Interviews

Elizabeth Spencer, The Art of Fiction No. 110

Interviewed by Robert Phillips

Elizabeth Spencer has published a large body of work, yet she became famous for a novella she wrote in a month. The irony does not escape her. At the time of the interview, she lived in a modern high-rise apartment overlooking downtown Montreal. A Southerner who still loves the rural South, this irony did not escape her, either.

Hers was an apartment full of light and books, many of the latter inscribed to Ms. Spencer by author-friends, for the most part American writers in the Southern tradition. It is to this Southern tradition that by most critical accounts Spencer is said to belong, despite her years spent living in Italy and Canada and the subsequent works of fiction she has set in both locales. The apartment had no separate den or study; her writing was done in the corner of the dining room, the typewriter being put away every evening. She lives with her husband, John Rusher, formerly of Cornwall, England. They have recently moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Spencer is the author of eight novels: Fire in the Morning (1948), This Crooked Way (1952), The Voice at the Back Door (1956), The Light in the Piazza (1960) (unquestionably her best-known work, having been made both a major book-club selection and a popular film), Knights and Dragons (1965), No Place for an Angel (1967), The Snare (1972), and The Salt Line (1984). Her subtle tales and novellas have appeared with frequency in The New Yorker. A short-story collection, Ship Island and Other Stories, appeared in 1968. In 1980 Doubleday published her collected stories under the title The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer; a new collection, Jack of Diamonds, appeared in 1988. Four of her stories have won O. Henry awards. Others have been included in Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize Anthology.

She has led a life adorned by prizes: a citation from the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters for her first two novels in 1952; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1953; the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Kenyon Review Fellowship, both in 1957; the McGraw-Hill Fiction Award in 1960; the Lucy Donnelly Memorial Fellowship in 1983; and the Bellamann Award as well as  honorary doctorate degrees from Southwestern University, in 1968, and Concordia University, in 1988. She received the Award of Merit Medal for the Short Story from the American Academy in 1983, and was elected to membership in the Department of Literature of the American Institute in 1985. In 1988, she received a Senior Arts Award Grant in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has been twice nominated for the National Book Award.

Ms. Spencer is a fashionable figure. She possesses a shy smile and a soft voice, which still carries traces of her Mississippi roots. She was interviewed twice in Montreal and then during a subsequent visit to her publisher in Manhattan. Other questions were answered by correspondence, a practice of which she was wary. Both in person and on paper, her replies were generous.

 

INTERVIEWER

How do you work, and at what hours?

ELIZABETH SPENCER

I’m a morning worker. The minute my husband is out the door to work, out comes the paper, the typewriter, the manuscript I’m working on. I knock off at about two, eat and take a nap if possible, then I’m out for groceries, socializing, whatever.

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t teach until recently. Has that been a good experience?

SPENCER

Oh, but I did! I taught early on, at a girls’ school, and later I taught creative writing at the University of Mississippi. Then I went abroad, met John, and I wasn’t teaching after that. It’s something I got back into in 1976, on the request of a writer, Clark Blaise, who was then at Concordia University here in Montreal. He was due for a sabbatical. I did one course for him that year and liked it, liked the students, was amazed at the variety of their backgrounds. The next year the department invited me back as writer in residence. And the next year they were stuck for someone to do two advanced workshops, so I did those. This year I’m only doing one. I’ve found the work stimulating. I always complain about anything that takes time from writing, of course. But it is equally true that one can’t write all the time. On balance, so far, it’s been worth it. A five-day-a-week job saps up all the time. Teaching has many advantages this way, in that time is more spaced out.

INTERVIEWER

Can writing be taught?

SPENCER

Was it Jean Stafford who had the best word on that? Writing can’t be taught but it can be learned? I think so.

INTERVIEWER

You were a reporter on the Nashville Tennessean as a young woman.

SPENCER

The year I spent as a reporter was marvelous for me! It took me out of a genteel world, gave me enlightening glimpses into how things went on. I wouldn’t have wanted it permanently; it got to be drudgery like any job, only without much uplift. Some who got to the more interesting top positions maybe felt differently, but I didn’t aspire to those.

INTERVIEWER

Unlike your first two novels, The Voice at the Back Door seems drawn from headlines rather than personal history. Was this book influenced by your newspaper work?

SPENCER

There’s some truth in that, though I never thought of it. It was, at least in part, “topical.” I was under some sort of pressure within myself to clarify my own thinking about racial matters; many of my attitudes had been simply inherited, taken on good faith from those of good faith whom I loved. It seemed like blasphemy to question them, so I had to question myself. I could do that out of materials—incidents, people—which I already knew about. It was just in the melodramatic arrangement of the novel that I may have stepped things up a bit.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve wondered how that novel was received in the South, particularly in your home region. Is that why you ran off to Italy?

