begin fertility treatment, and knew that I needed some way to address what I was thinking about and going through then. I’m so grateful for the example of all of these writers.
Rumpus: When did Katie Dublinksi reach out to you and begin talks about this material as your debut nonfiction book?
Boggs: Katie Dublinski had read my writing about fertility, and we’d been in touch about my nonfiction in general, but we didn’t talk specifically about turning the linked material into a book until I wrote a proposal and my wonderful agent, Maria Massie, sent it to her. I was so happy that it resonated with her, and with Graywolf in general. I’m incredibly lucky to be published by such a risk-taking and innovative press, and to work with Katie, who is so generous and insightful and talented.
Rumpus: What are your writing habits? Is there anything you find helpful to do when you’re stuck in a particular place in your work?
Boggs: I love to go for a run or a walk when I get stuck—running and walking on trails by the Haw River helped me many times. I also love talking to people and doing interviews when I feel stuck or uninspired—it helps to have someone else’s story to think about.
Rumpus: What are you currently reading? What online journals or literary websites do you most often read?
Boggs: Anna Lena Phillips Bell, who edits the wonderful journal Ecotone, printed a beautiful letterpress sign for the computer, which says “The World Is Not in Here.” I love it, though I guess it’s both true and untrue, considering all you can access online. I read and appreciate probably a lot of the same sites as many other people: the New Yorker, Mother Jones, Harper’s, Orion, the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, the Paris Review (especially the archived interviews). The Rumpus! I read too many political sites, too. I like aggregators like Longreads and Longform for discovering new publications. I keep rereading (and teaching) Citizen—it’s such an important book and work of art. This year some of my favorite books have been The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson, What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell, We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge, and Proxies by Brian Blanchfield. I just finished (and loved) Little Labors by Rivka Galchen, Half Wild by Robin MacArthur, and We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams, and am excited to begin Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn.
Rumpus: I loved chatting with you. Readers are going to want to meet you in person. Can you give me a few a stops on your book tour?
Boggs: Thanks for asking. I’m going to Decatur, North Carolina, and Chicago, where I’ll be reading with Eula Biss, and also in Minneapolis, with Kate Hopper. There will be more additions that I’ll update on my website www.belleboggs.com.