When it comes to writing, some projects are well worth the wait. Author and Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Jessie van Eerden certainly understands that. Today, van Eerden celebrates with Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café the e-launch of her fourth book, Call It Horses. Her third novel and the winner of the 2019 Dzanc Books Prize was eight years in the making.
“I didn’t work on it eight years consistently,” laughed van Eerden. “There were a lot of other things in that time, but this book took a lot of reimagining.” Call It Horses revolves around three women—niece, aunt, and artist stowaway—and the 1990 road trip that this improbable trio embarks on from West Virginia to New Mexico. Spending a lot of time experimenting with the book’s structure, van Eerden first tried out a narrative poetry sequence, then a more traditional first-person plot, before finally settling on the current epistolary form (i.e. told through letters).
“I think the joy of publishing a book is seeing something that you’ve labored over come to fruition,” said van Eerden about the long process of writing Call It Horses. “To complete that circuit with readers, that circuit of something that’s lived in your head for so long, it’s pleasurable no matter what.”
In the end, all that hard work paid off for van Eerden. In 2019, she was named the winner of the coveted Dzanc Books Prize for Call It Horses—the manuscript was selected from a pool of hundreds—a win that resulted in Dzanc Books publishing Call It Horses. Flash-forward a year and a half, and now van Eerden’s looking at a spring and summer of events to promote her new novel. “It’s exciting because it’s a book that’s very close to me,” she said. “I’m always interested in letting my characters go out in the world and meet other people.”
Indeed, the novel does hit close to home for van Eerden. Call It Horses starts in Caudell, West Virginia, a small rural town reminiscent of van Eerden’s own upbringing in that same state. “It is interesting my relationship to place with respect to my fiction,” she said. “I feel that there’s the physical landscape of where I grew up, and also the spiritual landscape: of the community of people and the tiny church and the ways that people interacted and cared for each other.” In Call It Horses, those two landscapes inform both van Eerden’s fictional Appalachian world as well as the quasi-spiritual journal out West undertaken by the three central characters.
As for the future, van Eerden isn’t taking a breather. She’s already working on her fifth book, a return to nonfiction and essay portraiture, a form that won her the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award for her 2017 portrait essay collection, The Long Weeping. “I’m planning on peering into some portraits of biblical women,” she said. “[I’m] doing a lot of excavation of biblical myth alongside more memoiristic material of my own narrative life—looking into the philosophical realm of human responsibility and human freedom, and the relationship between those two poles of existence.”
The launch of Call It Horses is at 6 p.m. today and will also feature acclaimed writer Siamak Vossoughi, winner of the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. To participate, please RSVP here.
Jeff Dingler is a graduate assistant in Hollins’ marketing and communications department. He is pursuing his M.F.A. in creative writing at the university.