SPENCER

Oh, I’m sure a lot of people in my hometown and elsewhere objected. Some of the objections I heard about: I hadn’t been “fair to the South,” and so forth. But, no, nobody wanted to run me out of Mississippi. At least, nobody I know of wanted to. I don’t mean to make too light of this; it is doubtless still known that I went against the white supremacy thing. The people who think like that will use anything against you that comes their way. They’ve nothing against you except that, but it happens to be everything. It’s the same thinking as that of the Inquisition.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a passage in that novel I marked—here it is: “In the South, it’s nothing but family, family. We couldn’t breathe, even, until we left.” Was this your feeling, and is that perhaps why you no longer live in the South?

SPENCER

Oh, Lord. Okay—while family is interesting for the range of character it offers a writer, and for the stability it may, at best, offer to the individual, it is in many, many cases stifling and destructive. There is always bound to be, at the least, suppressed conflict. The price is high. Someone much wiser than I once told me that Southern families were cannibals. He was an enthusiastic Southerner himself, so I felt even more the weight of that judgment. The family assigns unfair roles, and never forgives the one who does not fulfill them. Of course, a sense of freedom is a large part of my own nature. I can’t be straitjacketed. Maybe they ask no more than all traditional societies do, one way or another.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing?

SPENCER

I started as a child, for me a time of total unconsciousness about the “South” in literary terms. I knew we had lost the war, that was about all. We had not so much a close-knit as a jumbled-up family, lots of them living right in the vicinity, Carroll County, Mississippi, and the moved-away ones kept coming back to visit. On my mother’s side of the connection, writing was a natural thing. My rough, tough uncles had all written poetry and studied Latin, too. Imagine that today! They quoted poetry in great, memorized blocks, and what they wrote sounded like Kipling or Browning. Scraps of it were to be found around the house in old school notebooks. They all thought of literary things as meriting attention.

INTERVIEWER

So your family was supportive?

SPENCER

My mother’s family was. Not my father’s. My mother’s family bought books, kept books, referred to books, read incessantly. I often heard my aunts and my mother talk of characters in a novel as though they were really living people—it was a shame Fantine in Les Misérables had to sell her hair and teeth; they wept over Dora in David Copperfield, but quoted Dickens that it was better for her to die; my aunt fell for Darcy in Pride and Prejudice; and so on. Others in Carrollton, my little hometown, were equally strong on reading. I did, I do believe, get the impression that here was a pursuit for good families with their minds not exclusively on money, gossip, illness, marriages, and the crops. And unlike recipes, vegetable-canning, fruit-preserving, sewing, and going to church, it made for talk I was interested in overhearing. I was also interested in political talk and in that sort of reminiscence about people that led to long, partly speculative stories. Dickens, Thackeray, and Victor Hugo were in no way contradicted by the spirit of such talk, which in most cases was done with kindness, compassion, and even love, with regard to human mystery. But I’m rattling about the older generation.

INTERVIEWER

What about your own crowd? Anyone with a literary bent?

SPENCER

Well, there was a cousin, just up the street; a brilliant boy slightly older than I, who talked a lot about books, music, poetry, the best movies, and got the rest of us—tennis players, tree-climbers, creek-swimmers, pony-riders, and stamp-collectors—more inclined to these things as personal experience than we otherwise might have been. He could come in while we were sitting barefoot on the piano bench playing “Chopsticks,” and, shooing us away, strike up the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore, or a Chopin étude. His mother, like mine, had given private lessons in piano, but he—unlike me—had musical talent. He wrote some very good poetry later on, and published one volume that I still admire.

INTERVIEWER

What about you? Why do you write?

SPENCER

Writing for me, I am trying to say, was prepared for in various ways, but just the same, I always looked on it as a natural impulse, one I would have had anyway. It had nothing to do with William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and the other writers of the South; though I discovered them later with great joy. My true course was already set by the culture that was happily mine from the day I was born. When I started writing stories, my mother, my aunt, uncles, and others were immediately interested—I found a quick audience and some praise, a living kind of response. I take my experience as more typical of the Southern writers than not. I don’t think Southerners were as culturally isolated as it is common to think. We had an “oral tradition,” true, but we also had an intellectual tradition. Translations from Greek and Latin were on our shelves, and some originals, and if anybody mentioned Dante, he was there, too. In addition to the novelists I mentioned and their like, there were also Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, and the New England poets. A host of children’s classics were read aloud to me, and one was expected to know the Bible backwards and forwards.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you write the way you do?

SPENCER

When I started writing I fell into a certain way of expression that was natural to me and that I liked to put down and read over. I used to sit up in a tree and write. Really. Just because you’ve nothing on your feet doesn’t mean you’ve nothing in your head! I would also write stories in study hall to pass the time after I raced through my homework. Or sit up in bed on winter nights, scribbling into tablets held on my knees. Then I was getting the feeling I’ve always kept as the best part of it, that I was not so much writing as letting something come through me. This is a strange delight, but maybe many writers have it. I see it more strongly in some of my work than others, so it does not always prevail, but when it does I feel I am writing best. It comes from an inner way of seeing things in their plainest but truest way—not only seeing but hearing, smelling, feeling. The words go toward that. This can be refined, but its origin is obscure.

