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“all writing is taken from something known about or experienced as a base”: A Composite Interview with Elizabeth Spencer

Gérald Préher
p. 35-48

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Elizabeth Spencer
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1When I met Elizabeth Spencer on May 4, 2006, I did not know it would be the beginning of a long-lasting friendship. This first meeting, which Ms. Spencer had planned carefully, inviting the renowned scholar Louis D. Rubin along, was one of many. The following interview reflects annual summer visits to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and ongoing exchanges with Ms. Spencer that took place between 2006 and 2019.

***

2Gérald Préher: How did you come to writing in the first place?

3Elizabeth Spencer: I started writing because I loved stories especially those my mother read to me before I learned to write. We were very close, I told her a lot. She started me off on good literature. She had very good tastes. So from the earliest time on, she read to me a great deal. I loved to be read to and she would read good things to me. So that went on for many years like that. I tried telling them in my head and after that, writing them down. At first they were derived from fairy stories and the like.

4GP: So writing is a kind of vocation…

5ES: I really never thought about writing as to whether it was a vocation or not. I saw early on that if I wanted to make a living (my father thought everyone should) I had to make it some other way than counting on writing. Later, with movie sales and increasing public acceptance, I was able to rely on income from writing. Of course, my husband was working also. But often demands from my family to go to see about my aging parents took considerable money and I went back to teaching from time to time in Montreal. So I guess by degrees writing did become a vocation. I think this last book, which you say you like, will be my last. I don’t any longer have the degree of energy and concentration it takes to work through a novel. Short stories take less extended time, but I don’t mean to assemble another volume.

6GP: Starting Over, the book in question, has received a lot of attention so I’m obviously not the only one who has enjoyed it! You must have been busy doing readings and promotion, I’m sure.

7ES: First, the new book received much more attention than I thought possible. I would love for you to see all the glowing reviews. One was a two page article in the New York Review of Books, extolling not just the recent book but all my work. This has been a great surprise. I went to Mississippi in early February [2014] to do some readings. I came back very exhausted and did some readings here, but then had to go to Macon Georgia where I was awarded the Sidney Lanier Prize at Mercer University. About this time I received a telephone call saying I had been given the Rea Award for short fiction. It is awarded by something called the Rea Foundation and has been won by a number of leading writers—Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Richard Ford and others. In fact, Richard Ford recommended me to receive it.

8GP: Could you tell me about the things you enjoy writing about, the sources for your fiction…?

9ES: I obviously like to write about places that attract me especially, the Gulf coast the way it used to be before hurricanes took it away, Italy, favorite sites everywhere. To put characters in places that have no appeal would be a bad step, I think.

10GP: You never reprinted one of your early stories, “Pilgrimage.” It nonetheless announces some of your major themes. Why was it never featured in any of your collections?

11ES: The story you mention was requested after the first novel came out. I wrote it hastily. I thought of myself exclusively as a novelist back then. If you like it, of course I am pleased, but I never thought so much of it.

12GP: I can see why you wrote it at that time and how you somehow used your own Vanderbilt experience there. What I like about it is that the narrator’s return trip does not seem to serve any purpose but it enables him to explore the past as it “opens the doors to the past.” I enjoyed the references to British and Irish writers and the comment on the British accent!

13ES: Your interest in that little story makes me want to re-read it. I was always trying out stories with not much success, but switched to novels.

14GP: Funny to see that now you are considered as one of the finest short story writers in the United States! Your stories are often anthologized—for instance “First Dark,” which is sometimes read as a gothic story. It is much darker than most of your other stories. How did you come to write it?

15ES: “First Dark” did strike many as a Southern Gothic story. I know it has ghostly trappings, plus an old house, and a waiting maiden, and a wicked witch. But I thought the many turns of it resulted in a happy ending. I felt very hopeful in the long run. It was Eudora [Welty]’s favorite—or one of them—of my stories. The story sprang from my memories of a ghost that used to hang out on the roads approaching my home town. I was also in a spell of writing stories suggested by fairy stories and olden tales.

