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Jenny Shank’s winning debut novel, The Ringer, comes out this month, and readers will be treated to a fine book that uses baseball to delve into issues of family and class.
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about it:
Shank debuts promisingly with the dramatic story of two families upended by an accidental police shooting. Denver police officer Ed O’Fallon is wracked with guilt after he guns down a man during a drug raid; Patricia Maestas, meanwhile, is instantly made a widow and single mother. Their narratives are equally engaging: as Ed’s marriage buckles under the weight of his feelings of guilt, Patricia struggles to keep her 12-year-old son, Ray, out of trouble. What keeps Ray off the streets is baseball—the same sport Ed’s sons are devoted to. When an investigation reveals the warrant for the fateful raid had the wrong address, Patricia and her family become a symbol of the wrongs suffered by the Latino community. The novel comes to a full boil after Patricia and Ed discover one another’s identities through their sons’ baseball teams.
Shank, the book blogger for New West and an active reviewer, was kind enough to take a few questions on how her book came to be, America’s pastime and how her day job keeps her focused on her own writing dreams.
Where did the idea for The Ringer come from?
I enjoy novels that give the reader an inside look at a particular subculture—for example, you learn a lot about the atmosphere of an advertising agency in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End or you learn about John Henry memorabilia enthusiasts in Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days. The intense world of competitive youth baseball is a subculture I knew well.
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 of the house, 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. In the aftermath, there was a lot of racial tension in the city between whites and Latinos. 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 about Denver if we’d listen to it.
Once you had the basic idea, how much cultivating did you do before you started writing? In other words, what is your work process like?
I started to keep a folder with press clippings on the Ismael Mena shooting. I did a lot of research on police, studying what it’s like to be involved a shooting. I spoke to cops and families of cops that I happened to know or meet. My cousin is married to a police officer in Omaha, and he told me in smaller cities, patrol officers often train for SWAT work, and then are on call when SWAT situations arise. (Smaller cities can’t afford to have SWAT officers sitting around, because there isn’t a need for them every day.) So I decided to have this be the case for Ed.
Somewhere in the middle of this research, I started writing a draft, working forward from the scenes I could envision easily. When I realized I was beyond my depth, I’d do more research. I made an informal outline of scenes I thought should be in it, and I gradually refined it. It took years of rewriting drafts and getting stuck and getting unstuck to produce the final version. I rewrote the first fifty pages more than anything—it took me years to figure out the right tone and perspective.
The workshop of this novel happened in public, with it being an Amazon Breakthrough Novel and James Jones First Novel Fellowship semifinalist. How much did the feedback you got along the way affect the version that was submitted to The Permanent Press?
Actually, those contests didn’t involve much public workshopping, but they inspired me to continue working on this bear of a project. I entered the beginning of the book in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest in 2005. I hit a low moment of frustration and difficulty in drafting the novel about then, but when I heard it was a semifinalist, I thought, “Well, they saw something in it,” and that gave me the courage to continue. I entered it in the first Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest in 2008. There were something like 10,000 entrants and my book made it to the final 100. They posted two chapters online, and I received all kinds of positive feedback, and some of it wasn’t even written by my relatives. Reaching the semi-final round in that contest gave me the final push I needed to revise it one more time, and after that revision I was able to find an agent.
The real workshopping of this book happened with my writing buddies. I traded novel chapters with my friend, the writer Paula Younger, and we helped each other through the process. Poor Paula has read so many drafts of this novel, she deserves combat pay. I also have a writing group I meet with once a month.
It seems to me that some of the characterizations in the book — a cop sidelined from coaching baseball because of an anger problem, immigrants — could have ended up being caricatures in the hands of a lesser writer. How did you manage to pull off making everyone, be they main characters or supporting ones, three-dimensional and real?
Thank you. And believe me, I am about as “lesser” as writers come. Early drafts were full of melodrama and caricature, but after you work on a book for eight years, it’s possible to beat those problems out of it. The plot of The Ringer is dramatic, and dramatic plots all sound like movie-of-the-week specials when you read a description of them. There were scenes I knew I had to write because they belonged in the arc of the story, but that I was afraid to approach for just this reason.
For example, in one chapter Patricia has to give a speech to a rally of supporters at the state capitol. There was so much potential for caricature in that—I mean, it just seems like a set-up for an eventual Jennifer Lopez Oscar clip. After worrying for a long time, I finally just wrote the scene, and it was bad, and I rewrote it, and it was still bad, and I took another angle on it, and it was still bad. I kept rewriting that chapter right up until the time I had to turn in the manuscript to The Permanent Press, and finally I think it at least seems plausible. I mean, real people do end up in situations like this. I told myself not to try to be cute, coy, or clever and just try to get the big drama of this story onto the page as clearly and honestly as possible.
