A Q&A With Jill McCorkle, Author of #1 April Indie Next List Pick Life After Life

One of the two #1 picks for the April 2013 Indie Next List is Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life (Algonquin/A Shannon Ravenel Book), which introduces readers to the world of Pine Haven Estates, a retirement community in Fulton, North Carolina. It’s here that the characters revisit old memories that allow them to explore the meaning of their lives up until the time of their deaths. Delivered with wit and sensitivity, McCorkle illuminates the possibilities of second chances, hope, and the grace that appears often when we least expect it.

McCorkle’s work has been honored with the New England Booksellers Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. She has taught at Tufts University, University of North Carolina, Duke University, Harvard University, and Bennington College, and currently teaches at North Carolina State University. McCorkle has written five novels, as well as several short story collections. Life After Life is her first novel in 17 years.

McCorkle recently spoke to Bookselling This Week about the genesis of the novel, the process of bringing her characters to life, and the reasons behind many authorial decisions.

BTW: Life After Life explores the moments leading up to a person’s death and how the experience affects those around them. How did you choose this as your subject, and what did your research process entail?

Jill McCorkle: The initial idea came to me 20 years ago, when I was with my dad as he was dying. I was kind of amazed at how so many things were happening at once. I was there as a daughter, but also as an observer of the human body. It’s amazing how we think life should yield when we’re going through something like this but it doesn’t at all. Everyday life continues. Through all of this, I kept wondering what was going through my dad’s mind.

This was also my first experience being around hospice nurses and volunteers. This novel has been a long time coming, but that was the research I did, being present during that time.

BTW: The novel brings a colorful cast of characters to life — from Sadie, the retired third grade teacher who maintains that we’re all “forever eight years old,” to Stanley, who fakes his own dementia. Which character were you most invested in, or which was the most enjoyable to write?

JM: It’s really hard to pick just one! For the most part, I hoped to find a part of myself, or pretty close, in most of them. If I was really pinned down and had to pick one, it would be Sadie. I see her as the ideal — what I’d aspire to be at the end of it all. She spent her life in a third grade classroom, an arena our society might not see as being as important as she sees it. For her, the classroom represents the whole world. I had a lot of fun with her –– she had what looked like a simple, ordinary life from the outside and I hoped to give her a bigger platform.

BTW: The novel features the final thoughts of those who are dying, as well as the notes of Joanna, a hospice volunteer who is present during their deaths. Why did you choose to include both perspectives?

JM: Well, I really wanted to try as best I could to pin down that moment of intersection, of Joanna as the witness, and the people that are dying.

As a writer, I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to introduce sound or something going on in the present that connects with something that the characters remember from the past. Joanna writes about the sound of the flag clanging against the flagpole, and in the mind of the dying person, the sound brings her back to the memory of being on a passenger boat. At another point, Joanna writes about a cardinal outside the window making the sound “cheer, cheer, cheer,” but what the woman is remembering is her husband saying “here, here, here.” It was important for me to write about those sensory connections being made at the end of a person’s life.

BTW: While it is largely a novel about death and dying, the book provides many humorous moments without cheapening the characters’ experiences. How were you able to find this balance?

JM: Thank you for that. That had been my mission — that they not be cheapened, and I didn’t want to make light of their situations. I’m a big believer that even in the most difficult circumstances, people continue to say or do things that are humorous. My mother now has dementia and I see her and other people living in her hall, and I see a lot of sadness. But every time I visit, I see at least one thing that makes me laugh. I think laughter enables us to handle the harder, darker parts. I didn’t want them to come off as cartoons, and the revision process helped with that. Sometimes when I start writing a humorous character or moment, they are way over the top. During revision, I can usually rein it in.

With Stanley Stone, I wanted him to be over the top, and my first version was more so. At first, I had him wearing Speedos and a wife-beater. But then once I had his voice on the page, I realized I didn’t need those props.

BTW: Life After Life also offers insights on the importance of making peace. However, not all of the stories presented in the novel end happily, or with a definite sense of closure. What were your reasons for doing this, and what do you think is the effect on readers?

JM: Well, I made that choice because I wanted a realistic portrait, and I think there are many stories in life that don’t find a happy resolution. I also am someone who believes that a resolution can sometimes just be an acceptance of truth, so sometimes it’s a more favorable ending if it’s initially difficult to accept.

Even if it’s sad, when humans come to a place where they have a clear vision of what is true, it has more substance. My hope is that readers will be reminded of people they have known or witnessed in life that have a similar story. I left a lot of things open-ended so people can identify with the stories. I think if it tied up neatly, it would be harder to bring ideas and memories to the stage.

Watch for an interview with Kate Atkinson, the author of April’s other #1 Indie Next List pick, Life After Life: A Novel (Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur Books), coming soon.