Creature of Habit: An Interview with Jill McCorkle
by Sherry Ellis
Jill McCorkle was raised in Lumberton, North Carolina. The summer after she completed second grade she transformed her father’s wooden work shed into a writing room and decorated it with dress-up clothing, a tea set, and fishing gear. When she was twenty-six her first two novels, The Cheerleader and July 7th, were published to critical acclaim. She has published five additional works of fiction to date: Tending To Virginia (1989), Ferris Beach (1991), Crash Diet: Stories (1992), Carolina Moon (1996, an excerpt of which appeared in AGNI 44), Final Vinyl Days and Other Stories (1998), and Creatures of Habit (2001). Five of these works have been selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year.
“Billy Goats,” the first story in Creatures of Habit, was originally published in Bomb magazine and subsequently selected for The Best American Short Stories 2002. Richard Bausch called this collection “so rich, so complete an experience . . . McCorkle paints everything with such clarity, and beauty . . . With every line, she incites my awe and wonder.”
McCorkle’s short stories have been widely published in literary journals and commercial magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan, and Ladies Home Journal. Her new story, “Intervention” appears in the Fall issue of Ploughshares. She has also reviewed books for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
She has received the New England Booksellers Association Award for her body of work in fiction, the Jon Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. In 1996 she was included in Granta’s celebration of the Best of Young American Novelists. She now teaches writing at Bennington College and has also taught at Harvard, Brandeis, Duke, Tufts, and the University of North Carolina.
McCorkle is frequently described as a “Southern writer,” despite the fact that she has been living in Greater Boston for the past ten years with her husband and children. Recently, I joined in her living room while her three dogs relaxed nearby. Resting in the corner of the room was a large Victorian dollhouse that McCorkle built and decorated herself.
Sherry Ellis: In Creatures of Habit you revisit the fictional town of Fulton. What made you decide to return?
Jill McCorkle: I think I’ve always returned there, whatever I’ve named it. It’s certainly my fictional hometown, which is very much like my real hometown, but not the way it looks now, the way it looked when I was a child.
I know we always look back with a nostalgic glance, but I really did have a great sense of freedom and ownership of the town in which I was raised. It was a time when children went out until the street lights came on, and if our parents had known where we were and what we were doing they would have had heart attacks. There was just all this freedom. One of my favorite places to sit was under the bridge of the I-95 overpass.
That time in my hometown marks not just the transition for me into adolescence and adulthood, but I think also represents the transition of the South into what is now most often referred to as the New South. As I was growing up, I-95 started to pass through my town. As a result, there was a huge growth spurt and suddenly there were billboards and fast-food chains. The interstate connected us in a way that I never felt connected before.
SE: The stories in this collection are named after animals and have woven into them the common movements, characteristics, and experiences that animals and humans share. In the story “Cats” you liken an ex-husband to a misplaced cat. Later in the same story, Anne, the ex-wife, wonders, “Why else do women so easily settle in with their litters and nests; why do the females in nature blend into the background while the males remain flashy and continue life as sexual predators?” In the story “Dogs” the main characters states, “If I were a dog I would have been put down by now.” How did you decide to explore this theme?
JM: Well, it’s funny. I didn’t begin this collection with the idea of all the animal connections; it evolved as I was writing. I often think there are natural thematic connections when you have a whole litter of story ideas at the same time. I wasn’t just writing one story and putting it down; I had many stored up, and as I was moving from story to story—sketching out what I did know—I started to see the connections. Actually the opening story, “Billy Goats,” was written more as a mood piece than anything. I didn’t want the characters directly connected, but I wanted there to be the sense that these people populated the same community. This is where as a writer I realize that it’s so valuable for me to take notes of little things I notice in life along the way. Sometimes I hold onto them for years.
The whole idea for “Cats” was inspired by my family losing a favorite cat and actually burying him in Tupperware in my yard (I was afraid he’d explode). So, in real life there was the loss of this cat, which made me think about other cats, particularly one from childhood who was lost for weeks and ultimately found his way home. I was greatly influenced by the likes of “Thomasina and The Incredible Journey,” the Walt Disney movie, and I started imagining a situation where a person is attempting a similar journey. It led to the idea of a man with early Alzheimer’s who actually thinks he’s home is with the first wife instead of the new wife across town. What started out as a more darkly comical theme, about the cat and the Tupperware mausoleum, turned into something much sadder.
