Elizabeth Spencer

Writers are not like wine; most do not improve with age. For many, their first book is their best; others hit their height mid-career. The number who reach their peak – or rediscover it – in old age is vanishingly small.

Which is another reason why we are so lucky to have Elizabeth Spencer. Since publishing the first of her nine novels in 1948, and eight collections of stories, she has won rafts of literary honors including a PEN/Malamud Award, five O. Henry prizes, and above all, the deep respect of her fellow authors. And now, at 92, she has given us her very best once more, the aptly named story collection Starting Over.

Most of the nine stories are set in familiar territory – most are set in the south and focus on small town families whose members wrestle with the blessings and curses of kin and community. But this is not a greatest hits collection. “Spencer breaks all the old rules if she has to about how to tell a story,” writes Alan Cheuse, “shifting points of view, inserting flashbacks in the middle of a fragile tale about the present in order to get at a necessary and beautifully revealed truth about the past. It's relation to the present. And as she puts it, the whole flawed fabric of human relations.”

In his New York Times review, Malcolm Jones states, “Spencer’s great gift is her ability to take ordinariness and turn it inside out, to find focus in a muddle. She constructs her stories out of gossip and old memories and anecdotes not so much for their own sakes but as a means of locating the mysteries about people, the things that don’t add up. She’s more interested in the subterranean emotions, the half-forgotten grudges, the ancient allegiances that animate every family’s history. And she’s interested in how time changes things, sometimes because we can’t escape the past, but just as often because we can’t reclaim it. … Elizabeth Spencer seems to have spent her life watching, observing, always paying close attention, and for her it’s the whole truth or nothing. As far as I can tell, she never missed a thing. Judging from the stories in her latest collection, she’s not about to start now.”

It’s almost enough – but not quite – to make one agree with David Ulin who says that Spencer’s collection suggests “that, as with the imagination, there is no limit to a writer's longevity, that — in some cases at least — insight remains, or grows sharper, with age.”

Lucky me I’ll be able to first-hand on Saturday when I interview Elizabeth, and her dear friend, the novelist and critic Terry Roberts, in Raleigh. She will be back in the Oak City on Sunday to read at Quail Ridge Books.

 Elizabeth Spencer’s Top Ten List

1. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860–61).
2. The Hamlet by William Faulkner (1940).
3. Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding (1742).
4. The Red and the Black by Stendhal (1830).
5. The stories of Eudora Welty (1909–2001).
6. On the Eve by Ivan Turgenev (1860).
7. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster (1905).
8. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (1997).
9. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934).
10. The Professor’s House by Willa Cather (1925).