Stranger things

Co-authors behind reality-bending novel talk collaboration and camaraderie

'Tannery Bay' cover art (detail). Courtesy: University of Alabama Press

One of the central questions in contemporary literature and art is: “Who can speak for whom?” Can a straight Black man write from the perspective of a queer white woman? Or vice-versa? 

One way to tackle this ethical conundrum is by working as a team, which is what Denver writer Steven Dunn and Texas co-author Katie Jean Shinkle have done with their new book Tannery Bay, out now from the University of Alabama Press.

The reality-bending novel centers on a community trapped in a time loop, held hostage by ruthless elders who exploit its residents. It’s also about Black and queer joy, family, friendship and the power of art and love. Drawing from a deep well of influences ranging from Anita Baker to the Fast & Furious franchise, Tannery Bay blends elements of speculative fiction and magic realism with the fundamentals of storytelling. 

Dunn and Shinkle collaborated as an exercise in writing from other people’s perspectives while speaking from their own worldview. 

“Katie Jean is writing Black characters, and I’m writing queer characters, even though that’s not our lived experiences,” Dunn says. “We’re able to do it because we write with each other. We feel like we’re doing it in an ethical way that’s respectful of another person’s culture and identity.”

Steven Dunn (left) and Katie Jean Shinkle will read from their new novel Tannery Bay on March 9 at Boulder Book Store. Courtesy: Katie Jean Shinkle

‘An overlap of voices’

Writing is often thought of as a lonely pursuit, with the solitary author toiling to complete a manuscript. But Dunn and Shinkle prove it doesn’t have to be that way. 

The pair met at the University of Denver while pursuing degrees in creative writing — Shinkle was pursuing her Ph.D. as Dunn worked on his bachelor’s. Reading one another’s work, they noticed similarities in style. In 2020, they decided to start working on a book together, with the goal of having a first draft done by the end of the year.

“For years, we had been supporting each other’s work, reviewing each other’s books and writing blurbs,” Dunn says. “[We were] having all these conversations about collaboration and frustrations with being represented in certain ways.”

That’s why they decided to blend their styles, worldviews and voices. Pulling off that blending is the real tightrope act. Having two accomplished writers work on a manuscript might seem prone to uneven and stylistically disparate prose, but that’s not the case here. It would take a detective-level reader to suss out who wrote what.

“I know my voice is distinct one way and Katie Jean’s is distinct in one way, so we wanted to keep both those aspects of our writing voices while blending the two,” Dunn says. “We found that having a third-person narrator would be the best way to do that. So we can have an overlap of our voices.”

Tannery Bay tells the story of a community trapped in a time loop, held hostage by ruthless elders who exploit its residents. Courtesy: University of Alabama Press

Summertime sadness

Tannery Bay is structured as an “eternal time loop.” Its characters are trapped in a July with 37 days, and the year is never given. Putting their characters in this constraining narrative device was a way to represent feeling stuck while creating a sense of uncanny weirdness.

“One of our goals with the book was to try to take strange to extremes,” Shinkle says. “That’s just another way of taking this artifice to a strange place.”

Both Shinkle and Dunn confess to hating the month of July. Shinkle lives in a part of Texas where the heat index can hit 115 in the brutal summer months. “It sucks,” Shinkle says. 

The summer heat may be less intense here on the Front Range, but Dunn is similarly not a fan. So it only made sense for the novel’s peculiar purgatory to be set during the scorching season.  

“I get really depressed in summer,” he says. “I’m a winter person. My least favorite month to live in is July. Every year.”

The authors’ mutual disdain for a certain stretch of the calendar isn’t the only building block of their camaraderie. For any writers out there thinking about co-authoring a novel, Dunn advises making sure the friendship is strong beforehand. To that end, the two writers struck a deal before starting the manuscript that would become Tannery Bay

“We made an agreement that if this process threatens our friendship, we will stop doing it,” Dunn says. “We were able to get through a lot of conflicts, a lot of sticky areas — and celebrate thoroughly with each other too — because we kept our friendship first.” 

ON THE PAGE: Tannery Bay talk and book signing with Steven Dunn and Katie Jean Shinkle. 4 p.m. Saturday, March 9, Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St. Tickets here.


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