A woman named Hannah writes a long letter to her marriage counselor in the book “Going Away Shoes,” describing how her born-again Christian husband is much less to her liking than the man she married. Then she says: “You must get tired of hearing the same old thing over and over because of course it isn’t really about the toothpaste cap left off or the toilet seat up or who loaded the dishwasher last.”
In “Final Vinyl Days,” here’s a dying woman’s request to one of her daughters: “No matter what happens, no matter how lousy your life becomes, stick to your marriage, stay there, and make it work.”
“My twin sister, Twyla, was right beside me, but of course she got no instructions whatsoever,” the daughter says.
Though finding themselves in tragic situations, Jill McCorkle’s characters find their way through with wit and aplomb.
“I look for humor and sure enough it can always be found — sometimes in the most serious of moments — as a way of handling the situation,” McCorkle once told an interviewer. “The funniest things in life are very often tied to something quite heavy and dark.”
McCorkle is the keynote speaker for the Chattahoochee Writers Conference Sept. 24-26 at the Columbus Public Library. The early registration deadline is Tuesday.
A native of Lumberton, N.C., married with two children, McCorkle caught an early break just a few years after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A professor, Louis Rubin, co-founded Algonquin Books in 1982; and McCorkle, one of his students, had her first two novels published simultaneously by Algonquin by age 26.
“I do feel extremely fortunate,” McCorkle told the Ledger-Enquirer in a recent interview. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
She went on to publish four more books. The most recent, “Going Away Shoes,” will be released in September.
Aside from good timing, McCorkle showed early talent. At Chapel Hill, she received the Jesse Rehder Prize, the school’s most prestigious writing award; and she graduated with highest honors in creative writing. At Hollins, where she went to graduate school, she won the Andrew James Purdy Prize for fiction. Her work has been on the New York Times Book Review for Notable Books of the Year four times; and she is a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review.
She is a regular instructor at the Sewanee Writers Conference in Sewanee, Tenn. After teaching assignments at Bennington College, Tufts University and Harvard, McCorkle is currently the Lee Smith Professor in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
“My job as a teacher is a lot like coaching,” she said. “I push them to ask the questions.” An important gift for a writer is curiosity, especially about people, she noted; and some have more curiosity and sharper antennae than others, she added.
“Ideas just come from all over the place,” she said. “You can overhear something in a restaurant. Who knows, it might turn into a great work of fiction.”
She often gets her students to write about a coming-of-age story — a time when they knew they were crossing over into new life territory, such as the death of a pet or a relative. “Kids do know what it feels like to experience loss.” Her own early influences were the Southern writers Eudora Welty, Truman Capote and Harper Lee.
“I still cling to Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” she once said.
One of her long-standing writing habits is to jot notes about interesting things in a moleskin notebook. That way when she sits down to write, she doesn’t face a blank screen on a computer; she has something before she even gets to the computer. Despite the fevered interest in technology and the general decline of the print industry, McCorkle is optimistic for today’s students who aim to do what she does.
One of her students, she said, last month sold her second novel.
“The whole climate now is harder, economically,” she said, “but I have to believe it’s going to come back.”
The Chattahoochee Valley Writers Conference is in its third year. In addition to McCorkle, there will be other speakers from the region, as well as workshops. Cost is $50 by Tuesday, and $65 after. Discounts are given for military personnel, senior citizens and students. For more information, e-mail Chattwriter@charter.net.
ContactAllison Kennedyat 706-576-6237.