16GP: How do you read Freud’s “The Uncanny”?

17ES: I appreciated your sending the article about the uncanny. My objection to the psychiatric explanation is that it throws all the understanding of the uncanny on some defect of perception in the person who experiences it. It leaves out the possibility that something outside the rational may really be there. So for me it loses a whole area of possibility. But the article itself was very interesting. 

18GP: Talking about uncanny situations, I was wondering what led you to write “Owl”—you told me Joyce Carol Oates took it and I remember Robert Phillips having it in a nice collection of ghost stories.

19ES: “Owl”? I didn’t think it was a ghost story. I was asleep in the guest room because John was snoring and so I went in there to get out of the snores… and I heard an owl in a tree outside the window, it was impressive. They usually don’t come so near. I went to the window and heard it fly away, a big creature with a large wing spread. But that was a saying at home that if you heard an owl call there would be three deaths after that. I remembered the saying about owl calls meaning death. If you hear the owl call close, you have to wait till three people have died before you feel safe. It was an African American superstition. That was what stirred the story. It was huge! I didn’t know owls were that big—had a great wing spread. They have a very strange call. You can hear it for miles they say when they’re off in the woods…

20GP: “Owl” is a nice little story. It made me wonder how you handle length—some of your stories have been called flash fiction (“The Everlasting Light”). How do you know whether a story will be long or short? What makes you decide it will be?

21ES: I didn’t know about flash fiction. Some of the shorter stories were just written by request for something about maybe Christmas—two of them. The “Owl” story I just wanted to write because I like owls. They are mysterious creatures and if one came so close I treasured his appearance. But the couple in the story did not need any longer treatment.

22GP: Many critics see “The Light in the Piazza” as a turning point in your career. It is a much longer work, often defined as a novella or even as a novel. I was wondering about your love story with Italy.

23ES: I went to Italy and was in Florence briefly in 1949, but a few years later having received a Guggenheim Fellowship, I went back to spend a year. I met my future husband while living in Rome and was in Italy not for a brief period but off and on for five years. The story was written after a considerable period among Italians, partly in Florence where I lived as a boarder with an Italian family in order to learn the language.

24GP: Italy appears as a crossroads in your work and career. Can you tell me a little more about it?

25ES: Italy being a crossroads—I suppose that refers especially to Margaret Johnson in “The Light in the Piazza.” She was able to make decisions on her own and go against her husband for apparently the first time. I believe as for myself that going into a different culture as I did on a fellowship in 1953 enabled me to form a more independent character than I would have had had I stayed in Mississippi. The culture there was very demanding of conformity. I look back on all this now and see that Italy was a real turning point.

26GP: The recent musical certainly keeps the original flavor! How did the project develop?

27ES: The Piazza musical occurred simply because a young composer, Adam Guettel, asked to meet me and subsequently offered to option the novella for development as a musical. Others were after it also, but my agent and I decided to give him the option. Some years later it was actually presented first in Seattle, then in Chicago, finally in New York. A movie was made in 1962 and I think both versions were pretty successful in making the story into a different form.

28GP: I mean to study your trilogy and work on how you handle the sense of place in the novels. The Snare, The Salt Line, and the third one… I can’t seem to remember its title right now. Maybe it is the one that is not out yet? 

29ES: I must have mentioned to you the three novels I meant to write which might be thought of as composing a three-part reflection of our times and ways. I’ve only finished The Snare and The Salt Line. The third, called Days of Wonder, I am sorry to say I have never finished satisfactorily. I did finish it once but was not satisfied. However, and more important: You should not take the idea of a trilogy as a starting point for criticism. I only made this up to myself as a framework for proceeding with the novels. I don’t think it is formulated as a theme for understanding the books. I forget exactly what I told you, but it may be I was only confiding, or telling you how I felt in approaching my own work. Perhaps if I can ever get all three of them done, they will show a kind of progression.

30GP: Oh, I see. Exploring the fiction of William Goyen which your friend Robert Phillips has been promoting for some time, I read somewhere that he was your editor for a while. How do you enjoy his works and how was he as an editor?

