30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #18 Jill McCorkle

Some of the novelists I’ve been writing about in this blog are well known. Some are not as well known as they deserve to be. But not one is so famous her name can be the answer to a question on the TV show Jeopardy.

Until now.

Jeopardy - McCorkle

In addition to the two novels and one short story collection cited on Jeopardy, Jill McCorkle has written four novels and three short story collections. Much of this she drafted in bits and pieces during the shards of free time available to her during the busy years of teaching and raising her children. Picture a woman frantically scribbling in a notebook as she waits to pick up a child after school, and you are envisioning many women writers, including Jill McCorkle.

Something very odd happened

McCorkle’s most recent novel is Life After Life. When it was published in 2013, something very odd happened – another novel called Life After Life was published at the same time. That novel, written by Kate Atkinson, received tremendous acclaim, and deservedly so. But I think the shared title is a shame, because the clamor about Atkinson’s book seemed to eclipse the quiet power and beauty of McCorkle’s novel, and the book did not get the attention it should have.

Her Life After Life takes place in a retirement community in her home state of North Carolina. In McCorkle’s distinctive way the novel creates a world in which loss and laughter jostle each other in the characters’ lives and the reader’s emotions.

She makes it look easy.

Jill McCorkle’s books go down easy. They are so smooth to read, so filled with human warmth and insight, so glinting with humor that you’re taken by surprise when the books wallop you with their emotional power. That kind of writing doesn’t get noticed as much as the look-at-me virtuosity of other novelists. But in my opinion it is much more difficult to achieve.

Do you enjoy characters that are a little larger than life, and some so down-to-earth they might live next door? Do you appreciate sharp-eyed commentary about the impact of race, class and gender on our lives and relationships? Then you should read Life After Life.

Aging, loving, losing, longing – these experiences are familiar to most of us. “Most everything worth saying has already been said so the trick is to make it sound new,” McCorkle writes in Life After Life. She does.

I wish

If you’ve seen my novel Her Own Vietnam, you may have noticed a wonderful endorsement (aka blurb) from Jill McCorkle on the back cover. That may have led you to believe that we’re friends, hanging out on the porch with a bottle of wine, coming over for morning coffee in our sweatpants and fuzzy slippers.

I wish.

But I was lucky enough to meet her and share a few laughs at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2002. And on the basis of that slight acquaintance so many years ago, she was generous enough to read my manuscript and provide a quote that, I believe, has opened some doors for my book. (For some insight into the blurb process, see my post Let’s Talk Blurbs.)

The human endeavor

Jill McCorkle wrote, “I think we all are like those old antenna contraptions that used to perch on rooftops, turning and turning to pick up signals in hopes of making a connection and finding clarity.” I don’t know that I’ve ever see a better description of the human endeavor.

If you too want to be charmed by her, start by reading this essay called “Cuss Time.” And then read a book by Jill McCorkle – any of her books. You’ll want to read them all.

Jill McCorkle

Books make the purrfect gifts

purffect gift


In this season of giving, let’s talk about books. They are easy to wrap, pack and ship, and delightful to receive. Books uplift both the giver and the recipient.

Practical and political

If Her Own Vietnam happens to be on your gift list, thank you! And please consider ordering directly from the publisher rather than from Amazon.

There are practical and political reasons to do so. The publisher, Shade Mountain Press, is selling the book for LESS than Amazon charges – and your money will support a feminist press rather than a corporate giant. (If you want the book in Kindle version, of course, you must buy through Amazon.)

If you live in DC, you can get the book from Politics and Prose.

Many wonderful gift choices from women novelists

If for some reason you do not think Her Own Vietnam is the ideal gift for everyone you’ve ever met, please browse through these blog posts to find wonderful novels written by 30 Women Novelists You Should Know – or at least the 17 I’ve featured so far. They are:

  1. Carol Anshaw
  2. Kim Barnes
  3. Octavia Butler
  4. Jillian Cantor
  5. Susan Choi
  6. Sonya Chung
  7. Jennifer Haigh
  8.  Rene Denfeld
  9.  Masha Hamilton
  10.  Elliott Holt
  11.  Dara Horn
  12. Lily King
  13.  Caroline Leavitt
  14.  Zelda Lockhart
  15.  Andrea Levy
  16.  Brenda K. Marshall
  17.  Laura McBride

Amidst all the holiday clamor, don’t overlook the option to give that rarest of gifts: A new world large enough to sink into, yet small enough to hold in your hands.

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #17 Laura McBride

As the holiday season approaches, I join all novelists in secretly wishing people across the land would awaken to find shiny copies of my book under their tree or menorah or waiting for them on the kitchen table. Hope you’ll find some inspiration for literary gifts in these posts about women novelists you should know.

“You’ve got to read this book.”

I learned about Laura McBride in the best way. A friend I trust said, “You’ve got to read this book.” The book was We Are Called to Rise, and the title alone (from an Emily Dickinson poem) would have drawn me. But I might not have stumbled across the title without my friend’s recommendation.

In We Are Called to Rise, four tragic story lines are narrated by four diverse characters: a woman whose marriage is collapsing and whose son has returned damaged from his third deployment in a war zone, a 22-year-old soldier recovering from a mysterious war wound, a middle-aged woman who advocates for children involved in court cases, and an 8-year old Albanian boy who is adapting far more swiftly than his parents to the strange world of America. All of these stories converge into one moment of hope in a gritty, sun-blasted Las Vegas no tourist will ever see.

I particularly appreciated the sections written in the point of view of Bashkim, the young boy. I often find child narrators annoying – either too cutesy or preternaturally wise. Bashkim is unusually mature and responsible, but in the way that is typical of the children of immigrants, who must serve as their parents’ translators and protectors in their new world.

The book brings the four main characters to life, with all their shortcomings and desperation, and the deep daily heroism of trying to do their best in a world where events sometimes seem to lack all meaning. Las Vegas, perhaps our country’s strangest city, also takes a star turn in this novel that is all about what is not visible on the surface.

A mature sensibility

This is Laura McBride’s first novel. She was 53 years old when it was published, and you can sense the mature mind and heart behind the text. For example, in this passage McBride takes us inside the thoughts of Avis, the woman whose son has returned from war as a frightening stranger. She grew up in poverty and chaos, and has managed to eke out a happy, stable life for herself. Now in middle age, she sees it beginning to disintegrate:

It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.

We Are Called to Rise has gotten wonderful reviews, and appeared on the published “must read” lists of such literary luminaries as Isabel Allende. But for me the most powerful inducement was my friend, telling me this was a book I could not miss.

Laura McBride