Jessie van Eerden's Call it Horses: Winner of the 2019 Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction

Call It Horses, Jessie van Eerden’s newest novel and winner of the 2019 Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, is available March 23, 2021. We at the Vitni Review are delighted to share one of our favorite excerpts, as well as a brief interview we were able to conduct with the author of this unique novel. Here's what some others have had to say about it:

“Filled with poetry, working-class grit, and undogmatic spirituality, this novel shows us what we gain when we become outlaws in our own lives.” –John Englehardt (Bloomland)

“Jessie van Eerden manages, in prose so luminous it feels backlit by the golden hour, to give familiar topics—family, history, grief—their monumental due. But as exact are its descriptions of Appalachian bog and the dusty canyons of West Texas, Call It Horses locates its mystery in the liminal. The westward journey these three women take is filled with take-out meals and cheap hotel rooms, but the novel’s most illuminating route is an unsettling and compassionate search for solace.” –Michael Parker (Prairie Fever and All I Have in This World)

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About Jessie van Eerden:

A West Virginia native, Jessie van Eerden holds a BA in English from West Virginia University and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in The Oxford AmericanRiver TeethImageBellingham ReviewWillow SpringsGulf CoastNew England Review, Ruminate, and other publications. Her prose has been selected for inclusion in Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia (Vandalia Press); Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean (Ohio University Press); Red Holler (Sarabande); Dreams and Inward Journeys: A Rhetoric and Reader for Writers, Seventh Edition (Longman); Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical (Cascade Books); and Best American Spiritual Writing (Houghton Mifflin). She was selected as the 2007-2008 Milton Fellow with Image and Seattle Pacific University for work on her first novel, Glorybound (WordFarm, 2012), winner of ForeWord Reviews’  2012 Editor’s Choice Fiction Prize. Her second novel, My Radio Radio, is published by Vandalia Press (2016); her collection of portrait essays, The Long Weeping, published by Orison Books (2017), won the 20th annual Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award in the essay category; and her novel Call It Horses (2021) won the 2019 Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction. She has also been awarded the Gulf Coast Prize in Nonfiction, a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Fellowship, and residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Fundación Valparaíso, and Wildacres.

Jessie has taught for over eighteen years in college classrooms and adult literacy programs, and she directed the low-residency MFA writing program of West Virginia Wesleyan College for seven years. She lives in Roanoke, Virginia and is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University as well as the Nonfiction Editor for Orison Books.

Follow Jessie on Twitter: @jessievaneerden. To see what Jessie has been reading, visit her Goodreads page.

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VR: Call it Horses contains many wonderful metaphors and similes, many of which evoke nature. We also noticed that the natural world is often used to convey the moods or states of the characters. Can you speak to the importance of nature writing in your work generally, but more specifically, how do you see nature writing informing this book?

Thank you for your thoughtful reading of this work and for making this observation about the natural world as a force in the novel, especially for characterization. The narrator Frankie’s story is one centered in two spiritual homelands—the Appalachian alfalfa fields and bogs and limestone caves and briery fencerows of her youth and the Southwest deserts she has never seen but is barreling toward on this road trip. In some ways, these two landscapes have always commingled in her psyche in the biblical narratives she is steeped in, since those ancient stories of wandering the wilderness evoke the desert’s prickly pear and bear grass, its spareness and its harsh beauty. She is a woman who feels stuck in her life, so I try to depict the claustrophobia of the mountains hemming her in and the wet bog underlining her stasis with mold and mildew. Frankie longs for the expansiveness and starkness she thinks she can find under the desert sky. For the other two main characters—Mave and Nan—these landscapes hold their own meanings of escape, fulfillment, and loss. The natural landscape of subsistence farm life is important texture for these characters too, not in an intentional homesteading sense, but in the way small-town and rural West Virginians tend their squash patches, string up their foil pie pans to keep the deer away, and know when to scan the early spring woods for the sarvisberry. This is also the wild and agrarian texture of my own rural upbringing, so it’s alive in my imagination. I took trips to Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico and researched the flora and fauna and read fiction set there so that these beautiful places that called to my own adult self could, hopefully, come into real focus and specificity as I followed the yearning in these characters.

VR: These days, it is incredibly easy to review, well, almost anything. Critics abound. In Call it Horses, there is a distinct nod to the interpretation of art. Some writers fear or resent misinterpretation of their work, but for some, too much explanation might detract from the artistic value of their book. Do you think it’s appropriate for authors to alter their work to lead readers to the interpretation they desire, or should they accept that misinterpretation will always occur?

I loved thinking about art-making in this book and exploring it through the characters of Nan and Clarissa in particular. Mave is part autodidact, Frankie is part homespun theologian, and I wanted that kind of innate homemade impulse for art to manifest in this novel too. I wasn’t so tied up with interpretation and misinterpretation as I was with the need we have as human beings for creative expression. For Clarissa, in an abusive marriage and in humble circumstances, art is salvific. Her painted-gourd necklaces are a precursor to what her daughter Tess will do in art school and gallery shows, but the novel focuses less on art with public reception and more the rough but real creation that happens after the floors are scrubbed when a middle-aged woman stays up all night in a burst of energy to make something. It’s the inner light of it that I wanted to explore in the novel, particularly in untrained characters who have a spiritual and aesthetic intelligence that broader culture doesn’t always give them credit for. I know this doesn’t answer your question! But I suppose I find interpretation out of the hands of writer and artist. The average person reviews everything from their blender to their dentist visit; we read reviews before buying, shopping, eating, reading, watching anything, often without much sense of the criterion by which something is being measured or the degree of thoughtfulness in the reviewer. But when it comes to creating something, I think we have to let go of how it will be received or interpreted. I’m guided by Flannery O’Connor on that score: “No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.” To meet the demands, we have to let go of agenda and of control over how the art will operate once it’s out in the world.

