This week marks the release of Life After Life, Jill McCorkle’s long-awaited new novel, which follows the complex relationships and struggles of the residents, staff, and neighbors of a North Carolina retirement home. Belle Boggs, award-winning author of Mattaponi Queen, first heard McCorckle read from her hilarious and heartbreaking work two summers ago at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She wanted to know more about what inspired the vivid world she created for the novel, so she caught up with McCorkle in the midst of her busy spring schedule of readings, teaching, and caring for the animals on her Hillsborough farm.
Here’s a chance to eavesdrop on a conversation between two of the South’s award-winning writers. Both are contributors to Southern Living.
Belle Boggs: Jill, you’ve said that conceiving and writing Life After Life took ten years—that is a long time to live at Pine Haven, with these obstreperous people in your head! I felt like I knew each one, from sweet and hopeful Sadie Randolph with her painstaking photo collages to profane and inappropriate Stanley Stone. Could you talk a little about how you drew inspiration for some of your characters?
Jill McCorkle: I have had some of the bits and pieces for this novel stored away for as long as fifteen years. I knew that I wanted to write a novel that engaged a whole community of people and I knew that I wanted to write a novel that somehow showed the fragility of life and the great importance of those everyday moments we often take for granted as well as the memories of such moments. Obviously this has been done and done well—Thornton Wilder’s Our Town springing to mind—Life After Life is my attempt at it. And there is no place where those moments are more magnified and meaningful than in that final stretch of life, where quite a few of these characters now are. The inspiration for these people came from all over—from my own memory of my grandmother and spending time as a kid with older relatives, to current situations I witness in the present (my mother is now in a nursing facility) to my own imagination and the desire to create whole histories and rich lives for each of them. Sadie, for me, is the ideal. She is a woman who has not always had an easy life; she experienced the death of her mother as a young girl, and yet, her life has been all about making things better for others. She taught third grade and sees the third grade classroom as a microcosm for all of society. She believes we are all always eight years old in the heart. Her photo business grew out of something my mother really did. She cut out and pasted someone’s picture into a photo where she felt he belonged. My character Stanley grew out of my son’s childhood interest in professional wrestling and my taking him to an event.
Boggs: You have written that you began Life After Life with the desire to capture certain moments of realization in a person’s life, perhaps near the end, when he can see his whole life at once. You accomplish this with amazing clarity in the short sections following entries from Joanna’s notebook, as we experience characters’ last moments from their own points of view. Some of these are minor characters, but their brief chapters represent the vastness of their lives, their loves and hopes and regrets. How long did it take you to find this structure for the book? Was it difficult to write about so many last moments?
McCorkle: I was well into the more conventional plot line with the other characters when the idea came to me. I knew I wanted to show Joanna with her own father as well as with Luke since that’s what began her volunteer work, and then I realized that every time I moved to her character I felt compelled to deal with whoever she was sitting with. It struck me that these portraits could be a way to weave other parts together with the sensation that many different lives are witnessed along the way. Or such is my hope. I wrote many of these segments after I had written the more straightforward narrative, but I tried to spend a lot of time with each one. I also tried to match some details from what Joanna has already described. For instance she has written in her journal that there is a cardinal outside the window. Cheer cheer cheer. But in the mind of the woman dying, her husband is berating her collection of things and is saying HERE HERE HERE. It was a challenge and something I enjoyed very much.
Boggs: My great-grandmother ran a small private nursing home in Norfolk, Virginia, and my mother grew up there—sort of like Abby. I particularly love the way you have captured Pine Haven’s routines and traditions, its culture. But it’s so easy, when we don’t live there or have immediate family in retirement homes, to drive right past, hardly thinking of the residents inside. I wonder if you had a larger purpose in mind in writing Life After Life—getting people not only to remember their elderly neighbors, friends, and loved ones, but also to see them for the complex lives they’ve lived?
McCorkle: I was very much drawn to Abby’s character because as a child—like your mom—I spent a lot of time with older relatives and going with my grandmother to visit people. I have always felt drawn there—enjoying the stories and the many many memories so many were willing to talk about. And, as I hope my characters show, it ain’t over til it’s over. Even people in the throes of dementia often have glimpses and moments of clarity or when some connection is made. I told someone recently that just because we can see the finish line up ahead doesn’t mean we should stop running the race. In fact, that’s when we need to give it all we’ve got. I like to imagine my elderly characters doing just that. I think that some of our society’s greatest riches are housed in the two ends of life’s spectrum—the very young and the very old. The two places have a lot in common, too, one of my favorite things being the very direct honesty and lack of pretense. I tend to think that way too much attention goes to the fat selfish center of life and that staying in touch with the very young and the very old makes for a more balanced existence.
Boggs: Although Life After Life is heartbreaking in places, it has so many memorable laugh out loud moments—from the bumper sticker C.J. made for Joanna (readers will have to discover that for themselves) to Toby Tyler’s rants about over-regulated classrooms. The playwright and novelist Sheila Heti has written, “You have to know where the funny is, and if you know where the funny is, you know everything.” Do you agree with that statement? How did you find the humor here?
McCorkle: The humor I am most interested in, grows out of the darkest places. You have to first know the people and understand them and their situation before you can begin to unearth and mine the humor there. I think that Toby’s rant provides a kind of humor that might stand on its own, and yet, for me, it’s all the more meaningful, knowing the conflicts and intricacies of her own life. Likewise, my character Stanley faking his dementia. The idea is funny but all the reasons behind it are not. I am drawn to those moments in life where you can’t decide if you want to laugh or cry. Many of these characters left me feeling that way. And yes, it grew out of a full understanding of who they are and what they desire in life.
Boggs: Would you call Life After Life a love story?
McCorkle: I would definitely call Life After Life a love story. There are expressions of all kinds of love—there is romantic love and familial love and love between friends. There is love for time—both past and present—as well as places, some long gone. And there is for many, I think, the discovery of a kind of love of self that allows acceptance and by way of that, compassion for a much larger world—or such is my hope.
Jill McCorkle heads out on book tour next week through September. Her first stop is Charlotte, NC on March 5 at Queens University of Charlotte. Visit lifeafterlifebook.net for more dates and locations.