In October 1990, three women leave a small town in West Virginia in an Oldsmobile Royale, headed for New Mexico. They bring with them some oxygen tanks, overnight bags, and a dog that does not belong to them. They are running away from home, each for her own reasons. Frankie, our narrator, is in her mid-thirties, married to a man fifteen years older. Her aunt, Mave, is a linguist and a lesbian, an alcoholic and a school bus driver, an anomaly in their working-class town. She is also dying of lung cancer, and has chosen to make this pilgrimage to the desert in lieu of a round of palliative chemo. Their third companion, Nan, is a stranger to them both. She arrives just as Frankie and Mave are preparing to depart.
They are an odd trio, and odd individually, each an outcast in her own way, each one an artist not reaching her potential. As they make their way toward New Mexico, Mave, Frankie, and Nan goad each other into truth-telling, into exposing their weaknesses and longings, and along the way they discover unexpected comfort in each other’s presence. Woven between fragments of their trip are Frankie’s memories, written in the form of a letter addressed to Ruth, Mave’s former partner, who remains off-stage. Call It Horses is an atmospheric, elegiac narrative, affecting but never sentimental, powerful in its understatement. It’s the story of making a life as a woman, an artist, and an individual, in a community that continues to value women only for their roles as wives and mothers. It’s the story of the power that women can gain from each other’s presence, of what is possible when we stop asking that nagging, limiting question of what others think of us.
EP: Women’s bodies are powerfully present in this novel. Mave’s failing body is rendered with unflinching precision, and starkly contrasted with Nan’s youth and careless attractiveness. Frankie, as narrator, is aware at all times of the physical, of other women’s bodies and of her own. This acute awareness feels like a fundamental observation of womanhood. Are we, as women, more attuned to each other’s physical existence than men are to the bodies of other men? Is this awareness tied to a survival instinct for living in a world designed for and by male bodies?
JvE: Thank you, Ellie, for these incredibly thoughtful questions. This question is a fascinating one and gets down into an unconscious layer of the writing process that I may not be able to fully explicate. I don’t know that a woman’s awareness of her body and of the bodies of other women is more attuned than the awareness a man would have.
Recently I’ve been observing someone dear to me, a single father, raising his son, and I’ve been keyed into what their wrestling might mean, how it is a kind of language, and into the communication, both verbal and nonverbal, in teaching how to shoot an arrow—son’s body mimicking father’s—and how to swing a bat and fix a broken machine. Almost iconic symbols of maleness, but laced through, by my observation, with tenderness and vulnerability and awareness of what the body is meant for and capable of.
I say this only to say that I think awareness of the body seems most acute when deep inside of intimacy or when profoundly closed out of it. Frankie, to me, is so attuned to the body because she mostly feels herself closed out of intimacy, especially in relationships culturally underlined as important for women—she cannot bear a child to term, she did not have a close relationship with her mother whom she also lost as a teen, she is stilted in her marriage and was jilted by a lover with whom, paradoxically, she had greater closeness in friendship, before they were lovers. And she is more of an apprentice to her guardian-aunt than a niece. For all these reasons, Frankie is acquainted with the strangeness of a body that occupies liminal spaces; perhaps such a feeling of exile sharpens a person’s attentiveness to the ease or dis-ease in the bodies of women around her.
EP: Ruth—arguably a central character to the novel—is completely disembodied, known to Frankie only through her written words and through Mave’s stories about her. Is Ruth’s physical absence what allows Frankie to write honestly to her? Does writing to an imagined reader ease the insecurities of the writer?
JvE: This is a wonderful question that relates to the first one since the body of language—all the ways it moves and brings forth the world—is as much a focus of this novel as the physical body. Maybe that’s because, for writers, language can be as real as experience, can be an experience itself. Frankie’s story is not autobiographical, but I did want to try to articulate, through her, my experience of the way small-town/rural upbringings, which have an inherent insularity and totality to them, can undergo a rupture when a person outside of that community enters with a very different frame of reference. This is a commonly told story, in some respects, in narratives of the rural folk, as xenophobic and backward, responding to an outsider by being worshipful or persecutory.
