An interview with Jessie van Eerden
Jessie van Eerden’s essay “Raised Up, Wet-Headed” appears in the most recent issue (Vol. 6 Issue 1) of Rock and Sling. In the late 90s, I had the good fortune to share a couple of sketchy student apartments (gappy and crenellated linoleum, carpet on the walls) with van Eerden. I’ve been a fan of her work ever since. I decided to check in with her via the Interwebs about this R&S piece and how it fits into her writing life.
NS: It’s customary to preface celebrity interviews with info about which
fashionable café we meet in and what you, the subject, are wearing.
I’ll start. I’m sitting at my laptop in Spokane. My wool sweater looks
uncombed. I just polished off a plate of Morningstar Chik’n Nuggets
with ketchup, washed down with some San Pellegrino.
JvE:Okay, I’ll pretend along with you that this is a celebrity interview:
I’m sitting at my laptop, connected to you through dial-up, under a
dome of lamplight at the desk; even though it’s midday on Sunday, our
house in tiny Lincoln, Oregon is dusky; it’s pouring rain (how
appropriate for this interview!); the mergansers and geese are nowhere
to be found at the Mill Pond out the window, even through binocs. I’m
about to make some pumpkin muffins and bisque from cooked-down
butternut squash—but, so far, just coffee.
NS: Your essay “Raised Up, Wet-Headed,” in the most recent issue of Rock &
Sling, is set in rural West Virginia, where you grew up. The essay
also answers the question of where you’re from with “the clutch of
water”: “rain on a metal roof,” the Speed Queen wringer washer, the
hand pump by the church when your home tap went dry. How has home (not
least its threat of Old Testament weather) influenced your work?
JvE: Someone asked me at a reading I gave in January at Westmont College
(after I’d just read this essay to the audience) if I was homesick.
Yes, I answered, in that lovely auditorium in lovely Santa Barbara,
but I’m often homesick for a place that no longer exists. I didn’t
mean that rural WV doesn’t exist (of course, it might truly not exist
if mountaintop removal and hydraulic fracturing of gas wells
continues…); I meant that the landscape of my childhood is a landscape
perceived by my child-self, and it still exists in my imagination as
sensed by a child. At least, my childhood’s embodied perceptions of
my home remain the most fertile for art-making—perceptions of the
faces and voices of people in tiny Beatty Church, the stony feel of
the driveways my sister and I walked down to deliver butter and eggs,
the crispness of a new Easter dress and how I soaked it under my arms
during Sunrise Service with that smell of biscuits and sausage gravy
wafting up the stairs. Sometimes home feels like a constellations of
memories storied in different parts of my body. But then, I lived in
WV until I was 22, and I return regularly, so that constellation is
overlain by another kind of consciousness, the question-asking and
narrative-making kind of consciousness that drives any adult writer’s
work. But I try to ground any interrogation—social or theological or
otherwise—in that hotbed of embodied sense of place. My hope is that
such grounding will save me from slipping into sentimentalism or
caricature—realms to avoid at all costs when writing about Appalachia
or about anything that’s sniffing out issues of faith.
Besides all that, there is a rhythm of language that my home instilled
in me—the spinning-out of the King James Version of the Bible and the
rural idiom. That rhythm sticks around my stories.
NS: You live now outside Ashland, Oregon, in another rural place. Does the
sense of place in your work now also include the Pacific NW?
JvE: Not really, or not yet, though the Oregon Extension, this beautiful
mountain teaching outpost in Lincoln, Oregon, has offered me a dusty
office and a long stretch of writing time each spring and summer.
This place has served as incubation for the imaginative spaces of my
essays, novels and stories, and it has given my body places to roam.
Maybe Oregon infuses my writing in ways I can’t yet recognize.
NS: You use water in your R&S essay to depict a place and time, but also
to connect personal experience with the communion of saints, such as
the Samaritan woman at the well and “pictures of the village girls
across the sea who carry the clay cisterns for so many miles” (I’m
imagining this second image on a missionary’s prayer card tacked on
the fridge, or perhaps a page on a World Vision calendar. Please
correct me if I’m wrong). In your contributor’s note, you link your
home waters with baptism, and describe your home church as a place
that “blurred the holy with the mundane.” Over the years we’ve known
each other, we’ve had many late-night conversations about the mixed
bag of participating in a church. Would you speak to your relationship
with church? Coming away from Beatty, the church of your youth, with a
“blur [that] has imbued plain things with a kind of light” sounds
pretty good to me.
JvE: Yes, you and I have certainly gone round the horn about the mixed bag
that is church experience—and your writing wrestles with this topic
beautifully, no doubt. It’s still a live issue for me and my husband
Mike, and maybe it always will be. I have friends who refuse to go to
church because they don’t want their kids in Sunday school, learning,
likely as not, about a violent God. And I think the damage a church
can do in our imaging of God is a real concern—from camps and
churches, I’ve had my share of shaming and bruising that I’ve had to
work through like everybody else, but something else came through to
me too: an indisputable love and vulnerability, something you glimpsed
between the lines of hellfire and wacky theology.
I have friends like you, with evangelical roots, finding home in among
the Episcopalians, and friends spending an hour of silence with the
Quakers each week. But I have enough backwoods Methodist in me to
balk at robes and liturgy, and enough bloodstained Wesleyan hymns in
me to get too restless focusing on the inner light in Quaker silence.