VR: We were delighted to see how the content of the novel is influenced by its structure. How did you decide the novel would work best in epistolary form? What do you think first-person epistolary allows for in this book that other points of view would not have?

Appalachian Review kindly ran a craft essay of mine in the summer 2020 issue on this very question (the essay is called “This Present Absence: The Generative Power of Epistolary Form”). I have always loved writing letters, especially as a way to get back to a real voice when I’ve been away from writing for a while; there’s something about writing to a specific soul out there that shapes your own voice and lends urgency to your news. Call It Horses, over the course of about eight years, went through so many permutations—narrative poem sequence, literary essay, first-person novel. About three quarters through the drafting process of the first-person novel, I started to feel a stagnation in the prose. Because I was discovering that the sacredness and essence of language was central to Frankie’s coming-back-to-life in the world, I decided to try the epistolary frame and have her write out of that original impulse with which, as a child, she wrote letters to Ruth, Mave’s lover who is a linguist. In some ways, first-person epistolary isn’t all that different from straight first-person narration, but the increase in energy, intimacy, and urgency felt huge to me when I made that shift. Then of course I had to rewrite the first three-quarters of the book! The main effect of this point of view choice is the posture toward a particular listener. In my craft piece I say it this way: “[L]etters can generate thoughts which have been inchoate until I suddenly have a specific audience for whom to focus them. As language in a letter invokes its audience, the Other gives shape to the self’s interior. In this invocation, there’s a disruption of the Other into the sovereign self, and this disruption seems to me the dynamic heart of the epistle, and of literature that takes on epistolary form.” The engine of the story is the need to tell and reckon with events in the present-absent company of another.

VR: We understand it can be difficult to reconcile a writing career and a teaching career. Some writers have told us they prefer to be an educator over a writer, or vice versa. How has your teaching influenced or affected your writing? Did your teaching have any bearing on the writing of Call it Horses?

It’s true that if you do it well, teaching takes a lot of your creative energy, especially writing courses that involve a conveyor belt of manuscript review. But it’s also true that it gives you creative energy. Your pump is always primed to read with intention and to study sentences for their beautiful architecture; when I read a book or essay or poem I’m about to teach, I read it twice as deeply because I’m seeking aspects that are shareable with my students; thus, my learning is constant, and that definitely feeds my own work. And of course students do not come empty-handed to the classroom—they often offer insights into texts that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and their creative work can move me and change me. I also often do writing prompts with my students, and collective writing often inspires me and bears fruit in my ongoing projects. It helps to have a manageable writing project kicking around in my head before I start a semester so that I can dip into it in bits and snatches. I wrote this novel mostly while I was program director for the low-residency MFA program at WV Wesleyan College; the incredible students were of nontraditional age and background; many had put off the dream of writing for much of their lives, so their hunger for all things literary was acute. I certainly channeled that hunger into Frankie who isn’t writing a novel but is of course writing a novel, as addressed in letter form. My students’ voices definitely inflected Frankie’s.

VR: The women of Call it Horses share generational and communal solidarity that reflects both their resilience as well as individual and shared trauma. Can you speak to your process of illustrating these ties while also demonstrating the unique individualism of Frankie and the other women in the book?

I love this question. Frankie’s loneliness, as well as her solitude that is not merely loneliness, created a kind of chamber for me in writing this book—lots of interior scouring and exploring. And her status as a woman who resists, or finds inaccessible, the traditional roles of wife and mother in this small-town Appalachian cultural milieu, makes her a kind of exile which taps into some of my own autobiography. Mave, too, as a lesbian who leaves a rural community for education but then comes back, always the outlier, is an important link for Frankie to a world beyond the given roles. Niece and aunt become studies in individualism. But I do believe the fiercest, realest, and most life-giving interiority is always fed by streams of community. This belief is most influenced by my own mother who stayed home and raised my three siblings and me with my dad, who held the jobs, on a subsistence farm with a lot of manual labor and solitude, though in great togetherness with other rural women in the community doing the same thing. And my mom’s inner life was one I studied up close and it was lush. She also had a friend who lived on a larger farm and had a cooperative with other farm wives for a time, and that seemed to me a fruitful metaphor for the creative and industrious support these women offered each other. I wanted the communal ties in this book to reflect realistically the stymying force that traditional givens do often enact, but I also wanted to go through that to the other side where those ties can, ultimately, create fertile space for the self’s becoming.

We here at the Vitni Review would like to extend our deepest gratitude to Professor van Eerden for her wonderful words and insights. We would also like to thank Michelle Dotter, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief at Dzanc Books for working with us on this feature, as well as Dzanc Books Publicist Catherine Sinow, who first brought this book to our attention.

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