A Conversation with Jill McCorkle

The Sewanee Review

Winter 2017

Jill McCorkle arrived on the literary scene in 1984, when Algonquin simultaneously published her novels The Cheer Leader and July 7th. She was twenty-six-years-old. Since then, McCorkle has produced four novels and four story collections, most recently the 2013 novel Life After Life. She is a graduate of the Hollins College creative writing program and has taught at UNC-Chapel Hill, Tufts, Brandeis, and Harvard. She is now on the faculty at the Bennington College Writing Seminars. She has been the recipient of the New England Book Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, and the North Carolina Prize for Literature. This fall, she was awarded the Thomas Wolfe Prize from the University of North Carolina.

When we sat down with McCorkle in July 2016, in Nashville, she was traveling from Raleigh, North Carolina to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where she is a member of the faculty. The day before, she had attended a rally for local artists in protest of H.B. 2, the state law restricting public bathroom use based on sexual identity. Then it was off to Sewanee, where the Conference began just a few hours later. We picked up with her the following morning,but if McCorkle felt strained by the demands of her schedule, she didn’t show it. Far from seeking the solitude that many writers treasure, McCorkle possesses a fierce moral sensibility that drives her out of the study and into the world. (In fact, she’d also helped to organize the rally she attended.) In conversation, she is warm, witty, and as unreserved as the vibrant characters that populate her stories.

Alec Hill & Ansley McDurmon


SR: When would you say you found your voice as a writer?


McCorkle: In college, at UNC, when I took a creative writing class with Max Steele. He was wonderful. I will never forget how, on our first day, he had us all go up to the board and draw a horse. One kid went up and sketched the animal from behind, and Max said, “Well, we know who he is.” My horse had enormous ears—really it looked more like a mule—but no mouth. And so Max says, “Oh, she’s a listener”—which was true, it was how I’d operated since I was a child—“We’re going to have to make her talk!” Which was exactly what he did.


SR: That’s a big transition, from listener to speaker. As your career progressed, what other watershed moments did you experience?


McCorkle: One was right after my daughter was born. I wrote the first draft of Ferris Beach while I was pregnant, and I knew as I was writing that the mother character was very thin, not nearly developed enough. At the time, I thought, “Well, I’ll come back to her.” I had been so invested in the daughter Katie’s point of view that I never even considered that of the mother, Cleva. Then I had my daughter, and I embraced the mother’s perspective imaginatively. It really opened up the novel for me in a way that was surprising, allowing me to show the reader the difficulties the mother faces—concerns that Katie is not even aware of.

Max believed that so much in life was directly tied to your relationship with your mother; he used to say, “if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.” The older I get, the more I’m in that camp. Figuring out who you are in relation to your parents is the magic key to life. But it’s also essential to structuring a story or novel. You can find so many conflicts in that core relationship between a mother and child and then allow them to play out. So when I put a mother on the page, I’m determining the narrative’s entire trajectory. If it’s a happy ending for the mother, if she’s landed somewhere hopeful, then she’s come to a place where she knows who she wants to be. And usually that involves her making peace with who she wants her children to be. Which is to say that she’s accepted who they are.


SR: Did you come to UNC determined to become a writer?


McCorkle: Yes, and I found wonderful support when I arrived. Louis Rubin was also my professor there; he read my early work and encouraged me to attend the Hollins College creative writing program, which he’d founded. This was 1980, and back then Hollins was still a one-year program. It felt like this wonderful gift to figure out my writing life. I worked with Richard Dillard and the poet Rosanne Coggeshall, and I just crammed as much in as I could. I did an independent study on Proust—I read three of the seven volumes. I've always sworn I have to go back and finish them! And then I did an independent study of Ulysses. It was such a nurturing atmosphere because it was small. There were maybe ten of us.

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