INTERVIEWER

Could you say a little more about Faulkner? He’s associated now with those same times in Mississippi . . .

SPENCER

That same cousin who played the piano and wrote poetry did tell me before I got to Vanderbilt that Faulkner was a great writer. I think I was in college, though, before I heard him say this. It was a marvelous discovery, but I don’t recall reading Faulkner extensively until some years later. It was well-known that he was over there at Oxford writing books. But it was widely thought that he, along with Erskine Caldwell, were busy “giving the South a bad name” in order to “make money.” This opinion did not spring from literary innocence so much as from a rather more complex reaction which I won’t go into here, though I think I understand it. I remember when Gone with the Wind came out there were immediate readers in our town who came up with strong opinions. It was thought that the book left a good bit to be desired as fiction of the first rank, but that at least nationwide interest was drawn to the South by a popular novel sympathetic to our history. For this, they said, we could be grateful.

INTERVIEWER

What other American writers impressed you?

SPENCER

My cousin also talked about Willa Cather and I still admire Cather more than certain “complicated” Southern women writers like, say, Ellen Glasgow. Cather seems at first simple, but the simplicity has its own difficulties—like some large natural phenomenon out west you can look at and contemplate for a long time. I knew Melville from my early days because Moby-Dick was my brother’s favorite book. He, unlike me, did not incline toward much reading that I know of, but he read that one over and over. He thought it was about whale hunting. Of course people who say it isn’t are wrong, too. Then I’d always read Mark Twain, and was too scared to sleep after Tom Sawyer got lost in the cave or something. I was surprised to find Mark Twain was taught in graduate school! Poe and Hawthorne were taught in the public schools—I still get a textbook feeling whenever I open them.

INTERVIEWER

What about Henry James? Some have mentioned him as an influence for your later fiction, especially Light in the Piazza and Knights and Dragons.

SPENCER

Henry James I started reading at Vanderbilt, along with many of the “modern” English writers, like Virginia Woolf. It was an interesting labyrinth, enormous skill directed toward ends that did not seem then to be all that important.

INTERVIEWER

James was not an influence, then?

SPENCER

Listen, if you write a novel in Mississippi, North Mississippi at that, you are bound to be compared to Faulkner. If you write about Americans abroad in some sort of confrontation with Europeans, then you are bound to be compared to James. I couldn’t escape the Mississippi subject matter—I was brought up in it. When I went to Europe, as anyone might, I couldn’t help loving Italy . . . I just adored it, everything, and went back as soon as I could. That is, when I was awarded a Guggenheim. I wrote about it because I loved it, and had stayed there so long that I thought I knew it well enough. But I always wrote from an outsider’s point of view. I think it must be clear that one has to do that, out of honesty. Well, right away, here came “Henry James” in every single review. The only odd thing was that I never once thought about it. It did occur to me and still seems obvious that the correct comparison for The Light in the Piazza might have been Boccaccio. Here was the kind of situation outlandish enough to have delighted him. Can’t you hear one of his Decameron ladies beginning this tale: Chancing to travel to Florence was a little countess from a town in France who had as a daughter, a beautiful young girl, a cause of great unhappiness. For, since an unfortunate accident had overtaken her at an early age, she had no little trouble with reasoning, reading being beyond her to learn and ciphering also, so that no doctor could tell her parents that she could never be cured, and no young nobleman, being exposed to her conversation, could dream of offering a serious proposal. Nonetheless, she was of so charming a nature, and so unaffected in her responses, which were all sweetness and delight, that anyone not knowing of her defect might take true pleasure in her company . . . And so on through to a satire on the empty-headedness of certain wellborn youths around Florence. I don’t think James should even be considered when it comes to that story, though the internal narrative of Knights and Dragons certainly seems, on rereading it, as I did the other day, to owe a good deal to his method.

INTERVIEWER

There are other relations between those two novels.

SPENCER

Oh, yes. Knights and Dragons was a kind of dark companion to The Light in the Piazza; someone with problems back home working free of them in Italy.

INTERVIEWER

Both have mature women wrestling with heavy problems.

SPENCER

Yes. Many of my women characters crack up under the strain of bad fortune or psychic miseries they cannot sustain. Margaret Johnson, the mother in The Light in the Piazza, had had a psychic break of sorts before the time of the story. Martha Ingram, in Knights and Dragons, thought herself tormented and pursued until she actually was mad for a time, I think, though she managed to surface. All that story is like an image seen wavering under water. I wish I could have let it all play itself out in Venice where it first occurred to me. When I got to Catherine Sasser in No Place for an Angel, I was able to see better what these over-strained psyches were suffering from. Catherine taught me a lot. But she got nothing except love in a pure state, which amounts to resignation. I didn’t think that was enough, either, though to some lucky souls it may be. I’ve had trouble finding fictional women—different from the search for real people—who could take, or accept, what they had to be, and find their way. Some of my stories seem to be testing out characters, especially women, along those lines. When I finally got to Julia Garrett, the central character in The Snare, I felt satisfied. Her path led her right through the human jungle but she came out sane. Maybe not safe and sound, but anyhow, at the story’s end, coping, and on a human level, too.

