Katie Jean Shinkle and Steven Dunn

On Writing a Novel Together, Challenging Dominant Narratives of Otherness With Pure Joy, and How Writing Is Informed by Place

Cover of Katie Jean Shinkle and Steven Dunn: On Writing a Novel Together, Challenging Dominant Narratives of Otherness With Pure Joy, and How Writing Is Informed by Place

I must have met Steven Dunn and Katie Jean Shinkle somewhat around the same time, a year or two into my first foray into the writing world. All three of us lived in Denver; Katie Jean was completing her doctorate at Denver University and in 2015 I started a meager literary magazine with poet Catch Breath (fka Catch Business) and we held the launch party, the very first reading I ever hosted, and invited Katie Jeanto read. 

I was in awe of her. The Arson People (CCM, 2015; reprinted by Dance in 2019) was as big to my baby writer self as any New York Times bestseller. The way she rendered longing in the land of small town life was a brisk break away from the mainstream fiction I’d been reading most my life; it was everything I needed. As a point of admiration, she was so important to me I misremembered her as the headliner at that reading— she reminds me in our conversation she wasn’t. I say this because it demonstrates the impact independent literature can have: as an author, it is easy to discount the validity of ones’ work if you haven’t gotten “the big book deal”— but to someone, anyone, a small press author absolutely has the capacity to rearrange a reader’s whole worldview, to make a difference.

A year later, Steven Dunn’s novella, Potted Meat (Tarpaulin Sky, 2016), also cut me open. Again, this was a coming-of-age-narrative that was deeply similar to experiences I’d had; the novella follows a a young boy in rural West Virginia struggling with poverty, substance abuse, racism, and trying to come to terms with his place in the world. Facebook says we became friends around the time Potted Meat was released, and though I can’t remember the exact inception of our friendship, he was a deeply supportive part of the Denver scene that back then felt so new to me. And Potted Meat had legs! With excerpts in Granta and Columbia Journal and becoming a finalist in the Colorado Book Awards, then in 2019, being adapted into a film, The Usual Route. What I learned from Steven was you really could put your whole heart into something and see it succeed. 

Tannery Bay (Fiction Collective 2, 2024) is the first novel Steven has published since water & power (Tarpaulin Sky, 2018).Katie Jean most recently published None of This is An Invitation (Astrophil Press, 2023) with Jessica Alexander. Katie Jean and Steven collaborating on this novel, a story that takes place in a world of unending Julys, is a phosphorescent blueprint for literary friendship. The novel deliberately explores queer and Black joy within a community coming together to get justice for town artist Auntie Anita from the overpowered and highly privileged group of Owners, who’ve devised an insidious plan to exploit not just Auntie Anita’s art but leave the townspeople destitute in the process. The characters tell each other they are worthy of respect, like when Joy speaks to Willie Earl about meeting the Owners for the first time: 

“They gonna try to call you Mr. Townsend like they did in the letter, but fuck that, I want you to say, ‘You may refer to me as William Earl Townsend III,’ make them hoes say your whole goddamn name.”

And when Auntie Anita finds out the plan that Willie Earl and the others are hatching, she reminds them: 

“Ya’ll better pay everybody involved, and pay ‘em good, don’t be skimping on my account. Secondly, I make shit when and where I want, like I been doing my whole life, and ain’t no silly-ass men gonna stop me.” 

It’s creeping up on a decade since meeting these two powerhouse writers, who, the way Tannery Bay demonstrates, so obviously respect and innately understand each others’ work. What I love about the independent lit community is the ways we grow alongside each other—Katie Jean moved away from Denver (as did I) and so many life changes have occurred for all of us. This initial conversation was two hours, just catching up on life and art, and could have gone on longer. Friendships like these bolster the literary community, make it worth being a part of. Like the townspeople in Tannery Bay, we may be artists, sure, but we’re also people, we all have work to do, and it’s important to remain tender because we’re all struggling and loving and living just the same. 

The conversation took place over Zoom and has been edited for length.


Elle Nash: Tannery Bay was inspired, in part, by the Morecambe Bay incident. How did you both, as collaborators, come to the concept of the book?

Steven Dunn: I found out about the story from when I was doing the study abroad in Lancaster. I was just like, oh, that looks like a cool place to go to. My roommate was like, Morecambe Bay is haunted and she told me this story. I think it would’ve felt haunted even if she didn’t tell me that. When I went there, the place was weird. It was in the fall, in the off season. And Katie Jean grew up on a bay. While we were writing, she set the novel on the bay, and it reminded me of this haunted place that I’d been obsessed with since 2013.

