A writer/editor emcees an anthology of stories about wrongdoings
Consider the short story anthology editor, who, depending on genre or circumstance, is a cartoon Crypt Keeper presenting the fantastic, or David Eggers pulling modern, short-form fiction back into relevance with his McSweeney’s periodicals. As a writer (and teacher) of fiction, Luanne Smith trends toward the Eggers model. “I think the real key to being a good editor is to be an avid reader,” she says. “But as a writer myself, I know the rhythm of a short story…the action and the heart of character-driven stories.”
With Texas-based Madville Publishing, she has created a trilogy of themed compilations. In 2020 there appeared Runaway, co-edited with Lee Zacharias and Michael Gills, that included fictional pieces exploring the notion of running away, metaphorically or literally. For 2021, Smith completed Taboos and Transgressions. A third, Muddy Backroads, is due in 2022.
Fresh as well as familiar authors—Joyce Carol Oates, most notably—are represented in Taboos and Transgressions. “I wanted stories that offered variety yet were artistic and had…three things: rise and fall, strong characterization, and a rhythm to them,” explains Smith. “I don’t know if I would have paid attention to those elements of storytelling if I weren’t so attuned to them myself because of my own writing.”
Kirkus Reviews calls the result “a fine and varied collection that gives eloquent voice to the unsayable.”
Smith describes her upbringing as “blue collar” in Paducah, Kentucky. “I attended community college for two years because that was the only way I could afford to go to college….I was fortunate…to get a transfer scholarship to the University of Kentucky…to cover my tuition for my final two years of school. Plus, going to [UK] meant I got to go to Rupp Arena and watch basketball in person—a Kentucky girl’s dream.”
A turning point in her growth, Smith says, was enrolling in Kentucky’s Murray State University for a master’s degree (a precursor to her MFA from Penn State) and attending Ken Smith’s fiction workshop. “It changed my life. I started publishing within a year of taking Ken’s workshop, and I also had a teaching assistantship. No more fast-food jobs.”
Her experience ultimately led to a 30-year tenure teaching literature at West Chester University outside Philadelphia, where she created the Luanne and Roger Smith Endowment (named in honor of her late brother) for live readings.
Of particular inspiration to her were the regular New Stories from the South collections. “I can relate to the stories and the writers. Aside from that, the series is a good mix of Southern voices. Taboos and Transgressions has a theme, but it also needed variety within the contents. The New Stories From the South series also had a focus…by homing in on a region. I learned from the way the editors still produced a diverse and interesting book each year.”
She began her relationship with Madville via contributing to their maiden poetry showcase, By the Light of a Neon Moon (2019). “The anthology focuses on poems of going ‘honky-tonking,’ and that’s right up my alley!”
Smith proposed what would end up becoming Runaway, Taboos and Transgressions, and Muddy Backroads. “I had ideas for anthologies, and I needed a publisher open to a down-and-dirty side of life….I abide by the old adage, ‘Write what you want to read,’ and I like stories of characters who aren’t necessarily behaving themselves or who go their own way, whether the results are good or bad.”
She and her co-editors finalized the themes, solicited material from specific authors, and sometimes held open calls for entries “to try to create a mix of new work by noted writers and work by emerging writers. I hoped the noted writers would draw readers to the emerging writers’ stories.”
Taboos and Transgressions’ 24 pieces include the aforementioned Joyce Carol Oates, whose story “Gargoyle” is a bitter but nonstandard take on infidelity; Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “The Alcoholic Alphabet,” an abecedarium of drinking lore; and Walter Evans’ rueful boyhood reminiscence “What Seems Fun or Nice,” about brutal community punishment for a man the naïve narrator only knew as a kindly, humane uncle. “We aren’t supposed to feel badly for someone like him. I loved that aspect of that story,” says Smith.
Compared with Runaway, Smith’s curating of Taboos and Transgressions had its own challenges and joys. “It was more difficult because we had far more submissions sent in to read and choose from, so narrowing our choices was not as easy as it was with Runaway. [Yet] it was easier because I had a better sense of how to build a book.”
And Runaway held some melancholy. “About the time we were making our final decisions, my mother passed away unexpectedly; then 19 days later, my brother had a heart attack and died as well. My co-editors Michael Gills and Lee Zacharias had to pick up the slack while I was in shock and trying to cope with these losses. To be honest, the process of putting Runaway together is all a bit of a blur now. So Taboos was easier for me because I could focus fully on it.”
With Muddy Backroads publishing in 2022, Smith, now retired from teaching, has moved to Florida with her husband and anticipates working on long-deferred projects, including an anthology on “bad-ass women” as well as her own short story compilations and an incipient novel. “I’m attending two writers’ conferences in the next few months and really focusing more on my own writing, finally. It’s time.”
Charles Cassady Jr. is an Ohio-based author and critic who always tries to behave.