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Passing the Pen: Generations of Southern Authors

Photo by John Rosenthal

Elizabeth Spencer on Eudora Welty

I had a long friendship (fifty years) with Eudora and don’t think I could do better now than to quote from my memoir, Landscapes of the Heart.

“For Eudora life is lived close to the everyday detail of it, but it isn’t boring.  Nothing is too small to be noticed, and once noticed, there is nothing that can’t also be extraordinary. The best way to catch her quality is to be in her company, but next best is to read her . . . Are many writers like what they write? I don’t think so, but she is.” (p. 202)

“An amazing aspect of Eudora’s life is how personal, despite her fame, she is able to keep all her relationships. It never seems to enter her mind to be anything but her own Jackson, Mississippi, self.  This intimate quality enters into her writing and gives it much of its appeal; when we compare it with the work of others of considerable note, it seems all the more singular, a gift.” (p. 168)


Photo by Bryan Regan Photography

Lee Smith on Elizabeth Spencer

I first met Elizabeth Spencer on the page, introduced to her fiction by my professor Louis D. Rubin in his Southern Literature class at Hollins College. I ended up writing my senior thesis on her work. I admired both her artistry and her bravery, for even back in 1956, Elizabeth had not been afraid to deal with the forbidden theme of racism in her compelling novel, The Voice at the Back Door, which caused her to become estranged from her family and ostracized in Mississippi, sending her into exile. But my own reaction to her work was not a political, ethical, or literary response. Instead it was very personal, that kind of thud you get in your gut when something really important happens. In those early years when I was struggling so hard to find a way to be a writer (without killing myself and my whole family in the process) it seemed to me that Elizabeth Spencer articulated my own feelings (often dark, inchoate, and scary—surely no one had ever felt this way before!). If I read her fiction enough, maybe I could make it work. Maybe I could get my unruly self pinned down on a page; I never once kidded myself that I would ever write stories so filled with order and grace. But maybe I could be some kind of a writer after all.

Amazingly, this happened. And even more amazingly, many years later, Elizabeth Spencer moved with her husband, John Rusher, to Chapel Hill, where I live. I couldn’t believe it! She actually became my friend, always good for a glass of wine and a giggly, gossipy “girl” lunch. At first, the more I saw of Elizabeth, the more I stood in awe of her. A great beauty, always impeccable, dressed to the nines, she proved to be every inch a lady in the grand tradition: a great hostess who effortlessly puts everyone else at ease, a brilliant conversationalist on just about any topic, a faithful community volunteer, an active parishioner at the Chapel of the Cross, an avid and experienced traveler. And yet she kept on working, always working, writing those daring and serious stories which dive below consciousness, drawing us out of our comfortable selves and down into strange places; we come back different, changed. We know more. This is the very purpose of fiction, I believe: to take us someplace else, to open up the world for us to other possibilities, to make us acknowledge our dark selves as well as our dutiful ones. It is not easy to be such a traveler, or such a writer, and yet live with grace in the world. Elizabeth Spencer has served as a peerless example, and a fearless guide. I am so lucky—and grateful—to know her.


Photo by Tom Rankin

Jill McCorkle on Lee Smith

I first met Lee Smith in 1978 when I was in her intermediate-level fiction workshop at UNC–Chapel Hill. My earlier teacher and then director of the program, Max Steele, had told me that he had put me in the class of the new teacher—a young, wonderful writer they were all thrilled to have join the department. On the first day of class, twelve of us sat around a big conference table talking about other classes and ballgames and bars and stifling hot dorm rooms; after a while, we started looking at our watches and wondering where the teacher was. We were used to slightly older English grad students sitting in on these workshops, so it never occurred to us that our teacher had been there the whole time, actively participating in all of the discussions. There she was, blue jeans and wild blonde hair springing from under a kerchief she had tied at the back of her neck. “The teacher?!” she screamed. “Well, I’m the teacher!” And what a teacher she was.

That was the beginning of a fun and thriving semester for all of us. I still have all of my pieces returned to me with her loose, generous script filling the margins. I learned so much about writing just listening to her talk about other writers and about her own work when questioned. Her novel Black Mountain Breakdown came out that year, and so we all felt privy to the whole publishing experience and great excitement around it. Lee’s generosity went way beyond anyone’s expectations and has continued for me to this day. I left that class having learned a lot and also gained a lifetime mentor and friend. Lee still reads my work in its early stages, and she still will scream with enthusiasm or shock or disbelief like no one else I know. I thanked Max Steele many times after for placing me in that class, and I have tried as a teacher to give back all that I witnessed that term.


Photo by KPO Photo

Sarah Dessen on Jill McCorkle

Jill McCorkle was the second writing teacher I had at UNC-Chapel Hill, after Doris Betts. While they could not have been more different, I learned so much from each of them. With Jill, it was always about giving yourself time to get into the swing of the story. She often told us that we should consider cutting the first full page of anything we wrote, as it often consisted of nothing but trying to get the nerve up to start. This was especially true for me (I overwrite, always, thank goodness for great editors), and I still think of her each time I am starting a draft and find myself spinning my wheels for a few paragraphs. I love how Jill always let us know writing wasn’t always easy or perfect for her, either. That was a great gift to get when I was just starting out.