Let’s talk a little baseball. What’s your background in the game? Your love and knowledge of it certainly came through in the book.
I was raised in a house of sports fanatics. My older brother was a great baseball pitcher and home run hitter. He was offered scholarships by many colleges and even was invited to tryouts for pro teams when he was in high school, and he was named to the all-state team for Colorado. But he hurt both of his knees, and three or four ACL surgeries later…he’s a fantastically successful sales executive for a software corporation. My cousin Tommy Hottovy is a left-handed pitcher. He played ball for Wichita State and he’s been in the Red Sox minor league organization for many years. He currently pitches for the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox. So growing up I had an inside view of the feeder system for big league teams—the intense competition starts early, and there are many, many road trips. I also played a lot of softball. I was a catcher, not quite as good as my brother, though I wasn’t terrible—I made Denver’s all-city team several years.
I loved writing about baseball because I knew I didn’t have to worry about getting those parts right. A few parts of my childhood worked their way into The Ringer, such as how my brother would make me help him sort his annual complete baseball card set, the rules of our backyard baseball games, and the July trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the regional baseball tournament every season.
Books that have the sort of arc found in The Ringer generally need a means of bringing disconnected people together, and baseball certainly does that in your book. What were the challenges of using a game to illuminate racial divides and divergent viewpoints?
So far most of the fiction that I’ve written has been about race in some way. When I was growing up, Denver’s public schools had court-ordered busing for racial integration. Beginning when I was six years old, I rode the bus to schools that were thirty minutes or more away from my house, schools in which whites were in the minority. I spent part of my childhood attending schools that were mostly Mexican-American, and part of it at schools that were mostly black. I think because of this, it has always seemed natural to me to tell stories from two perspectives at once. It seems to me that all stories have at least two sides to them, if not ten!
I often write about situations in which people of different races are forced to be together, and sports are one area where that happens consistently. I played sports in school and because of that I made friends with people of all different ethnicities—people who didn’t play sports didn’t tend to mingle as much. I’ve also written stories about football, track, and basketball, stories that are really about race. Though the challenges in writing my book were gargantuan, I never worried about using baseball to write about race. That felt natural, maybe in part because the history of Major League Baseball is inextricable from the history of the Civil Rights movement.
The designated hitter: useful innovation or blight on the game?
Oh dear. I’ve got to say something either impassioned or witty! I guess I like the wackiness of how the American League has a DH and the National League doesn’t, and when NL andAL teams play each other they have to follow the rules of the home team. Because you think of Major League Baseball as being one entity, but it’s not really—it’s two halves that could not agree on something as seemingly simple as this rule. And anything wacky, I’m for. Also I like how having a DH allows some older, out-of-shape players to hang around for some more seasons. I’m fond of out-of-shape baseball players.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why?
Probably Ray. Although all of the characters are fictional, and I can’t say that any of them are based on real people, I went to school with a lot of kids who remind me of Ray, and I’ve always wondered what happened to them. Ray’s attractive, talented, and cocky and at this point his life could go either way, which is an interesting state to write about a character in.
In what ways has your job as the book reviewer/blogger for New West made you a better writer?
I’ve learned almost everything I know about writing from a combination of massive amounts of reading, analyzing what I’ve read by writing book reviews, and the chance to interview other writers. I wrote book reviews for the Rocky Mountain News for eight years, I’ve been covering books for New West for about four years now, and last year I started writing book reviews for the Dallas Morning News. So I’m a book-review-aholic.
Knowing that I’m going to have to write a review every week makes me an attentive reader. And I think I’m a positive reader—I read to find out what works, not to point out why something stinks. I had the chance to interview Francine Prose about her book Reading Like A Writer a few years ago. That’s one of my favorite how-to-write books of all, because she just tells you to read, read a lot and read widely, and if you’re stuck on a scene or the use of perspective or structure or anything, there’s sure to be a writer who has handled this problem before. Read his or her book, and it will help you figure out how to solve your own writing problem.
I kept two books on my desk as I worked on The Ringer—Richard Price’s Samaritan and Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. Whenever I was stuck I’d flip through these novels to see how these guys did it. Or I’d read another book for New West until an idea came to me.
I’m not one of those writers who abstain from certain kinds of reading to preserve the sanctity of my muse while I’m writing a book. I like my muse good and polluted.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to finish a short story collection, and I’m daydreaming and jotting notes for another novel, which I hope will have something to do with a graffiti artist.