31ES: The question of William Goyen is somewhat difficult to answer as I did know him as an editor for one book of mine, No Place for an Angel. He was an editor at McGraw-Hill Book Co. but was let out after a few years and went west to be with his wife Doris Roberts, an actress working in movies and TV productions. He contracted a long illness, though we remained in touch from time to time. His book The House of Breath is a very fine novel, I think. Some of the other books are rather too eccentric for me, but he did write one called The Fair Sister which I liked.

32GP: What do you feel about fellow writers? Any thoughts on Flannery O’Connor, for instance?

33ES: I suppose you rank Flannery O’Connor very highly. I don’t like her work at all. I’ve read her stories but I can’t see what she’s trying to do… is she trying to make everybody Roman Catholic? (laughs)

34GP: I doubt it… Walker Percy, in The Thanatos Syndrome, seems to be doing that though.

35ES: Walker Percy? Oh yes, uh uh, I didn’t like that very much. It was a futuristic book, wasn’t it? See I can’t find my way in futuristic books because the writer can’t find his way either. You don’t know what’s going to happen.

36GP: What about Faulkner?

37ES: I had a whole stage of liking everything that Faulkner wrote and then I sort of faded out on some of them.

38GP: So which is your favorite now?

39ES: I don’t know. Light in August, I guess. I think it’s a very fine book. The parts in it are fairly heavy but they balance each other.

40GP: What about Absalom, Absalom!?

41ES: Oh that’s a very complicated book and it’s very long. You know, I rate that very highly but I wouldn’t want to go through it again.

42GP: As I Lay Dying is short… at least.

43ES: Yes, that’s true. But there’s a… I love The Hamlet. I think that’s a wonderful book.

44GP: With Ike and the cow…

45ES: Yes! That’s amazing, isn’t it? (laughs)

46GP: Have you seen the film? … The Long Summer or something?

47ES: Oh, yes, I know. The Long Hot Summer. I saw that but it departed from what Faulkner was trying to do, I thought. I haven’t seen it in ages. I’ve forgotten who was in it…

48GP: Do you remember The Reivers?

49ES: Oh The Reivers, I love yeah, that was fun (laughs). That was so funny. Faulkner has a great sense of humor. “Spotted Horses.” You know that one?

50GP: Yes.

51ES: But I also love “The Bear,” I think that’s a masterpiece. Well, there are so many masterpieces that Faulkner wrote.

52GP: Do you like “A Rose for Emily”?

53ES: Oh well yeah. Everybody would have to like that… it’s very shocking but it’s… of course… it’s well written.

54GP: And “Dry September”?

55ES: Oh yes, that is. All of them are good... I have a book of his short stories over there.

56Oh well… Imagine trying to write fiction if you’re from Mississippi… there you got Eudora [Welty] one hand, and [William] Faulkner on the other. How do you get out?

57GP: You managed pretty well!

58ES: Well I did. I squirmed out somehow, didn’t I?

59GP: Certainly! Talking about other writers, I suddenly remember that you are kin to Stark Young.

60ES: Stark Young, yes, I am told he was a cousin. My grandmother was a Young. One branch of the family settled near Como, Mississippi, another near Carrollton. I was named for her. Stark, whom I met when I was teaching at Ole Miss, very much admired my first novel and helped me get the Guggenheim which took me to Italy.

61He loved Italy and wrote about it. His memoir is The Pavilion—very good. We used to meet in New York and he would take me to lunch. He was a fine talker and perhaps the best drama critic in the U.S. at that time. I think I mention him in my memoir.

62GP: Yes, you do. I wonder now which of your Italian stories you like best.

63ES: Oh I don’t know, I suppose “The Light in the Piazza.” But I thought some passages in No Place for an Angel were good. They were written about Italy. That book was singled out as my best recently and right away they brought it back into print.

64GP: “The Cousins” is another good example.

