Jessie van Eerden on “Call It Horses,” Appalachia and Characters’ Inner Lives

When I was a child growing up in the early eighties in southern West Virginia, there were no coyotes here. To me, coyotes meant the Wild West. Tumbleweeds, cacti, coyotes. Now, as I write this in May 2021, there are lots of coyotes in southern West Virginia. Though I know they are not exactly the same subspecies as Wile E., it still feels like a bit of the Wild West has come to my lush mountains. It also means that I can’t let my housecats play outside unsupervised. Ever since a particularly large coyote showed up midday in our woodshed last August, I walk our cats each morning on leashes. While I walk them, I read novels. The latest novel that I read while cat-walking was Jessie van Eerden’s impeccable Call It Horses, a novel about West Virginia and the West, a novel about love and language. 

Call It Horses is an epistolary road story that upends all that you think you know about both of those forms. It is the story of Frankie, a 35-year-old woman from Caudell, West Virginia who finds herself in an Oldsmobile driving west with her beloved, brilliant, curmudgeon of an aunt, Mave, and Nan, the new wife of Frankie’s old love, Dillon. Mave is dying of cancer and Nan has been beaten badly by Dillon. As the three women travel across state lines, the reader is led on a looping narrative journey that is addressed to Mave’s partner Ruth, a linguist from Northampton who Frankie corresponded with as a child. 

Call It Horses is an epistolary novel but you have given it great freedom within that form. It begins “On a notepad from the dollar store I write you.” The “you” is Ruth, the partner of your narrator Frankie’s aunt Mave. But Ruth is not alive anymore and so the epistolary aspect of the book is more of a prompt for Frankie than it is communication with another living being. I’m curious about your choice of the epistolary form. Some parts of Frankie’s letters reminded me of amazing epistolary short story by Jane McCafferty “Thank You for The Music” (I think you introduced me to that story!). I’m wondering how you chose the form for this book, why epistolary and why one sided? When Frankie was a child, she wrote letters to Ruth (and Mave) and sent them off and actually received responses. Those responses are not included in the book, they were burnt up by Frankie’s mother. At what point did you decide that this needed to happen?

Thank you so much for reading, Mesha, and for responding with these thoughtful questions. I’m honored. This novel was long in coming, took about eight years, so it had several iterations: a narrative poetry sequence, a few strange essays, a first-person novel, and finally one long unbroken epistle. I’m happy you see resonance here with McCafferty’s wonderful epistolary story since it is one of my favorites for its sense of urgency, the need to tell, the need to reckon but to reckon within the history of a particular relationship. The novel was lagging in its first-person mode and needed, for some reason, that urgency. At the time, I was steeped in ancient texts, work by Susan Brind Morrow, biblical and midrashic narratives, and so Ruth took shape from the parchments and original myths; language, in its power to shape self and reality, took hold of the novel as its main subject, so it seemed fitting, too, that the novel itself would be a conscious form of speaking. Frankie and Ruth have no relationship really, only one by association with Mave, so Ruth seems to me both very unreal and real for Frankie, an interlocutor who lives in the world (while Ruth is alive) but who lives more so in Frankie’s own mind, a strange voice she has internalized that can help speak her fuller self into being. I don’t entirely know why I didn’t include any full letters from Ruth except that the materiality of multiple letters (postmark, salutation, etc) creates a different kind of book, and I think I wanted an infusion of the epistolary frame without all the machinery. 

Frankie’s voice is one of the most stunning aspects of Call It Horses, the fact that she can reference Georgia O’Keeffe and steel wool and Winesaps all in the same breath and with equal authority. While reading this novel I remembered an interview that I once read with Bret Easton Ellis where he talked about writing American Psycho and how he wanted to stay fully within Patrick Bateman’s point of view and so he had written in large letters above his desk, NO METAPHORS, because, he said, Patrick did not think in metaphors. Frankie is the opposite, she is constantly thinking in metaphors, but I bring this up to talk about narration and particularly first-person narration and how breathtaking but also limiting it can be. In Frankie you created a character who, despite the fact that she didn’t finish high school, has a huge vocal and imaginative range. Can you talk about writing Frankie’s voice?

