Story after story, McCorkle tells about life

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 20, 2013

SALISBURY — North Carolina author Jill McCorkle will bring her wit and work to Salisbury Friday for the Rowan Public Library Foundation Literary Feast.
Her latest book, “Life After Life,” won praise from critics and readers for its heartfelt exploration of the ending chapters of life. Her characters became real to readers and her twist at the end brought a lot of response.
McCorkle took a few minutes the other day to talk about her work and writing.
“Life After Life” came out at the same time as another book with exactly the same title, “Life After Life,” by Kate Atkinson. It got most of the critics’ attention, but it didn’t ruin McCorkle’s novel, either.
McCorkle said she was “pretty devastated when I first heard it. I had that title in mind for over three years. I researched it. I knew a nonfiction book came out years ago with the title. It was a surprise to the Little, Brown (publishers) people, too.” Atkinson’s book was on the bestseller list. “At the end of the day, a lot of people have bought me by mistake.” Maybe that was a good thing.
McCorkle is teaching two classes at N.C. State University, one undergraduate and one graduate-level course, and she still sometimes teaches at the low-residency program in Bennington, Vt. “I was one of the founding faculty members there,” she says, “and I’m a part of a community there that I didn’t want to give up.”
She’s always working on something, “There’s always something going on in the back of my mind. I take lots of notes and store them up for a big block of time,” which she’s looking forward to in the spring, when she’s not teaching as much. She has a new novel she’s started.
“I’m always writing short stories or essays,” she says, and she’s surprised more people haven’t embraced the style. “Given the attention span of our society … I was so excited when Alice Munroe won the Nobel Prize” since Munroe is known for her well-crafted short stories. McCorkle, too, is known for her short stories.
McCorkle has a room at home where she does her work, so “I can leave papers spread everywhere.” She reads newspapers and marks on them and lays the bits out. She writes on a computer, but starts in longhand first.
She’s always drawn to invitations from schools and libraries, but the library above all “because you know you’re with readers.” She plans to talk about the novel and what inspired it and read some of it. “Salisbury is a beautiful town,” she says. Library people love and read books and value what goes into the making of a book. “For a writer, there’s nothing more satisfying than those people who gather at the library.”
“Life After Life” will strike a familiar chord for people going through end-of-life issues with their loved ones, but McCorkle realized it could be depressing. She wrote “the book I wanted to write; I’m always writing what I’d like to read. I wanted to write this for a long, long time. I wasn’t old enough or ready or stimulated enough.”
The idea was born when her father died 20 years ago and she was sitting with him. “It was my first interaction with hospice workers and I tell people, as a young person, life is going to yield from the hard parts … but you keep on going, paying bills, working. … I wanted to write about memories from each of the people you meet.” Her mother has Alzheimer’s disease. “A million things break your heart, but if you stay in place, things a little funny or joyful happen. Life is still there. In many ways I felt like it was a patchwork quilt of elements. I was lucky to grow up with these elements.”
She was relieved and happy when she got positive reaction from people in elder care or hospice. “My greatest fear was not doing these people justice.”
In the book is a young woman, C.J., who was barely raised by her alcoholic mother and now has a son, born of too many one-night encounters. C.J. is tough, but caring, and seems almost able to break out of her already scarred life.
McCorkle does something to C.J. that shocked and saddened some readers. “I knew C.J. was representative of that segment of our society that in many ways is invisible, tragic, on the edge, forgotten.” She also wanted to have C.J. as contrast to the other people in the book, like Sadie, who drifts happily to her last moments. “I knew C.J. would be a victim of our society.”
But, she says, “I keep telling people who have asked that I often do cameos of characters in other work. I keep them out there. I am already planning in the next novel ways I’m going to shed light on what has happened.”
When she’s not grading student papers or writing, she likes to read other Southern authors, like Jayne Anne Phillips’ new novel, “Quiet Dell”; Allan Gurganus’ “Local Souls” and colleague Wilton Barnhardt’s “Lookaway, Lookaway.” But sometimes, all she wants to do is get in bed and look at catalogs. “The catalog is a grown-up comic book,” she laughs.
McCorkle will be part of the Literary Feast sponsored by the Rowan Public Library Foundation on Friday, Oct. 25, 6:30-9 p.m. at the Salisbury Civic Center. Tickets are $75 per person or $500 for a table of eight, all to benefit the foundation.
Attendees may buy a hardcover copy of “Life After Life” signed by McCorkle who will be available to personalize copies after the event.
Please call 704-216-8231 or email to reserve tickets.