Elizabeth Spencer

2013 Rea Award Winner Elizabeth Spencer


Elizabeth Spencer is the author of eight short story collections and nine novels. Starting Over (2014) is her most recent collection of stories. Other short story book titles include Ship Island and Other Stories (1968); The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer (1981); Marilee (1981); Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories (1988); On the Gulf (1991); The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales (1996); The Southern Woman: New and Selected Fiction (2001).

The Light in the Piazza (1960) was made into a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie in 1962 starring Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton. The Light in the Piazza was also made into a play and opened on Broadway at Lincoln Center in 2005 winning six Tony Awards. The play toured nationwide until 2007 and is still performed in various locales. Spencer also wrote the play For Lease or Sale (1989).

The Voice at the Back of the Door (1956), Spencer’s novel about racial tension in the South was recommended by the Pulitzer Prize Board in 1957. Other novels include Fire in the Morning (1948); This Crooked Way (1952); Knights and Dragons (1965); No Place For an Angel (1967); The Snare (1972); The Salt Line (1984) and The Night Travelers (1991).

Elizabeth Spencer was born, brought up and educated in Mississippi. She went to Vanderbilt for a graduate degree and worked in Nashville, TN. She later moved to Oxford, Mississippi where she taught at the University of Mississippi. In 1953 she won a Guggenheim Fellowship and went to Italy for working on a new novel. While writing in Rome she met and married John Rusher of Cornwall, England. They moved to Canada in 1958 where she taught writing at Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec from 1976 to 1986. In 1986 the Rushers moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina where Elizabeth taught creative writing at the University of North Carolina until her retirement in 1992. Her husband died in 1998. Spencer still resides in Chapel Hill.

Landscapes of the Heart (1998), a memoir, became the basis of a documentary film entitled Landscapes of the Heart: The Elizabeth Spencer Story. Spencer writes of her work, her life and her long friendship with Eudora Welty, who has said of her work: It has never been doubted that Elizabeth Spencer knows the small, Southern, backwoods hilltown down to the bone. This she transforms by the accuracy of her eye and ear, talent and a certain prankish gaiety of spirit into a vital and absorbing novel.

Five times included in the O. Henry Prize Stories, Elizabeth Spencer has received numerous awards notably the PEN/Malamud Award for the Short Story in 2007. Other awards include the Recognition Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1952; the Kenyon Review Fiction Fellowship (1956-57), the First Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1957; the Bellaman Award (1968); the Award of Merit Medal for the Short Story from the American Academy in 1983; National Endowments for the Arts Fellowship (1983); the National Endowment for the Arts Senior Fellowship in Literature Grant (1988); the John Dos Passos Award for Literature (1992); the North Carolina Governor’s Award for Literature (1992); The William Faulkner Medal for Literary Excellence, awarded by the Faulkner House Society, New Orleans (2002). Spencer was presented with the 2014 Sidney Lanier Prize for Southern Literature on April 12 at Mercer University, Macon, Georgia.

Elizabeth Spencer was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1985 and inducted into the North Carolina Hall of Fame for Literature in 2002. She is also a member of PEN Center USA, the Author’s Guild, and is a Charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her stories appear regularly in numerous publications including the Atlantic Monthly, the Southern Review, and The New Yorker.