65ES: Oh yes, I like that story. A lot of people think that’s one of my best stories. I wrote that at the Villa Serbelloni in Italy... You got a little writing shack out in the woods. So I sat there and thought, well, I’d finished the story I thought I would do when I was over there. I finished it but then I thought what can I do next? And I tried to think… the two most important places in my life are the South and Italy so I tried to bring them both together in that story. I think it worked, don’t you?

66GP: I sure do.

67ES: Eudora Welty thought that Jack of Diamonds was my best book.

68GP: It has Canada, Italy and the South—Places certainly are important. New Orleans also. Could you tell me a little bit about the genesis of The Snare and about your connection to that city? I really find this book is one of your best—that’s what Peggy Prenshaw and Michel Bandry often say also.

69ES: Oh, yes, The Snare. I spent a year off from teaching on the Gulf Coast in order to do more writing. At the time I began reading each day in the New Orleans papers about a very strange murder case in which the man supposed to have been murdered reappeared somewhere out west. He was brought back and the case was re-opened. I became curious and eventually went to look at records of the case as it was reported originally. I took voluminous notes but only found a way to get into telling it when I thought of Julia as having a story in herself, one that could enter into such a low element in New Orleans. I’m glad you liked it. New Orleans has a strong French connection and I often thought of Baudelaire when writing the book.

70GP: In this novel and in some of your stories such as “A Christian Education,” religion seems to play a central part. Yet, the way you present it is sometimes confusing…

71ES: The story you mention is misleading in one respect. It really recounts an actual occurrence which could be used as a story or a memory (as in my memoir). However, I leave the impression at the end that I am through with the church, when actually I am a fairly good parishioner and go to services every week. The thing I was speaking of was the little rules such as my parents enforced, about not doing small things on a Sunday, and other such regulations which I think have nothing to do with religion. So the conclusion is misleading. 

72GP: Did you know that Robert Penn Warren also has a story entitled “A Christian Education”? It is very different from your story but it tells a lot about religion in the South—as it should, judging from its title!

73ES: I found the Warren story, which depressed me. Red Warren was a cordial, highly talented, wonderful friend, but he was absolutely contemptuous about religion and distressed me many times with his remarks about it. I really esteemed him, and I didn’t like to see this.

74GP: Sorry about that… I was intrigued to see how autobiography can be used as fiction. There are two stories you included in your memoirs—what do you see as the difference between an autobiographical sketch and a short story? 

75ES: To me, all writing is taken from something known about or experienced as a base, then the imagination takes over and prevails. Sometimes experience and imagination occur very close together and don’t need much additional. This begins, I hope, to answer your query. My memoir shows the roots of much of my fiction.

76GP: So a lot of your stories started out in real life then…

77ES: Yes, that’s true. And especially there’s a story called “The Bufords.” I liked writing that story (laughs). There was a bunch of people at home, a family at home, that was always causing mischief and I just thought this was a wonderful thesis for a story...

78GP: “Prelude to a Parking Lot” also has a connection to reality, right?

79ES: Well, yes, I based it on a family… I was living up above this family when I was writing in Nashville. I had a little apartment that was above it and I used to look down on their doings. That’s all—that was real. When I went back there that whole street had been leveled because it was near the medical school and they needed the space so they bought up all the houses and leveled it—there was a parking lot. So I was basing at least that real… but a lot of my stories are just… are made out… but there’s always something real in them, I mean there’ll be a house that’s real or a setting of some kind that’s real.

80GP: It’s also the case in “The Fishing Lake,” I believe… with the bench and the story about the dog…

81ES: That’s right, uh uh. Well, that was frankly based on something at home. There was a dog that was… we lived on a large property, my family be it, and there was a dog that came and looked at some of the calves that my father kept in the property and he was afraid the dog was going to get started killing the calves so he had it shot. And my mother said it was a shame that the dog wasn’t doing anything but tending to his own business and he wasn’t harming anything—but anyway they killed it. But that was the thread of something that really happened that got into a story.

82GP: I suppose the way you start with details from real life might be the reason why some critics have seen you in the Marilee of “A Southern Landscape”…

83ES: That was… that was actually… I shouldn’t have done it but I sort of based it on a boy I used to go with in Mississippi—he drank too much… so that was partly factual.

