Jenny Shank’s debut novel, The Ringer (The Permanent Press, 352 pages, $29), begins with a tragic mistake when a police officer shoots and kills a man on a no-knock warrant that’s been written for the wrong address. The shooting intimately affects the two families involved—the police officer’s and the slain man’s—but it also sparks an outcry from an entire community concerned with larger issues of justice, race, and class. The fictional setting for this novel is Denver, and the drama plays out against the backdrop of championship Little League baseball. Baseball fans should note that The Ringer’s publication coincides with the beginning of Major League spring training, but this book will appeal equally to baseball fans and to those who just want to read a great story that combines police drama with personal loss and a community’s quest for redemption.
Jenny Shank is an award-winning writer who grew up in Denver and currently lives in Boulder with her husband, daughter, and son. The Ringer, her first novel, was a semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and the Amazon.com Breakthrough Novel Award. I recently caught up with Jenny Shank to find out more about The Ringer’s real-life influences and to understand what makes this accomplished young writer tick. Shank will discuss The Ringer at the Tattered Cover (LoDo) on April 8 (7:30 p.m.) and at the Boulder Book Store on April 27 (7:30 p.m.).
New West: Jenny, you’re not shy about admitting your upbringing in the Denver public school system. In The Ringer’s acknowledgments, you give a shout-out to your hometown, saying: “Denver, I love you.” How did your close ties to this city help you construct Denver as the setting for The Ringer?
Jenny Shank: There’s a chance that I would have still been a writer if I hadn’t gone through the Denver Public Schools, but I have no idea what I would be writing about. I attended school in Denver during the period of court-ordered desegregation for integration. Many white families left the district at that time, but mine stayed, so starting when I was six years old, I rode the bus thirty minutes across town to a school in west Denver that had a majority Mexican-American population. Later, the Mexican-American kids were bused to my neighborhood. Then in middle school I was bused to Five Points, Denver’s historically black neighborhood. That was in the early ’90s, during the height of gang violence between the Crips and the Bloods in Denver, and my middle school was a recruiting ground for Crips.
Then I’d come home from school to my family and house full of books in a quiet neighborhood in south Denver. For vacations we often went to my grandparents’ farm in Nebraska, and I’d spend my time jumping from one hay bale to the next, running through fields of tall grass, the fat grasshoppers flying up. At the time, it all made sense, but now it seems like a surreal straddling of different worlds.
Despite some dangerous situations that I experienced in school—including one time when a group of Bloods with semi-automatic weapons stormed through my high school—I got a good education, and I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. Why did I get to grow up, go to college, and even write a book, when some of the people I went to school with ended up in jail, dead, wounded by gunfire, or pregnant at thirteen? I don’t know. Even though all this happened long ago, I can’t quite get over it, and I keep going back there in my fiction.
In part because of busing, I spent time in many different neighborhoods in Denver, and being immersed in so many different neighborhoods and cultures gave me a bird’s eye view of the city. I especially came to know the neighborhood in north Denver along Federal Boulevard—where I have Patricia’s family live in the book—after college during the six years I mentored a girl who lived in that area. I wanted to write a story that shows how everything in the city connects, how people who might on the surface appear completely different from each other are actually not so different.
NW: Despite your love of Denver, you also address issues in The Ringer related to race and class. So in a sense, you’re able to offer a critique of this place you love. Did you find it difficult to be so honest?
JS: I think that honesty in my portrayal of Denver was a goal, not a difficulty. There aren’t any cities that I’m aware of that don’t struggle with issues of race and class—that’s what a city is, a place where people from different backgrounds live in close proximity, which inevitably leads to conflicts. I wanted to write as honestly as I could about Denver, just as Jack Kerouac did in On the Road, Denver native John Fante did in his early novels and stories, and Helen Thorpe did in Just Like Us, her nonfiction book that follows the lives of a group of young women in Denver.
NW: You write The Ringer from two different perspectives, alternating chapters that focus on Ed, a police officer involved in a shooting, and Patricia, the widow of the slain man. Why did you choose to take this approach, and what challenges did you encounter while writing from these perspectives?
JS: I felt like the only way to convey the story of a polarizing police shooting was to tell both sides of it. Also, this approach felt natural to me because I attended schools at which most people had a different background than me, and this helped me to see that there are always at least two sides to every story.
The main challenge in writing from two perspectives is how to balance them—as I wrote different drafts of the book, my writing buddies would tell me that Patricia came across stronger in this draft, or Ed did in another draft. When I finally had both characters equally sympathetic and engaging, I knew I was getting close! I also had to figure out how to integrate the chapters so that the reader would learn information from an Ed chapter, say, that was relevant to something going on in a Patricia chapter, but that Patricia was unaware of. So it was tricky to keep track of the timeline and the plot details.
NW: Baseball is the element in The Ringer that holds this book together. The plotlines converge on the field, and the tension ramps up in the stands. Why did you choose baseball over, say, tennis to play such a central role in your book?
JS: For me, it had to be baseball. I grew up in a baseball-loving household. I started playing softball when I was about the age of Polly in the book, and my older brother was a talented pitcher. He was named to Colorado’s all state team in high school and many colleges and professional ball teams recruited him, though he ended up injuring his knees. My cousin, Tommy Hottovy, is a left-handed pitcher for the Red Sox AAA team in Pawtucket. So growing up, I watched a lot of baseball and was immersed in the intense atmosphere of highly competitive youth baseball teams.
Sports in general are an area in which very different people can come together to play on the same team. All anybody cares about is how well you play. Baseball in particular has a great tradition in American fiction—some of my favorite books that have to do with baseball are Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, W.P. Kinsella’s The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. Baseball in particular also has resonance for my novel because it was once considered America’s national pastime, and now many Major League players are Latin American, so I thought Ray, a Mexican-American kid, fit into this dynamic.
NW: So, based on what baseball does for Ray in The Ringer, would you go so far as to say that Baseball Saves?
JS: I wouldn’t say that baseball specifically saves, but anything a kid becomes interested in to the extent that he would turn away from activities that could take him down the wrong path could be a kid’s salvation—it could be sports, music, art, or books. In The Ringer, Ray’s mom Patricia wants him to get involved in competitive baseball because he loves it, he’s a talented pitcher, and it’s time-consuming, which she hopes will keep him away from the influences of gangs that have begun to surface in his life, especially at this vulnerable time when he’s just lost his father.
Many of the people who were involved in sports at my schools steered clear of gangs—though not all of them. There was one talented basketball player at my high school who was often compared to Chauncey Billups in the local newspapers—they were the same age, playing on rival teams in the Denver Public Schools—but while Chauncey went on to become an NBA MVP, the basketball player at my school got mixed up in gangs and was shot and paralyzed.
NW: Speaking of salvation, The Ringer doesn’t have any overtly religious themes, but religion seems to be an important cultural influence in the lives of these characters. They’re battling to attain spiritual graces such as forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation. Without giving away the book’s ending, what would you say that The Ringer’s ending is meant to convey, in either religious, spiritual, or moral terms?
JS: I don’t think the ending is meant to convey anything religious, but I did want to figure out if there was a way that Ed could earn some measure of forgiveness in a believable fashion that arose out of the individual characters’ actions.
I knew that I was putting my characters, Ed and Patricia, into an extreme situation, one in which if they had any religious background at all, they would turn to it for answers. Ed is Irish-American and Patricia is Mexican-American, so they are both Catholic, a similarity they are unaware of. Patricia hasn’t attended church regularly for a while, but Ed does, although he’s not exactly a believer. He becomes frustrated with his religion when he finds that it won’t let him attain the forgiveness he’s desperately seeking. Even though he’s not a complete believer, you’re right that the Catholic culture is part of Ed’s makeup, so he desperately wants some kind of forgiveness and redemption.
NW: Some of the comic relief in The Ringer comes in moments when Ed—a police officer notorious for his fiery outbursts—coaches his six-year-old daughter’s tee-ball team, the Purple Unicorns. What influenced your decision to cast Ed in this role?
