Jeanne Larsen, Head of Creative Writing at Hollins


Her Campus Hollins: How did you get to where you are? Was it something you always wanted to do or did you slowly find yourself approaching it? Is what you do your dream job? If so, when did you know that was what you wanted to do?


Jeanne Larsen: When I was 8 or 9, I decided I wanted to write books “with magic in them” when I grew up. (Thank you, Edward Eager, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbitt, Mr. Tolken.) Then I started reading science fiction, which nurtures the same imaginative head-stretching, doesn’t it?

In high school, I found out how good it feels to make poems. I’ve been lurching among genres ever since.

Since my family tree is crawling with teachers, I resisted that idea—until I got the chance in my early 20’s to go to Taiwan on a teaching-study fellowship. I knew I’d love the cross-cultural adventure and the opportunity to learn Chinese, and especially to start studying the old poetry…but come to find out, I really enjoyed both classroom time and getting to know my students outside class too. From then on, I was hooked.

And of course, at least sometimes I believe I might be making life a little better for a few people. I owe the world a considerable amount of payback, and whatever I can do by way of maintaining a space where people can invest energy in art and ideas, and receive the enormous return that investment yields—that matters.

Dream job? I didn’t see it coming but: you betcha.


Her Campus: What do you love best about writing?


Jeanne Larsen: The utter absorption into the present moment when I’m doing it, and the way the mind ranges, seeing/forming connections. It’s the sanest, healthiest response I know to human sorrows and the swirl of impressions and needs and longings and hurts and passing joys that is human life.

In other words, it feels good. Plus, you get to tell lies and claim the moral high-ground for doing it. Woo hoo.


Her Campus: What is hardest for you about it?


Jeanne Larsen: Defending the time and psychic energy it requires. Doing the icky biz stuff required for getting it out into the world comes in a close second—but note that that aspect IS distinctly secondary.


HCH: What do you like best about your job? What do you like least?


Jeanne Larsen: I like my students (their brilliance, their quirks, their joy, even in a way their interesting dolors) and I like the ongoing opportunities to explore new territory—both intellectually (new courses, new editions of old ones) and as I interact with the next year’s crop of minds.



I’m less fond of the organizational be-The-Decider side of things, but just like cooking or doing the dishes, it’s honorable work that must be done in order to make possible the fun and games of the mind.


HCH: Any hobbies?


JL: Hiking. Walking. Yoga. Also, gulp, Jazzercise. Note a pattern here? I grew up on the vast potato field of the family couch, happily immersed in books. Backyard / parkland games of the imagination (as opposed to team sports, alas) gave me a clue, as did summers at Scout camp—but it was only as an adult that I really figured out how important to my happiness it is to keep my body moving. Helps with the writing too.

Special credit goes to a retired professor of dance at Hollins, Paula Levine: I took her intro course on the side when I was in my M.A. year here, and although neither of us believed for a nano-second that I had any future as a dancer, she provided a safe place in which I could stumble into a deeper understanding of muscular rhythm and the deliciousness of a good stretch. 


HCH: Words of advice?


JL: See above, intrepid young novelists / poets / essay writers: get the blood-pump beating a little faster, make the lungs bell full with air, trust that your brain will find deeper links and snazzier dances if you do. It’s good for emotional balance too—but I bet you already know that.

Also: don’t just write poems and novels—read them. Read the best ones, not the easiest. Take courses that will force you to work hard. Push your taste into new kinds of literature. Don’t be afraid to take the risk of aiming for high art. 


HCH: 3 favorite thing that you've done in your life?


JL: Travel time in Europe; travel time in China; travel time in Japan. Of course there are the richnesses in each culture I’ve encountered, but it’s also (I’m not bragging here) the result of my hunger for novelty and the challenges of, say, buying groceries in a new language, or figuring out What Counts As Polite In These Parts. Keeps me humble. Keeps my head loose.





HCH: Why Hollins?


JL: Why—how—not? I came here for my M.A. because a college poet-pal who had just attended a famous summer film conference at Hollins recommended the place. (I suspect he was thinking, “it’s a good fit for a flake like you,” frankly.) Then I was off for almost a decade (Taiwan, Ohio, Ph.D. school in Iowa, 2 years in Nagasaki) and when time came for me to stop being a student and apply for teaching jobs, I was ecstatic to see there was a position open here. It wasn’t tenure-track at the time, but I took it over a job offer from a large state university and boy howdies, am I glad I did.

I like the size of the place because I can see students change in remarkable ways over time. I believe in our dedication to developing women’s lives and minds. And I count myself mighty lucky to live in the blue-rimmed Roanoke Valley.


HCH: Something you did in your undergrad years that really changed your life?


JL: Three things, if I may: 1, majored in “Phenomenology of Religion”; 2, took the only Creative Writing course at Oberlin at the time, a poetry workshop with David Young; 3, lived and worked in co-op dorms, where doing jobs like Wednesday Dinner Pots Crew or Bread-baker, and hanging out yapping in the lounge of dear ol’ Pyle Inn, gave me the kind of community I needed after my move-around Army brat childhood. 


HCH: What do you want to do in the future?


JL: Write more books. Travel more. Mess around with some kind of visual, hands-on art. I guess I should put “clean my study” on this list too. Yeah, someday. 


HCH: What is something you struggle with?


JL: Patience—with myself, and with the naysayers and the greed-heads and the anxiety-driven inflexible rule-mongers and the trash-tossers and the xenophobic dumb-dumbs of this beautiful, flawed world.

Maybe those dumb-dumbs are actually spiritually poisoned and not just sadly, heart-wrenchingly damaged—I don’t know. Please solve The Problem of Evil and get back to me, will ya? 


HCH:  Advice on getting published? How do you get yourself out there? How do you know if your writing is good enough?


JL: Except for campus lit mags, I didn’t think at all about publishing till a few years after I finished my master’s degree. Okay: that’s not 100% true: I did send some poems off to a contest late in my M.A. year. Didn’t win the contest but the Virginia Quarterly Review took one for publication. That was it for a good while, though. Then I re-worked my Hollins thesis (seriously re-worked it), sent it to a couple book contests, and got lucky.

Advice? It’s an awful process. Be a robot about it: you know the deal—when it (whatever IT is) comes back from one magazine or potential agent, send it immediately to the next. But don’t start expending energy on all that stuff too soon. Better to spend your college years reading, thinking about books, writing, and—reading some more. 


HCH: Do you have a current favorite (we all know it changes) line of poetry or poem you've written or a scene in a book that you've written that just won't get out of your head?


JL: Well, I’m doing this interview on the first weekend of Spring Break, and after an unusually hectic six weeks (mega-hectic, hectic on steroids, The Hectic From the Black Lagoon), this morning I woke up writing two poems in my head, which I managed to jot down after I got home from a hit on the food co-op to fill the empty larder. So, I’ll say: those two. My brand-new babes in arms, pukey and stinky though they may turn out to be.