The Ringer

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When my novel came out in 2009, Jenny Shank was one of the first journalists to interview me. Today, I am delighted to be able to congratulate her on the publication of her novel and ask a few questions about The Ringer (The Permanent Press, March 2011). Jenny’s stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, including Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Onion, Poets & Writers, Bust, Michigan Quarterly Review, Image, Rocky Mountain News, Dallas Morning News, Boulder Daily Camera and The Huffington Post. One of her stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and another was listed among the “Notable Essays of the Year” in the Best American Essays. For six years Jenny Shank was the Denver/Boulder Editor of The Onion A.V. Club, and she is currently the Books & Writers Editor of NewWest.Net/Books, which was named “Best Literary Blog” in the Westword Best of Denver issue. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband, daughter, and son.

Jenny, can you share the first line of the novel and tell us what inspired your novel The Ringer?

Here are the first two sentences: “On the first day of tee-ball practice, Ed O’Fallon learned that his primary mission in coaching his daughter’s team would be to convince the fielders to pay attention to the action at the plate.  Instead, the girls preferred to concentrate on refilling aeration holes with the grass-topped earth plugs that littered the outfield like turds.”

I enjoy novels that give the reader an inside look at a particular subculture, and the world of competitive youth baseball is a subculture I know well, because I grew up playing softball, and my older was a talented baseball pitcher. My cousin, Tommy Hottovy, is a pitcher for the Red Sox minor league team. So I wanted to write a novel that would take the reader into the world of intense competitive youth baseball, with all its dramas, enthusiastic fans, bickering parents, and unusual characters.

In 1999, when I was just beginning to contemplate writing a baseball novel, the Denver Police raided a house in north Denver on a no-knock drug warrant, and shot and killed Ismael Mena, the Mexican immigrant that they encountered inside. Later it came out that their informant had given them the wrong address, and they’d killed someone whose house they had no business entering. I was shocked and moved by this incident, and I watched it all unfold. The part of this story that interested me most as a novelist was the fact that the cop who killed the wrong man was not responsible for the mistake on the warrant—he was doing his job, carrying out orders. I imagined the guilt he felt must be incredible.

I was also interested in writing about Denver, because there aren’t many novels set in my hometown. So I combined these ideas of writing about baseball and Denver with this growing feeling that I had to in some way address the shooting of Ismael Mena by the Denver police, because it seemed to me to be an important, elemental story, one that could tell us a lot if we’d listen to it.

You entered Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award Competition. Can you tell us about that experience?

I entered that contest during its first year, 2008. It was a lot of fun, and it was nerve-wracking too, because a community sprang up around it with a lively message board, and there were various dates when different things were to happened, such as when there would be a cut to semi-finalists, when you’d receive a Publishers Weekly review of your book, etc., and everyone would go on the message board and be nervous together. My book made it to the Top 100, but it didn’t make the final cut of 10. (The top ten books were then voted on by the public to choose a winner.) Making it to final 100 out of several thousand entries and receiving positive feedback inspired me to continue working on the novel. I wrote one more draft after this contest, and then I was able to find an agent.

Did your career as a journalist help you when it came to writing the novel?

Yes, in many ways. I think one of the main lessons I imported from journalism was the importance of meeting your deadlines. Writing a novel seems like such a monumental task that if you don’t give yourself little incremental deadlines to work toward, it’s hard to accomplish. There were several times over the course of the eight years I spent on and off writing The Ringer when I’d hit a wall or make some big mistake that had to be undone, and I’d have to adjust my deadlines—it’s always possible to come up with a newspaper article, but it’s not always possible to come up with a chapter of fiction. But still, striving to meet deadlines at least kept me plugging along.

Also, when I write a book review, for example, I know the hardest part is in getting that first draft out. Even if it comes out as gibberish, I just need to generate that gibberish a few days in advance of my deadline so that I can work it into something readable. So journalism helped me learn about the importance of drafts on a small scale, which I then applied to the large-scale project of writing a novel. Finally, as a journalist I am paid to ask questions and investigate stories that intrigue me. At times when I was stuck on my novel, the way I got unstuck was to find somebody to talk to and ask questions. For example, I had to learn a lot about the lives of police officers, and I spoke to several cops and people whose fathers or husbands were cops.

What advice would you give to struggling writers?

The first thing I would say is that if you’re planning to write a novel, pick a subject that you’re so passionate about that you could work on it for ten years and not be bored. Hopefully it will take you far less than ten years, but just in case it does, start with a story that you feel you could pursue to the end. The only thing that separates me from my talented writer friends who have not yet published a book is that you just have to find a way to push through one or two more drafts, even if it makes you nauseated because you’ve worked on it so long. (All of us hope the book is ready about two or three drafts before it actually is.) Also, it always looks like it’s never going to happen for you—you’re never going to publish a story, find an agent, publish a book, etc.—right up until the day that it does happen.

What is the best advice you have received?

I spent a long time looking for a mentor to teach me how to write a novel, and I never found one. Even though I went to grad school and a few writing conferences, I didn’t encounter an established writer who was interested in my work and wanted to advise me. So I’ve never been the recipient of much writing advice. The advice I would give to someone in the same position that I was is that you can learn what you need to know on your own, by reading massive amounts of books, very attentively—I love Francine Prose’s “Reading Like A Writer,” because that’s basically what she says to do. And if you can’t find a mentor, hopefully you can find peers as I have, who happily struggle along with you. We don’t deliver sage nuggets of advice to each other, but we help each other draft by draft, and that’s how I’ve learned.

What books are on your nightstand?

I write a book review or two every week for New West and the Dallas Morning News, so my nightstand is always jammed full! Right now I am thoroughly enjoying “What You See in the Dark” by Manuel Muñoz—it’s just a riveting, heartbreaking book with the most gorgeous prose. Next up is “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick Dewitt, Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder,” Melanie Rae Thon’s “In This Light: New and Selected Stories,” and Daniel Orozco’s debut “Orientation: And Other Stories.” I am eager to read Orozco’s book—I first read his story “Orientation” in a Best American Short Stories when I was in college, twelve years ago. Then I found his story “Hunger Tales” in an old issue of the late, great Story Magazine. He’s taken a long time to craft these stories, and I can’t wait to see the results of his patience.

What’s next?

I hope to finish up a collection of short stories, and then I hope I’ll be able to start a new novel soon—maybe when my four-year-old daughter goes to kindergarten in the fall and my two-year-old son starts preschool.

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  1. Mick

    This sounds like a great book with an interesting mix of baseball and social commentary.

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