Mike and I attended a small Mennonite fellowship for awhile—Taize
singing, shared leadership, some silence, a simple meal after the
service. That was a hospitable place for both our spirits, but then
we moved and haven’t found anything quite like it yet.
All that is to say church still holds meaning for me, mainly in how it
baptizes you into the goings-on of others’ lives, which is good for a
semi-hermit like myself. No church has everything going for it, so
I’m looking for a place where love is most palpable. (I feel like I’m
placing a personal ad!) About those village girls carrying water in
the essay: true, that’s an image from a missionary calendar, but it’s
also an image that’s as real as anything in the world, as real as the
water that lights on fire from contamination by natural gas due to
hydro-fracking—water is still as real an issue as it was when Jacob
dug his well, so, for me, it remains one of the most powerful images
of human need and yearning and connectedness (and, perhaps, church
NS: How would you describe the connection between your faith and your art?
I know we both love artists like Over the Rhine and Sufjan Stevens and
Flannery O’Connor, whose work doesn’t shy away from the life of faith
but who certainly aren’t the kind of “Christian” music or reading
you’d find at a Bible bookstore. Do you consider yourself a
“Christian” writer (with or without quotation marks)? Have you felt
your work compartmentalized as “Christian” (or, for that matter,
JvE: I spoke to this question a little bit when I said above that I hope to
avoid sentimentalism and caricature in my work. Annie Dillard has
helped me with this. Allow me to quote from her Living by Fiction:
“Often we examine a work’s integrity (or at least I do) by asking what
it makes for itself and what it attempts to borrow from the world.
Sentimental art, for instance, attempts to force preexistent emotions
upon us. Instead of creating characters and events which will elicit
special feelings unique to the text, sentimental art merely gestures
toward stock characters and events whose accompanying emotions come on
tap. Bad poetry is almost always bad because it attempts to claim for
itself the real power of whatever it describes in ten lines: a sky
full of stars, first love, or Niagara Falls. An honest work generates
its own power; a dishonest work tries to rob power from the cataracts
of the given.”
Right on, I say, and her words caution me about Christian art (or
Lesbian art, Appalachian art, Postmodern art, Environmental art—any
art that can be pigeonholed and can risk borrowing its power from its
clan instead of generating that power on its own, in its
particulars—not that we write in a vacuum or without a tradition, but
we have to, in FO’s words, meet the demands of the thing being made
instead of the demands of the “type of art” we’re said to be making.
As our common anarchist friend told me once (when I voiced this
concern about “am I a Christian artist or not”), it’s true I love
Jesus; my digging-of-Jesus (and quibbling with him at times) is part
of my historical, cultural, and social texture, and what editor would
ever want you to try to shed your real texture in favor of something
more theologically neutral? I just have to make the art honestly and
then let people label it whatever they will.
NS: Your piece in Rock & Sling is creative nonfiction, but you have two
novel manuscripts finished and some short stories in the hopper. I’m
curious about how you decide which genre to write in. Does this depend
on how much sustained time you have for writing? Is it a question of
mood and inclination? Does it depend on the kernel of the work?
JvE: Yes, all of the above! Maybe it also depends on whom I’m reading and
how badly I want to try my hand at what they’re up to (notes on a new
poetry manuscript now…). It seems to me the material lets you know
what form will suit it best. I’ve treated some stuff in essay that
flopped, then put it in a novel and it came to life. I rarely feel
the pull toward the essay these days, but when I do, it’s because
something is nagging at me, some idea or problem or tricky image. I
used to write essays because I wanted to tell someone’s story while
exploring an idea—these days, everybody’s stories breathe more easily
in fiction, and the essays I write tend toward the poetic, toward
associative thinking, and working-through-an-idea.
NS: I heard a rumor that you’ve started playing the banjo. How’s that going?
JvE: Ha! It’s true. My sweet husband and sister indulged me at Christmas
with a 5-string banjo and a teach-yourself book, CD, and DVD. It’s
going very sloooooowly; I have four songs in my repertoire and I’m
still a little rough on the fretting of “Goodnight, Ladies.” But it’s
wonderful to have a way to leave the world of words at the end of the
day, to just play over the strings.
NS: I happen to know that your husband, Mike, is a creative guy. Do you
collaborate on projects?
JvE: Yes, he’s wonderfully creative! Sometimes we collaborate, but we’re
both pretty independent (and, dare I say, creatively controlling).
We’ve come together to make a broadside or two—I like to try my hand
at calligraphy and he makes wonderful linoleum block prints. We’ve
made some T-shirts, tablecloths. He does amazing work with concrete
forms and so far I’ve only collaborated in that process by proudly
featuring his ornate bookends on my desk.
NS: What are you reading and writing now?
JvE: I’ve recently read and loved Paul Harding’s Tinkers and Anne
Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces; I take a daily drink from C.D. Wright’s
new and selected poems in Steal Away; also the poems of David Lee and
the beautiful Maurice Manning. And I just started Carson McCullers’s
The Member of the Wedding – I’m long overdue in reading her. Reading
lots of stories too (just finished Yiyun Li’s newest book Gold Boy,
Emerald Girl), since that’s what I’m working on right now—a collection
of linked stories.