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May 28, 2010

Book Notes - Belle Boggs ("Mattaponi Queen")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Simply put, Mattaponi Queen is one of the most striking debut story collections I have read in years. The stories in this collection are both grounded to a sense of place and vividly realized. Belle Boggs' talent in portraying domestic distress while also exploring themes of social unrest is estimable, I greatly look forward to reading more from this talented young author.

NewPages wrote of the book:

"Domestic fiction often focuses on heartbreaks and disappointment within families and Mattaponi Queen is no exception. What sets the book apart is the sense of history that bubbles beneath the surface. Four hundred years ago Powhatan – chief of the Mattaponi and the father of Pocahontas – ruled the region where these stories take place. Then John Smith married his daughter and English colonists kicked off an era of violence that ultimately led to the genocide of Native Americans and the founding of the United States. As these stories attest, we are still feeling the repercussions. "

In her own words, here is Belle Boggs' Book Notes music playlist for her story collection, Mattaponi Queen:

The stories in Mattaponi Queen are set in a very specific time and place—King William and King and Queen Counties, in the Tidewater region of Virginia, mostly in 2002 and 2003. These two counties sit on either side of the Mattaponi River; the Mattaponi Indians, who make their home on the King William side, consider the river the source of all life.

My family always lived close enough to the Mattaponi River that we were very connected to its rhythms: fishing, boating, listening to ice break apart in winter. Although the characters and events in Mattaponi Queen are fictional, I imagined many of the stories taking place in the small King and Queen town of Walkerton, where my parents still live, and drew inspiration from the people there. We really had an egg man who delivered our eggs. There really was a boat called the Mattaponi Queen. Someone from our community really was used as an illustrator's model for Pocahontas. And there really are rich old white people being driven around in their own ancient, beat-up cars. These same old people will call you up and offer you the services of their employees like they belong to them (this happened to me when I was canning peach jam for my wedding favors). I was teaching while I wrote these stories—first at a public elementary school in Brooklyn, and then GED classes in Durham, North Carolina—and the people I met in those worlds influenced Mattaponi Queen, too.

Musically, there are two concerts in Mattaponi Queen (Bob Dylan and Patti LaBelle), a high school homecoming dance, and a revival on an Indian reservation. I don't listen to music when I write—it's too distracting—but music helps me think about characters, particularly their vanities and longings. And listening to a great song can put me in the mood to write the same way reading a great book can.

Bob  Dylan—"Buckets of Rain"

Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must

One of the stories in Mattaponi Queen, set during a terrible Dylan concert, is named for this song, but I can imagine it as an epigraph for the whole book. I like the simplicity of the song, and the repetition of "do what you must," which is the honorable impulse that has kept many of my characters so close to their homes.

Heartless Bastards—"Gray"

It seems like a lot of people where I'm from get old kind of early, and shaking off this feeling is what this song is about for me. I think Ronnie, an art-school dropout and Army wife, would be into the Heartless Bastards's tough, no-nonsense sound. I love Erika Wennerstrom's deep, scratchy voice and wish my voice sounded like hers (it sounds like the opposite of hers).

Bad Brains—"Sailin' On"

As a young teenager in the 1990s, Jeremy sneaks out of his mother's house to go with his friends to punk and hardcore shows in Richmond, where he slamdances and tries to meet girls and smokes only enough weed to prove he isn't uptight. He has a lot of issues with his parents. I can picture him listening to this song on the way to a show:

You don't want me anymore / So I walked right out that door / I played the game right from the start / I trust you, you use me, now my life's all torn apart / So I'm sailing, yeah I'm sailing on / I'm moving, yeah I'm moving on / Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

Patti LaBelle—"If You Asked Me To"

In "Opportunity," Lila, a school principal, pines for an unavailable touring bassist for Patti LaBelle. She meets him every spring at Kings Dominion, an amusement park and tour stop for Ms. LaBelle. All of the Boggs family, except my brother Sky, worked at Kings Dominion at one time or another.  My dad built roller coasters, my mom sculpted exhibit displays, and (years later) I dressed up as Cindy Bear, one of the Hanna-Barbera characters. Patti LaBelle actually did come to Kings Dominion to perform every year when I was a teenager, and I remember Patti LaBelle day well. The things that Lila notices about that day are true—the park really does increase security, expecting a "D.C. crowd." Lila feels jealous of Patti LaBelle and isn't fond of her music, which she thinks is "brassy and synthesized and insistent," but I can imagine she might have a soft spot for this song, which expresses a little of Lila's mix of toughness and tenderness:

I said I'd never let nobody get too close to me . . .
ask me to and I'll do anything for you baby

Bill Withers—"I Want to Spend the Night with You"

This is a song that I imagine would be even more to Lila's liking. She's a secret romantic, falling into a new relationship (of sorts) with a young and earnest sheriff's deputy who helps her father secure a driver's license. Bill Withers's music is honest and mature—he didn't start recording until he was in his thirties—but his voice is all romance and warmth. He's also from my dad's home state of West Virginia.

