This Denver Celebrity has been the recipient of numerous literary accolades. Author, journalist, and teacher, Jenny Shank sat down with FameBooking to discuss the art of writing. We hope you enjoy hearing from this Denver celebrity.
You do a lot in – and are well known in -- western writing/reading circles. You seem exceptionally well-organized and focused around writing. Is that because you knew from a young age that writing was it for you, or is that just your personality in all things?
My husband would laugh to hear you describe me as exceptionally well-organized! I suppose I am well organized in many aspects of my life except for my house—my house is full of books, papers, plants, and projects I am in the middle of. I just have a passion for writing and books, and for the literature of the American West, and I think by focusing on that for many years, eventually you get a reputation for it among other people who care about the same things.
Do you mind telling us your daily writing routine?
Most mornings, I start off by critiquing at least 25 pages of a student's manuscript—this keeps me on top of my teaching work load. Then if I don't have a pressing journalism deadline, I'll work on whatever book or creative project I'm writing at the moment, and after I get in a few hours of that, I switch to journalism. If I have journalism deadlines, I swap the order. But most days are like that—some combination of teaching, creative writing, and journalism until my kids come home from school.
What was is like to get those Pushcart Prize nominations, Special Mention, and other awards? Was one in particular most thrilling?
Most of the time when I write something and send it out, I'm met with years of rejection, so any time I receive some validation, it encourages me to keep at it and not get downhearted. I value every reader of my writing, and those types of honors are a welcome sign that someone has read and appreciated my work. The most thrilling honor was probably winning the High Plains Book Award for The Ringer. I flew to Montana for the award ceremony, and I didn't know who was going to win, so it was thrilling to hear my name called. Also I got to meet the keynote speaker, Tom McGuane, a writer I admire very much, and even shake hands with the mayor of Billings, Montana, who attended the banquet. The Mullin Fellowship from USC was also wonderful because I got to meet with six fellow creative writers from all over the country over the course of two years, and they became my good friends.
Without spoiling, your writing in The Ringer, inspired by an actual event, has been noted for its humanity, its tenderness, towards all characters – is that something you naturally do well, or did you strive in earnest to make all your characters likeable in this?
Most of the time when I'm writing, I'm trying to find out if it's possible to love everyone involved in the situation I'm describing. Sometimes I don't start out writing about a character from a place of love, if the character has different politics or philosophy from me, say, but I know my story isn't going to work until I find the humanity in that person, and let them surprise me, and even get the upper hand over another character I might feel more closely aligned with. I'm always trying to write toward some common human understanding.
Your child/teen characters behave and sound totally lifelike and that’s not easy. Any advice to writers on that?
I've always loved kids, even when I was barely older than a kid myself. My little brother was born when I was nine, and I often preferred hanging out with him to being with people my own age. So I'd say spend time with kids, and really listen to them, and really observe them. Find out what they're interested in. Read the books they read and watch the shows they watch and listen to the music they like. Even let them tell you about the latest beefs between YouTube personalities.
The topics you teach (e.g., Disobedient Fiction, Writing the Multiple Timeline Book, Personal Essays with a Twist, Not Your Daddy's Book Review) are incredibly interesting. Do you invent these on your own, generally?
I do invent my class topics, and most of them I derive from some problem that I've encountered as I'm writing, or some problem I'm in the middle of working out. For example, the novel I'm working on now has two timelines, so I studied multiple timeline books and movies and TV shows and came up with a class on that to teach myself how to do it. Another class, called Mighty Microstructure, was based on how I learned to structure my novel by paying attention to the little techniques I could use on each page to heighten tension and momentum, rather than worrying about the big picture, which could get too overwhelming.
Writing is isolating and writers can be a ruminative or even moody lot, but you seem pretty cheery. How is that?
I am ruminative—I like to think, and the way I sort my thoughts out best is by writing about them. But I guess I'd agree that I'm more often cheery than not. I think I've had a fortunate life, and I try to project my enthusiasm for books, writing, and stories whenever I'm out teaching or talking to people. (When I'm at home writing, you might find me more sloth-like and sluggish, in my fuzzy robe.)
What is the best advice you ever received regarding writing and how old were you at the time?
My best advice came from my teacher, mentor, and friend Lucia Berlin. I met her when I was in my early twenties in graduate school for creative writing at the University of Colorado. At the time, she was an unappreciated but brilliant short story writer who published in small presses. About ten years after she died, a major publisher reprinted her stories, and she became a global bestseller and the talk of the New York literary world. But when I knew her, she was unappreciated, in poor health, and without many resources, so her advice was pure—an artist's advice. She believed in method writing—you have to feel what your characters are feeling or else it will come across as fake. Do whatever you can to get under the skin of the people you're writing about. So there are chapters that I have to cry my way through as I'm writing. It's the only way to make these character into real people.
What’s the best advice you ever gave?
I'm not sure—you'll have to ask my students! But one thing that seemed to help when I was teaching undergraduates at the University of Colorado was to tell them to set their stories somewhere specific, even if it's a fictional place. I was getting a lot of stories that seemed to take place nowhere, and once I made them focus on their setting, it's as if their stories discovered gravity.
What are you working on now, or next?
I am finishing a draft of a novel about a graffiti artist turned architect in contemporary Denver. I'm also writing some personal essays that may or may not turn into a book.
What would you like to accomplish, or specifically write, that you haven’t yet?
I want to write so many more books—but they take so much time! Hopefully I'll get through several more and find a way to publish them. Next, I want to look into a story I just know the bare outlines of, about a relative of mine who was a Czech immigrant in Nebraska, and she ran off and joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Maybe I can get a novel out of it.
We know this isn’t easy but: name your five favorite authors in any genre.
Some contemporary authors I love include Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Louise Erdrich, Jess Walter, and Jonathan Evison. Authors from the past I love include Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Tolstoy, and Jane Austen.
Can you tell us anything about your time at The Onion A.V. Club?
Working as the editor of the Onion A.V. Club was my first full-time job out of grad school, and it was a great one. I loved writing about music, books, and comedians.
Thanks for talking with us! In closing, tell us a talent you have that most people don’t know.
I don't know if I have any talents anymore, but I did once earn my black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and I am not bad at Spanish and French.
Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss the trade of writing, Jenny Shank. We can see why this Denver celebrity’s writing is getting featured regularly in the lit