84GP: Working and writing about some of your stories, I was wondering who Maybeth of “The Little Brown Girl” really is. You once said the story was “true” but never said who the girl was. I know about the two dollar bill that you added but not about the original cast. Would you mind telling me?

85ES: Maybeth is ME. This is a story almost true. I made up the money part which is not fair, I guess.

86GP: Why didn’t you fiddle with it to have in Landscapes of the Heart? Not all the characters seem to match the people you mention in your memoirs so I wonder how much you kept from “reality” since you did change the money part.

87ES: The cook Snookums was ours and the mother is the same as mine. Jim Williams was the real name of the farm helper whose plow I used to follow.

88GP: You have not told me why “The Little Brown Girl” did not make it into Landscapes of the Heart… It could have been a nice addition…

89ES: Though “The Little Brown Girl” in a sense really happened, I had doctored it too much to make it a story and so didn’t want it to appear as fact. Actually I never really thought about including it. The story “A Christian Education” was also real fact, but it fitted more easily into my memoir.

90GP: Marilee has appeared in three of your stories, just like Edward Glenn. What made you go back to these characters? It seems to me that the Marilee stories can work independently because on the surface one story does not necessarily illuminate the meaning of another... The Edward Glenn stories, on the contrary, when put together, shed light on Edward’s personality—his need to start over.

91ES: I believe you think that Marilee does not become a fully developing character in the way Edward Glenn does. This is true, as the stories treat with Edward through many more years than I have followed Marilee. Marilee remains her own observant self throughout, whereas Edward experiences marriage, divorce, remarriage, death of his wife, return home. He is more of a wandering character and in each of the stories causes disturbance, revelation, change. I found this interesting and wished to make a whole book of Edward’s various appearances but somehow never found the right focus. Perhaps enough is enough.

92GP: Still, Edward Glenn seems to be a haunting figure in your later fiction! He appears in “The Runaways,” “The Master of Shongalo” and “Return Trip”—he is also central to your play For Lease or Sale… Can you trace back his origins?

93ES: Yes… Edward Glenn wandered through a lot of my stories… That Southerner that shows up in odd places at odd times. His birth place? I assume it was the house in small town Mississippi he was trying to sell in For Lease or Sale.

94I enjoyed writing the Mexican story (“The Runaways”). My husband liked going to Mexico and though I never saw a place like the one I described, it was easy to visualize the village below, as we saw many like it in driving around the country. Also, those who have something to escape often go to Mexico.

95I do recognize that places, houses especially, have a strong presence in my fiction. I feel quite literally that place spirits exist.

96GP: Why did you change the original order of publication of “The Master of Shongalo” and “The Runaways” when you decided to include them in The Southern Woman? If we think chronologically would it be:
For Lease or Sale
“The Master of Shongalo”
“The Runaways”
“Return Trip”
But it is clearly not the order of the sequence…

97ES: I don’t think I wrote them with any order in mind, but now that you suggest an order, I am thinking they should go:
“The Runaways”
For Lease or Sale
“Return Trip”
“The Master of Shongalo”
I have made slight revisions to the last.

98GP: Any plan to publish your play and the Edward Glenn stories?

99ES: Well, I had at one time thought of putting them all together as a book and maybe writing one or two more. But as they came out at different times and found a way into different collections, I let that idea go. As for Shongalo, it is not to be confused with the house in the play. Edward obviously thought there was some vital document there that related the house to him. This goes unexplained… Shongalo was a real name. It was an Indian name taken up in… there used to be a Shongalo church in a town near Carrollton.

100Well… I should have told you long ago that I gave up on the idea of the Edward stories. Though the play was produced here with some success, it never was produced elsewhere, and though my agent showed it in New York often, no one was interested. 

101GP: I am surprised Shongalo is not the house in the play for in the story you have Mr. Stratton say “He wants unexpected things [...] All sorts of records on this house”—in the play there is no mention of any other house... so I’ve always assumed it was the one. Also, Milly’s feeling that Edward is, somehow, the master, when Mr. Stratton just has the “air of an owner” (quoting from memory), made me think it was the house that had been sold...