INTERVIEWER

Did you intend the knights of that title to be the men in Martha’s life, and the dragons mental illness?

SPENCER

Women often dramatize the men in their lives, they assign them roles. Maybe I’ve done that too, once in a while. When women friends confide in me, I often notice this theme. When I wrote the story, I was going through a long phase of finding myth themes for stories centering on women. But I think the dragon for Martha was clearly set out from the beginning as her ex-husband, and Jim Wilbourne, the knight—remember all those old paintings?—who perceived her plight and should have liberated her, turned out to be rather dragon-like, too. So there’s the irony.

INTERVIEWER

Martha seems to feel so exiled that she suffers paranoia. Was this a trait you saw among numerous Americans in Italy? Did you share any such feelings?

SPENCER

People abroad do experience the pangs of separation, which is something like that graver word, exile. They want to be thought of, not forgotten, but thought of with understanding at least, not condemned. Any evidence that this is not possible . . . well, they feel afflicted, and lacking other news, exaggerate it. People, Americans for example, who stay abroad too long do feel a sense of guilt. I’ve heard this expressed many times.

INTERVIEWER

We were talking about other American writers you admired.

SPENCER

I recently discovered Dreiser, whom I had tried several times before but simply couldn’t read. Now I’m hooked. Partly due to Robert Penn Warren’s fine study Homage to Theodore Dreiser, but also because of something that happened. I was driving with my husband through a desolate area of upper New York State. There were lakes with dead trees standing in them, lonely twisting mountain roads, ratty small towns with maybe one streetlight, a remote feeling. I thought about the murder that happened near there in An American Tragedy—Clyde and Roberta—and the bird calls—was it a weir-weir?— it suddenly all grew unbearably real. So real it frightened me. It seemed all to have happened, just the way he said. This is the breakdown of that reality line that fiction can make.

INTERVIEWER

Your first collection of stories is dedicated to Eudora Welty. I take it you admire the work, or the lady, or both.

SPENCER

Eudora Welty is a perennial favorite. My discovery of what she was doing with the old home landscape held as much delight as what Faulkner was doing, and I especially mean The Golden Apples, though many others are great. I once threatened to give The Golden Apples to a new acquaintance, and if she didn’t like it, I doubted we’d have much in common. Eudora Welty I first met, personally, partly by the coincidence of having gone to a college, Belhaven, which was just across the street from her house in Jackson, Mississippi. Some of us in a little literary society wanted her to come over and be our guest soon after her first book appeared. She came and we chatted later and she did not forget the occasion; nor, certainly, did I. She wasn’t so well or widely known back then as she deserved to be and later was. It was easier to see her occasionally both in New York and Mississippi. I certainly admired her work and do still, but we have such a difference of approach, don’t you think? I can’t compare things like this when I am involved. The same for Faulkner. If my material seems like his, as I say, it must be that we are both looking at the same society. For instance, there is a Yocona River in north Mississippi; the family in This Crooked Way comes from Yocona, which I knew about all my life. People used to say “Yocny.” Only long after the book was published did I realize that Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha probably had the same origin.

INTERVIEWER

What is the story of the publication of your first novel? Did you have help from anyone in placing it?

SPENCER

I had written and sent off a number of short stories, and had had encouragement but no results. I started a novel based on some of these stories. I had been fortunate before that, though, in landing a graduate fellowship to Vanderbilt, ideal then, perhaps still, for anyone interested in creative study. The ghosts of the great—Ransom, Warren, and Tate—were still around, not that they were anything but alive then, but simply elsewhere. And one of the original members of the Agrarian group was still there, Donald Davidson, a superb teacher, one of the great minds I’ve known. I wandered away from Nashville, taught, returned to a job there, then worked on a newspaper as I said, then quit to work on my novel. Davidson knew I was working on it, and when David Clay, a New York editor with Dodd, Mead who had gone to Vanderbilt, came through, he brought us together. So within a short time of showing Clay the unfinished manuscript, I had my first contract.

INTERVIEWER

Did you, or do you, keep a journal?

SPENCER

I wish I had time to keep one. Sometimes I do; lots of good material comes along, just factual stuff, what I like to think about and make use of; but I forget it if I don’t write it down. There will never be a shortage, however, of one inexhaustible thing—plain old life.

INTERVIEWER

Were you conscious of writing autobiographically in your first two novels? Those families seem so well-realized, it is difficult to think of them as fictional . . .