That’s a story that exists in a patterned way, but it’s not the only story. I wanted to instead explore the story of how that stranger’s strangeness helps someone in a rural space more fully become herself. Helps her, even, be able to recognize the strangeness and largeness in herself. Ruth’s present-absence seemed to me a pathway for telling that story. Ruth is a personage of possibility in the novel. I’m not sure why I decided to have Frankie never meet Ruth in the flesh but only through letters; maybe because Frankie is, at her core, a writer, and a writer is always deeply yearning to communicate but needs solitude in order to do so. So, Ruth’s absence may ease insecurities in writer-Frankie, but, even more so, it serves as catalyst.
EP: Travelers heading West is such a fundamentally American story, one that’s so prevalent it risks becoming a trope. Yet I found myself following this trio of travelers’ progress across the West with such anticipation, wanting them to reach the desert they believe will be a balm for their troubles. Why does this narrative still hold such power for us? Why is this trip essential for the growth of these characters?
JvE: So true, nothing new in that narrative at all! I suppose the westward direction of the travelers, deeply American as it is, holds less meaning for them than the landscapes themselves. I wanted to explore the emotional texture of physical spaces, the ways our psyches and emotions are bound up in (and freed by) environments. Frankie has two spiritual homelands in this book—the boggy Appalachian mountains of limestone caves and fencerows and mossy streambanks, and the unfamiliar desert that calls to her through art and books and the general mythology of the “barren places” under open sky. Movement toward the desert, for these three road trippers, is only an outward manifestation of the movement they need to make within themselves.
EP: The women begin their journey in Caudell, West Virginia, a fictional town rendered in exquisite detail. You grew up in West Virginia. How is it different writing about a place that is part of your personal history from, say, a place you’ve visited, or a place that exists only in the imagination?
JvE: This question relates to the last one since I did often visit the American Southwest every chance I got when writing this book, and it captured my imagination, though I write about it in a way that’s very different from how I write my home state. I started this book when I lived in the high desert climate of southern Oregon for four years, then finished it once I’d moved back to the West Virginia of my youth. I suppose there is something deep in the bones about the place of your youth; I always feel that I’m a visitor elsewhere, even if I end up being a semi-permanent visitor!
A lot of it has to do with naming, at least for me, being so enmeshed with place as a child that I rarely knew the taxonomy of things, the flora and fauna and land formations; naming is a kind of drawing-near and also a kind of distancing. As an adult, when I visit the desert, I take all my taxonomies and field guides in an effort to get-to-know while I walk around and gain familiarity through sensory experience, too. Acquaintance with landscape is not so procedural as a child, so calling up the fictional place of Caudell—which is a mishmash of real places in WV—is like calling up the smell of my mother baking oatmeal bread. It’s more invocation; whereas writing places I’ve not inhabited in that way involves more conscious work.
EP: In our capitalist culture, we define people by what they do for work. The question, “What do you do?” is synonymous with “Who are you? What is your value to society?” Mave is a school bus driver, Frankie is a (former) janitor, and Nan an unemployed housewife. And yet Mave (as she frequently reminds Frankie) is also a linguist with a master’s degree; Frankie is a writer; Nan is a bold and talented visual artist. This raises the question of why women so often give up their dreams or downplay their abilities. Can you speak to this?
JvE: I’m obsessed with the idea of what having good work to do does for a person. My essays take up this theme often, in different ways; maybe it’s because I grew up with farm chores, and feeding chickens and burning brush anchored me to the world. Moving into my work as a writer and teacher, with less tangibility to it, caused a panic in me at first; I couldn’t find purchase, too many abstractions. And I still need physical anchors like everyone (soup beans and ham simmering on the stove as I write this and somehow so that I can write these rambling answers to your beautiful questions), but I’ve settled more into my work now that I’m in my forties, accepting it.
But I still feel that the topic of work and vocation is vital, maybe beyond the questions of dreams and ambitions. An old theologian, William Stringfellow, wrote often about the “human vocation,” how it’s our first vocation to be human. Yes, I say to that, and when I think about how work, artistic work or other kinds, can be salvific for someone, I think it has that potential because it gets them closer to their human vocation. The characters in the novel, I feel, are working to realize some fuller sense of themselves, whether or not their pursuit would be seen by our broader culture as pursuing a worthy goal. Study in linguistics, artmaking, Clarissa’s hand-painted gourds, Frankie’s mopped floors and scribbled pages—these are all, to me, not so much manifestation of ambition but of a connection to a deeper self.
