STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Jenny Shank

She looked out the window at the little spruce that Salvador had planted on Ray’s first birthday. Patricia asked him not to. She was born with a foreboding of disaster, and so she avoided moments that seemed too idyllic, so as not to create memories that would come back to wound her later.
Because of her gloomy nature, her cousins from Pueblo had nicknamed Patricia La Llorona, after the weeping woman of Mexican folklore, and the nickname proved prophetic.

The Ringer, by Jenny Shank. Publisher: The Permanent Press (March 1, 2011). Literary fiction. Hardcover, 304 pages.

The Ringer creatively explores race relations in Denver through little league. A police officer shoots and kills a Mexican immigrant during a suspected drug raid. Tragically the commanding officer sent the unit to an incorrect address. Outrage and tensions surge in Denver’s immigrant and Latino community. The families of the officer who fired the lethal shot and the deceased man become the central focus. Author Jenny Shank effectively weaves together the stories of these two diverse families with one commonality: baseball. The two extremely likable yet fractured protagonists, Ed and Patricia, illuminate this story with verity making The Ringer memorable and engaging.

Jenny Shank worked on writing The Ringer for eight years. She’s the Books & Writers Editor of NewWest.Net. Her stories, essays and reviews have been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Prairie Schooner, Bust, Rocky Mountain News and The Onion. The Ringer was a semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and the Amazon.com Breakthrough Novel Award.

Jenny Shank

We spoke by phone last week.

Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea for The Ringer?

Jenny Shank: In 1999, in Denver, there was an incident where cops shot a Mexican immigrant on a no-knock raid and it turned out they had the wrong address on the warrant, just like in my book. It became a really big incident in Denver because it was very shocking. There was also a lot of racial tension which I hadn’t seen before.

The thing that really interested me is that the cop who killed the man was not the same man who made the mistake on the warrant. So someone else made the mistake on the warrant and this other cop was carrying it out. He was just doing his job and I just imagined that his guilt must be really terrible and that kind of stuck with me.

I had an idea to do a book about baseball before that happened but it needed some kind of plot. I wanted to do little league baseball because that’s something I know a lot about watching my brother and my cousins played the intense little league that leads to going to play college ball and minor and major league ball. So when this incident happened I read all the newspaper articles and came up with a plot that combined those two things.

Amy Steele: I was wondering how you made the little league connection.

Jenny Shank: The shooting is such a sad story. I guess my short stories are funnier and this is more of a serious thing than my short stories are and so I wanted the baseball element to have something that added a lighter and more hopeful element to the story. When two things don’t necessarily go together, I figure out how they can be connected and that’s how I get my plot ideas.

My cousin is a left-handed pitcher like Ray in the book. He plays baseball for the Red Sox AAA team in Pawtucket. He just re-signed with the Red Sox and he’s been in the minor leagues for a long time. My brother is also really good. He was recruited by major league teams and colleges while in high school but had to get surgery on his knees. So that didn’t end up happening but I grew up going to their baseball games.

Amy Steele: How did you transition from writing short stories to a novel?

Jenny Shank: The Ringer is my third novel I’d say. I wrote one and a half novels before that. I had been writing short stories all along. The first novel I wrote, I had done half of it and it wasn’t going anywhere so I gave it up. My next goal was to finish one so I wrote it all the way through and I guess that took three or four years and I was tired of it at this point. I just didn’t feel like revising it to make it really good. So this third one I said I’d write it all the way through and then revise it. So it was a three-step process where I gradually learned to write it.

This novel I figured out that chapters are structured much differently than short stories. I don’t think there are any chapters in this novel that would stand alone as a story and I think that’s good. That helps the momentum in a novel. It was a 13-year training process.

Amy Steele: How does working as a reviewer affect your writing?

Jenny Shank: Well, first of all, that was my job. It’s good to have a job that’s fun to do. I think that’s how I learned really how to write. One of my favorite writing guides is Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer. Basically she says that the best way to figure out how to do something you’re having trouble with is to go to someone who’s done it before and read their book. I think I owe what I was able to do to reading lots and lots of books.

