Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

An Interview with Elizabeth Spencer

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

An Interview with Elizabeth Spencer

Article excerpt

On the rainy afternoon of February 19, 1993, Elizabeth Spencer kindly allowed me to come to her home to ask some questions about her work. Especially valuable were her comments on The Night Travellers, which has been written about and discussed fairly little as yet. As the interview reveals, Spencer resists being labelled "detached" because she feels a special closeness and identification with many of her characters. But I think that we as readers share her closeness because of this detachment, a quality of Spencer's fiction that Eudora Welty pointed out more than twenty years ago. Spencer mentions a period of feeling alienated, as do many of her protagonists, from the world in which she grew up, and she says that if she had not broken free from this society she would have probably been a person much like Marilee. In order to break free, she must have had, at one time, to detach herself from the emotional ties that bind one to home just as her characters do; reflecting, then, the experience of both author and characters, the stories become more authentic and affecting.

Tina Entzminger: I wanted to ask you about the detachment that Eudora Welty mentioned in the introduction to The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer. Is that detachment intentional?

Elizabeth Spencer: I never was aware of it. I know when that introduction to my stories came out I was terribly pleased, but I can't think of myself being very detached from my characters - especially central characters. They have trouble relating sometimes, but I don't think I'm detached from them. But, you know, critics are in one world and writers are in another. So you're the critic now and you have to find your way in what you do with the material.

TE: So do you feel very close to the characters? Do you feel very empathetic with your characters?

ES: Well, I do really. I feel, like an actor in a play, that I take on the identity of the character when I'm writing the story, especially those stories your mentioned ["Ship Island," "Jean-Pierre," and "I, Maureen"]. The "I, Maureen" story - well, I never had nervous breakdowns or a need to escape, but you have to go back to what started you on a story. When we were first in Canada, in Montreal, we were living in an area called Lakeshore. There were a number of younger couples out that way and the husbands worked in town and commuted. It's the same problem there as it is anywhere except the winters were very long there and some of those women out there that I knew - I didn't have that problem, because I was working myself on writing - the ones who didn't work who were just house-bound seemed to get all kinds of strange neuroses, wanting to get away. The other thing was that Montreal as a city - you see that in the story "Jean-Pierre" - is divided between the west and the east. The west is mainly English-speaking and the east is a multi-racial, rather lower-class part of Montreal, where you felt completely different about life. And so her flight meant she was changing her lifestyle and approach to life. So that's sort of getting hold of what the city meant, both in "Jean-Pierre" and "I, Maureen." But the women in each story have different problems, don't they? Each feels alienated, but for different reasons. So I think maybe what comes about in each story is how people can't relate to the society they've found themselves in. And in that experience I'm not detached at all. I felt it very strongly when I was growing up, and I don't think that's detachment to identify yourself with your characters you're writing about, even though they're not yourself.

TE: Right.

ES: (Laughs) If you find I'm detached you'll have to go on your own. Maybe you are thinking of those early novels I wrote. Have you read those?

TE: I've read The Voice at the Back Door.

ES: I know Eudora read my early work and she may have been referring to that novel because I tried in it to take a detached attitude toward racial problems, you know, and not really take any one side. …

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