Although Jill McCorkle's new novel, Life After Life, is set in a retirement center, its vital characters include an adolescent, young adults and the middle-aged, in addition to those near life's end.
McCorkle, 54, who will be at The Morris Book Shop on Wednesday, says a reader will find a partial portrait of the author as a young woman in the novel's character Abby, a 13-year-old girl distracted by the loss of her beloved dog, Dollbaby. Abby seeks comfort among Pine Haven's elderly residents, especially an angelic retired teacher named Sadie.
"I was a kid who spent a lot of my time riding my bike in the cemetery and hanging out with old people by choice," McCorkle said by phone from her country home in North Carolina. "I spent a whole lot of time with my grandmother and my uncle," the latter of whom was in homes for physical and mental health problems.
Abby's parents have a miserable marriage, and McCorkle says that aspect of her novel's character has no autobiographical underpinnings, but in other ways Abby is McCorkle-like. "The part that puts animals above humans, especially. I really remember as a kid the first time it occurred to me that you might like a human as well as you like your dog."
Life After Life (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $24.95) is "A Shannon Ravenel Book," meaning it has the blessing of the patron saint of Southern writers, a founder of Algonquin and longtime editor of New Stories From the South. McCorkle's sixth novel is a "masterpiece": "Who says so? I do," Ravenel writes in her letter from the publisher.
The narrative unfolds in chapters from the points of view of characters including Sadie and Abby; Abby's mother, who behaves more like a wicked stepmother than a biological one; C.J., sexual adventuress, manicurist, fortune teller and daughter of a suicide; Pine Haven residents Stanley, Rachel and Toby; and Joanna, a thrice-married volunteer hospice worker who keeps a journal about the people she attends as they die.
McCorkle grew up in Lumberton, N.C., then lived near Boston while she reared her two children and taught at Harvard, Brandeis and Tufts universities. She returned to North Carolina seven years ago and now teaches writing at North Carolina State University.
She previously published four story collections and five novels, but it has been 17 years since her most recent novel, Carolina Moon. However, the idea for Life After Life has been around 20 years, since the author's father died of lung cancer in 1992.
"The moment when someone dies, it's so strange to be in the room when one minute they're alive and the next minute they're gone; it's so permanent you can't even fathom it," McCorkle said. "The experience of being with my dad was very moving." Now, McCorkle's mother, who has Alzheimer's disease, is in a nursing home. The author visits about once a week.
Life After Life visits last moments of the dying through the notes of Joanna, the hospice worker, and in the brief reveries that McCorkle imagines for each of the deceased.
"It seemed a natural step to go that extra bit," McCorkle said. "I had in mind that some are happier and more peaceful than others. I was trying very hard to play with the sounds that Joanna might describe, the way sounds enter our dreams."
The author of the novel Ferris Beach and the 2009 short-story collection Going Away Shoes says she surprised her longtime readers with Kendra, Abby's mother, a "full-blown evil character" who's selfish and bitter. "People say to me, she's so terrible, and you didn't even try to redeem her." For McCorkle, whose country residence is home to a horse, a donkey, goats, chickens, four dogs and a cat, a truly evil character is an animal hater, and Kendra's cruelest act involves Abby's dog.
McCorkle says her next novel shouldn't be as long in coming. "With teenagers and major moving and job changes, and all that's gone on with my mom in recent years, the short-story form suited my life better," she says.
IF YOU GO
Jill McCorkle reads from and signs 'Life after Life'
When: 6 p.m. May 1
Where: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.
Learn more: (859) 276-0494, Morrisbookshop.com