SPENCER

There is no autobiography in my early novels, or in any of the novels. Some of the stories, yes, but I can’t find myself at all in the novels. I got in trouble, though, because people in our town all know each other, and have known about each other for generations, and because I had to draw on the locale, I found myself writing about people like them, though they weren’t meant at all to be those people. But I’ve learned you can never tell anybody that what they want to believe isn’t true. So no matter what I said, they still knew better, and I finally just gave up and didn’t say anything. In Fire in the Morning, the portrait of my grandfather—a man I much admired—was deliberate, but all the events were fictional. Of course, there is a terrifying thing that may occur: one sometimes invents what has actually happened. This won’t bear too much looking into.

INTERVIEWER

Your family was upset with you over the Mississippi novels?

SPENCER

My family was upset with me-as-novelist, especially my mother, because she couldn’t make the jump to modern writing or to any published writing at all being done by anyone she knew. It was supposed to be done somewhere else by unknown hands. However, I could always “go home again,” if that’s what you mean. I live in Canada to be with my husband. Nobody is keeping me away. Mercy, they’ve got more to think about than just me.

INTERVIEWER

Whether you could “go home again” or not, you left the South for Italy, and then you left Italy for Canada. Why?

SPENCER

I got married in Italy to an Englishman and lived there a couple of years more, but my husband thought he could make a better go of things in Canada. His sister was in Montreal and wrote some good things about it and about Canada generally. His mother’s family had been Canadian in origin.

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t consider moving to the South?

SPENCER

No, John found the South impossibly hot and overcrowded with my relatives, so we set out to try our luck in a place I never dreamed of even visiting, let alone settling down in! It was really the best compromise I could make, so I accepted it. I’ve grown to admire Canadians and to love Quebec, especially Montreal.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that you are well-adjusted to Canada?

SPENCER

Oh, no, I can never “adjust” to losing anything I really love. I still miss the South; to a lesser degree, I still miss Italy. There’s some argument for being able to stay in one region all your life, especially if your roots are there. Whether you write or not, there’s a powerful element of feeling involved, and once uprooted, those feelings weaken. I don’t think I’ve ever really cut the root; I never wanted to. But there’s a loss of immediacy in one’s experience. You have to count on memory more and daily rhythms less. But memory is a muse, after all, a girl with a vital life of her own.

INTERVIEWER

What is the function of locale in your work?

SPENCER

Some of my suburban or city-apartment stories could occur just anywhere, but these go only for a few pages. Generally I think of fiction through people in a place. They are particular people in a particular place. Who and where is then quickly followed by when and what and how. Why relates to ideas. I think Southerners are strong on ideas, but in a different way from writers elsewhere. I must be careful not to make a silly generalization, but my feeling is that Southern writers (Southerners generally) do not perceive any idea as abstract. We move toward an idea gingerly. Once formed, it is powerful and may eat you up. It’s better to keep it young and playful as long as possible. But the way the Southern mind seems to work is through particulars, through felt character, experienced atmosphere. Isn’t life like that? We live it, only half-knowing what it is, aware of possibilities all along but often mistaken as to their full meaning. Then time may change it all, throw it in a new perspective. A strongly-felt locale and a strongly-felt character in it—these are usually the starting places of my work. I can see both—character and place—in my head. A person, or persons, in a place, something on their minds, a confrontation, an event, a fragment of memory, an action, something to start you watching it, your mind following it . . .

INTERVIEWER

Once you have your locale, and your characters, how rigidly do you plan your novels? They seem extremely well made.

SPENCER

I plan most novels ahead, they don’t just happen. I think all the characters in them live in them as though the form were a house and they were the people, and none other, who resided there. Some characters have come to the novels out of stories, and some have migrated from one novel to another. I do not plan so far ahead for stories; it does seem that a story is a more spontaneous creative act. I sometimes just drop down and write a story. I could never ever do a novel like that. Both The Light in the Piazza and Knights and Dragons started as stories, but there came a moment when I had to see them as longer works, to stop and consider.

INTERVIEWER

Many of your characters seem to be “loners.” Why would you choose this type of character above all others?

SPENCER

I guess I’m a mixture of sometimes wanting to be off alone somewhere strange, and sometimes liking people, desiring company. But “loner” characters are good to have in a work of fiction. They have a perspective, are less easily involved in an action; they can comment, are apt to be ironic, compassionate, witty, perceptive.

INTERVIEWER

Is all your travel helpful to your work?

SPENCER

I don’t feel that I travel all that much. The trip to Greece in 1977 was my first in a long time, and my first ever to Greece. I was thrilled with Greece—a place I’d always wanted to go. I visited a Canadian writer, Audrey Thomas, for a time. She had part of a house in a fishing village on the south coast of Crete, Aghia Gallini. I loved the life. We swam twice a day. I used to go down early and see them bring the catch off the fishing boats, and the farmers coming into the square with loads of fresh melons used to whack them open and give me sample slices to eat. The whole town knew everybody. The woman who owned the house had a loom in the parlor. I watched her weave. Every morning about a hundred donkeys began to go heehaw . . . heehaw . . . heeeeeehaw . . . Just like Mississippi. Greece inspired the South somewhere along the line. I love the whole Mediterranean world. I think most people do. Maybe it’s a buried racial memory and we all came from there.

