UNC Pembroke celebrated 45 years of Pembroke Magazine on March 19 with a reading by Lumberton author Jill McCorkle from her new novel and a fundraising dinner.
The 45th annual edition of UNCP’s literary journal was unveiled by editor Jennifer Pitchford. Former editor of 30 years, Shelby Stephenson, entertained with music and poetry from his upcoming book of poetry.
McCorkle, who was the featured author in Pembroke Magazine No. 34, read from her fifth novel, “Life After Life,” during an afternoon session attended by an overflow crowd of students, faculty and community members. The book goes on sale March 26.
It was a hometown audience for McCorkle, who recognized former teachers and neighbors, colleagues, relatives and friends.
“There aren’t too many times in life you can go some place where you bump into so many parts of your life,” McCorkle said. “My visits to this university have always meant so much to me.”
McCorkle has won numerous awards for her 10 books that include five novels and five collections of short stories. In 1984, her first two books, “The Cheerleader” and “July 7th,” were published on the same day, and the New York Times Review of Books hailed her as an heir to new Southern literature.
McCorkle read passages from her newest book that outlined some of the main characters. The audience laughed often and applauded vigorously. Students, some clearly aspiring writers, had many questions.
McCorkle discussed her craft and addressed being a Southern writer in the framework of growing up in a small community.
“Young writers are looking everywhere but in their own backyards,” she said. “The trademark of my fiction is the small town microcosm. Growing up in a small town, you get a sense of what society is all about.”
Despite many years in Boston, McCorkle said the constants in her life and fiction are the Lumber River, Green Swamp and Interstate 95. The author confessed that her stories are set in Lumberton, but “I took the liberty of moving it 30 minutes closer to the beach.”
“Life After Life” is McCorkle’s first novel after several short stories collections, but she has been writing it most of her adult life.
“This is the novel I’ve always wanted to write,” she said. “I had written the end seven years ago, and the oldest sections are 12 years old. It feels good to work on a novel.”
Set in an assisted living facility, “Life After Life” is about the “last frontier of life,” she said. “It’s about respect for life that it’s not over till it’s over, and I hope it’s uplifting.”
To questions about writing, McCorkle said she finds inspiration in conversations and in the middle of the night too.
“Notes, notes, notes. They are part of your writing life too,” she advised. “If I have an idea, I write it down. Then, I start writing until it takes me back to that feeling.
Shelby Stephenson with wife Linda
“I usually know where I’m going when I sit down to write,” McCorkle said. “I visit, listen and take notes.
“I was visiting my mother, who is in an assisted living facility, and somebody mentioned men,” she said. “One of the ladies said, ‘Men? I’d forgotten all about men.’ I couldn’t get back to the car fast enough to write that down.”
Now teaching at NC State University, McCorkle has taught creative writing at Harvard, Tufts, UNC-Chapel Hill and Brandeis. She talked about student writing and the art of telling stories.
“I’m open-minded in my writing classes, as long as it works,” she said. “One of my students came up to me after class and said ‘I’m afraid this is going to shock you.’ I said, ‘I certainly hope so.’
“A couple of years ago, I had one vampire and zombie story too many,” McCorkle laughed. “What I wouldn’t give for an old-fashioned story about losing your virginity.
“I believe a short story should surprise you,” she said. “But if your character escapes by dematerializing under a door and rematerializing on the other side as a werewolf?”
In “Life After Life,” McCorkle’s characters are quirky, crisp and colorful. Her characters also come equipped with the wisdom that comes with age.
“With age, I may be able to look back with the wisdom of hindsight,” she said. “There is a freedom that comes with being older. This novel is very much about memory.
“Life is a lot of small things, not a few big ones,” she continued. “I see a whole lot of patterns.”
At dinner, McCorkle was in the familiar company of former Pembroke Magazine editors, Stephenson and Jennifer Key and new editor Jessica Pitchford. Also in attendance was retired UNCP English professor Joe Mandel, who edited the Jill McCorkle issue in 2002.
“Pembroke Magazine is one of the longest running literary journals and this one has done well,” said dinner host Dr. Richard Vella, who has been a member of the faculty almost since its inception in 1969.
Stephenson closed the evening with a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”