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Creature of the Writing Habit

An Interview with Jill McCorkle

by Pam Kingsbury


Only twenty-six when she started publishing, many long time readers may feel as if they've "grown up" with Jill McCorkle. Her five novels July 7th, The Cheer Leader, Tending to Virginia,   Ferris Beach, and Carolina Moon encompass the many varieties of Southern womanhood. Her three collections of short stories, Crash Diet, Final Vinyl Days, and Creatures of Habit have balanced the themes of change and acceptance with a deft wit and graceful writing. It's hard to imagine Contemporary Writing or Southern Writing without her influence. 

Jill McCorkle is scheduled to be inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers in April 2003 alongside authors: Madison Smartt Bell, Kaye Gibbons, Barry Hannah, Yosef Komunyakka, John Shelton Reed, Ellen Bryant Voight, and Allen Weir.


Where do you live and teach now? 

I live near Boston .... I am permanently on faculty of the Bennington College MFA in Writing Program-- It's a low residency program so much of the work is done by mail.  I also have taught at Brandeis University the past two falls and will be there again fall '03. 

Do you still consider yourself to be a Southerner and a Southern Writer? 

I absolutely consider myself both a southerner and a southern writer.  All I have to do is open my mouth for people to know I'm from the south.  Though I've lived here over ten years, I have not lost my accent-- AND I have not lost my love and desire for the south.  My work is steeped in the southern landscape I knew growing up-- southeastern NC-- the food and foliage; the language. I rely heavily on childhood influences in my writing, particularly that of the desire to tell a story or to be told a story.  I think that a strong sense of place and an emphasis on story telling are two major components of southern writing. 

Do you have a favorite of the books you've written? 

Picking favorites is always a hard thing because they all represent a certain stage of life.  I don't think you'd ever write the same book twice because of that passage of time.  Still, I     have those books I feel closest to and perhaps most proud of technically.  I feel close to Tending to Virginia because the novel was inspired heavily by the voices of my grandmother and my great-aunt.  For me the novel was a kind of love song written to those generations before us, the ones whose stories have formed our histories.  If I were asked to pick one novel, I might say Carolina Moon.  I'm not sure if this is because it's the most recent novel or because it was the culmination of lots of years. It was a novel I started and then wasn't sure where to go so I stopped and wrote another book.  I did that twice before actually writing it and so the characters Denny and Quee and Tom were characters who were already up and moving around years before the book began.  As for stories, I'd say Creatures of Habit-- it's the most recent and it's the collection I felt most confident about. 

How do you juggle parenting, writing, and teaching? 

I have two children:  14 and 11.  It is a constant juggling act especially since I have had only one semester during the past 15 years when I wasn't teaching at all.  And this ties in with the     next question as well.  I used to have a schedule-- pre family—I got up and wrote from 5 - 8 every day then went to work.  I realized when my daughter was born, that I would not be able to keep that schedule but instead needed to be flexible.  So I write when I can.  I try to clear out nice big blocks of time during the school day or when I can steal away for a day or two, but most of the time I am engaging in what you call a more impressionistic manner.  I take lots and lots of notes.  I save and store until I get a big block of time and/or it feels like the top of my head will fly off- whichever comes first!    I plan a little with my work-- I usually have a vague idea of my direction, but I have also learned to leave myself open to surprise and turns I did not expect-- It's a disaster to force work to stay on course, I think-- There is much to be gained by hitting a rhythm and being true to THAT instead of an original plan. 

Writing short stories was a slight departure for you and Creatures of Habit received almost universally good reviews. Is the short story form more difficult to work in than the novel form for you? 

I was very proud of Creatures and the reviews it got.  The reviews reassured me and made me feel eager to write more stories.  I began as a novelist, but always kept coming back to the story.  I wanted to feel that I could work within the form and I felt most confident within the pieces in Creatures. 

I have found stories to be more difficult than novels.  I'm sure other writers would say the opposite.  And yet, I'm drawn to the challenge of the story form.  I'm also drawn to poetry, yet have had no success there.  Usually what I dabble with in poetry finds its way into sentences and paragraphs.  The experimentation is wonderful for attention to rhythm and word choice and I always encourage students to try poetry-- both reading and writing. 

Who were your writing teachers? 

I was very lucky when it came to writing teachers as I think I had some of the very best.  Max Steele, Lee Smith, Louis Rubin were my teachers at U.N.C. and then Richard Dillard and Rosanne Coggeshall at Hollins with George Garrett as a visiting writer.  I would also list in that line-up my editor of nineteen (could that be?? yes, since '84) Shannon Ravenel-- I never work on a book that I don't come away feeling I have learned something.  Shannon is a wonderful teacher as well as editor.  I think that there are some aspects of creative writing that can be taught.  I often compare it to teaching any sport or art.  Here are the basics.  You can learn them.  this is how you stand at home plate.  This is how you hold the bat.  This is what you're looking for in a pitch and so on.  You can teach all of that.  What the batter has to find within himself is the sense of timing and movement that enables him to hit the ball and then once it's hit to follow through, to run, etc.  So there's a lot you can teach-- the rest is all about     encouraging the individual to tap his or her own resources. 

What has it been like having your work included in the University of South Carolina's Understanding Contemporary Writers Series

I feel flattered, of course, to see a book written about my work. I was flattered that someone of Barb Bennett's intelligence and talent had spent so much time with my work!  Sometimes I read articles where my work is discussed and I feel that I'm reading about someone else.  I'm thinking, Did I do that?  When I'm writing, I never think beyond the scene I'm in at the moment.  I think too much thinking for a writer can be a terrible thing.  I don't want to think beyond what my characters are thinking at least not until revision when I have assumed a different stance.  For me the goal is always one of seeking reality and a kind of emotional truth. 

What's your next project? 

I'm working on a novel that is taking me longer than I thought it would-- it's just one that has needed lots of percolating time. So, I've written a few stories here and there in between.  I     always have a project.  Usually I have several…  My greatest fear is to find myself without one! 

What do you see as the "theme" of your writing? 

I'm intrigued by the way many writers feel they write the same story again and again.  I do.  I feel I am always writing about acceptance.  To me, a character who finds a way to accept what life has placed before him has found the resolution.  So again and again, I am putting characters out there in a situation that is not ideal and hoping that they can find something to hold onto via acceptance.  To me that is a happy ending-- 

What was the best day of your life? 

Other than the obvious ones in my personal life:  marriage and childbirth and childhood memories that forever serve as my springboard into both fiction and life, I would look to those     moments in my writing life.  One day that I will never forget is the day that the Daily Tarheel (the campus paper) reviewed the campus literary magazine (The Cellar Door) and the review     focused on my story which was also my first published story.  I was sitting in the student union and read a sentence that began: Clearly this issues biggest success is.... and then the reviewer went on to describe my story.  It seems I levitated and did not come down for weeks.  When I got to the apartment I rented with my best friend from high school, she had cut out the article, highlighted all the parts about me and taped it on the door.  We spent the rest of the day celebrating and talking about what we planned to do with our lives.  It was one of those perfect times when it seemed life would always be that way and would go on forever.

Creatures of Habit: Stories
By Jill McCorkle
Algonquin Books, 2001
ISBN: 1-56512-256-9
     Southern Scribe Review


© 2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved