November 18, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jenny Shank brings hardscrabble lives to life in her poignant and funny story collection Mixed Company.
Joe Wilkins wrote of the book:
"I don't know the last time I devoured so quickly--so completely--a book of short fiction. The stories in Mixed Company are breezy, vivid, at turns delightful and aching--and quite serious. Truly, across chasms of gender, race, and class, across generations and just across town, these stories aim to do nothing less than remind us of the messiness and grace of reaching out to one another."
As I reread my story collection for copyedits and page proofs, it became clear to me how music is interwoven throughout these stories. Many of them include the characters going to concerts or listening to songs. That makes sense, as I was an intern with Denver's largest concert promoter one summer during college, a college radio DJ, and a music critic for about ten years after that. I went to a lot of shows, and I often reach for those memories when I'm writing a story.
MC Solaar, "L'aigle ne chasse pas les mouches" – " L'Homme de ma vie"
The first story in the collection, featuring a Denver family in Paris, is the only one that isn't set in Colorado. It's inspired by visiting my husband's family in France, and raising our kids to speak French. In the story, I mention several French folk songs, but for my playlist, I'm going with a track by one of my favorite rappers. The title means "the eagle doesn't chase flies," and I like the brash confidence of that sentiment—it's a useful phrase to remember when you're tempted to divert your energy toward something insignificant.
Public Enemy, "Rebel Without A Pause" - "Lightest Lights Against Darkest Darks"
I attended Denver Public Schools during the era of crosstown busing for racial integration. In middle school, I was bused north to a school that was almost all Black, and it was the first time I'd heard music by Public Enemy, NWA, and Too $hort—no radio station was playing them yet. The squealing saxophone in this song is the defining sound of that era for me, and in my story, the art teacher tries to convince the younger generation to respect James Brown by pointing out how Public Enemy sampled his music.
Lake Street Dive, "Neighbor Song" - "Casa del Rey"
"Casa del Rey" is a story about neighbors—how they annoy us, how we worry for them, how we help them, and how we need them. Whether you want to pay attention to them or not, certain neighbors have a way of inserting themselves into your life, as "Neighbor Song" details. As Rachael Price sings, "In the city, all the humans live in layers/ I've got people down the hall and down the stairs/ We all move in and out and live our lives in stacks and rows and pairs/ and try to find someone with whom we can share it."
Michael Jackson, "Thriller" – "Moonlight, Starlight Boogie Won't Be Out Tonight"
This story features a game we played at the West Denver elementary school I was bused to, where a majority of the students were Mexican-American. Michael Jackson played a sold-out show at Mile High Stadium in 1984, my third grade year, and he was all anyone could talk about. Half of the kids trying out for the talent show performed the moonwalk or other moves they'd bit from Michael, and at Halloween my teacher held a raffle for a paper cutout of a ghost with a single sequined glove. I won. "Thriller" captures the autumnal feel of our excitement, and this game we played in which a designated Boogie chased the other kids down.
Beyoncé, "Single Ladies" – "La Sexycana"
When I was working as a music critic for The Onion A.V. Club, I was mentoring a young lady through a community program, and I took her to see Destiny's Child. During the concert, Kim broke her toe backstage, and a beefy bouncer carried her out to explain why she'd disappeared during a costume change. In "Single Ladies," Beyoncé is at her most fun, and this song makes you want to rush to the dance floor the way the clubgoers in my story do.
Blur, "Song 2" – "Last Summer's Song"
I was inspired to write "Last Summer's Song" when Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" came on the radio for the five millionth time. I started writing, speaking to the song, predicting its future. But I don't like that song much, so on my playlist I feature a fun, snappy, bygone summer hit that I do love—Blur's two-minute "Song 2," which my friend Jeni and I used to open every "Jammin' Jens" radio show we DJed in college.
Mavin Gaye, "Sexual Healing" – "Hurts"
"Hurts" is inspired by my high school basketball team, and my coaches, who, as in the story, would sometimes have us shoot free throws while listening to "Sexual Healing."
Wu-Tang Clan, "Protect Ya Neck" – "Local Honey"
When I was the Denver/Boulder editor of The Onion A.V. Club, I interviewed Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan and went to go see their show at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver. While there, I tried to find a place to stand where I wouldn't get moshed to death, and settled on a balcony overview. I chatted with a lady with a Wu-Tang tang tattoo on her shoulder before the show—she seemed perfectly reasonable. But when the concert started, she relentlessly slammed into me until my teeth were rattling. I gave this experience to my character Gwen in this story.
Lil' Kim, Angie Martinez, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, Da Brat & Missy Elliott, "Not Tonight" - "Signing for Linemen"
When I hear people fussing about something Cardi B or Megan Thee Stallion did or said, I always wonder if anyone remembers Lil' Kim. This track features an all-star crew of lady rappers. The story "Signing for Linemen" was inspired by the summer I spent tutoring college football players. They started calling me Ginuwine Jen. In this story, my character is a petite medieval literature student named Kim, so the football players call her Lil' Kim.
Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock, "It Takes Two" - "Community Relations"
I spent a summer as an intern for the Colorado Rockies Baseball Club, performing many of the tasks I describe the character Ada doing. I chose this song because it's commonly played at Major League Baseball parks after the home team turns a double play. As a bonus, this song takes me back to middle school, which I attended during the heyday of "It Takes Two." The girls in the locker room after gym class would recreate the rhythm from this song by pounding their fists on the lockers, and scream "woo yeah," like the James Brown and Bobby Byrd samples in "It Takes Two."
"Family Affair" by Mary J. Blige - "Every Happy Family"
This story, about a family gathering to eat themselves silly during Thanksgiving, goes well with a nice side of Mary J. Blige. "Every Happy Family" is about family members leaving their problems and their independent everyday identities behind as they come together as a clan—or to paraphrase Mary J., leaving their situations at the door. Also, there is no finer moment in the history of music videos than when Mary J. Blige rolls her eyes and dismisses the slick dude trying to holler at her about two minutes in.
"3005" by Childish Gambino – "The Sit-In"
In this story, a mother of a son with disabilities goes to her senator's office to join a protest against a repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act. She discovers that all her fellow protestors have converged on the senator's Denver office instead of spreading out to all of them as originally planned, and she finds herself staging a one-woman sit-in at the Ft. Collins office. I believe this song by Childish Gambino crystallizes the fierce love felt by mothers for their disabled children. Fighting for the rights of a disabled child means you're bound to piss people off as you demand your child be treated with respect and given the accommodations they are legally entitled to. Family and friends often desert you as you make the necessary adjustments to your life. But that's okay, because as Childish says, "No matter what you say or what you do/ When I'm alone I'd rather be with you./ Fuck these other [people], I'll be right by your side/ 'till 3005."
Jenny Shank's novel The Ringer won the High Plains Book Award. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times and McSweeney's. Her work has been honorably mentioned by Best American Essays, the Pushcart Prize, and her mother. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.