Jill McCorkle

ORANGE SLICES

By Laurie Paolicelli

Jill McCorkle. Photo by Tom Rankin.

Hillsborough resident Jill McCorkle has a new book out, which means we have a new book we’re excited to read. Equally comfortable writing novels as she is writing stories, this one — Old Crimes, published by Algonquin Books — is a collection of 12 stories so full, so beautiful and true, at once so funny and so heartbreakingly sad and bittersweet, that it feels as if she’s taken the short form to another level. This is not one book with 12 stories in it; it’s 12 books under one cover.

Jill is a North Carolinian, through and through. She was born and reared in Lumberton, is an alum of UNC, and, together with her husband, Tom Rankin, has been a longtime resident of Hillsborough. Between Lumberton and Hillsborough, she lived in Boston and has taught at Harvard, Brandeis University, NC State University, and the Bennington Writing Seminars. But it’s her life here she mines for much of her work.

She says, “I love telling the story of my small-town Southern upbringing while inviting readers in for a closer look at what else lurks behind the seemingly banal small towns that many of us grew up in.”

McCorkle attended UNC in the 70s, where she planned on studying recreational therapy. “Writing had not entered my mind at that time,” she says. But three professors changed her life: Max Steele, Louis Rubin Jr., and Lee Smith, three of southern literature’s colossal luminaries. “The brilliance of education is the spark you get where you might not have anticipated it while planning the rest of your life. These three teachers made a huge impact on me and changed the trajectory of my life.”

Rubin went on to found Algonquin Books, Jill’s lifelong publisher, and Lee Smith remains a close friend.

“She was a woman I related to on so many levels as a young student and that I still relate to as an adult. I count her as a mentor, friend and neighbor and she continues to inspire me.”

Jill McCorkle counts Lee Smith as a former professor who became friend.

Since 1984, when her first two books were published simultaneously, McCorkle has never stopped growing as an artist; she’s both tireless and exuberant, committed to her art and to the town where she makes it. She has received the New England Booksellers Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and the Thomas Wolfe Prize; she was recently inducted into the NC Literary Hall of Fame.

Jill McCorkle with neighbor and friend Allan Gurganis, Photo courtesy of Our State magazine.

Though halfway through her national tour for Old Crimes, Jill found some time to sit down with us. And what a joyful presence she is.

What is life like today?

I’m enjoying life right now. Me and my husband Tom have moved closer to downtown Hillsborough and we love the community. I’m often at Weaver Street Market and we attend the Last Friday Arts Events. We enjoy going to the different galleries, including Tom Stevens Gallery and the Hillsborough Arts Gallery and their sponsored events.

How did you find your voice as a young writer?

I grew up in a small town and I think every town has its stories. That’s what I drew from. I tell my students to write about the character in their community, that person whom everybody takes for granted, laughs about, talks about; or to think of the cases of domestic sadness you can reel off in the moment. 

Your work is referred to as southern genre. How do you feel about that?

I think a lot of that oral tradition is classic in Southern literature. You can’t get from point A to point B easily, you’ve got to wander off to the side and tell this story. The writer Barry Hannah tells his version of the light bulb joke: How many Southern writers does it take to change a bulb? Two…one to unscrew it and the other to talk about what a good old light bulb it was.

You are quoted as having said, “I have always believed that by the ripe age of adolescence…our emotional baggage is packed.” Do you believe that?

Absolutely. It’s why I don’t wash clothes on New Year’s Day. There’s a superstition about that in my family and I have no idea where it came from and whether there’s any truth about bad things happening if you wash clothes on New Year’s Day, but I have passed that knowledge on to my kids and none of us will every turn on a washing machine on January 1.

Make every effort to procure and read Jill McCorkle’s new book. There’s an epigraph from Arthur Miller in it and it reads: “Maybe all one can do is hope to end with the right regrets.” Maybe so. But you will never regret reading Jill McCorkle.

Jill and her husband Tom call Hillsborough home.


Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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