EP: Gloria Steinem writes that “the most important single element in women’s progress is this: one woman-run group outside the family and outside the workforce, at least one structure in each woman’s life that is a free place for women.” In this novel, that structure is the co-op at Frankie’s house where women of all ages and circumstances bring offerings of things they’ve grown, cooked, or created and trade with generosity and a spirit of supporting one another. What does the co-op mean for Frankie and Mave’s development as characters?
JvE: The co-op was really fun to write, imagining that raucous, supportive space, and listening for all the voices when the women got together. A woman in my home community had a co-op with other rural women, perhaps more out of practical need than need for emotional and social connection, and I wanted to honor that group in some way. Mave stays peripheral to the group, as she does with every gathering in Caudell; we see her attend only one meeting and she’s pretty wasted; her presence is more on behalf of Frankie, and her suggestion to Frankie to start the co-op is an effort to push her toward community and out of the solitude in which both Mave and Frankie are siloed. For Frankie’s character development, the co-op offers scenic material that is less mediated by her as the narrator; the women move and talk and drink their beer and rile each other, and we get to see how Frankie responds to women outside of the circumscribed life she has, first with Mave and then with Clay.
EP: At its core, this novel is about the ways women’s relationships with other women are a shaping, defining force. This seems like the right space to honor some of the women who’ve shaped you as an artist and as a person. Tell me about some of them.
JvE: A wonderful idea, and there are so many. The first that comes to mind is my mother. I’m the youngest of four, and she and my dad created a greenhouse for spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth in our rural WV household by honoring story and imagination and keeping us connected to the generative earth, with the gardens and milk cow and chickens. Creativity is a way of life for my mom; she’s not an officially recognized artist, and may not identify as one, but she was and is always sewing, writing children’s books and letters, cooking, playing hymns on the piano; she always kept inside her kitchen cupboard a list of creative projects for us kids for when we were bored, a list taped alongside the grocery list and garden planting schedule.
I would have to include, too, the elderly women I grew up around in the Whetsell Settlement, my home community. Like my mother, they lived lives without much money and in tune with the earth and in a creative rhythm of work. Some of them taught my mom and me—and my sister who is a wonderful visual artist and belongs in this list—old practices, like making apple butter, butchering chickens, canning preserves. This cluster of women offered me my first glimpse of ways to live a meaningful life that inhabits the present.
Later on, many women walked alongside me as I developed as a writer. My professor the fiction writer Gail Galloway Adams at West Virginia University, my friend and colleague the poet Devon McNamara, who recently wrote me a beautiful note at 3 am having read this novel in between excursions outside to bring in firewood to stoke her fires—what an inspiring collaborator she has been for me. And there are also women writers from WV who have shown me ways to love the place I’m from. Ann Pancake, in particular, my friend and a wonderful writer, is very much the real thing. She works hard to produce work that reflects the complicated brokenness of the Appalachia we’re from while also stubbornly insisting on the vitality of its inner life. I could go on and on, but these are some of the women I am deeply indebted to.
Call It Horses is Jessie van Eerden’s third novel, and winner of the 2019 Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction. Awards for her writing include the Gulf Coast Prize in Nonfiction, a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Fellowship, and residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Fundación Valparaíso, and Wildacres. For seven years, she was director of the low-residency MFA in writing program at West Virginia Weslyan College. Currently, she is Nonfiction Editor for Orison Books and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University. Originally from West Virginia, Jessie van Eerden has also lived in Iowa and Oregon, and currently resides in Roanoke, Virginia.
Ellie Paolini holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University, where she served as a teaching fellow and was runner-up for both the Andrew James Purdy Prize in Short Fiction and the Melanie Hook Rice Award for the Novel. Some of her short fiction can be found in Aquifer, the Florida Review’s online publication, and in Flock. She lives on the Central Coast of California.