INTERVIEWER

What differences have you perceived between American and Canadian literature?

SPENCER

That’s an interesting question. Canadian literature has made a worthy, self-conscious effort to be itself just in the last ten years or so. Which is to say there is some needed walling-out of American influences. Still, many have noticed comparisons. Alice Munro’s studies of small-town Western life owe much to her reading of the Southern writers; I think she told me that herself. Think of Margaret Laurence and Willa Cather. Parallels abound between French Canada and the South—a conquered society with different customs having to exist in terms of a larger, controlling nation, for instance. The French here have their own language, to give them unity, centrality. But it, of course, restricts their audience. Still, Marie-Claire Blais is widely translated, as is Anne Hébert. Less well-known are such good novelists as André Langevin and Hubert Aquin. There are similarities between Blais and Carson McCullers; and Hébert has a historical sense of French Canada—one looks to the Southern writers like Andrew Lytle for comparison. Novels that, to my mind, are just Canadian, without any possible reference to another society, are Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Timothy Findlay’s The Wars. I admire Robertson Davies, his Fifth Business especially. But it is rather a special case.

INTERVIEWER

Are you at all conscious of being a woman writer? That is, a women who writes fiction?

SPENCER

At the start, I felt put off by sensitive women writers whom I’d read but did not want to be like, even though I’d started by admiring them. I mean someone like Katherine Mansfield, then later Virginia Woolf. I thought both were over-lyrical, not nearly tough enough. So I tried to get a natural bent to lyricism (I had started out in college writing poetry) out of my style, to develop a plainly-stated, hearty style—hospitable to sensitivity but not dependent on it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you mind the term “woman writer”?

SPENCER

Would you mind the term “man writer”? “Woman writer” is just next door to “lady writer.” I wanted to be firm and even tough-minded—if not “tough” in the Hemingway sense—a novelist only, as distinct from a woman novelist. That was my early reaction—it had nothing to do with women’s lib, of course—but I think for me it was the right beginning. Even in Fire in the Morning, my first book, I originally wrote long, lyrical, girlish passages about the young woman who came to that town from a past outside it and married the central character. I had looked on it at first as primarily her story, as it might indeed have been if I could have got my prose to measure up. I think I was too girlish then myself to write well about her various sensitivities, hesitations, et cetera. My first editor urged me to cut all that out, so little of it remains, enough I guess to see what the rest might be like; and the weight of the book fell on the men and some of the older women who were part of the town, and they held it up.

INTERVIEWER

How do you determine from what point of view to tell a story? This Crooked Way, for instance, has four parts in the first person, only one part in the third person. Why not all five in the first person?

SPENCER

Point of view usually comes with the story in my mind and can’t be changed very fundamentally afterwards. I know that “trying from a different point of view” is a recommendation in creative-writing workshops, but I could never do it; the whole integrates at once in one way, and there’s just no disintegrating it. In the novel you ask about, I had the problem with point of view toward a central character, who was primarily obsessed—a God-driven person. I had some straining to do, but I felt I had to arrange significant points of view around this figure. How could he be able to assess his own story and have the reader believe that his assessment could be reliable? So I balanced around him certain voices: a former best friend, a niece, then with deeper significance, his wife, then back to him again for the finale. This was experiment, if you like, but I think it had to be done that way to get the total picture.

INTERVIEWER

And why was one part, the beginning, in the third person?

SPENCER

It was my way of coming in from the outside, to lead both myself and the reader into the story. The third person is admirable for its power to move inward, then enclose.

INTERVIEWER

What are your feelings about “experimental prose”?

SPENCER

Writing is always an experiment. But, on the whole, I guess I am anxious to be understood, to be clear. That leaves out “experimental,” to put it in its usual meaning. Flannery O’Connor once said, “If it looks funny on the page, I don’t read it.”

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider yourself a religious person? This Crooked Way is really about religion.

SPENCER

I was brought up to be very religious and sent to a Presbyterian school, so at various periods of my life I have felt close to that sort of thing. I think I have a feeling for the Protestant Southern experience just from seeing so much of it, as well as from some personal participation when I was growing up. There’s a lot of variety in it, but it’s mainly Bible-based. In 1975 when my father was in his late eighties, I was home to see about him and saw he had brought in some large pieces of petrified wood from a small cattle place he had near town. He said, “I reckon those things have been there since the Flood.” I said, “What flood?” He said, “The Flood!” Well, the Mississippi River had been known to break out in notable floods, but I never knew the high water to get up to our town, which is in the hill section. I pursued: “You mean 1927?” He got angry: “I mean the Flood in the Bible!” That one, of course, covered the whole earth, involved Noah’s Ark, and presumably left petrified wood outside of Carrollton, Mississippi!