JS: I wanted to show what a good dad Ed was, how he cares for children, and spends his free time helping them. I also wanted to show that even if you are a flawed parent—in Ed’s case, he doesn’t maintain perfect composure when the kids he’s coaching screw up—you can still be a worthy parent. I had Ed demoted to coaching girls’ tee-ball because I wanted to portray him at a moment in his life during which he’s being humbled on every possible front. In the first chapter, I open with Ed coaching the Purple Unicorns, and then move to the raid where he kills Salvador Santillano because I wanted readers to like Ed and have sympathy for him first, before they saw him as a killer.
NW: In The Ringer, you’re able to capture the psychological aspects and aftermath of an officer-involved shooting, even though you’re not a police officer, and you’ve never been involved in a shooting. What helped you develop the psychology of the characters involved?
JS: I did more research on the police aspect of this novel than any other part. I was a little hesitant to write a story that revolved around a police officer because it’s been done so much, and it seems like there are a lot of clichés I could step into. But I had a lot of good sources to help me out.
To learn about cops and their families, I talked to people, observed cops, and read books and articles. My cousin’s husband is a police officer in Omaha, and I’d always listen to his stories. There may be a few of them that sneaked into The Ringer in some form. I met a young woman at a wedding whose dad was a cop in San Francisco, and she told me what it was like trying to date with a cop for a dad. Some details from her story ended up in a scene with Mitch, Ed’s partner.
At one point during my research, after I had a draft that wasn’t working, I called up Mike Mosco, who is the president of the Denver Police Protective Association, and he was kind enough to walk me through the procedures followed after an officer-involved shooting. Talking to him gave me a good sense of how persecuted by the media cops can sometimes feel. They have an intense job, they go into situations that no one else would want to enter, and when something goes wrong, they are relentlessly scrutinized, even to the point where details about their financial troubles or failed marriages end up in the newspapers.
Some of the books that helped me were Deadly Force Encounters: What Cops Need to Know to Mentally and Physically Prepare for and Survive a Gunfight by Dr. Alexis Artwohl and Loren W. Christensen, Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force by David Klinger, and I Love A Cop: What Police Families Need to Know by Ellen Kirschman. One of the main things these books helped me understand is how flawed people’s perceptions are when they are in an adrenaline-filled situation, and also how traumatized cops can be when they are involved in a shooting.
I know there are some bad cops who deliberately do cruel things—but I wasn’t interested in writing about them. With Ed, I wanted to create a police character who was trying his best, who had no intention to harm an innocent person, but made a horrible mistake. I was interested in the moral drama of that situation.
NW: What other real-life or print sources contributed to The Ringer’s fictional plot?
JS: The Ringer was inspired by the 1999 shooting of the Mexican immigrant Ismael Mena by the Denver Police. He was killed during on a no-knock drug raid, and later reporters uncovered that the police had written the wrong address on the warrant and they’d had no business entering his house. I was shocked by this incident, and following it, race relations in Denver became tenser than I’d ever seen them in my lifetime. What interested me most was the fact that the cop who shot Mena was not the same person who made the mistake on the warrant. I imagined he felt incredible guilt. I studied the newspaper accounts of this case as a basis for The Ringer, but I purposely did not try to learn anything about the real people involved in it. I invented my own characters, with their own biographical details and motivations.
NW: How does it feel to have a first novel out on the shelves…and any plans for a second?
JS: It feels grand. Maybe the best thing about having a novel published is that you can finally talk to people about it—writing no longer has to be this secret shame that people are kind of embarrassed for you about if it comes up. I have several writing buddies who are talented and dedicated but have not yet had a book published, and consequently some people in their lives don’t take what they do seriously. If you’re a parent especially, it’s hard to justify devoting all this time to work on a project when you have nothing to show for it. So I feel like publishing this book gives me permission to take time to work on the next one. Next up for me is a collection of short stories that I have been working on simultaneously while I wrote The Ringer. My kids are little—ages four and two—and I look after them full-time in addition to my work as the Books and Writers Editor at New West. So I might need to wait until at least one of them is in kindergarten before I’m able to make much progress on my next novel.
Traci J. Macnamara is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many magazines, journals and books, including Isotope and Backpacker. She lives in Vail.