by Rebecca Doverspike
photo credit to Doug Van Gundy
The first piece of Jessie van Eerden’s that I read was an essay titled “Soul Catchers,” and I was so deeply taken by the ways she was able to describe people’s interiority and complexity. I’ve since read several other essays of Jessie’s and I recommend looking through her list of published works on her website (jessievaneerden.com), and reading as much as you can, too. Her work speaks to me on a number of levels; I love the quality of thinking-through-something I feel in her writing. Instead of re-instilling particular ways of thinking, her work seems to question that and in doing so describes people’s lives with the kinds of details that follow from close observation and empathy. Whether she’s writing about a particular people and place, holiness, relationships, or language, her work goes beneath and beyond assumptions to get at the real. There’s a unique voice that threads throughout her work, one that opens readers to more closely perceive and experience their world.
Jessie is an undergraduate alum of WVU, and she received her MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa. She currently directs the low-residency MFA program at Wesleyan College. Her debut novel, Glorybound, has been recently published and I am eager to delve into it. I was very pleased to have the chance to e-mail Jessie some questions about her work, and grateful for her wonderfully thorough response, to share with you all.
1) From the pieces of yours I’ve been lucky enough to read so far, your writing draws partially from growing up in rural West Virginia. What other places have you been between your time as an undergraduate at WVU and returning to teach at Wesleyan? How has distance from West Virginia affected your perception of the place and/or your writing?
Great question. After graduating from WVU, I served with Mennonite Voluntary Service for two years in DC. I taught adult literacy there for The Academy of Hope, a small nonprofit housed on the second floor of an historic Baptist Church. I fell in love with literacy work and kept at it for another year in Philadelphia while I applied to grad programs. Went off to the University of Iowa in Iowa City to study nonfiction for three years, completing my last year from Elkhart, Indiana. The year after graduation landed me in Seattle; I received the Milton Fellowship for work on my first novel and feverishly wrote nonstop then popped my head up at Seattle Pacific University once a week to teach a creative writing class. After Seattle, I taught for four years at an intense wonderful program in southern Oregon called the Oregon Extension. Then, after another few months of transition in Philadelphia, I ended up back in WV, happily accepting this position at WV Wesleyan to carry on the late Irene McKinney’s vision for a vibrant low-residency MFA program.
It’s true that much of my writing is rooted in my first 22 years of life lived in WV, especially the rural WV of my youth. I’ve lived away from here for the last eleven years, coming back as often as I could to visit family. One of the things that has struck me since I’ve been back is how fun it is to drive on WV roads. I learned on these roads—how to bank the curves, how to scan for whitetails and find the shortcuts—so driving these roads again has been like reconnecting with my younger self, and that’s been intriguing. Because this is a major transition time in my life, connection with my younger self has been rich and perhaps even generative for my writing, at least the kind of inwardly-focused, meditative writing I’m doing right now.
2) Do you think of your work as place-based, or does that feel reductive? After reading, I feel more loving and curious toward people—I feel you write about people’s complexity and dimensions so well. Do you find it challenging to describe people? How does that process differ for you between creative nonfiction and fiction?
Well, this is an incredibly complex bundle of questions! I’ll do my best here: First of all, yes, I would say my writing is place-based, though that’s a highly nuanced topic we discuss here in Wesleyan’s MFA Program a good bit since a study of “place and identity” (particularly the place of Appalachia and the identity of the Appalachian) is something our program is committed to. My work is grounded in the particularities of the terrain I know, and I think my terrain might be, for better or worse, a bit stranger than the terrain of others’ that is, most of my friends in grad school didn’t have a milk cow growing up, didn’t churn butter and walk to the neighbors’ to sell it, didn’t experience a laying-on-of-hands in prayer. But the quirkiness or non-quirkiness of your growing-up doesn’t matter all that much when what you’re trying to map out, or just explore, is the terrain of being human which of course is the terrain we all have in common. In some piece of writing by Eudora Welty, she said the term “regional writing” is a label for those outside the work and probably the region. For “regional writers” it’s just writing.
I guess I do think growing up in Appalachia has affected the way I think about the ethics of depicting or representing the people who populate my surface terrain. Appalachians can be really dismissed by the mainstream culture like, geesh, so many distinct people groups can be dismissed so I suppose it became a real project of mine to resist any reductionism, any dismissal of folks I write about, any collapsing of an individual into a set of assumptions, especially assumptions about the interior life. (And of course it happens the other way around too, in this sometimes-xenophobic terrain, strangers and outsiders can get pegged, and I grew up watching that happen a lot too.) Just because this is my approach and orientation toward depicting characters doesn’t mean I always succeed; in fact, writing does reduce people: it reduces them to these words, this narrative you can never draw all the water from the deep well of a person. I have to accept that inevitable failure of language and can only hope that my work can create a space for and gesture toward what is ineffable about a person, what is beyond anyone’s reach. I think I’m trying to do something for the interiority of characters like what Li-Young Lee does for silence in his poetry, as he says in that wonderful book of interviews, Breaking the Alabaster Jar: “I’m trying to use words to inflect the silence so that the silence becomes more palpable.”