INTERVIEWER

Your mother was just as religious?

SPENCER

She saw the Hand of the Lord everywhere. I remember when the British army retreated from the continent at Dunkirk, she remarked that the Lord had sent a fog to cover them. Being a Presbyterian, she got upset when people made fun of “predestination,” but hoped to retreat with dignity by saying it was clearly set forth in the Bible. She took it for granted that everybody believed in the Bible or that if they didn’t, they knew they ought to.

INTERVIEWER

Is there such a thing as an ideal reader you write for?

SPENCER

I never think of any one reader. But I do hope to be a source of interest and delight to those who want to follow me, which excludes, I guess, certain kinds of readership. It would mainly exclude, I hope, people who want to see life only from one aspect—sex, religion, politics, even “Southernness.” I doubt if those who have special interests find my work offers a great satisfaction. I’m a questioner, a searcher . . . I’d like to interest people who are that, too.

INTERVIEWER

Your books all have beautiful titles. How do you find them?

SPENCER

I like to choose around till I find the right one. There’s always an original impulse toward writing a work that has not yet been formed. When I look for a title I go back to that. The Voice at the Back Door . . . when I thought of the South and race, the blacks, I first remember how black servants of ours or blacks we knew would come to our back door when they were in trouble, they would stand and call out of the night. It was further considered a breach of custom for a black—or Negro, as we called them then—to come to the front door. In our whole town, I think, only our old nurse, Aunt Lucy Breckinridge, was permitted that. She was born a slave. In a recent program on William Faulkner, photographed at Oxford, a black man told about the old family nurse doing the same thing, going in through the Faulkner’s front door. I doubt anyone not born down there would know the significance. So I went back to that germinal thing, that small but significant custom, for that title.

INTERVIEWER

What about the title, The Light in the Piazza?

SPENCER

You like that title?

INTERVIEWER

Yes.

SPENCER

At the publisher’s, they jokingly referred to it as The Light in the Pizza! Oh, well. As a title, I hope it functions several ways. There is the duality of the word light—the real light in Italy, so beautiful and strong that one feels one can see everything. Then there’s the symbolic meaning, that’s pointed up a number of times in the book, light and enlightenment, I suppose. And of course Clara’s name itself—her name means light. I was also playing up comic aspects of the novel in the title, but most people missed that. I once said, in an interview in Mississippi Quarterly where the same thing came up, that just when you think you can see everything, the motives of these characters and what they are actually doing and why they are doing them are all totally opaque. The poor girl’s mother stayed in a state of confusion all the way through.

INTERVIEWER

I’m glad you mentioned the significance of Clara’s name. Many of your characters’ names seem tip-offs to their function or meaning, such as Jimmy Tallant, Jerry Sasser, Beckwith Dozer . . .

SPENCER

I generally name my characters the way I do because that is their name. Sasser I see no significance in; Sasser is a fairly common name in the South. Clara did, of course, have the tie-in to light.

INTERVIEWER

What about symbols, then? Are there any that you consciously utilize? There seem to be a lot of horses in your novels and stories, horses used in a Lawrentian sense of sensual power . . .

SPENCER

There are certain recurrent figures in my work, I know. I guess I am drawn to write over and over about horses because of a fascination I feel for them. One of my stories is called “The Girl Who Loved Horses.” I was brought up around animals, and for riding I had first a donkey, then ponies, then horses. We lived on the outskirts of a little town, had a big property with a barn, kept mules and cows. It was no trouble to feed ponies and later a couple of riding horses, nothing fine though. I was lonely in the winters when none of my cousins were around and outdoor sports were practically impossible. So I used to ride a lot, alone. Then, on my uncle’s plantation, I would ride with him some summers almost every day. In those days you had to ride a horse around a plantation to see what was going on. I rode at school, too, and wherever I happened to be. At Oxford, at the University of Mississippi, when I was teaching there I kept a horse the whole time. So horses crop up in my stories—pun not intended. I think I love them aesthetically; actually I’m a little afraid of them, of the spirited ones; part of riding excitement is in the tension. I’ve been run away with, thrown, bitten, and kicked, though not in the head, I’ll have you know!

INTERVIEWER

Are you conscious of any other symbols?

SPENCER

Storms show up in my work a lot, too, for much the same reason; they were fierce, dangerous, sometimes awesome around where I lived. Listen, if you want to find a symbol, there’s nothing stopping you. Symbols should be like that in stories; not hauled in, but rising out of the possible, in feeling and event.

INTERVIEWER

Some of the events in your later fiction seem improbable, like Arnie mounting the large sea turtle he meets while swimming and proclaiming, “Take me to the deep,” in The Salt Line. Such events give your work a dreamlike quality. Any comment?

