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SunLit

SunLit Interview: Jenny Shank drew on experience to reach across chasms in “Mixed Company”

From growing up amid Denver's court-ordered busing to a variety of jobs, the author's life inspired scenarios for her fictional characters

Jenny Shank is a Boulder-based writer whose stories, essays, satire, and book reviews have appeared in many publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post and The Guardian. Her 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 this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

“Mixed Company” is a collection of funny stories about people trying to reach across chasms caused by differences in race, culture, native language, disability, age, gender, and political beliefs and form some kind of connection—love, friendship, or at least respect.

These efforts often go awry, as in the story “Local Honey,” when two white, aging hippie adoptive parents try to bond with their black teenage son by bringing him to a Wu-Tang Clan concert, but all the stories show people trying to reach out from the limitations of their own experiences and make an effort to understand someone different than them. 

UNDERWRITTEN BY

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 its era of court-ordered crosstown busing 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 had—as a Denver music critic, as an intern for legendary concert promoter Barry Fey, as a front office employee of the Colorado Rockies Baseball Club, and as a tutor for football players at the University of Colorado. 

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

This is the beginning of a story called “Hurts,” about the girls’ basketball team at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver in the 1990s. I chose it because I met a woman who played basketball for George Washington High School during this same era and she told me that it brought back memories and confirmed her experience in the league, especially the part of the story that occurs right after this excerpt finishes, when the team has an awkward experience playing an all-white team for an out-of-conference game.

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

I wrote these stories over the course of many years, while I was 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 am in the middle of the long slog of 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 shard of my own experience and build off of it.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

Since I’m often working partly with details of my own life to build a story, I put different fictional characters into the situation I experienced, and then find the point where I wonder what would have happened if I’d done something different, and I see where the story takes off from there. Often the story builds out of an incident that I feel unsettled about, and then when I follow the fiction wherever it leads, I often come to a realization about what the experience meant.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

I wrestled with each story over the course of 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 put the collection together. The thing that’s always surprising is how long it takes to see any piece of writing through to completion—it’s usually many more years than I expected. So now I just try to keep rotating projects, writing one draft of one, and then cycling back to another, and then returning to the first project again. In this way I keep it moving forward, even if it still takes a long time!

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

My book is a story collection published by a small university press, so I don’t think it’s had enough readers yet to elicit any strong opinions. I did have the wonderful experience of having my book featured by Patty Limerick at the Center of the American West event. 

Patty decided to invite people from the community who had some connection to my stories to read and respond to them in conversation, including a former college football player, an ASL teacher, and a woman who had gone to school in the DPS during roughly the same years I did. 

It was fun to reminisce about playing high school basketball, and I was gratified to hear all the passages that she cited in my stories “Lightest Lights Against Darkest Darks” and “Hurts” that felt authentic to her experience.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

Whenever I can, wherever I can. This book was published because I was having trouble finding time to write, actually. 

When the pandemic shut the public schools for more than a year, I had to work with my kids on their schoolwork for four to six hours a day. They just couldn’t learn from online school. So I’d work with my son in the morning, and then in the afternoon through the evening, I had to do my paid work. I had no time to write, and I 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 some time to submit my work. I realized that I had enough published stories to form a collection, so I put them together and started to submit them to some publication contests. 

I learned I’d won the George Garrett Prize from Texas Review Press in February of 2021, and by November it was published, which is lightning fast by book publishing standards. If you’d told me as that year started that I’d have a new published book before the end of it, I would have thought you were crazy! 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’ve been working on that. 

I love working with students as a teacher in the Mile High MFA at Regis, and for many of them that are mothers especially, I just tell them that they’ve got to hang on to their art, and keep moving forward in any way they can, even if they can find just one 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 for the awkwardness of the characters, and encourage them to reach out and try to get to know someone who has a different perspective than they do.

Tell us about your next project.

 My novel-in-progress, “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 ’80s and ’90s Denver photography of Kim Allen, and the work of Harrison Candelaria Fletcher in Westword

In “Tag,” when Avery Adair, an architect in booming contemporary Denver, encounters an old friend she betrayed during her years as a teenage graffiti artist, she seeks to make amends, but in doing so jeopardizes her career. Avery struggles to reconcile the artist she was with the professional she has become and must weigh her loyalty to her family and job against her allegiance to her artistic past and old graffiti pals, who begin reappearing in her life. 



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