Jenny Shank is a Boulder-based writer whose stories, essays, satire and book reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post and The Guardian. His work has been honorably mentioned by The Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She writes a monthly newsletter called The Tumbleweed, at https://jennyshank.substack.com. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.
Tell us the story of this book. What inspired you to write it? Where does the story/theme come from?
“Mixed Company” is a collection of funny stories about people trying to bridge chasms caused by differences in race, culture, native language, disability, age, gender and political beliefs and form a kind of connection – love, friendship or at least respect.
These efforts often go awry, as in the story “Local Honey,” when two aging white hippie adoptive parents attempt to bond with their teenage black son by bringing him to a Wu-Tang Clan concert, but all the stories show people trying to step outside the confines of their own experiences and make an effort to understand someone different from them.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
I grew up in Denver during the days of court-ordered intercity buses for racial integration, which immersed me in a variety of different cultures, languages, and neighborhoods. These stories are fictional, but they were inspired by that experience, as well as various jobs I’ve had – as a music critic in Denver, as an intern for legendary concert promoter Barry Fey, as a front desk worker at the Colorado Rockies Baseball Club, and as a tutor for football players at the University of Colorado.
Put this excerpt into context. How does it fit into the whole book? Why did you select it?
It’s the beginning of a story called “Hurts”, about the Thomas Jefferson High School women’s basketball team in Denver in the 1990s. I chose it because I met a woman who played basketball for George Washington High School around this same time and she told me it brought back memories and confirmed her experience in the league, especially the part of the story that takes place right after the end of this clip , when the team has an awkward experience of playing against an all-white team for a non-conference game.
Tell us about the creation of this book. What influences and/or experiences influenced the project before you sat down to write the book?
I wrote these stories over many years, while also working on various novels. I love reading and writing short stories, and I always find it refreshing to take a break and work on a shorter piece when I’m in the middle of a long work on a book. When I write novels, the stories are almost entirely fictional, but when I write a short story, I often take at least a fragment of my own experience and use it.
Once you started writing, did the story take you in unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe the treatment of a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
As I often work in part with details of my own life to construct a story, I place different fictional characters in the situation I experienced, then find the point where I wonder what would have happened if I had did something different, and I see where the story goes from there. Often the story builds from an incident that I feel unsettled about, and then when I follow the fiction wherever it leads, I often realize what the experience meant.
What were the biggest challenges you faced or surprises you encountered while finishing this book?
I struggled with each story for many years, and they evolved as I submitted them to literary journals and worked with those editors, and then again as I worked with my editor at Texas Review Press to build the collection. What’s always surprising is how long it takes to complete a writing job – it’s usually many more years than expected. So now I just try to keep rotating the projects, writing a draft of one, then coming back to another, then coming back to the first draft. In this way, I make it move forward, even if it still takes a long time!
Did the book raise questions or spark strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
My book is a collection of stories published by a small university press, so I don’t think it has had enough readership yet to elicit strong opinions. I had the wonderful experience of having my book presented by Patty Limerick at the Center of the American West event.
Patty decided to invite people in the community who had a connection to my stories to read them and respond to them in conversation, including a former college football player, an ASL teacher, and a woman who had been to school in the DPS around the same time. years that I did.
It was fun to reminisce about playing basketball in high school, and I was thrilled to hear all of the passages she quoted in my stories “Lightest Lights Against Darkest Darks” and “Hurts” sounding authentic. to his experience.
Tell us about your writing process: where and how do you write?
Whenever I can, wherever I can. This book was published because I was struggling to find the time to write, actually.
When the pandemic closed public schools for over a year, I had to work with my children on their schoolwork for four to six hours a day. They just couldn’t learn from online school. So I worked with my son in the morning, then from the afternoon until the evening I had to do my paid work. I didn’t have time to write and started to feel discouraged.
The two book projects I was in the middle of when the pandemic hit were stalled. But then I thought, I don’t have time to write, but maybe I can find time to submit my work. I realized I had enough published stories to build a collection, so I collected them and started submitting them to publishing contests.
I learned that I had won the George Garrett Award from Texas Review Press in February 2021, and in November it was published, which is lightning fast by book publishing standards. If you had told me at the beginning of this year that I would have a new book published before the end, I would have taken you for a fool! I also found a new agent for the novel I’ve been working on for several years, and now that my kids are finally back in school, I’m working on it.
I love working with students as a Mile High MFA teacher at Regis, and for many of them who are mothers in particular, I just tell them to hold on to their art and keep on advance in any way they can, even if they can only find an hour a day to work on their writing.
What effect do you hope these stories will have on readers?
I hope these stories will entertain readers, make them laugh, make them embarrassed by the awkwardness of the characters, and encourage them to reach out and try to get to know someone who has a different perspective than their own.
Tell us about your next project.
My current novel, “Tag”, is inspired by the history of street artists in Denver in the 1980s and 1990s, as chronicled by sociologist Jeff Farrell in his book “Crimes of Style”, the photography of Denver from the 80s and 90s of Kim Allen, and the work of Harrison Candelaria Fletcher at Westword.
In “Tag,” when Avery Adair, an architect in up-and-coming contemporary Denver, meets an old friend she betrayed during her years as a teenage graffiti artist, she seeks to make amends, but in doing so puts her in jeopardy. his career. Avery struggles to reconcile the artist she was with the professional she has become and must weigh her loyalty to her family and her work against her allegiance to her artistic past and her old graffiti artist friends, who are beginning to reappear. in his life.