Works with Soul: Interview with Jessie van Eerden

by Guest Blogger January 29, 2015

By Paul Anderson

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking with Jessie van Eerden over the phone from her home in West Virginia. Though our conversation was brief, it came as no surprise that her answers to my questions were charged with insight, humility, and humor. Her essay “Work Ethic,” which won Ruminate’s 2014 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize, was the first piece of hers I’d ever read, and the lyrical, densely vivid blend of poetry and prose sent me searching for more of the same. What I found was similarly fascinating, but the breadth of her range as a poet, essayist, and fiction writer, is vast. Her fictional characters are as real as those in her personal essays, and her prose is as poetic as it is erudite. While many contemporary writers flinch at the thought of directly confronting religious themes, images, or settings, van Eerden often pitches her tent in the thick of that forest. The stark landscape of her work has, naturally, warranted comparisons to Flannery O’Connor, but there is a warmth to her authorial gaze that brings each piece a kind of lightness, too. One Ruminate editor once joked that she was like “Flannery O’Connor if she loved her characters.” Jokes aside, Jesse van Eerden’s work is worthy of such praise.

(The following conversation has been edited slightly for brevity.)

Ruminate Magazine: If you had to pick 2 of the most important writers to you, since you’ve started writing or reading, who would they be?

Jessie van Eerden: I would think, in terms of the groundedness of who I am as a writer and how I treat the sentence, definitely Annie Dillard. I met her work very young; I was probably 18 or 19. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, all of her non-fiction work up until now, Holy the Firm. The way she used language was very new to me. I just didn’t know you could do that. That was a huge influence. And I always have to say David James Duncan, because I also read him quite young. The Brothers K, and his other stuff. And he was my mentor for my novel and is a good friend. He also did something I didn’t know you could do. He writes about a very contentious family, a very messy story that involves faith and politics and strong ideals, in a fleshed out environment that is very moving, one that you can enter into and roll around in.

RM: When did you know that you were a writer, or that you wanted to be a writer?

JvE: My friend Kirsten just shared with me a Franz Wright line—The thirst is the water—I think it was. Or, The desire is the thing itself. That feels very true to me. I don’t know; that’s a complicated question. Some writers will say: “I don’t call myself a writer; that’s something that other people will designate me.” And I have always been of that mindset—I am a person who writes. You know, you’re a human being who does things. And I like to keep that in mind, because we’re such a brand-oriented generation. It’s all about how you market yourself. So the claim of “a writer” is sometimes more of an identity than a vocation. But when I think of it as a vocation, I see the flip side of it. Especially for myself, growing up as a woman in Evangelical culture, where gender issues and voice issues were often at play, and I kind of had to say, “This is who I am. This is the work I’m doing and I believe in it,” to quote another poet, Maggie Anderson. I think that the desire came along when I was quite young, probably in grade school. Then in college, under the tutelage of Kevin Oderman, a wonderful essayist, he wrote a comment on one of my essays, “You don’t have to become a writer, you are one.” I had this kind of inner intuition, but I was fortunate to have the affirmation from the outside to solidify it.

RM: A lot of your work—whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, or poetry—focuses on people in religious communities and their experiences. Children, women, pastors, etc. More specifically, these are often very rural religious communities. Your novel Glorybound, for example, is told from the perspective of an incarcerated Pentecostal preacher’s daughters in West Virginia. How present is your upbringing and your development in the church in your work?

JvE: Well, I guess that kind of depends on which specific piece and which genre. My fiction tends to be a little more peripheral, and it’s not really autobiographical. I think all of the spirituality I write about in terms of West Virginia takes place on the fringes of those communities that I grew up in. I never experienced serpent handling or glossolalia as a child, as my characters do, but they were on the edge of my experience. Those things always intrigued me. Especially in Glorybound, I was very interested in creating a group of people who were kind of at a lower socioeconomic spectrum, like the people I grew up with and went to church with. Somewhat backwoods people who may have had a wacky theological background, but really cared for one another. The important thing for me to capture was that the theology wasn’t really the point; it was more about an atmosphere and a spirit of togetherness. I really wanted to honor that in the book.

RM: You have an MFA in nonfiction writing from Iowa, but you continue to write prolifically in the three major genres, often blending all of them into one. Unlike a lot of writers, you don’t seem restricted by any sort of bias towards one genre. So, would you say that you have a first love out of those three? And what drove you focus on nonfiction back in the day?

JvE: Well, first of all, I wrote plays in high school. I’m not sure if they were any good, but that’s what I did. And then I started writing poetry in college, and very much considered myself a poet. When I was introduced to the essay, though, I realized how flexible and malleable it was, and that really appealed to me. I was always highly narrative in poetry, and I loved the idea of having more space and the opportunity to explore an idea and a theme, and to do it all at once. The essay seemed to me a beautiful playground for all of that. So I guess the essay was my first true love, and at that time I was pretty good at it. But before grad school, I realized I was kind of doing the same thing over and over, hitting the same note. So I wanted to broaden my ability. But then again, you have first loves, and then you have other first loves, and I think I fell in love with the novel shortly after grad school. I was writing a short story that was way too slow, and somebody said it needed to be a novel. And since my nonfiction was always very character driven, I wanted to move in a direction where my characters weren’t necessarily bound by fact. It was a natural progression. And ever since then I go in and out of genres all the time. Sometimes I’m not even sure what genre I’m in when I’m working on the piece. Sometimes I feel that genres can be a kind of useless label.

RM: That’s what came to mind while reading your piece, “Work Ethic.” (which won Ruminate’s VanderMey Nonfiction Prize) That could have been a poem, I thought. Or a short story. It was certainly something that most people probably would not have expected to be the winning piece in a Nonfiction essay contest. What inspired you to write about Leah in the way that you did?

