Monday, September 14, 2009

Author Interview: Jill McCorkle

For my very first author interview, I had the pleasuring of speaking to one of my very favorite authors! My co-worker/friend/surrogate-work-mother introduced me to Jill McCorkle back when I worked at the public library in high school, and I immediately fell in love with her southern voice. 

Jill is a North Carolina native and attended the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill where she graduated with a B.A. in Creative Writing. At age twenty-six, Jill published her first two novels simultaneously. Since then, she's published three other novels and four short story collections. Her fiction has been selected several times by The New York Times Book Review for its 'Notable Books of the Year' list. Her most recent collection of stories, Going Away Shoes, has just been released by Algonquin Press, along with a re-release of her 1990 novel, Ferris Beach. [Be sure to check out my review of Going Away Shoes!]

I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Jill at BEA back in May, and I am beyond thrilled that I got to speak with her in more detail!

If you had to give a one sentence description of yourself and your writing, what would it be?

I like to think of myself and my work as balanced, an attempt to keep an eye on both the serious and the funny- learning the sources of both joy and heartbreak in a character's life.

How would you describe your writing process? What comes first?

I often begin with a character's voice and the story rolls out from that. Occasionally I begin with an image which was the case with the story "Intervention"- I had in mind the ending, a woman willingly buckling in beside someone who should not be driving; then the writing of the story was an attempt to understand why she would do this.

Your writing has been labeled Southern Fiction, and you’ve been inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers. How big of a role does your Southern heritage play in your writing?

My Southern roots play a big role in my writing primarily because I can't escape what I bring to the page. The big chunk of truth that finds its way into my work is a strong sense of place. My fictional landscape is southern, even more specific it is southeastern North Carolina. Certainly there is a strong southern literary heritage and I am proud to be a part of it. I think the danger in any kind of label is when it suggests that you might only be of interest to others of that region.

What is your favorite eccentricity of the South? [For example, I’ve been credited as having an unusual penchant for fountain Coke. People just don’t appreciate that in the north!]

The "fountain coke" is a good one. That would be my mom's choice. I don't think that food choice is necessarily eccentric but I did miss so much while living in New England. I was surprised when I couldn't just walk into a grocery store and buy pimento cheese or a package of country ham . Or fried okra in a restaurant. Iced tea any time of year. And field peas! I have a pot cooking right now with a big piece of country ham thrown in. I love that people- perfect strangers- will tell you whole long stories while waiting in line and no one finds this unusual at all. In fact some of the best conversations often happen in public places with people you don't know at all and may never see again.

You were first published at age 26! How do you think your writing has changed since then?

I think that my writing has gotten darker in certain ways. Certainly the potential was always there but I think in the early years I was not as brave about seeking it out and attempting to put it into words. I felt protected by humor and often didn't explore a character as fully as I might now.

What has been your favorite character/voice to write?

I often write what I think of as monologues- a first person voice that just takes off and rambles. These are usually fun to do and the revision is all about reeling them in a little and trying to give some shape to whatever story has been told. But I guess I think of this as different from a favorite character. Some of my favorites are Lena Carter in my novel Tending to Virginia. Tom Lowe and Quee Purdy in Carolina Moon. In the new collection, I would name the grandmother in "Surrender" and Marilyn in "Intervention".

You’ve been praised for both your novels and your short stories. Do you prefer writing one over the other?

I love both the novel and the short story. I began with novels but was always trying and wanting to write stories. I love working on stories- the compactness- the revision process but it's also a wonderful feeling to be caught right in the middle of a novel in progress.

What is your goal as a writer?

My goal as a writer is to make sense of a life or lives, to come to a place of understanding and truth.

What do you consider the most enjoyable aspect of your profession?

I simply love the process. I love the time I spend thinking about a story, wondering how all the pieces fit together.

Are you currently working on anything new?

I am working on a novel and of course always have story ideas in hand. I take a lot of notes.

Who are your favorite writers as of late? Of all time?

I just finished reading Richard Yates's Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and those stories left me completely in awe- I can't stop thinking about them. I have also been rereading Katherine Anne Porter's stories. She is an old favorite and a writer I turn back to often as I do to Welty, Flannery O'Connor, McCullers, Capote and Tennessee Williams. Now there's a southern lineup.

What’s currently on your ‘to read’ list?

I am currently reading Richard Russo's new novel That Old Cape Magic and loving it. On deck the Updike collection that was just published "My Father's Tears" and other stories, and I'm looking forward to the new collections by both Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I love to garden, take long walks and fish. My husband and I have goats and dogs and a donkey so I spend a lot of time outdoors with the animals.

When was the moment when you said to yourself, “Hey, I’m a writer!”?

I have always loved to write and did so in childhood. I think, though, it really occurred to me in college that maybe this was something i could actually DO as an adult.

Jill's published works include:
  • The Cheer Leader (1984)
  • July 7th (1985)
  • Tending to Virginia (1987)
  • Ferris Beach (1990)
  • Crash Diet: Stories (1992)
  • Carolina Moon (1997)
  • Final Vinyl Days (1998)
  • Creatures of Habit (2001)
  • Going Away Shoes (2009)


Salvatore said...

I think that it's great that Ms McCorkle writes novels and stories, something that seems rare when people break into the novel writing world. It shows a bit more edge. And I enjoyed the story that ran in the Atlantic Summer Fiction issue recently.

I'm also amused about the notes about Fountain Coke. Having just read Flannery O'Connor's stories and biography, there's quite a bit of subtle mention about such Coke. It must be better in the South.

This has definitely gotten me interested in reading more Southern authors. I think Eudora Welty is next on the list.

Elena said...

Interesting interview.

I'm really not familiar with southern writers at all, and I didn't even realise they formed their own genre.

I agree with Salvatore, it's rare to see novel writers returning back to stories. But I'll have to check Jill McCorkle out I think!

Colin said...

It's good to see someone still writing short stories--they are my favorite form of literature.

And I've been listening to the GOOD OL' GIRLS music recently which is base off Jill McCorkle's work. Everything comes full circle.