Author Helen Norris Bell (1916-2013) served as Poet Laureate of Alabama from 1999 to 2003. She gained recognition in four genres of writing, producing four novels; two books of poetry; four collections of stories; and two one-act plays. Her stories were included in 18 anthologies and numerous journals, including the Virginia Quarterly Review, Sewanee Review, Southern Review, and Stories. Predominant themes in Norris’s work include abandonment and isolation of children and the aging. Both readers and live audiences praised her narrative voice as distinctive and enchanting. Her work has been translated into numerous languages.
Norris was born in Miami, Florida, on June 22, 1916, to Elmer and Louise Norris. She had three younger brothers. When Helen was eight months old, the family left Miami and moved to her father’s home state of Alabama, where he purchased a 500-acre farm in east Montgomery County. According to Norris, the farm was home to hundreds of livestock, including cattle, mules, chickens, and turkeys. Indeed, Norris later noted that her skill at grading and selling turkey eggs helped pay for her college education. When Elmer Norris retired, he sold the farm to Barber’s Dairy. Both parents were well educated, with Elmer Norris being a graduate of Amherst College and Louise Norris graduating from Wellesley College. As soon as her children could speak, Louise taught them to quote Chaucer, and this home environment nurtured in Norris a keen literary intellect. As a child, she wrote “novels” and stories in a composition book she labeled The Children’s Story Book: Milton Twins and Other Stories. Norris attended Cloverdale Elementary and Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery.
In 1934, Norris entered the University of Alabama (UA) in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, and earned a degree in English in 1938. By then she had already earned enough credits to receive a master’s degree as well. That spring, however, Hudson Strode, the renowned professor of creative writing at UA, approached Norris about coming back in the fall to study creative writing. He wanted to be the first teacher in the Southeast to have a student who earned a master’s degree with a work of creative writing instead of a thesis. A noted writer himself, Strode mentored many young Alabama writers.
Norris went home that summer of 1938 with her assignment from Strode: decide on a subject for a novel. During the next two years of study at the University of Alabama with Strode, Norris’s writing flourished. Her completed manuscript, Something More Than Earth, won second place in Atlantic Monthly Press’s $10,000 biennial novel contest and was published by renowned literary publisher Atlantic/Little Brown in 1940. She indeed had become the first person in a southern college or university to have a work of creative writing (a novel) accepted in lieu of a thesis for a master of arts degree. The novel centers on conflicted relationships among people as well as their relationship to the land in a cotton-farming town in Alabama.
Also in 1940, Norris married Thomas Reuben Bell Jr., who had just graduated from the University of Alabama with a law degree. Bell’s career in the military required frequent moves during the early years of their marriage, but the couple eventually settled in Sylacauga, Talladega County, after Bell took a job as an executive at Avondale Mills. While continuing to write, Norris largely focused on raising her two children, Tommy and DeeDee. She produced a novel, For the Glory of God, first published in 1958, which details both the spiritual pilgrimage of young minister Carl Redman, who comes to the fictional town of Canville to serve his first parish, and that of an older parishioner whose heart is filled with bitterness. That same year, the Bell family was struck by a great tragedy: DeeDee was killed by a car at the age of 13 while riding a bike with a friend. The Norrises subsequently divorced.
In 1965, Norris began doctoral studies in English at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. In 1966, she started teaching English at Huntingdon College, Montgomery, and would return to UA for further doctoral study in 1970. She taught literature in her first years but soon added creative writing classes. In 1979, she retired with emeritus status.
Her next novel, More Than Seven Watchmen, was published in 1985; it won the Gold Medallion Book Award from the Christian Book Association in 1986. Walk with the Sickle Moon, was also published in 1985. Around this time, Norris decided to turn to short stories and in preparation began deliberately writing poems. She noted in interviews that she liked the short-story form because it had to have the depth of a novel but the focus of a poem. As a result, her short stories were as lyrical as her poetry. In 1985, Norris published her first collection of short stories, The Christmas Wife: Stories, with the University of Illinois Press. Her second collection, Water Into Wine: Stories, was published in 1988. Also that year, her short story “The Christmas Wife,” the title story from her collection, was produced by HBO as a film of the same name, starring Jason Robards and Julie Harris.
In 1991, Norris published an essay, “The Self and the Matrix of Fiction,” solicited by George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review, after she had presented it as a lecture at the University of Arkansas. In the piece, she wrote that while some fiction writers mine their own life for material, others, including herself, write to forget. She has stated that she had no interest in writing about herself and the intimate details of the lives of her friends and family and chose subjects and locales outside her own world to explore in fiction. In 1992, she published her second collection of short stories, The Burning Glass. In 1999, Auburn University filmmakers Bruce Kuerten and John DiJulio adapted a story from that collection, “The Cracker Man,” for the Public Broadcasting System. Norris also published two award-winning collections of poetry: Whatever Is Round (1994) and Rain Pulse (1997).
In 1999, Norris was elected Poet Laureate of Alabama by the Alabama Writers Conclave, serving until 2003. She published her fourth and final collection of short fiction, One Day in the Life of a Born-Again Loser and Other Stories, with the University of Alabama Press in spring 2000 and that same year won the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year.
Other recognitions for her writing include the videotaping by the Library of Congress of Norris reading three of her stories as well as four O. Henry Awards, a Pushcart Prize, the Hackney Award from the Alabama Writers Conclave, and two Andrew Lytle Awards for her short fiction, among others. Of ten one-act plays that she wrote, one was produced at Huntingdon College and another by the Alabama Writers Conclave. Some of her stories were translated into Chinese, Polish, Dutch, and Tamil. She was also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1985. That same year, she was named a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, an artist’s retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire. She spent a second residency there in July 1986 and in August completed a competitive residency at Yaddo, an artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, New York.
In 2003, Norris moved to an assisted living center in Black Mountain, North Carolina, where she was popular among the caregiving staff for reciting poems and telling stories. She died on November 18, 2013, at the age of 97. She was elected posthumously to the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame at the University of Alabama in its inaugural class in 2015.
Works by Helen Norris
Something More than Earth (1940)
For the Glory of God (1958)
More than Seven Watchmen (1985)
The Christmas Wife: Stories (1985)
Walk with the Sickle Moon (1985)
Water into Wine (1988)
The Burning Glass (1992)
Whatever Is Round (1994)
Rain Pulse (1997)
One Day in the Life of a Born Again Loser (2000)
Caton, Bill. “Helen Norris Bell: Where It Comes From.” In Fighting Words: Words on Writing from 21 of the Heart of Dixie’s Best Contemporary Authors, edited by Bill Caton and Bert Hitchcock, 108-15. Montgomery: Black Belt Press, 1995.
Norris, Helen. “Stalking an Early Life.” In The Remembered Gate: Memoirs by Alabama Authors, edited by Jay Lamar and Jeanie Thompson, 80-95. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.
Snell, Susan. “Helen Norris (1916- ).” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, 333-41. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Specker, Lawrence. “Former Poet Laureate Helen Norris Offers Insight Into Fiction Writing.” Al.com, August 23, 2011; http://blog.al.com/entertainment-press-register/2011/08/former_poet_laureate_helen_nor.html.
Thompson, Kathleen. In An Ageless Bewilderment: The Matrix of Helen Norris’s Fiction. Personal Interview for the Extended Critical Essay, MFA in Writing, Spalding University, 2003.