Katie Jean Shinkle: Like Steven said, all these connections started organically manifesting. And Steven was like, hey, what about this thing that I’ve always been obsessed with, but I haven’t had any room for  in any of my books? I was like, yes, let’s try. We both independently did our research. He had been to this place, but we had to refresh what exactly happened, how many people were involved, those kinds of things. It ended up becoming a major conflict of the book. I hope we did it justice; that’s all we wanted.

EN: The novel layers in the stories of the workers in the town, a ghost story, and the themes of love and intimacy so well. Did you both start writing this organically or did you plan and plot it as you did it?

KJS: We did not have a plot outline. We went chapter by chapter or section by section, depending. In 2019, we decided we were going to start writing this beginning January 1st and write through all of 2020. Of course, we had no idea what was gonna happen in 2020, but we wrote through the whole year, which is miraculous. One person would write, then the other person would read what that person wrote, and write. We would check in a lot about what was going on and if we wanted to stay the course with a certain aspect that came up or if we wanted to follow it through. It took another year to edit it. What do you think, Steven? We started storyboarding and moving things around a lot more.

SD: Maybe fifty or sixty pages in, we were like, oh, we have these little threads coming up, let’s keep going with this idea.

EN: The narrative element becomes almost a character in and of itself. What was it that made you want to tell it that way? Specifically the idea with it being July forever, the way each chapter opens similarly. 

SD: I was like, I don’t really have an imagination. I just write my life over and over [laughs]. And Katie Jean started doing these weird things and it gave me the freedom to go along with that. So I think it was Katie Jean’s mind and writing. I followed that for me. 

KJS: See, this is what’s hard, right? I’m sure you also have this issue. We write these books and in the process we publish them years later and then it’s like, I don’t know how that happened. It’s magic how this book happened. There are parts where I’m like, who wrote the Julys first? I dunno. Maybe I did. Maybe Steven did. Why did it keep going? I don’t know. It’s doing our own very contemporary weirdo thing. But that’s what the magic was for me. I want to ask you the same question that you asked us about plot and layering, because I think our books are very much in conversation with each other. If we had a spectrum, I think it would be like we’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. For Tannery Bay, our goal was to really capture a lot of light and joy in adversity. I think your goal was to capture some serious darkness, in similar ways, writing about working class people.

EN: It’s so funny you say that because I like to ask these questions of people in my interviews, but when I sit here thinking about starting this next book, I’m like, I really don’t know how I did the last one. It just happened. 

I was living in Arkansas at the time and felt people just didn’t understand what life is like out here. It doesn’t have to be all bleak, all the time, which is why I love Tannery Bay so much. I wanted to show what life is like for people who do manual labor and highlight certain aspects of rural life. Whimsy isn’t the right word for your novel, but celebrating the joy and the light moments is so important. During certain parts of the writing I was also doing method acting exercises to get me to certain places. Do either of you have processes for when you’re sitting down and nothing comes to you?

SD: I wanted to ask you about the labor aspect of it because you did something that I wish I would’ve done more. You showed the small physical results of that labor. Like when [your main character] can’t open or hold the jar of stuff. Can you talk about how you did that? Or is that a result of your method acting?

EN: It was just a result of knowing people who worked in labor for a long time, having friends that live in poverty and have chronic illnesses and they’re not able to get access to medical support. You just kind of live with, put up with, the things that your body puts on you from this work. 

SD: It made me cry because my grandfather worked on the railroads doing maintenance, and my uncles in the coal mines and I saw their hands over the years get messed up. It just reminded me of all of these people in my community, their hands, black lung, and it’s a lot of Black people in these factories where I am [from]. It’s just sad as shit. So I like how that translated over, seeing it in your book, too, and seeing it in my world growing up.

EN: Did you both come together specifically to write something that had these uplifting and like tender moments?

KJS: This is partially an experiment in writing from another subject positioning with the person from that subject positioning, right? We centered joy almost immediately because we were having these big discussions about our communities and our identities, and asked each other what were the things that we don’t wanna see in this? We talked about death a lot. I didn’t want any of the characters to die. Those narratives are super important. I don’t bemoan those narratives, but those are also a very dominant narrative. When straight people write gay people, they kill them like all the time; it is a trope of straight writers—they take on that subject positioning and they don’t understand the depth of the history and the culture and why that’s so harmful. So part of those conversations were like, we’re gonna show the joy in both the gay community and the Black community. That is not to say that we weren’t going to create a community that has no conflict or tension or that they aren’t going to band together to face an adversity,but we definitely wanted to showcase that joy.

