Lexington, Virginia • November 16, 2009
When R.T. Smith was growing up, he knew where his policeman father kept the crime-scene photos.
"If you know where the crime-scene photos are in the drawer in your family's house, you're going to look at them," says Smith, W&L's Writer-in-Residence and editor of Shenandoah magazine. "Maybe even especially if you're told not to."
In his new short-story collection, The Calaboose Epistles, Smith gives a voice to the criminal types who fascinated him as a boy. "Almost every story has either somebody who's in jail, somebody who's going to jail or somebody who ought to be in jail." The twist? His characters aren't intentionally bad, they're ordinary citizens caught in situations suddenly beyond their control. From a middle-aged housewife with a Ouija-board habit to a fry cook with authority issues, they're facing the consequences of their bad habits and personal weaknesses.
"The prison fascination in the stories is probably superficial, but the serious fascination behind that is how we lock ourselves into limitations," says Smith. Metaphorically, each character has built his own prison — or calaboose — because he failed to recognize self-destructive behavior. "They make their shackles and then say ‘How did this happen?'" Their poignant, often humorous, stories are missives exposing how they fell so far.
The 19 stories are also linked by a common setting — the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and northern North Carolina. As a student at UNC Charlotte and later Appalachian State University, Smith spent weekends backpacking and fishing in this rugged range, and he infuses the narrative and dialogue with specific, often lyrical, references to local landmarks and indigenous plants and wildlife.
Smith adds an element of fun by dropping his fictional characters into recognizable places, from Hollins University, outside Roanoke, to the Pink Cadillac Diner, in Natural Bridge. "It's an interesting question for any kind of writer," says Smith. "To what degree do you want to stimulate the reader by allowing him or her to recognize things? And to what degree by having them discover things? It's the mixture of recognition and discovery that seems to me to be a real, almost a pulse-like, ingredient that runs through the narrative."
But his neighbors might want to be careful. "Anything that gets down range of me, I pull the trigger on it and see if it's got meat on it later." The story "Flurries" was inspired by a neighbor's free-range ostrich. "He'd frequently come down the road, and I'd find it out of the pen," said Smith. "I just started thinking, maybe what they need is an ostrich wrangler."
Most of the stories grapple with contemporary hot-button issues - from hunting and animal fighting to community involvement and eco-responsibility. Many examine the impact of religion on daily life. "Questions of ultimate spiritual reality are daily questions for me, and I want to write about people who are struggling with them, but not in a theoretical way. They're not philosophers, and they're not ministers."
Smith has written two other volumes of short stories, Faith and Uke Rivers Delivers. He is also the author of more than a dozen poetry collections. Two of these, Messenger and Outlaw Style: Stories, won the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Poetry.
Smith says his poems are more narrative than most poems, while his stories tend to be more lyrical. He's working now "toward some kind of threshold, a liminal place where genre considerations begin to melt away a little bit. I like the idea of genre as background but not as a governing consideration." He's currently wrapping up a book-length poem about the life of Flannery O'Connor.
Published by Iris Press, The Calaboose Epistles is available at the University Bookstore and on Amazon.com.
— by Amy Balfour '89, '93L