SPENCER

It may be that most of these actually happened. The South is semitropical, near the coast especially, and many events partake of the strange natural phenomena in the area. South American fiction often sounds fantastic, but I bet a lot of it is to be thought of as actual. The sea turtle episode was related to me by my father. He used to go with a group on a chartered boat to fish in the Gulf. They once went ashore on a small island and there in the shallows one of them discovered a giant turtle which he rode out to sea for a distance. My usual theory is not to invent very much, only uncover what happens anyway, “strange as it seems.”

INTERVIEWER

I’ve been wanting to ask you: Is The Light in the Piazza your glory, or your albatross? Its fame, I mean.

SPENCER

It’s my albatross. I think that it has great charm, and it probably is the real thing, a work written under great compulsion, while I was under the spell of Italy. But it only took me, all told, about a month to write, whereas some of my other novels—the longer ones—took years. So to have people come up to me, as they do, and gush about The Light in the Piazza, and be totally ignorant that I ever turned a hand at anything else, is . . . upsetting. I suppose I should be grateful they’ve read that. You know, I always thought it was so nice of President Kennedy to have said when he met Norman Mailer at the White House, “I’ve read The Deer Park . . . and the others.” The fact that Kennedy didn’t come out with The Naked and the Dead must have been gratifying to Mailer.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about money, in relation to serious writing? Would you write better if you had more or less of it?

SPENCER

It’s nice to have it. It’s ideal not to have money worries. However, writers have always proved their work can exist in extreme poverty or extreme wealth . . . Personally, I just like to be well enough off. I’ve written under very poor circumstances and made do on a daily basis only by counting pennies and sometimes even dropping in on church suppers to cease from a diet of peanut butter sandwiches. I don’t know if I wrote better then; it just seemed a nuisance.

INTERVIEWER

Have there ever been long periods when you could not write?

SPENCER

During the last decade, when my parents were in a long decline—they have since died—I was needed to help them out a good bit and I was disturbed by their aging, the whole implacable process of it. I did mainly short things during this time and found that any longer thing I attempted was broken up by recurrent problems. Otherwise, I am sometimes stopped in my work by a normal course of having finished up one crop and having to put in a whole new planting. This is gradual, almost a natural process of replenishment, and I get impatient while it’s happening and think the whole thing’s over, I’ll never write again. Then I do.

INTERVIEWER

Do you reread your own books?

SPENCER

I often have to, to get together readings or comments. But not all of anything, I think. I feel I’ve heard it all already. I’m sometimes surprised that I let such awkward parts get by, and occasionally that I could have possibly written anything so good.

INTERVIEWER

Have your sensibilities changed over the years?

SPENCER

There were many things I couldn’t see clearly when I was younger and I was inclined to make judgments about them out of ignorance. I don’t know if there has been a change or a deepening of sensibility. If either, I hope my work reflects it!

INTERVIEWER

One thing I had in mind was that your later novels, especially The Snare and The Salt Line, seem built upon a fascination with the underworld—criminals and countercultures not found anywhere in your early work. Have you lived among such people in recent years?

SPENCER

My husband would thank you for that! No, I don’t know much about such people, except what I make up. Of course, I’ve read, inquired, and nosed around. I’m fascinated by these people, because they play by another set of rules, are in opposition to values we assume. Therefore, they can throw our values in relief, not so much by directly questioning them, as precocious children do, but simply by running counter to them. I don’t know anything about criminal types except at secondhand, i.e., reading, talking to people who know them, thinking of places where the boundaries are thin between the crooked and the straight. Everybody has something in his nature that’s in the shadow world. I find a good deal of fun in imagining these parts, and just have to hope the underworld passages are convincing.

INTERVIEWER

How much of writing has to be firsthand experience?

SPENCER

That’s an old question. My feeling about using such things is that anyone has got to be aware of the dark side of life; it gets into all human relationships, be they ever so joyful, balanced, and wise. No way around it. At a certain swivel of circumstances, the saint may turn into a devil; frightening but true. So when one brings on the scene the admitted crook or outcast or underworld figure, one is really just dramatizing what is latent in the nice little boy next door, or in one’s old Sunday School teacher, the high-school principal, or the U.S. President, and the next is—guess who?—one’s self.

INTERVIEWER

Given to thinking like that, does being a writer make relationships more difficult?

SPENCER

I’ve found there are many different temperaments among writers. I am personally often distracted, absentminded, fractious, and anxious. I guess this makes me difficult at times. It’s nice to be able to say, Well, you see, I’m a writer—especially if it saves you from losing a friendship or getting kicked in the behind.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you could have been as happy, or less happy, if you hadn’t become a writer?

SPENCER

I think I would be far less happy without a creative outlet. Everybody needs one in some form, to some extent. I’m just glad I found mine in writing, and early on.

INTERVIEWER

Finally, do you have any advice to give young writers?

SPENCER

Writing is hard work and guarantees no security, no rewards or pensions—it can’t promise you anything. Bearing that in mind, you go ahead with it because you love it. Any art has the aspects of a love affair, lifelong.


Author photograph by Dorothy Alexander.