Remembering Elizabeth Spencer: A Conversation

Photo: New York Times


An Interview with author Elizabeth Spencer by Nancy Tilly

Chapel Hill lost one of its best writers and most renowned residents when Elizabeth Spencer passed away Dec. 23 at the age of 98.

Described by the Washington Post as “one of the foremost chroniclers of the American South,” Ms. Spencer wrote nine novels, including, most famously, “The Light in the Piazza,” as well as eight collections of short stories, a memoir and a play. She also taught at UNC from 1986 to 1992.

The Local Reporter is pleased to present the following reprint of Nancy Tilly’s  1999 interview with Elizabeth Spencer, which first appeared in the Mars Hill Review. Tilly is a Southern writer transplanted to Boulder, Colo.

NT: The more I read your work, the more it seems to have a moral dimension. Can you trace its early development … in race relations?

ES: Growing up I accepted intellectually what people told me, that the African-American was an inferior race and that we had to be nice and everything. But it still didn’t seem very nice to me because of all the things we were doing as a matter of course, and so we Southerners never got that enlightened attitude, at least not brought up the way I was. The whole South has come a long way — and I’ve come a long way. But I didn’t straighten my thinking out till I started writing about it. “The Voice at the Back Door” was my entry into what I really thought.

NT: Did you surprise yourself by writing about race in “The Voice at the Back Door”?

ES: No. I stumbled on it as a theme for a new novel. I had started building these characters up, and I’d even named them and thought that a book about county politics that involved the racial situation would make a good novel. But I think within myself I wanted to tackle all this to see what could be a viable attitude, what might happen if these things were set in motion. And then I seemed to know a lot without realizing I knew it, about small-town and county politics. I guess I’d just heard them talked about all my life. My father was mayor of the town for a long time. I didn’t put that in the book. The less I said about my father, the better because we had such a bad relationship.

NT: You had the sense all along that you were a dutiful daughter and that you were doing what your parents would be proud of, so when you came back and they weren’t interested in “Fire In the Morning” . . .

ES: They were interested! They absolutely went into shock. My father said it was a reflection on my character, and my mother practically had to go to bed. She begged and implored me to take at least one sentence out that had to do with a sexual encounter.

You know, she was so puritanical, that woman. It always struck me as remarkable that she wasn’t a virgin. She never wore makeup, and she believed that even kissing was a terrible sin and you could get terrible infections and disease from it. You know, all that Victorian rigamarole. Not even women of her generation were as strict as she was . . . .

The sad thing is that she was very bright, in the sense that when I was little she read me a lot of good books. She loved movies and she loved stories, all that, you know, but she never questioned that what her parents had done and their parents before them was the right thing. She expected me to come along in the same footprints, and when I didn’t —

NT: You wanted to be a Southerner. You wanted to live in Mississippi.

ES: I had this unfortunate affair with this man who was schizophrenic. When that broke up and the year after my uncle died in a shooting accident, I just quit eating. I was in some kind of clinical depression, though nobody knew that word to say. There was one psychiatrist then in the whole state of Mississippi. If you went to a psychiatrist and people knew it, they thought you’d gone crazy. So I very much wanted to see somebody, but I didn’t, and by the time I got to hospital, I was undernourished, underfed, under- everything.

It took a while to recover from all that. Then I had gotten the Guggenheim, so I put off to Italy. I honestly began to think if I stuck around there any longer with all the things that had gone wrong, with my uncle’s death and my father taking more and more control of things, that things were going to be all up with me in some kind of way.

NT: What gave you the strength to leave? Or was it like fleeing a burning building?

ES: It was, in a way, because the longer I stayed the worse things got. After my uncle died, my father saw his chance and took it. He became so dictatorial it was impossible to think anything.

As long as my uncle was there, he was a leavening force, because my father didn’t really want to risk his disapproval. My mother adored him and everyone did, and he was very humane. But my father was pretty close to being inhuman. He thought of himself as the great Christian. He was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and read the bible all the time. And he gave a lot of money.

NT: I sense you feel you’re still paying a high price for the rupture.

ES: Oh, you always will if your family turns against you. My father disinherited me. I didn’t put that in the book [“Landscapes of the Heart”].

NT: He took you out of his will?

ES: Oh yes, he disinherited me. My brother, too. He just threw us out. He thought that my nephew was sort of a clone of his, and that my nephew would come [to Carrolton] and build a house and be an elder in the Presbyterian Church and raise his children in the Presbyterian Church and support all my father’s charities, and my nephew promised to do it. So we were left high and dry.

That’s kind of a sad life story — except things began to work for me after I got to Italy and starting writing again. And met John [Rusher, her husband]. I guess our years in Canada did drag on a bit too long. We should have left Canada about ten years before we did, but John was doing well up there and liked it.

NT: The title “Fire in the Morning” points to a moral, the evil you can’t see.

ES: It’s a big morality story, isn’t it? One reason my parents were justifiably upset was that without knowing it or intending to, I had put in a bunch of characters that resembled a family at home. I thought it was so well-scrambled up, and altered and concealed that nobody would compare the two, but I was quite mistaken. I made up the crime of that land theft that figures in the story.

