It's hard to know where to begin to catalog the literary achievements of Elizabeth Spencer. In a career than spans more than 60 years, the Mississippi native has published nine novels, seven story collections, a memoir and a play. Her work has garnered critical acclaim and a passel of honors and awards, including the prestigious PEN/Malamud Award in 2007. At age 88, she still pursues the art to which she has contributed so much. One of her stories is included in the 2010 edition of New Stories from the South, Algonquin's yearly anthology of notable short fiction by Southern authors.
Spencer's personal and literary roots are as deeply Southern as they could be. She was born and raised in Carrollton, Miss. As an undergraduate at Belhaven College in Jackson she developed an enduring friendship with Eudora Welty. In 1942, Spencer began graduate work at Vanderbilt, where she was a student of Fugitive poet Donald Davidson and came to know Allen Tate. Her graceful memoir, Landscapes of the Heart, contains a lively account of her Nashville years, which included a stint as a reporter for the Tennessean and a teaching job at Ward-Belmont College, a former school for women on the site of the current Belmont University.
Much of Spencer's work is set in the South, including The Voice at the Back Door, a widely praised 1956 novel about racial tensions in small-town Mississippi. But despite her reputation as a Southern writer, Spencer actually spent much of her adult life outside the United States, living for many years in Italy and Canada, countries that have also served as locales for her fiction. Florence provides the setting for her most famous work, The Light in the Piazza, a poignant tale about an American woman who finds unforeseen possibilities for her handicapped daughter in the exotic atmosphere of Italy. First appearing as a story in The New Yorker, The Light in the Piazza was later published as a novella and became a finalist for the National Book Award in 1961. (Other finalists that year included Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and John Updike's Rabbit, Run.) Olivia de Havilland starred in a Hollywood adaptation of the story, and a 2005 musical version won six Tony awards.
In 1986, Spencer accepted a teaching appointment at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where she still lives. A documentary on her life and work, Landscapes of the Heart: The Elizabeth Spencer Story, directed by Kevin McCarthy, will appear later this year. During a phone conversation from her home in Chapel Hill, she discussed her work, success and her time in Nashville.
You're often called a master of the short story, and I wonder if you feel that mastery when you write. Do you approach the blank page in a different way now than when you started?
Oh, I must, I guess. I realize it's always hard. You're talking about me as a short-story writer, though I started out as a novelist, and my last novel was published in, I think, '91. So I continue to think of myself as a novelist; it's just that my short stories seem to have hit more people as my most successful form. But I've written nine novels, after all. I wish people would pay attention to those. Anyway, I'm grateful for any attention.
You mention on your website that you have a novel in progress.
I've been trying to finish this novel for years. I may just finally give it up. I think of starting others and trying to finish them, too. I like the short novel form very much. The Light in the Piazza was a short novel. It was [first] published as a long story in The New Yorker, and [then] published separately. I don't know much difference between a long story and a novella, but it was meant to be a novella. That' s a very good form, I think, because it's in between the two forms. Some awfully good things have been written that way.
You've said you felt The Salt Line was one of your most successful novels.
I do feel that. It sold pretty well. It was in the Penguin Series of Contemporary Literature and it's still in print. That's pleasing for me. It was laid on the Gulf Coast as a result of Hurricane Camille, but, my Lord, the Gulf Coast has been through such a beating after that, probably it doesn't seem that that was so remarkable. After that they had Katrina and now they've got this stupid oil spill. [The novel] doesn't address itself just to the aftermath of a hurricane. It's about people after a disaster trying to rebuild their lives, and disasters have affected, in the past, all the major characters. I think it's a good story and I enjoyed doing it. I thought it was fairly successful.
I wonder exactly what that means to you as a writer. Why do you feel that something's successful or not?
Well, it's that I enjoyed doing it and feel that I'm really gaining a hold on things in general when I'm doing it. Then when I finish it I think, well, I didn't do badly with that. I feel a sense of accomplishment about it. I suppose all my novels at one time or another I felt that way about, or I wouldn't have done them. But that one sort of lingers in my mind. Mainly, I guess, it's because I always loved the Gulf coast. I was brought up in Mississippi, but going down there and being there as many times as I have, I have real affection for it, and I'm sorry to think it's lost forever.
Do you feel that connection with Tennessee at all?
I worked on the Tennesseean for a year. I went to school at Vanderbilt. I just feel that Nashville is one of my basic places.
In your memoir you give a wonderful description of Nashville during the years you lived there.
I enjoyed doing that. They're doing a voice recording of me reading Landscapes of the Heart, and I just read that [section] aloud the other day for the recording.
You write that there was a certain conventional wisdom that you were supposed to subscribe to, about who was worth reading and who wasn't.
Oh, yeah, well that spread at Vanderbilt, but the source of that, oddly enough, seems to have been T.S. Eliot. Some of our group did know him, but on the whole it was mainly Allen Tate who had a real association with T.S. Eliot. Eliot's word went out everywhere. You weren't supposed to like Milton, for instance. This was ridiculous, but people listened to it and obeyed it in a certain sense. People were awestruck by his authority in literary matters, and he spoke with great authority. I think he was a good influence on the whole.
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