After graduating from Hollins in 1960 and working for the next 11 years in the editorial department at Houghton Mifflin, Ravenel moved on to other ventures in publishing. In 1977, she returned to Houghton to edit one of their most successful and well-respected publications, the anthology Best American Short Stories.
In 1982 Rubin invited her to help form a new venture that would become Algonquin Books. Although it wasn't easy, they were convinced that forming a small, accessible publishing house that concentrated on bringing out quality books, and locating it in Chapel Hill, was a great idea.
Having honed her editing skills shepherding Best Stories to print, Ravenel worked doggedly to establish Algonquin's initial publications. In 1986, she created and began editing Algonquin's now popular and eclectic New Stories from the South. During her 20-year tenure, Ravenel read as many as 2,500 stories a year, eventually narrowing the list down to 120, from which she would select 20 to be published. From 1990 on Ravenel invited established writers to compose the prefaces for each volume.
When Ravenel was planning the first edition of New Stories from the South, she had to try to define "Southern fiction," something she and the guest writers have struggled with over the years. She remembers with good humor one reviewer's comment: "I always look forward to Ravenel's preface to see if she's figured out how to define 'South.' She hasn't." I asked her about those initial efforts and the process she's gone through as she's shaped the anthology over the years.
Shannon Ravenel: Everything is different now with everybody moving around so much. When I started writing the introductions to these books in 1986, I first thought I'd only use stories of writers who were born or lived in the South. Well, that was ridiculous, because they were all over the place. Some of the best stories about the South have been written by writers who aren't from the South. So I decided the stories have to be set in the South, and that's the only initial criteria.
Independent: In your estimation, how have the definitions of what makes a story "Southern" changed over the past 20 years?
I'm not sure how others might answer this question, but for me, the most obvious change in Southern short fiction over the years is its reflection of the South's increasing diversity. No longer is Southern America just black and white. Now there are many, many foreign cultures represented, and our book, emphasizing as it does, the new Southern setting, charts this. Examples from some of our volumes include "Relic" by Robert Olen Butler (about Vietnamese on the Gulf Coast), "I Am Not Like Nunez" by Jane Shippen (one of many stories about newly arrived Hispanics in the South) and "Cool Wedding" by Latha Viswanathan (about east Indians in Texas). As fiction does, contemporary Southern fiction tells what it knows.
You've said that in the process of selecting stories you narrowed your lists to ones you liked and ones you didn't. Is there something, an instinct or an idea, in your mind that says, "These are the traits I'm looking for in a story?"
The one thing I can tell you that would keep me from picking a story is that it wouldn't end. I think I have a pretty sure criterion about the denouement. Originality is paramount, and that was one thing I looked for in the stories I read. I felt that when I was doing my own volumes [before guest editors began to help in 1990] I always owed it to the readers to give them a good range -- And sometimes I'd choose stories that I¹d know were very good even though I didn't like them that much because I think I wanted to appeal to many tastes.
If you had to choose three or four stories over the years that stand out in your mind, what would they be?
Well, Larry Brown's "Facing the Music" (1988), because he can look at the most painful things and not blink; Abraham Verghese's "Lilacs" (1992), which is the story of a doctor in Boston who treats gay men infected with the AIDS virus, because it is a compassionate, exquisitely written story that I'll never forget. I put it in even though it is set in Boston because I liked it so much. And Robert Olen Butler's "Relic" (1991), which is a story about a Vietnamese man in Texas who's bought a shoe he's convinced belongs to John Lennon. I just thought that the combination of the place, the person and the situation was just brilliant.
After all these years cultivating this remarkable anthology, Ravenel is stepping down with the publication of the 2005 edition and Best of the South: From the Second Decade of New Stories from the South, a companion volume. Ravenel is both pragmatic and forward-thinking in her decision: "You get to be 67 and you think, 'Oh, I should let a few things go.' I really thought that the anthology needed a kick in the ass. We needed to try something different, and it was time for somebody else to take over." (That somebody will be senior editor Kathy Pories, who has worked alongside Ravenel on each edition of New Stories since 1998.)
When asked what she hoped would be her most important legacy after 20 years of editing New Stories from the South, Ravenel responded: "I'd like to think that I shone at least a moderately bright light on a great literary genre: the short story. I'd also hope that I talked enough about the richness of Americas 'little literary magazines' that a few more people actually subscribe to one or two of them."
A celebration of the publication of Best of the South, featuring readings by Jill McCorkle, Thomas McNeely, Pam Durban and Lee Smith accompanied by Sugar Hill Records musician Scott Miller, will take place on Friday, Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. at The Pour House, 224 S. Blount St., Raleigh. 828-1588. Free.