When the book came out, there was a man named Sanders Smith in Greenwood, Mississippi, one of those curious Southern intellectuals who knows everything — there’s one in every town in Mississippi. Well, he got me cornered for coffee one day after the book came out and told me the whole story about the land deal that these people had got their money from. And I said, “Well I don’t know anything about it at all.” And he said, “That’s your story and you stick to it.” And so I said, “Sanders, I really didn’t. I made all that up.” He said, “Well then, you wrote truer than you thought.”

Sometimes you can do that. Sometimes people get furious with me. Say there’s about one inch of truth that resembles a real person but you start inventing on that, and the first thing you know you’ve invented the truth. The facts.

NT: One reason I like “The Snare” is the straightforward narrative that gets the characters into a mess, and then you go back a generation to explain how they got into that particular mess. It’s like when a Southerner meets another Southerner, pretty soon one of them says, well, my great-grandfather did so-and-so. Yankees don’t seem to have this.

ES: That’s true. You said where did the evil come from, and I think the evil starts rolling with the grandfather, Dev, Maurice’s father. Walker Percy wrote me about that book. He liked it. He said there’s a genuine whiff of evil about that old Cajun Dev. I was reading from “The Snare” in Natchez, and some people there knew New Orleans. I read the part where he visits his black mistress’s house and I described the house. It was part of a neighborhood I don’t know very well, so I made it up, and somebody in the audience said, “I know that very house, and it’s exactly the way you’ve described it.”

NT: [I]t’s hard to think of evil, because the twistedness that leads to evil is often more evil than the evil that comes after, so how are you going to evaluate it?

ES: Well, I think it’s a presence, and I think it’s definitely more present in some people than others, don’t you? When I think of “The Salt Line,” I think it’s more present in Lex than anybody else, yet he didn’t do anything.

NT: Do you want to write about admirable characters, or why do it at all?

ES: Yes. Because if you don’t choose a character that has some meaning, then you might as well be writing about a black hole. I think Arnie in “The Salt Line” and Julie in “The Snare” and Mary Kerr in “The Night Travellers” have that kind of meaning. I don’t know about “No Place For An Angel.” Those people were doomed to emptiness and it wasn’t a good thing. Except that the book was a portrait of the times, more than anything else. I don’t think Catherine Sasser had the kind of strength the others did. She finally came to a balance, but I don’t think it could inspire you very much.

NT: You said in “Landscapes” that the first stories you believed in, you thought had important outlines. What outline did you feel gave meaning to the stories? Can you describe your bones?

ES: Oh, the structure of things! I have to think of individual stories to think of what that means. There was a story called “The Dark” that’s been anthologized all over the world. But I think people maybe neglect my other stories in favor of that one. Seems to me the structure developed around a young woman who’s about to be encased in the stultifying old South: the beautiful house, the invalid mother, her fading youth, and it was so much in the balance as to whether she was going to get her the hell out of there.

That grew out of a ghost people used to report around Carrolton. My effort was to link the ghost to the ghostliness of the place. You know, the hauntedness. A lot of mothers are demanding like that. I think I put a lot of my bad feelings about my father off on those diabolical mothers.

The question in the story — a lot of things I leave ambiguous in my work, and some people object to that — was that nobody knew whether she killed herself or not, and whether she did or not doesn’t really matter. The fact doesn’t matter. It’s the effect it has on the two people that mattered.

NT: Is the ambiguity part of your feeling that we can’t always know?

ES: We don’t know very much. It’s very difficult to know.

NT: We have to form a theory though, don’t we?

ES: Yes, we have to form theories, but on the other hand we have to know that we can’t know . . . .

NT: I think of you as being a bit prophetic.

ES: I’d like to hope so, but I don’t know if I am.

If I’d stayed down in Mississippi, I think I would have gone mad. I had a lot of letters from people that things had gotten so polarized during the Civil Rights movement you couldn’t say anything. My family did an about-face and turned into very conservative people. It was a tormented time around Mississippi, particularly when President Kennedy had to send troops down to force the entrance of one black man into the university. A lot of my friends were involved in that. I get too worked up about these things and overexcited and probably say things I shouldn’t, and it would make for such turmoil.

NT: When you wrote “Voice at the Back Door,” did you feel you were in some way making atonement? Not personally, but that you were reacting for white Southerners everywhere who had oppressed black people?

ES: Well, certainly I didn’t go out of the way to blame any one person in my own family, but I do think the system was foul and that as my mother used to say, we’ve got a lot to answer for. My father used to say slavery was wrong. But saying that and continuing to follow the pattern that it evolved into is like saying, “That’s wrong but I’m going to do it anyway.”

Yes, writing the book was a gesture. The whole book was a gesture toward rejecting the traditional line of what I had to think. But I’ve always been that way. If someone tells me I have to think some way, I won’t do it.

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1 Comment on "Remembering Elizabeth Spencer: A Conversation"

  1. Who is Nancy Tilly? Does she live in Chapel HIll? I knew a Tilly who lived on Country Club Road (Dolly Tilly?) Wondering if they are related.

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