I had some discussion with my graduate tutorial students around mimesis in narration this spring and I pulled out James Wood’s wonderful How Fiction Works in which he talks about this tension between the author’s perception and language and the character’s — they cannot be completed merged, nor can they be so distant that style takes over. Really, the words are always the author’s, and readers “go along with the deception happily enough” because, really, if immersion in the artifice is working, the words are also always the character’s (this is all around page 30 in Wood). All that to say, Frankie is a way for me to concretize and enflesh essential questions I have about language and love and fulfillment, and she is also a living breathing person to me, an amalgam of bodies and voices I know and some I invented. True, some publishers couldn’t buy into a blue collar, mostly autodidactic white woman from small-town West Virginia having this vocal and perceptual range, and I don’t begrudge them; their naysaying seems less about a patronizing attitude toward the inner life of blue collar folks than about how happy or unhappy they are with deception, how immersed they are or are not in the artifice. I think Frankie’s identity and circumstances are everything and nothing at once in terms of shaping her range. An artistic obsession of mine is to insist on the richness and inexhaustibility of the inner life of people typically dismissed and misunderstood, so maybe that obsession is at work here. I don’t know that Frankie’s voice is plausible, but I know that it’s real.

Is the evocation of place and exploration of longing enough to make a novel? Or maybe the real question is, how did you make it enough?! Because the answer to the first question is yes, in your hands it is enough. Midway through the novel, Frankie writes, “I wanted the canyon to body forth what was inside me” and it seems to me that this sums up so much of Call It Horses, this desire for the landscape to body forth what is inside of all the women in this book. Place — both the swamps of Caudell and the desert rock of O’Keeffe country — are major players in this novel, just as major as the human characters, and they serve as engines that drive the book forward. I once heard the writer Josip Novakovich call himself a “topographical writer” interested in place more than almost anything else, place as conflict, place a motivation, place as the spark and heart of fiction. He contrasted this way of crafting a narrative with writers who use place only as a prop or a backdrop. Can you talk about centering place in your writing and how you make place drive the narrative? 

So many of my undergraduate students are fixated on world-building in their fantasy writing. They take incredible pains to discern the soft magic and hard magic, the properties of flora and fauna, the lay of the land and the level of formality of the inhabitants’ diction — it’s impressive! But I’m always perplexed by the way that “world-building” effort falls by the wayside when writing realistic fiction or creative nonfiction; suddenly, place goes empty. Maybe that’s related to how scary real places have become for young people and so they prefer imaginary ones, I don’t know, but I always encourage them to see place and setting as driving forces as much in realistic work as in speculative. I think I have said this elsewhere about CIH, but in this novel, Frankie has two spiritual homelands — the bogs of Appalachia and the experientially unknown (to her) desert of the Southwest, one place she can walk blind and the other she can walk in her mind. Road trips are perhaps always escape narratives, but this book doesn’t seem to me an escape; it seems to be driven by a reconciliation of these two spiritual landscapes, an evolving understanding in Frankie that they are both essential to her.

Communication is central to the story you tell in Call It Horses. Ruth was a linguist and she left behind books that Mave covets and shares with Frankie and so much of Call It Horses is about trying and failing (and sometimes succeeding) at communicating. Frankie struggles often to communicate with those around her but she also has these brilliant flashes when she is able to put her emotions into words in the most spectacular ways (“I admit to you, Ruth, the word jealous didn’t touch the hem. I wanted to carve out her stomach and insert myself up through her skeletal system. Rip out her spine like a brittle fish’s, and as I did so, it would sound as if I were running a stick over a xylophone.”) Can you talk about your communication with Frankie? When did she first start to talk to you and how? 

That is such an intriguing question. Frankie’s name was originally Judy, and Judy spoke to me in long, quirky poems that featured her as a griever of a community, an ancient role but contemporized in a small town. I think this was during a time when my dad took up pastoring a small Baptist church in West Virginia and he preached so many funerals in one spring and summer, a whole string of them. “Fog of funerals” is a line in the novel inspired by that string. I lived in southern Oregon at the time, with high desert landscape. Judy/Frankie spoke the other characters into being, Mave first, and Frankie continued to be a hard, hot, concentrated knot of grief in the midst of — and maybe for the sake of — others. A voice of lament.

I’m curious about your editorial process. Do you create messy drafts and edit them down later or edit as you go? Parts of this book are strikingly spare, just lines of dialogue and the car running in the background, carrying the characters forward. Other sections are intricately described, the smallest details lovingly filled in even when they do not directly influence the narrative (“When I started the truck, the hound appeared in alert silhouette at the window behind the couch, backlit by the lamp I’d left on.”) I once heard you give a brilliant lecture in “praise of inefficiency” and I want to ask you now, for this novel, what was your process for filling in or taking out, for exploding and defamiliarizing? 

