HILLSBOROUGH — Author Jill McCorkle finds stories in the aisles at Harris Teeter and among the spectators at professional wrestling shows – in other words, anywhere and everywhere.
“I always tell my students if you walk around with your eyes and ears open, you can’t possibly live long enough to write all the novels you’ll encounter,” McCorkle said in a phone interview from her home in Hillsborough.
The Lumberton native, who teaches creative writing at N.C. State, is in a good position to know. McCorkle has just published “Life After Life,” her sixth novel with Chapel Hill-based Algonquin Books and her first in 17 years. She launches a series of Triangle events for the book Monday
The novel, set in the fictional town of Fulton, N.C., tells multiple stories in a narrative that brims with voices, humor, honesty and heartbreak.
The voices include those of characters like Sadie and Stanley, former neighbors whose careers commanded respect in town and who both have landed in apartments in a retirement village.
There’s Joanna, the hospice worker who has found her own voice through recording vignettes about the dying in a notebook.
And, among others, there’s the voice of Abby, a soon-to-be 13-year-old who is one of the novel’s younger characters.
In the retirement village, where Abby spends much of her after-school time, she finds the friendship and all-encompassing love that largely are missing from her life – and along with those, lessons in living that are sometimes on the salty side.
It is “the depth of its characterizations” and “Jill’s trademark mix of drama and humor” that make “Life After Life” outstanding, said Shannon Ravenel, McCorkle’s longtime editor and director of her own imprint under Algonquin, Shannon Ravenel Books.
“And those are the qualities that have served her fiction so well from the very beginning,” added Ravenel, former editorial director with Algonquin. “This is a novel in which the author disappears from the reader’s view to such an extent that the story seems to find its own course.”
The course of the story was some 20 years in the making, McCorkle said, recalling that its seeds were planted decades ago, as her dad was dying.
“It was my first real experience with a situation with hospice workers coming and going, and it was my first real experience of being present when someone dies,” she said. “It was just incredibly moving, outside of being heartbreaking, but still incredibly moving.”
The journey McCorkle took with the characters in “Life After Life” was similar: “The whole way that you come to the end of an entire life, and it’s kind of like a long mathematical equation – and how do you get to the answer? My joy as a writer is circling around and around and down and down to find out who the real person is.”
And that’s where her habit of collecting stories comes in.
Take the character of Stanley in the new novel, born out of conversations with her son who was a teenager at the time – and the reason she found herself among male-dominated crowds at professional wrestling events.
“We joked about how funny it would be ... to have an old guy who would pretend to be a wrestler. In an earlier draft I thought I was going to have him wearing Speedos and wifebeaters, and he turned out to be a very serious man with a secret. And for me, that’s the fun of it, what you discover.”
Whether her fiction takes the form of novels or short stories, “much of what I write does grow out of that kind of everyday experience and whatever life is requiring at the moment,” McCorkle said. “I’m such a collector. … By the time I sit down ready to write, I’ve done a lot of longhand and a lot of note collecting along the way.
“A lot of the preliminary work is just an act of faith that I’m collecting these bits and pieces that will end up as something.”
Clearly, it’s a system that’s worked for McCorkle, whose body of work includes four collections of short stories.
Now, as she prepares for touring with “Life After Life,” McCorkle is looking ahead to what’s next.
“Currently, I have a whole lot of notes; I keep getting ideas of this would be a good story, here’s a good character,” she said. “I’m one of those people, I don’t like to let go of something until I have something else, sort of like swinging from vine to vine. (And) I made sure I had plenty of work in my pocket before I turned in the novel.”