For a dozen or so lean but happy years--from 1980 into the early 1990s--I was a regular book reviewer. I could try to fancy that title up, and call myself a book editor (which I was, for the Spectator in Raleigh) or book critic (which I guess I was, for WUNC-FM in Chapel Hill); but, in fact, I was just a reviewer, reading and writing about books on a pretty-much weekly basis, which seemed like a wonderful fate for a former English major. Early on, though, I had the panicky realization that I couldn't keep up with all the new books I wanted to: I had to be selective, to focus my reviewing attention somehow. And that's when the literary gods smiled on me, because I was lucky enough to be living in a place--North Carolina in general, the writer-rich Triangle in particular--that was beginning to explode with first-rate literature, fiction and poetry that needed somebody local to pay some attention to it. As a native Tar Heel and young writer myself, I was delighted to do~ so.
Once~ I thought I had discovered my specialty as a reviewer, I had my second uneasy insight: this new wave of North Carolina writers was so prolific, there was no way I could keep up with all the books they were producing. It was like trying to jot notes during an avalanche or tsunami, or (in Tar Heel weather terms) a hurricane or tornado, a truly overwhelming outpouring of novels and short stories and poems and nonfiction. I've heard this period described as "North Carolina's literary renaissance," but really that term seems too mildly Latinate for such a cloudburst, such a flash flood, such a landscape-altering surge of contemporary writing.
The fiction-writers led the way, of course. From Thomas Wolfe and O.~Henry on, North Carolina's best-known authors have written novels and short stories, and that tradition continued in the 1980s, with well-established authors like Reynolds Price and Doris Betts and Fred Chappell as well as newcomers like Clyde Edgerton, Kaye Gibbons, and Jill McCorkle--the latter three all published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a significant force in the outburst. Many of those writers were anthologized in The Rough Road Home: Stories by North Carolina Writers (University of North Carolina Press, 1992), a volume which confirmed that something very substantial indeed was going on in our literary state. But valuable as that book was, the Tar Heel fiction scene was so vigorous that editor Robert Gingher couldn't possibly cover it all, even with 22 stories: due to space restraints and other factors, he had to exclude a number of fine authors. And North Carolina short story writers continued to flourish during the rest of the 1990s, so much so that--already--another anthology is called for.
However, This Is Where We Live: Short Stories by 25 Contemporary North Carolina Writers is not a sequel to The Rough Road Home: among other things, it presents its contents in a completely different manner from the previous volume. Even so, given that both are published by the same press, and that both focus on recent North Carolina writers, I chose not to include works by any authors from the previous book in This Is Where We Live, so that I could present an even more inclusive range of our state's contemporary short fiction. It's a testimony to the scope and scale of the ongoing North Carolina literary eruption that I could exclude a dozen or more well-known Rough Road authors--like Lee Smith, Allan Gurganus, Robert Morgan, and Randall Kenan, who have continued to write and publish short stories in recent years--and still gather so many excellent story-writers into this new anthology.
The book's descriptive subtitle reflects further attempts to narrow the fictional field and to clarify the guidelines under which work was considered for this volume:
"Short Stories." The story must be a short story, deliberately written in that distinctive literary form. No novel excerpts or other fictionesque varieties of prose, however interesting or entertaining, were considered: there was simply no need for such genre compromising, given the wide range of good new short stories out there.
"Contemporary." The story must have been published, in a book or magazine or journal, during the past fifteen years--a particularly rich time for short stories, as suggested by the success of Shannon Ravenel's annual New Stories from the South, first published by Algonquin in 1986. This anthology contains no unpublished stories, and nothing published before 1985. During the past fifteen years, each of these authors must have published at least one book of fiction, whether a novel or a collection of short stories.
"North Carolina Writers." Each of these authors is a North Carolina writer, by which I mean someone who has spent a lifetime here, someone who was born and raised here before leaving, or someone who has moved here and stayed for a significant time. I call these "North Carolina short stories" because their authors are North Carolinians, not because the stories are fictional interpretations of "characteristics and features of life in North Carolina," which was Richard Walser's approach in his groundbreaking anthologies North Carolina in the Short Story (1948) and Short Stories from the Old North State (1959). However, a number of the stories are specifically set in our state, and most of the others are set in a very North Carolina--like place.
Within these three guidelines, I considered everything, reading hundreds of published short stories by dozens of living writers from the past decade and a half. The 25 stories presented in this volume were, to me, the best of the batch, the liveliest and most representative sampling I could make. In the end, my basic concerns were: which of an author's stories seemed the strongest? which had the most memorably distinctive characters, or storyline, or style? which had the power to grab me upon first reading, and again, and again, and not let me go? which had the sizzle, the charge, the surprising energy of originality? which made me laugh, or nod in agreement, or shiver at its sheer rightness? which, finally, satisfied me most?
Having picked these favorites, I arranged them in an order that was partly intuitive, partly deliberate. I hoped to juxtapose stories that had some sort of link in setting or situation, in tone or theme or other characteristic. I tried to make larger groupings or sequences of stories that brought out their mutual strengths, so that each story could become part of a longer, larger story called This Is Where We Live. I realize that I might have adopted a different arrangement (alphabetical? chronological? geographical?), but this is the one that seemed most pleasing to me. I wish I could have included a number of other recent North Carolina fiction-writers, some of whom had published only novels, some of whom had published novel excerpts but not short stories, some of whom had actually published short stories that I just couldn't fit into this book: to all of them, my sincere apologies. I hope the variety of stories in this anthology--some rather long, some very short; some set well in the past, some utterly contemporary; some patient as novels, some quick and intense as poems; some hilarious, some disturbing, some both--gives as much pleasure in the reading as it gave in the choosing.
The main title of this book, This Is Where We Live, is adapted from a sentence early in Tony Earley's "The Prophet from Jupiter," where the troubled narrator--a mountain damkeeper--suddenly says: "This is where I live and this is what I think: a dam is an unnatural thing, like a diaphragm." That sentence has haunted me since I first read it, and (with the pronoun pluralized) it seems to suit this anthology as a title, for a number of different "we"s. Obviously, for the characters in these stories, this is where they live, in the written words on the page. The same could also be said for the authors: this is where they live, where they are most alive as creators, in the stories they have painstakingly made and then shared with us. In general, the same could be said for the readers of these stories: this is where they live, imaginatively speaking, in this fiction that quickens them in the reading and makes them part of the unfolding story. And finally, in particular, the same could be said for any Tar Heel reading these North Carolina stories: this is where we live, in these stories populated with characters like us or like others we know, doing familiar things in familiar places. And yet these writers have taken the raw material of North Carolina life around or within us and converted it into art, shaping it into stories that embody a sort of truth about our complicated past and unsettled present and uncertain future. Where we live now, in turn-of-the-century and turn-of-the-millennium North Carolina, is not where we lived before, as citizens or writers: it's a profoundly changed and profoundly changing world. This fiction is where we really live, in a world of words that articulates--perhaps better than we ourselves ever can--what we think, and what we feel, and what we really are.