JvE: (Laughs) I was kind of surprised that it won, too. But I was grateful. That’s a good example of what I’m talking about. It started as a narrative poetry project with a narrator named Judy, and it turned into a couple of essays. So, one of the things I was interested in was re-imagining some biblical narratives with the Midrashic impulse of filling in some gaps, or interrogating behind the scenes of what’s present in the more skeletal biblical passages. Especially with intriguing characters like Leah and Rachel. But that voice, that particular vocal pitch of the unnamed narrator, has evolved into a novel, and in it, she has become a sort of unskilled theologian. And this particular project is trying to look at how some biblical characters can just become paper cutouts and represent something, and I’m trying to move beyond that representation. And in Leah, I always thought, growing up, what a raw deal that girl got. So, I wanted to dig deeper into that, and this is the form that it naturally took.

RM: Billy Collins said, roughly, that “Two basic requirements for a poet are a love of language and an inherit sense of gratitude.” Do you think there are two requirements for a fiction writer, or if they’re different, for a nonfiction writer?

JvE: Well, those are pretty great requirements. I definitely agree with the love of language, because I’ve always felt like there isn’t any other option besides writing poetic or lyrical prose. I was trained as an essayist that there should be a blues-string twang in every sentence. Actually, I have no patience for prose that has no song. So, I’ve never thought that a love of language is just for poets. I have to agree with gratitude, too, but I would probably add humility. Li-Young Lee, David James Duncan, Richard Schmitt, these writesrs always talk about the importance of that refrain of I don’t know, I don’t know how to do this. That sense of, I haven’t mastered this and I never will. And I think that’s been very important for me as a part of the M.F.A. world, which sometimes has this engine, machine-like feel, and it’s so important to remember that writing is not masterable. It becomes a business, and that dangerous for the writer. Even humility becomes a kind of posture, you know. The point is always to learn, like Li-Young Lee says, it’s always the blank page in front of you when you start a new piece; you’ve never arrived.

RM: A lot of writers of faith are increasingly afraid of either confronting religious themes or using religious language in their work. You, on the other hand, are the opposite of afraid of doing that, considering that so much of your work is about religious people, or even about religious language itself. In an older essay called “Seamless”, you wrote, “What’s the point of exhausting already winded words…unless there is something to them that is still powerful. Something that could terrify or exhilarate beyond tired themes. Should we not try to claim the word bank of holies as our own?” Where did that desire come from, and is that still a goal of yours in your writing?

JvE: Oh, man, that’s something we could talk on for a long time. I never tire of talking about it, but I’m always afraid I’ll say something and then want to change it tomorrow. It’s a very evolving thing, and it probably is for any writer of faith. And it’s not actually alien to the genre question. I think our tendency is to compartmentalize, to say we’re a poet or a prose writer, but also to say we’re a writer of faith or that very strange word—secular writer—which means nothing to people who aren’t people of faith. They think that binary is so odd. But if you grow up like I did, with “Christian music” or “secular music”, you grow up with that dichotomy. I’m a huge Marilynne Robinson fan, and there’s a lot of buzz about her since her new book Lila came out. And her success makes me think of a lot of people, my peers, people who grew up in Baptist backgrounds or fundamentalist in some way, where it becomes kind of the joke in the background once you take off on your literary career. And if you are religious, my goodness you better be Episcopal, or something more sophisticated. But I think there’s kind of an arrested development that can happen for writers who try to excavate their quirky, fundamentalist pasts, or oppressive, or gender unequal, spiritual upbringings. The truth is, that past is always filled with riches and wounds. But I think that if you excavate that and don’t acknowledge that parallel to your current spiritual life where you’re still acknowledging that, even though I’m a college professor, I’m still that little kid at the altar on Friday night, you’re missing something. Those things don’t have to be separated. For me, writing is more unified. It’s where I can do more of that ongoing spiritual growth.

But, honestly, the pendulum swings. Sometimes I want nothing to do with biblical language, and that sometimes happens because I’m sick of the “club.” You know, there’s a Writer of Faith club. Sometimes I want to go to Calvin[College’s Festival of Faith and Writing], and sometimes I would rather just go anywhere else, because there’s a clubby feel. And I don’t say that out of disrespect, I say it because I have a personal journey with it. Because there are people who will read my work and feel excluded if there’s a high biblical content, or if I’m wrestling with issues that don’t ring true to them, or even feel false and fabricated. A lot of the packaging of evangelical speak is not just bad, camp language, but it can also sometimes seem like you haven’t owned it. You haven’t earned it and wrestled with it so that you limp, like Jacob. So, I’ve always sought out readers who have a really different worldview from me, and I want them to be able to somehow find themselves in my work. I had a really great, un-churched friend who asked me in college, “Why do you think anyone would expect a human being to be a-historical, that you have no frame of reference?” That’s not true of anybody. All of our imaginations are made in a very peculiar fire. And you don’t have to apologize for that. I think you just have to go beyond, number 1: mocking it. That’s some of the easiest writing to do, particularly about spirituality. But I think you also have allow yourself to let go of its sacredness and its preciousness, you know, and let some of the darkness really show it itself. Flannery O’Connor comes to mind.  

Jessie directs the low-residency MFA Creative Writing Program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, and is currently at work on another novel, as well as a collection of essays. You can read her award-winning piece, “Work Ethic,” in Ruminate Issue 32: Clearing It Out, some of her previous work, here, or purchase Glorybound, her debut novel.

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Paul Anderson is a native of Naperville, IL, and a lover of most things Midwestern. He's an MFA in Fiction candidate at Seattle Pacific University's low residency program and a graduate of Westmont College. He now lives in New York City, where he's figuring it out.

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