102ES: I guess you could think of it as the same house, but these works were written at very different times and the vision of Shongalo pictured in the later story is not what I imagined the house in For Lease or Sale to be like. A puzzle.

103GP: Indeed! What about your Canadian experience… do you sometimes miss Canada?

104ES: Well I don’t know… I don’t miss the long hard winters certainly. But there are other things about it that were very nice. We had lots of very good friends there and I miss them.

105GP: How did you end up going there?

106ES: Oh well… that was John. We had a choice of whether, after we married, whether to live in England or the States and he didn’t want to live in the States. He didn’t think we should have separated from England. But he was in a family that were called United Empire Loyalists. They went North at the Revolution because they didn’t want to separate from England… and so since he had that contact already and relatives there…we decided that would be our choice rather than trying to get him in the States, which he didn’t want to do, or my staying in England, which I didn’t want to do. So we made it to Canada, to Montreal, after five years in Rome.

107GP: A few of your stories as well as The Night Travellers are set in Canada. You did quite a lot of research as you wrote that novel. Could you tell me a little more about it? About the sources you used and the people you met?

108ES: I read everything I could find in connection with the period of The Night Travellers, not so much the political scene which everyone recalls, but with individual happenings and people whose lives were disturbed by public events. I found out a lot in Montreal because many came there as draft defectors or in opposition to the US politics. I also went to obscure movies which dramatized the student opposition. I was invited out west to read at Berkeley, giving me the chance to visit People’s Park, scene of a great confrontation between Gov. Ronald Reagan and student protestors. I read the whole account in the library there. Well, there was so much compiled I can’t remember it all.

109GP: Your work will soon appear in the prestigious catalogue of the Library of America. You must be thrilled about it!

110ES: Oh yes, I’ve been inducted into the Library of America which is a very great honor. It will keep all my books in print … or most of my books in print for perpetuity so I’m very grateful about that … the book they have chosen to be the headliner is The Voice at the Back Door.

111GP: There’ll be some stories also.

112ES: I thought of myself as a novelist instead of a short story writer. But … it was after The Voice at the Back Door came out and made such a wonderful impression on everybody that the New Yorker wrote me and asked me if I had any stories and I sent them a story called “The Little Brown Girl.” I had submitted that to them years before and they had turned it down. But I submitted it again and they took it. And then they wanted more stories so I wrote more stories and every time I sent them a story they took it and since they paid very well it was a very good income I had for a while. There’s a story that I’m very fond of called “The Finder.” It was long after those … days with the New Yorker that I wrote that and sent it to them. And they were crazy about it and in addition to what they paid for it, they sent me a thousand dollars and hoped I would write some more! I think I did write one more story…

113Well you printed out several stories of mine that you found. I read those. They’re not bad at all. One is sort of based on some character that I used in No Place for an Angel—Barry.

114GP: “Transformation”?

115ES: Yes, uh, uh. They were characters I used for No Place for an Angel—the Waddells and Barry. Barry Day—he was the main character.

116GP: Another transformation!

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Gérald Préher, « “all writing is taken from something known about or experienced as a base”: A Composite Interview with Elizabeth Spencer »Journal of the Short Story in English, 72 | 2019, 35-48.

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Gérald Préher, « “all writing is taken from something known about or experienced as a base”: A Composite Interview with Elizabeth Spencer »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 72 | Spring 2019, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2021, consulté le 28 mai 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/jsse/2462

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Gérald Préher

Gérald Préher is Professor of American Studies at Lille Catholic University (France) and a member of the CIRPaLL (University of Angers, France). He defended a doctoral dissertation on southern literature and has written essays on various 19th and 20th century writers. He co-edited several collections of essays on American literature, is the editor of the Journal of the Short Story in English and the general editor of the review Résonances. He recently published a study of Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as part of a book on Solitude and Community in the Novel (Atlande), has a forthcoming monograph on Elizabeth Spencer and a volume dedicated to Richard Ford in the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series.

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