But, to be more direct: yes, I find it difficult to write about people! I find it the easiest, most natural thing in the world, and I find it next to impossible, both in fiction and nonfiction. That you feel curious and loving about people after reading my work is the highest compliment I think I’ve ever received.
3) Along with the previous two questions, what kind of audience do you think of while you’re writing? How does that differ between genres? Who do you want to read your work and why?
Honestly, I want anyone and everyone to read my work, in any and all genres I write in. I’m shameless. I want to connect with people. My best attempt at answering the question of whom I write for is in an essay called “So Great a Cloud” it discusses the question of the audience that lives in my head you can find it in Issue 21 (Autumn 2011) of a wonderful little magazine called Ruminate. There is a core of people (my “cloud of witnesses” I call them in this essay) whom I draw close when I’m writing because they keep me closer to writing what’s true. But I love it when anyone picks up my stuff.
4) Faith seems rooted and infused in a lot of your work—could you speak to the relationship between religion and writing for you?
This question is of course related to the previous one. If you’ve got a soft spot for Jesus and like to wrangle over the Scriptures, sometimes you get lumped as a Christian writer, a writer of faith. I don’t mind it so much since I think labeling is just what we do as human beings, especially as human beings who have to market stuff and who like to target marketing campaigns. And I also know full well that my work often resonates most deeply with folks who sat in oak pews every Sunday growing up (especially those who feel a few bruises on their bums because of that pew-sitting); I remember hearing a story read by my now-friend Paul Willis in which he had a scene including The Four Spiritual Laws booklet, which is a common tool for evangelism in the Evangelical world, and I thought: That can be in literature?! And it was important for me to see that it could be in literature because anything can be in literature each of our imaginations get forged in a fire and mine happens to have been forged in a fire of faith and doctrine and altar-calls. (And, to keep going with this metaphor, I would say that the fire sometimes illuminates and sometimes burns, so there is critique in what I write about religion as well, not just embrace.) But I’ve always intentionally sought out readers with no churchiness in their pasts and no King James Bible informing their syntax because I don’t want to write in code. There are good models for me out there, spectacular ones: Marilynne Robinson’s theologically-oriented work in particular has shimmered for me.
But I appreciate that you see, I think, what I’m trying to do which is to include and also to ultimately go beyond my tribe. Such going-beyond feels to me like some of the most hopeful work we can do as humans.
5) I didn’t think much about the differences between genres before I applied to an MFA program… I thought good writing was good writing and all of it offered irreplaceable insight into reality. How do you decide which genre to write in? How does your new novel, Glorybound, compare or contrast with your nonfiction essays and/or poetry?
I agree: good writing is good writing, and all of it is the work of the imagination, no matter its genre label. I’m a pretty firm believer in listening to your material: it will tell you what form it needs to be written in. Maybe that’s a little smushy and artsy, but that’s been true of my experience. I was writing portrait essays in grad school, and I loved the form, and then all of a sudden I was confronted by a young woman who took a vow of silence, someone who was not part of the factual cast of characters in my life, and I wanted badly to know why she would do such a strange thing, and she had to tell me through the medium of a novel. Mainly, I’m interested in telling the truth. Fiction allows me to say things that nonfiction doesn’t; poetry allows me to peer more deeply inside the tiniest of language-spaces and sit there until a truth comes through. As my friend and mentor David Duncan says, “we all dip into the same inkwell of imagination.”
6) I would say you write with a kind of love, and a kind that I’m able to (gratefully) feel more fully after reading. What would you say drives your work?
Well, this humbles me and pleases me to know end, that you sense love here. In a seminar at Iowa we had to write our mission statements as writers, and I just went looking for mine. I was all nervous to submit mine because I thought the professor would think it was fluffy because the last line of mine read: “I hope that if someone reads what I write, that person will be somehow more assured of love. At the end of the day, that’s the point of it for me.” It’s hard to get away from love as a driving force when I get down to the bedrock. It’s the most interesting thing intellectually, spiritually, socially; it’s the anchor. Of course that doesn’t mean I write all kittens and rainbows and shmarminess far from it. Love is the lens of spiritual vision, and as Flannery O’Connor says, in so many words, the spiritual vision can be the darkest vision, can peer into the most violent, the most desperate of places. And to draw from another fierce young female genius, Simone Weil: love is the fiercest and most demanding kind of attention.
