Books

May 30, 2014

What is Elizabeth Spencer doing with her $30,000?

The remarkable author from Chapel Hill is 92. She won an award for her short stories.

Curiosity got the better of me.

I’d been wondering how novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Spencer of Chapel Hill is spending the $30,000 windfall from her recent Rea Award for the Short Story. Her house is on a large corner lot, she said, and she has used a chunk of the money to hire a gardening service to spiff up her yard with impatiens and ivy.

“I don’t really feel at my age like doing a whole lot,” she said. “This is a wonderful relief.”

Spencer, who’s 92, would rather talk writing than gardening. Although she won the Rea Award for her short stories – she’s published six collections, including the latest, “Starting Over” – she reminded me that she has “some very good novels that are very much in print.” Indeed, she does. She wrote the novella, “The Light in the Piazza,” which was made into a movie, and she has also published seven novels.

Spencer, a native of Carrollton, Miss., told me she had the good fortune to go to a very small women’s college in Jackson, Miss. – Belhaven – and who should live right across the street but Eudora Welty, who wasn’t then very well-known.

“So one Saturday,” Spencer said, “several of us who were writing got our courage up and asked if she would come over and meet with us. She came, and we had a good meeting, and we formed a little club.” That was the beginning of a very long friendship between the two writers. When Spencer began to publish, she said Welty was one of her main supporters.

I wondered if Spencer subscribed to Welty’s notion about the ending of a short story. Welty once said that before she wrote a story, she knew the beginning and the ending, as if it were plucked whole from her mind, like a thorn in the thumb ready for release.

The late Doris Betts, on the other hand, said she had no idea of a story’s ending when she set out to write. Spencer’s approach is not to plan too far ahead or “the story is liable to take a direction in a way you don’t want it to go.”

At story’s end, she said, “somehow the weight of the whole thing is coming to fruition. She said she likes what Hillsborough writer Allan Gurganus says – that a story is “achieved,” that at the end you feel that you’ve “wound it up.”

I’m eager to read Spencer’s “Starting Over.” Malcolm Jones in the New York Times says the nine stories are set in the South, concentrate on families, most from small towns, “and the bonds that characterize, constrict and sometimes sustain the people who claim kin with one another.”

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