I edited the Onion A.V. for eight years and simultaneously reviewed books for the Rocky Mountain News for ten years until it went under and then I started reviewing books for New West. I review at least a book a week and I think it helps you be an attentive reader when you know that you’re going to have to write about it. That’s really why I got into book reviewing.

In college I liked how you talked about a book and thought a lot about a book after you read it. I liked book reports and I liked writing about books in a conversational tone more than we did in school. It’s something I enjoy and I’ve learned a lot from it. I haven’t done as many writing classes as some people have because of having to work and take care of my kids but learning from books really helps me. I feel like it’s important to keep doing reviews. Book reviews are disappearing and people need help getting the word out about their books.

Amy Steele: What is the greatest challenge of writing a longer form story?

Jenny Shank: I have some ideas of characters and have an idea of the general thing I need to have happen in the chapter but coming up with a compelling action to portray that is always the trick. My early drafts were just describing what was happening and it wasn’t actually happening. Readers really like it and get involved when you create the scene for them. So I think the biggest challenge for me is always creating the scene.

Amy Steele: What interested you about writing about police officers?

Jenny Shank: I was actually hesitant because I’d never written about police officers before and it’s done so much—TV, movies and everything. The one thing I had going for me is that I don’t watch much TV so I’m not aware of it. I’ve never seen Law & Order so I don’t know what’s done on [those shows]. The one show I love, that I did watch, is The Wire. It’s one of my favorite works of art in any medium. I didn’t have a lot of the current clichés in my head. I have to spend so much time reading. I was hoping to avoid cliché and reading books helped me with that. [Shank used books such as Deadly Force Encounters: What Cops Need to Know to Mentally and Physically Prepare for and Survive a Gunfight by Dr. Alexis Artwohl and Loren W. Christensen and I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know by Ellen Kirschman for reference.].

I also started talking to people. My cousin’s husband is a cop in Omaha. The reason why cops are written about so much, I think, is that they’re in a job where things happen, there’s action. That’s useful for anything. I discovered that in smaller cities there aren’t full-time SWAT units and I liked that idea because I wanted Ed to be involved in this incident that I read about but I also wanted him to be out in the city interacting with people. I liked that combination.

It was a lot of research but I was confident because I knew the baseball part, I knew the Denver part. I knew the other part I could explore and do research about it. That makes it fun. Write what you know half of the way and research something else to make it interesting.

Amy Steele: Having a non-fiction background, why did you decide to write fiction instead of non-fiction?

Jenny Shank: I don’t think my life is interesting enough to write a memoir. There are aspects of it that I could write stories about. As far as a researched book, I just had always written fiction. I always read it. I enjoy it. It’s what I want to do. I enjoy it the most and I don’t have personal material. If people have really big problems then that makes a good story.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write the story from the point of view of two characters?

Jenny Shank: The idea that there are two sides to the story is what the story is to me. The cop made a terrible mistake and then this horrible thing happened to this family who lost their dad. My characters are all completely different from the original people. I just took the action that happened and then purposely didn’t learn anything about the real people who were involved in the incident.

I went to the Denver public schools and I went to schools where white people were in the minority pretty much. Depending on the school, there would only be 20-30% white people. I went to some schools that were majority black and some that were majority Latino. From that experience I learned about everything having two sides. I was immersed in those different worlds and cultures that were different from my family and it just made sense to tell the story that way.

I enjoyed having two voices. That helped to make the plot as the plot gradually comes together as they become aware of each other’s existence. That was a drive for the plot. I liked switching back and forth. Working so much on the drafts, I had problems with both at different times and I think that they are equally imagined now in the book.

Amy Steele: Why is there a large Hispanic population in Denver?

Jenny Shank: Colorado was originally part of Mexico territory. Colorado was one-third Mexico, one-third Texas territory and one-third Louisiana Purchase. There are people that live in Colorado, especially southern Colorado, whose families have been here for hundreds of years. It’s deeply embedded in our state’s history and right now the population of Denver and the population of our state is at least 30% Latino. That consists of some people whose families have been here a long time and lots of immigrants. It is a big Latino city.

Jenny Shank website

purchase from Amazon: The Ringer

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