If you’re having a conversation with Elizabeth Spencer, MA’43, the first thing
you’ll notice is her accent. It’s one that is increasingly–and sadly–rare these days. To say that it’s Southern is merely scratching the surface. It is old-fashioned, to be sure. Sophisticated. Educated. And certainly not heard in movies or on TV.
The second thing you’ll notice is that she often tacks a question onto the
end of her sentences: “Don’t you agree?” or “Do you think so, too?” It’s an effective tool that draws whomever she is speaking with into the conversation in much the same way that her prose draws you into her stories. She uses words the way an artist uses paint–creating stunning images that are easy to imagine with the mind’s eye.
Here she describes a scene at a café in Florence from one of her most famous works, the novella The Light in the Piazza:
“A couple of retired German tourists, all but harnessed in fine camera equipment, sat at the foot of Cellini’s triumphant Perseus, slumped and staring at nothing.”
At last count Spencer had authored nine novels, seven collections of short fiction, a memoir and a play. She is also the latest recipient of the prestigious PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction, adding her name to a list that is peppered with Southern writers, including Peter Taylor and Eudora Welty. The award celebrated her most recent collection, The Southern Woman.
“The award just descended on me. It was for my whole body of work,” Spencer says.
Although she is Southern to the core, Spencer has lived in other places, including Italy, where she traveled on a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and Montreal. While in Canada, Spencer taught and was writer-in-residence at Concordia University.
“I don’t think that writing can be taught, but as somebody once said, ‘It can be learned,’ and I think that’s a good way to put it. If you have a good teacher who can discern things, it’s a great stimulation to a person who wants to write.”
Spencer left Canada in 1986 for Chapel Hill, N.C., where she was the visiting professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina until 1992. She still makes her home there.
Spencer names Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren and William Faulkner among her favorite Southern writers.
“I think that Southern writers are different. The culture creates the person, and I think the South has had a different history and different culture. That may be fading now; we may all belong to one culture,” she says. “But I think a lot of the modern Southern writers sound very Southern still. You can’t ask an Irish writer to be anything like an English writer. It’s the same in the South. It’s a long tradition.”
While Southern literature is where Spencer made her mark, it’s certainly not the only genre she reads.
“I do my best to keep up, but then I’m drawn back into reading older things that I really love from the past. I read mystery stories sometimes, and I’ve been plowing my way through Proust. I read Proust and then I start all over again.”
Even though she’s in her 80s, Spencer isn’t done with her writing yet.
“I don’t write as much as I used to. I’ve done some stories, and I’m sort of gnawing away on a novel that doesn’t want to finish, but I try to keep going.”
© 2014 Vanderbilt University
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