SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Jessie van Eerden

This academic year marks an important milestone for several faculty and alumni in our MFA community as they release books out into the world. A handful of these works are first publications for their authors. To acknowledge their hard work and celebrate with them, we will periodically feature these publications and interviews with the authors on this blog. It is only fitting that we begin with Jessie van Eerden, director of WV Wesleyan’s MFA program. In November 2017, Orison Books released Jessie’s collection of portrait essays, The Long Weeping, and we recently connected with the author to find out more about the essays, her literary influences, and her future projects. 

In her blurb for The Long Weeping, Ann Pancake said that it “turns a visionary eye and a laser mind on subjects often simplified or even scorned by contemporary culture: white poverty, mysticism, love of family, the wisdom of modest people.” How would you describe The Long Weeping to others?

I’m humbled by Ann’s description. I do think I’m drawn to subjects and characters that can be oversimplified and thus deserve a closer look. I compiled the book as a set of portraits, so I would describe it that way. Thematically, the essays intersect on a series of axes: the axis of place, particularly rural Appalachia; the axis of ethical relation (and “thickness” of relation in rural spaces); the axis of spirituality, often inside the Judeo-Christian tradition, but, just as often, outside it or in opposition to it; and the axis of grief experienced in various contexts. In order to create cohesion, the manuscript formally makes use of the portrait as a limiting and focusing frame. The essays sometimes explore the literal biographical details of the portrayed character, as with the mother figure in “A Good Day,” and at other times the portrait is a frame for meditation, as with the boy glimpsed in a film at a church camp in “Resurrection.” The ultimate goal of each of the portrait essays in the collection, as with all personal essays, is to transcend the immediate subject. 

Sonja Livingston, in her blurb, referred to the essays in this collection as “the truest essays [shes] read in a long time,” stating that the collection “shimmers with intelligence and grace.” What was the inspiration behind this blend of essays?

These essays came together over a stretch of about twelve years, though I wasn’t working on the manuscript consistently during that time. The earliest ones are part of my MFA thesis (so I always tell our MFA students that a book can come years after the thesis—be patient until the work is ready!). The essays focused on my rural home community came first; I grew up around many elderly people and had a feeling very young that I lived in a place with customs and attitudes that were dying out and giving way to a great “blandification” of American life. So I wanted to preserve that place somehow. I was also reading mystics at the time, and I wanted to somehow infuse the mystic’s way of being in the world with the dirt and chickens and crab apple trees of my home turf.

In the essay, “Without,” which was also published in The Cimarron Review, you write of Simone Weil that she “had worked so hard to erase herself even as she wrote herself. The eraser always leaves a smudge and leaves someone trying to decipher what had been written there” (49). In the same essay, you write that you and your ex-husband both wanted to “be Weil” (48). Looking objectively at your own work, would you describe your writing in the same way—that as you write yourself, you are also trying to erase yourself?

That’s a really interesting question. Probably yes: self-erasure and self-discovery may be two sides of the same process that are essential to the whole enterprise of writing. Self-erasure is central in trying to write something in which the reader will find herself, something beyond my personal story, and the only way that “finding” can happen is, paradoxically, when I’m genuinely engaged in trying to understand something in myself. Anne Carson, in her wonderful essay “Decreation,” which is about Weil as well as Sappho and the Beguine mystic Margaret Porette, beautifully captures this paradox of de-creating while creating: “To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.”

In your essay on the Beguines, “The Soul has Six Wings,” which was also published in Portland MagazineDreams and Inward Journeys: A Rhetoric and Reader for Writers; and Best American Spiritual Writing, you ask if there is a “place for the contemporary mystic,” someone in your view who “simply believes that God visits” (33). Do you consider yourself a contemporary mystic?

Ah, I don’t know. Probably not. That seems like a designation for someone other than the self to decide. I feel that way even about writing. I’m less comfortable saying “I’m a writer” than saying “I’m a person who writes.”

The sections that make up the essay, “The Long Weeping,” stray from Rizpah of the Biblical book of 2 Samuel, who you describe as “Saul’s surviving concubine, a no-wife,” to a more current Rizpah who can’t stand going to Kroger. How were you able to put yourself inside the mind of Rispah, whose two sons and five grandsons were impaled and hanged as an offering to turn the wrath of a seemingly angry God?

I think I wrote about Rizpah because I needed her as a companion. This extended portrait essay pushes the form to its extreme and becomes, really, a fictional essayistic exploration of grief, an episodic exploration that probes and explodes the sketched-out biblical and midrashic narratives which I spent a good bit of time researching. The character of Rizpah emerged for me as a troubling yet constant companion to those who mourn. She speaks to the necessity of letting go of kinds of control. She is someone outside the dominant narrative, so I tried to put myself in her mind by attempting to look at the dominant narrative from the margins. 

The Long Weeping is your third published book, and your first with Orison Books. How would you describe the process of bringing this book to fruition? Was the publishing process similar to that of your two novels, Glorybound and My Radio Radio?

I mentioned above that it was a twelve-year process, and that’s partly due to these two novels that I poured myself into during that same time span. The process of working with a small press was similar—very human, very kind and attentive and collaborative; I love working with small presses because their investment is really in the beauty of the book in all its dimensions. But publishing nonfiction is different from publishing fiction, I will say that. You cannot hide as easily. 

For the practicing writers among us, how did you balance work/life/other priorities while writing and preparing to publish The Long Weeping?

This is always the struggle for us since long gone are the days when some rich patron would put us up in a castle so we could write! First, I would say that the other stuff is not the enemy. In an interview about spirituality and writing, the poet Li-Young Lee says something like everything is a spiritual act; folding clothes at the end of the day is a spiritual act. This is true of writing too: everything belongs, everything is part of the project, and permeability to the world is essential, I’d say, to the process. Trust the fallow times, but also orient yourself to be receptive when the soil is ready again. It’s a mix of discipline, routine, saying no to protect the core of yourself, saying yes when you need to. Practically, I say give it the morning hours if you can. But some folks write at night, so there’s no rule for routine. Work on it as though you really believe it’s your offering.

What are you reading these days? What works do you come back to, or what authors do you continue to draw from? How have they informed your work and, perhaps, this collection in particular?

At the moment I’m reading Ondaatje’s The English Patient because I recently loved his Coming Through Slaughter, and the prose and the narrative structure teach me with every paragraph, especially about the balance of lyricism with profluence. I’m also loving the work of Susan Brind Morrow on linguistics and the desert (research for a current novel project). I continue to draw from poet C.D. Wright for surprise at line-level; Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison—all for depth and prose style; and the beautiful essayists I’m reading with my nonfiction students this semester: Lia Purpura, James Baldwin, Joan Didion. For The Long Weeping, I drew heavily on the work on midrash by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, the philosophy of Simone Weil, Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and the essay structures of Jo Ann Beard and Annie Dillard.

What’s next for you? Any writing projects in the works?

Right now, my main focus is on a mess of a road trip novel. I’m also working slowly on another essay collection that is many years out, I think. It is a young project, and I’m still feeling my way into the material, but have enjoyed lately some experiments with form, unraveling a piece while still barely maintaining artistic control. I love experimenting with essay forms. 

van Eerden_photo by Michaelanne Helms.jpg

Jesse van Eerden is the author of the novels Glorybound (WordFarm, 2012)—winner of Forward Reviews’ Editor’s Choice Fiction Prize—and My Radio Radio (Vandalia Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, The Oxford American, Willow Springs, and other publications. Jessie holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa and directs the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Learn more about Jessie on her website www.jessievaneerden.com.