7) How is teaching at the low-residency program going?
Oh, so wonderfully! We have an amazing cohort of committed students and we’ll graduate our first class this year. The Wesleyan faculty is energetic, gifted, diverse, and so have been all the visiting readers and instructors who have graced us: Sara Pritchard, Karen McElmurray, Dan Albergotti, Ann Pancake, Denise Giardina, Maggie Anderson, Gerry LaFemina, to name a few. I love the apprenticeship-model of our low-residency program I think it prepares students well for the writing life, its essential mixture of solitude and community.
8) How long have you been working on Glorybound? Could you speak a bit to the process?
I wrote a short story that was slow as molasses one summer during grad school, and it was clear that it would be better as the beginning of a novel since it flopped as a story. David Duncan sent me a postcard that said something like: “Many of us find writing a novel to be an expansive experience. You should try it.” So I did. I pitched it to the Milton Fellowship folks at Image in Seattle and they gave me a blessed year of pay to draft the book, which happened pretty quickly, in about 10 months. I had to do a bit of research, especially on charismatic religion and prisons in WV. Then I let the manuscript draft sit while I started teaching at Oregon and spent another 5 months or so the next year revising it. I shopped for agents and publishers for a few years, and had many, many rejections (the most frustrating being: “I love your writing, but our last Appalachian book didn’t sell.”). The fiction bug had really bit me by then, so while I shopped the book around, I kept my writing self alive (the self you have to keep protected from the market if at all possible) by saying, Well, hell, I’m just going to write another one! So I did, and I learned even more from writing that manuscript. It still needs some attention, but I’m hoping to send it out there soon.
9) What projects are in the works lately? What have you been reading?
The novel I mentioned above; also an essay collection and a narrative poetry sequence. Most immediately I’ve been working on an essay exploring grief through the story of a little-known biblical character named Rizpah, a concubine of an Old Testament king. Seven of her sons were executed because of the debt incurred by the king, and Rizpah protected her sons’ corpses for seven months. Sat there for 7 months with dead bodies. The story intrigues me and it’s porous enough to enter into, roll around in, weep inside of. We’ll see what comes of it.
I’ve been reading some studies of that biblical character also a book on midrash by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg The Murmurring Deep, some beautiful fiction by Karen McElmurray, The Motel of the Stars, Richard Schmitt’s wonderful novel The Aerialist.
10) You have a long list of publications; are there pieces you still feel more strongly connected to than others?
I feel pretty connected to the novel Glorybound since I devoted so much of my time and self to it and since it speaks to some of the issues that really make up the “firmament” of my growing-up years. I still feel very connected to the essay you mentioned “Soul Catchers” (also entitled “Woman with Spirits” in Sarabande’s forthcoming anthology of Appalachian writing Red Holler) that piece feels important to me regarding all the things I’ve mentioned here about my approach to writing about people, seeing people.
I wrote an essay about my mother called “A Good Day” (The Literary Review, Fall 2010) that still feels very important to me, and, I think, to my mom who has always been an amazing supporter of my work.
11) What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
Ha! So little time? I like to run by the river to clear my mind, play Frisbee, cook (I’m such a mediocre cook, I always congratulate myself on anything I put in the skillet it’s a real confidence boost!). I’ve tried to learn banjo and I’m hoping to get back to that once I get settled in my new life here in Buckhannon. I love live music and slow evenings spent in the company of one or two people. I try my hand at linoleum block prints now and then and make little books.
12) Any advice for current writing students or writers at large?
You know, I’m usually short on advice. Maybe I’ll share someone else’s. When poet Irene McKinney launched this program last July, she had all of the faculty give a piece of writing advice (I was visiting faculty then). She battled cancer for years, and it took her life this past February, and she was doing some writing about her illness at that time well, writing about all sorts of core, bedrock things, not just illness. She told us to not be hampered by shame; in fact, I believe she said: “Shame is the new pride.” Write through and in and for and out of your shame; may it be generative and not stifling or silencing. Don’t let anything get in the way that’s the imperative I felt around Irene, during the little time that I knew her. I think it’s good advice.
If you’re interested in talking with Jessie about her writing or about the low-residency MFA program she directs at WV Wesleyan College, she welcomes comments & inquiries. Follow the link to email Jessie or mail her directly at:
59 College Avenue, Box 46
Buckhannon WV, 26201
You can also learn more about her writing and the program here.
Learn more about Jessie on her website.