By Samantha Holm | Arts & Culture Editor
Combining the prefix ‘van’ and last name ‘Eerden’ translates to ‘of the earth’. According to Nicole Sheets, associate professor of the English department, author Jessie van Eerden lives up to this name by crafting characters that are painfully human, “fallible and needy.”
“I think Jessie is a master of creating these images that evoke so much emotion,” Sheets said.
Van Eerden’s writing prowess is evidenced through her most recent novel “Call It Horses”. The novel received the 2019 Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, granting Van Eerden a $5,000 advance and publication. She is also the author of two other books and a portrait essay collection, as well as a creative writing professor at Hollins University.
On Thursday, Oct. 7, Whitworth University hosted Van Eerden in the Robinson Teaching Theatre for a public reading of “Call It Horses”.
Set in 1990, this epistolary novel focuses on the relationship between 35-year-old Frankie Donne and her aunt Mave. The pair, plus a few unwelcomed visitors, embark on a road trip from Damascus, West Virginia, to Abiquiú, New Mexico to flee from grief and past traumas.
“It’s a really captivating book,” Sheets said. “It’s the kind of book that I want to read quickly because I want to know what happens, but I also want to read it slowly because the descriptions are so good.”
After reading excerpts from the novel, Van Eerden accepted questions from the audience.
When asked about her choice to center the story around its female characters, Van Eerden said she wanted to illuminate the “fractious and intimate” relationships of women, as well as portray southern women as complex intellectuals.
As a West Virginia native, Van Eerden felt it was important to give a voice to citizens from the countryside. “I think in some ways rural folks, for example, get cast as a monolith and are not necessarily very nuanced in media representation,” she said.
Van Eerden said intelligent southern women were incredibly influential to her at a young age. Her great-aunt, to whom she dedicated “Call It Horses”, was a “phenomenal, weird and brilliant scientist.” Her great-aunt cared deeply about Van Eerden’s intellectual growth, which contradicted the ideas of her fundamentalist and patriarchal family, and ultimately inspired her to become an author.
Students in attendance were touched by Van Eerden’s vulnerability. “That response, and how she linked it up with her book and the female characters [was] empowering to women,” said freshman Vincent Inayat, a student who attended the reading.
Van Eerden also talked at length about the print industry and her work with editors. She said the business constantly changes and there are presses of various types and sizes to choose from. Her advice for students in attendance was that “learning where you fit and what’s the best home for your work [is important].”
Bringing writers onto campus is a vital application of English course material. “I think it really makes what we do in the classroom come to life,” Sheets said.
To learn more about Jessie van Eerden and purchase her book, click here.
Author and alumna Stephanie Lenox will give a reading on Nov. 4 at 6 p.m. To learn more information about this event, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or (509) 777-4765.