Papoose—"Brooklyn Stand Up"

Papoose is from Bainbridge Avenue in Ocean Hill, the easternmost part of Bedford-Stuyvesant, near the Brevoort Projects, which is where Marcus in "Homecoming" is from. I wrote "Homecoming," the longest story in Mattaponi Queen, right after moving from Brooklyn, where I taught at an elementary school across from the Brevoort Projects, to North Carolina. I was listening a lot to Papoose's mix tapes then.

Bed-Stuy is often the setting and subject of rap songs, but Papoose specifies individual streets that Marcus, a star sprinter who joins a football team after being sent to live with his grandmother in Virginia, would know well. I can imagine him listening to Papoose on headphones (to drown out the country sounds of frogs and cicadas) in his tiny porch room, missing home, and getting a little thrill every time he hears Papoose shout out Brownsville, East New York, and Crown Heights.

Papoose could be a character in Mattaponi Queen—he's creative and talented, but things haven't really gone his way. His record label gave him the run-around, possibly because he had released so many mix tapes, and he has never released an album. He's also unlucky in love—his wife, the rapper Remy Ma, is serving eight years in prison for assault (they married on the day of her sentencing).

Townes Van Zandt—"Nothin'"

Hey mama, when you leave

Don't leave a thing behind

I don't want nothin'

I can't use nothin'

Take care into the hall

And if you see my friends

Tell them I'm fine

Not using nothin'

I love the abject self-pity in this song. Townes Van Zandt was famous as a hermit and an addict, but he was also a sensitive soul, which is how I see a lot of the men in Mattaponi Queen—repetitive mistake-makers, but essentially loving. This song is for Skinny, an auto mechanic who built his house on a steep, narrow riverbank lot—the only land he could call for once he was finally clean enough and worn out enough to move back to the Mattaponi Indian Reservation. In "It Won't Be Long," he embarrasses his kids, who have moved with their mother to a new townhouse in Northern Virginia, and mopes around anticipating his own death and what it will mean to his family. Despite his flaws and addictions, he becomes a mentor of sorts to Marcus, and gives what he can. I have great affection for him.

The Mountain Goats – "Idylls of the King"

And I dreamed of vultures
In the trees around our house
And cicadas and locusts
And the shrieking of innumerable gibbons

Does everywhere in the South have a buzzard problem? Walkerton sure does, and we have a lot of buzzards where I live in North Carolina. In "Homecoming," Skinny has to chase the buzzards away from his house, and they freak Marcus out when they appear outside of his window. I love this song for the creepy buzzards (or vultures), the mix of hopefulness and decay, and the sweetness of John Darnielle's voice. He does sometimes make you wonder why you wrote a whole damn book, though.

Toby Keith – "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue"
Nelly – "Air Force Ones"

"Homecoming" takes place in 2002, when Marcus, fleeing family trouble in Brooklyn, tries to remake himself as a football star. His girlfriend, the cheerleader Tasha Davis, is on the homecoming dance committee, and there's debate between the white and black students about which song best honors the memory of 9/11. The white students want "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," but Tasha offers "Air Force Ones," which could also be considered patriotic given that it encourages Americans, just as George Bush did after the 9/11 attacks, to go shopping.

Patsy Cline—"Crazy"
In the title story, Mitchell pours his heart and loneliness into a broken-down riverboat, the Mattaponi Queen, which had been a wedding gift to his second wife (she gave it back). He is very sentimental, and I can see him putting on a Best of Patsy Cline record and thinking of his lost loves. I had to include Patsy (she's a Virginian), and this song was written by Willie Nelson, who was the first performer I ever saw in concert.

Belle Boggs and Mattaponi Queen links:

the author's blog
excerpt from the book ("Homecoming" courtesy of at At Length)
excerpt from the book ("Jonas" courtesy of at Five Chapters)

Elle review
ForeWord Reviews review
NewPages review

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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