SD: We were thinking about what we want and what we deserve. We deserve to be happy together and treat each other kindly. So the point was for nobody in that community to treat each other badly. That’s how a lot of the joy and tenderness and softness came about, because of the things we don’t want, that we see ourselves represented in all the time.

KSJ: There are still tensions between characters, especially Joy, who we wrote very intentionally because she has her own tensions with Tannery Bay, she has her own tensions with her family. She has her own tensions with the people around her for her own reasons. Centering joy doesn’t mean that people can’t be and shouldn’t be fully humanized with the whole spectrum of feelings. We wanted to show anger. We wanted to show sadness. We wanted to show sorrow and yearning, but in a way that was not centered in a place of death.

SD: I have another question about landscape since we are both writing about landscape and place. I know you’re not living in Arkansas anymore, but is there something now about Scotland that helps you, that informs your writing? Like something in the landscape or the weather that helps you write?

EN: You know what’s interesting is that, we had a worker strike last summer where all the garbage workers refused to pick up trash for several weeks. The trash literally just piled up like crazy and it was just a very clear message: this is what these workers do, they keep your streets clean so you can be safe from disease and filth. There’s a roughness to the city that exists, and working class history to it. It is also cold—but at the same time, there is so much greenery and life as well. But particularly the working class history here has made me feel inspired and want to keep telling those stories. When I walk around I do just feel like I’m home in a way. Can you talk a little bit too about how your own sense of place and your own history helped inform you as you were writing Tannery Bay?

SD: I think consciously and unconsciously we were writing from what we love. We both loved the landscape in each other’s books prior to that. I was hoping that the land in Katie Jean’s landscapes would also show up in this book [laughs] and it did. And she liked the West Virginia landscape. So we just straight up mixed our two landscapes up that we love, from West Virginia and Michigan. And on the social level of place, not just the physical landscape but the people that live in small towns, the Cora Mae character is based on when I was like six years old and my little sister was born; everybody had her in the town. Like she was the town’s baby. 

KJS: And we were both actually writing from the other person’s place because we know it so well. We didn’t even know until halfway through when we had a conversation where I said, “I’m writing the hollers of West Virginia.” I’ve never even been to West Virginia, but I feel like I know it from reading Steven and writers like Scott McClanahan, other writers who explore place a lot. And Steven was like, “Well I’m writing from a small town in Michigan with Lake Michigan right next to it.” I couldn’t believe it. We were both entering into the others’ real lived environment and space that they love, but also the spaces of our books. That’s how well we know each other’s books and how well we know each other.

SD: We got lucky with that. Even writing styles, we were doing it. At some points I was like, I’m writing this like how Katie Jean would write it, and she was like, I’m writing this how Steven would write it. We admitted it to each other only after a little while. 

EN: How long have you been friends and how did your literary or otherwise normal human-ass friendship start?

KJS: Steven and I both went to Denver University. I was a PhD student and Steven was an undergrad and he was an intern at Denver Quarterly when I was the associate editor. That was when we met and I was having a particularly hard moment in my life. I think we could have started being friends then, but I was like, oh, I have to just have a bunch of boundaries around my energy and time because I just feel like I’m a mess. I was just a mess. It wasn’t until maybe my last year of PhD school that we finally were connecting and able to be friends. I totally associate that with myself because it was all me. I just couldn’t.

SD: Yeah, I asked you to do a reading when my book was coming out and that’s how we became friends. We went up to Longmont to do a reading.

KJS: So that’s how the real friendship began. But then I moved away and we stayed in really close contact and our books came out and we were reading each other’s books from long distances and having all sorts of conversations. Then the writing relationship started. So it progressed slowly over time.

EN: Would you visit each other’s books when you were writing to look through and think about the other person’s language?

KJS: Oh, I never did [laughs].

SD: I didn’t do that either.

KJS: I never thought of it, but also I feel like I like had the writer right there, which is such a gift and a treat. I just didn’t need to go into those books.

SD: That’s funny [laughs]. I didn’t even think about [reading Katie Jean’s books].



Steven Dunn is a 2021 Whiting Award winner and the author of Potted Meat and water & power. He was born and raised in West Virginia and teaches in the MFA programs at Regis University and Stetson University.

Katie Jean Shinkle is the author of five books of prose, most recently None of This Is an Invitation. A Lambda Literary fellow, she serves as co-poetry editor of DIAGRAM and teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing program at Sam Houston State University.

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