Ha, I think that lecture was to help me feel better about my inefficiency as a writer! No, seriously, writing that lecture was probably a way for me to think through what’s actually helpful about the mess. I am not systematic — sometimes I draft longhand in a fever, mostly notes, a line of which might be good for something and even that line usually ends up being scaffolding I end up removing. Other times I compose on screen and work for hours on perfecting a paragraph before moving on. This project in particular, because I realized the need for an epistolary frame after I was three-quarters of my way through a straight-up first-person narrative, required lots of backtracking. Also, the road trip scenes were a fun experiment for me in how little I could say and how much work dialog could do. I wanted to put enormous pressure on the dialog. Those passages were even more bare-bones in earlier drafts. When it came to the backstory, the buildup of time and loss for Frankie in the year before the trip, my default thickening kicked in, so much of the revision process was to try for better balance between the trip and the deeper past. A lot of the defamiliarizing work (I love that, “exploding and defamiliarizing”) was perhaps more private for me, crossing wires I don’t usually cross, like drawing together the exact layout of my neighbor’s house and milk house (the neighbor in rural WV I was named after) and passages from Wittgenstein and deep stirrings I have about motherhood. I have no idea if that makes sense!

How did you find the shape for this book? In part your book is very much a road novel (“The Oldsmobile glided on, our indifferent vessel. We moved closer to what? Farther away from what else?”) and it has the momentum of a road trip story. But the shape is much more intricate than just a straightforward road, it loops around on itself, circles back to where it began and juts forward, takes an exit and loops again. At times the narrative itself felt as if it were clawing its way forward out of the swamps of Caudell. It is also quite limber and leaps sometimes years within a page. What was your process like for finding the final shape?

In all honesty, plot and shape remain the hardest aspects of novel-making for me. I need something like a road trip (or, in my first novel, a stretch of three days; or in my second novel, the duration of a pregnancy); I need an external pressure for time or else I’ll linger and linger and gum up the works. The road trip came pretty early in the writing process, but the shape of the time leading up to that trip was much more difficult to pace out. I do a lot of timeline work, for major and minor events, charting scenes in that way so that I can keep time at the forefront of my mind because that does not come naturally to me. I recently read Jane Alison’s terrific craft book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, and I’m inspired to write a meandering novel next, without such specific temporal pressure. 

What does the West signify to you and your novel? There are several mythical traditions that you touch on or tap into the West as a place to start over and the West as a perfect place to die/disappear. Georgia O’Keeffe said of her first trip from Virginia to Texas that she had finally found a “real America” in the West which had “always been a sort of far away dream” and Ambrose Bierce famously noted “To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia.” How do Frankie and Mave and Nan fit into these myths?

True, the West figures into the topographical consciousness of Appalachia; I feel like it’s familiar to people here (even here in Roanoke, VA where I live now) to say things like “never been west of the Mississippi”), and there is certainly the “go west” trope at work in the book. But that mythology drew me less powerfully than the general desert mythology; it’s just that we must go west in the eastern US in order to get to the barren spaces. The desert in its spareness and harsh beauty is really moving to me, in its thirst, in its hidden springs of life, all the biblical metaphors at work in that spacious, inhospitable land. A place where you are not so held as you are in Appalachia — you are loosed, exposed, bleached out, maybe renewed. So Mave and Frankie, even in their love for O’Keeffe’s longhorn skulls, are pulled more to the desert fathers and mothers than to the American West and all it symbolizes, though of course there’s overlap in such mythologies.

You explore so many different female archetypes in Call It Horses — mother, lover, whore, caretaker, life giver. It was wonderful to read about so many different women all in conversation and close proximity with one another. I kept thinking about Barbara Loden’s incredible film Wanda and how that work subverts our expectations of depictions of women. Do you have favorite films, paintings, books, songs about complicated women? 

Such a wonderful question I could think about for a long time. But for now I’ll say: the women in Alice Munro’s stories are always complicated for me, especially in the story “Material” and the novel-in-stories The Beggar Maid. Toni Morrison’s Paradise, each woman so incredibly complex; Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, which feels like a permission-giving book; Clarice Lispector’s stories and her novel Near to the Wild Heart, hotly internal and insistent. The person and writing of Simone Weil. And the Polish film “Ida” comes to mind, too, a gentle and harsh film at once; Ida, a novice nun, is a character that remains a complex mystery beyond the end of the film.

Call It Horses
By Jessie van Eerden
Dzanc Books
Published March 23, 2021