One life to live

Bookends: Author Jill McCorkle says that in her latest novel she was “interested in representing that intersection of life and death.”
Bookends: Author Jill McCorkle says that in her latest novel she was “interested in representing that intersection of life and death.”

“To be in the middle of a novel that’s going somewhere is the best feeling,” says North Carolina-born author Jill McCorkle. That’s definitely the case for readers, but McCorkle is talking about writing. Specifically, about writing Life After Life, her first novel in 17 years.

Not that McCorkle (who attended the University of North Carolina, studied with Lee Smith at the beginning of Smith’s teaching career, and had her first two novels published, simultaneously, by Chapel Hill-based Algonquin Books in ’84) hasn’t been writing. She’s published three short story collections since ’98. “I love the short story form, I find it incredibly challenging,” McCorkle says “The novel requires more head time. When you’re raising teenagers, that’s not necessarily a good thing. The short story fits life better.”

But, in a way, she’s been writing Life for the past two decades. The book opens with Joanna, a hospice worker whose troubled life leads her back to her hometown where she makes peace with her father just before he dies. Joanna sits with the dying, recording their final moments into a notebook. “Twenty years ago, when I was sitting with my dad as he was dying, remains the most moving thing I’ve witnessed,” says McCorkle. “I was sitting there in a situation of total grief, but part of me was amazed at the process of a human body shutting down, and also amazed that life doesn’t stop for a minute.”

All of which sounds poignant, if depressing. In fact, Life is the former but not the latter. The end-of-life moments, scattered throughout the book, share space with a host of fascinating and flawed characters. The stories of these people — Toby, the school teacher;  Ben, the would-be magician; Rachel, the retired lawyer; C.J., the kind-but-damaged manicurist — are knitted together at odd angles that reveal the opposing accents and ideals of North versus South, conservative versus liberal and, ultimately, a dark twist.

The first character who came to McCorkle was Stanley, one of the residents of retirement community Pine Haven. After his wife passes away, Stanley conceives of the plan to fake dementia in order to escape the clutches of his needy adult son. Part of the fake dementia for the formerly buttoned-down Stanley is an obsession with the Wrestling Federation. “My son, in early adolescence, was very interested in professional wrestling, so a couple of times I took the boys to witness these events,” says McCorkle. “We started joking about how funny it would be if you had some dignified person who really got into it and tried to posture and act like these guys.”

The wrestling idea warranted a note; other inspirations were also jotted down over the years. “I literally had a huge tote bag that was full of scraps of paper,” says McCorkle. Each scrap led to several pages of writing: “My notes are place holders for something bigger,” the author explains.

Even as McCorkle organized her notes into Life, her own life turned up plenty of complications. She dealt with a family illness. She moved from Boston, where she’d lived for 20 years, back to N.C. And, while McCorkle suspects that if she’d had large blocks of leisure time for her writing, “this would have been a different novel,” it’s hard to imagine, at Life’s breathless conclusion, that it could have been any better.

Part of the success of this new work of fiction might have to do with the steadfast elements surrounding McCorkle. “I’ve had one agent, one editor and one publisher,” she says of her nearly 30-year career. She calls her affiliation with Algonquin “the longest relationship I’ve had in my life” and, while that’s rare in the publishing industry, McCorkle says, “I haven’t had a reason to look elsewhere. That contentment has allowed me to focus on the writing.”

As happy as McCorkle seems to be to have returned to the novel form, her fans are, no doubt, even more thrilled. The N.C. author is not just a skilled spinner of tales, but an important voice in Southern literature (Understanding Jill McCorkle, by lit professor Barbara Bennett, was published in 2000) — a genre McCorkle herself believes is still alive and well.

“There is such a solid history because Southern literature is so rooted in that sense of place and the art of storytelling,” she says. “The language that’s particular to the South does still exist.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

what: Local Matters Bookclub will discussing Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life at Malaprop’s on Monday, April 15. 7 p.m. All interested readers are welcome to join.
what: Jill McCorkle reading and booksigning at Malaprop’s on Monday, April 22 (7 p.m., free. http://www.malaprops.com)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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