“There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste. We were all dangerous characters then.” 

So begins the short story “Greasy Lake” by T.C. Boyle. The story is inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s “Spirit in the Night,” a dark homage to nights out making mischief and exploring just how far away from polite society one can get. The theme of straying from the expected and moving away from societal norms is evident in “Greasy Lake” and served as the central muse for Luanne Smith, Jodi Angel, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s newest anthology, Muddy Back Roads.

“The genius of that story is the setting,” explains Smith, “Boyle takes us on a quick car ride early in the story, and this ride takes us away from civilization to this place where anything can happen. That’s what captured my imagination.” 

Boyle, considered by some to be a “bad boy of fiction,” explores themes of a rebellious spirit squashed by harsh realities in “Greasy Lake.” The story centers around three young men who head out looking for trouble, finding more than they bargained for, and is set around the murkiness of Vietnam-era America. The polluted lake with hidden horrors on its banks mirrors the overall gloom of the time. “Greasy Lake” shows that, sometimes, when we seek to find ourselves, we discover a side of ourselves that was wildly unexpected. 

Smith took the inspiration of the themes explored in “Greasy Lake” and, with her co-editors, collected stories that highlight unexpected situations, characters discovering their true selves amid their wandering, and new ways of thinking. In addition to Boyle’s story, Muddy Back Roads includes stories from writers Dorothy Allison, Elizabeth Bruce, August Tarrier, and Michael Gaspeny, among others. Smith and her co-editor, Bonnie Jo Campbell, received hundreds of submissions, but not all of them embraced the metaphorical meaning of being “off the beaten path.” 

“We got a lot of travel stories submitted for this anthology — as you might expect — but Jodi, Bonnie, and I also have stories with characters who find themselves, whether by choice or not, outside of their comfort zones,” says Smith, “That’s what I hoped for when we came up with the theme.”

In “Greasy Lake,” the narrator finds himself yearning to explore a more delinquent life, only to be violently thrust into the reality that he’s not nearly as much of a rebel as he may have imagined. The anthology expands on this story, showing that the “muddy back roads” don’t always lead us where we think they will. Smith wanted to explore where backroads and alleys take people, muddy or not. 

Smith loves what she considers brave writing and has taken that affinity for daring storytelling and woven that through Muddy Back Roads and other anthologies she has co-edited, Runaway and Taboos & Transgressions: Stories of Wrongdoing. The three collections form a trilogy that celebrates wanderlust, finding one’s place, and coloring outside the proverbial lines. 

“My co-editors and I pulled together anthologies of the kind of stories I like to read,” says Smith, “The stories in all three books are often gritty, and, most importantly, the writers don’t back away from writing the hard stuff. They don’t pull punches.”

Smith is also not afraid to address complex topics. Her other anthologies have tackled taboo subjects and gritty material head-on, and all three collections have created a space for a wide variety of brave voices in literature. 

While teaching creative writing for more than three decades, Smith has learned well that the influence of other writers is essential. For writers just starting to develop their own voice, the influence of more established writers is especially crucial. But, for established writers like Smith, inspiration still has its place. 

“Can it go too far? Yes. If you simply imitate without developing your voice, then there’s nothing new to your work. After teaching for more than 35 years, though, I can tell you that it rarely happens. Most writers develop that unique voice,” Smith says. 

Elevating the voices of writers that she feels hit on important topics and themes in their work is something Smith has enjoyed and excelled at. 

Much like Boyle’s “Greasy Lake” spoke to a generation of wanna-be bad boys, it’s Smith’s intention that the collection of stories in Muddy Back Roads speaks to those who know what it’s like to want to see what else is out there. 

“I had ideas for anthologies, and I needed a publisher open to a down-and-dirty side of life,” says Smith, talking to Kirkus about her publishing her trilogy, “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.” 
Many readers seek to see a bit of themselves in what they read, and with Muddy Back Roads rounding out Smith’s very human trilogy, readers can indulge in relatable stories.

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