SE: In “Tippy’s Teeth,” an essay you wrote for “The Algonkian”—a promotional pamphlet put out by Algonquin—you state that “human behavior is not so far removed from the most primitive animal behavior as we like to think,” for example that “we all crave a sense of the den” and that “a person who is that insecure and fearful is likely—metaphorically—to lunge and bite.” Can you please comment on this and offer a few examples of how you demonstrate these similarities in your stories?
JM: I do believe we all crave the security of home. I think we like to believe that our loyalties are not in vain. And, I think that some of our worst reactions in life are fear-driven. A trapped or frightened animal lashes out in an attempt to survive and humans do the same. Dogs are put down or “sent to the country” as my Tippy was for aggressive behavior.
I was talking to a friend on a particularly stressful day and I said: “If I was a dog I’d have been put down by now.” I knew even as I said it that I’d use it for a first line. As I explained in “Tippy’s Teeth,” I did once accidentally kill a cat by dipping it in a flea dip designed for dogs and I used that incident in my story. For me it was a kind of exorcism as I’d been haunted by the memory for years; I still can’t bear to think about it.
SE: The main character in the story “Billy Goats” recalls her life as a seventh-grader, when she and her friends prowled through their neighborhood in a pack, “a herd of kids on banana-seat bikes and minibikes,” as they discuss their community, the lives and deaths of people they know, and their own vulnerability. How much of this story is based on your own childhood experience?
JM: Very much. I felt the opening story and the closing story about the death of the father were my stories, and as close to reality as I’m going to get. The facts aren’t necessarily true but the voice and the place are.
I think every town has its stories. 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. I mean here in the town I live in now, there is a house that is referred to as “the divorce house.” There’s always a divorce house, a suicide house. In my home town there was a house we referred to as the murder-suicide house. When my husband and I were looking for houses I drove the realtor crazy because I kept saying there must be something with a house, if we could afford it. Was there a suicide? Was there a murder? I’m superstitious enough to be bothered by such. I guess there were enough people asking the questions because the realtors have to tell you these things. I think those are the situations and landmarks that really inform childhood; you begin to learn about what’s bad and what’s not right in the parental world.
SE: Your writing has been referred to as “Southern” and is compared to Eudora Welty’s. What does being a Southern writer mean to you?
JM: Well I have no problem being called a Southern writer because clearly as soon as I open my mouth there’s the proof. And the South is very much my writing home as well. Even though characters sometimes wind up in different places than where they begin.
There’s certainly a wonderful tradition in history that I’m proud to be associated with. I think other characteristics of Southern writing, not that they don’t apply to other writers, is that there is a lot of attention to a strong sense of place, and there is also a wonderful tradition of oral storytelling. I think that any community or group that, for whatever reason, has been cut off from the rest of the world, usually does have an oral tradition—because it’s so important to make sure that the legacy is handed over. And of course in the South, not only was there the War, which of course is what everyone immediately associates with Southern people, but there were other roadblocks as well, literacy being one of the biggest. I mean, my grandmother was very fortunate that she went through the ninth grade; my grandfather only completed the third. So they could tell stories they never would have been able to write. There was a lot of power in the spoken word, and it was revered as such, I think. 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.
SE: When you were in the second grade your motivation as a writer was to get a laugh or a tear. Is this still your goal?
JM: I think as a child it was wonderful to discover that I had this power to make myself laugh or cry, and of course that grew into wanting to have the effect on others. Often what I see or hear in the world strikes me as funny. I start with something that’s making me laugh, and yet I’m enough of a realist that I never believe it’s that simple; then I start looking for what’s under the funny. It’s a method I’ve used often in terms of the stories expanding to a different level. Again, the story "Cats" is a perfect example of this.
SE: Do you think that your childhood and adult hobbies and pastimes, for example fishing and dollhouse decorating, have helped you develop qualities that a writer needs?
JM: Oh, totally, and I always like to credit my dad with this one. He always said that he loved to sit and look at the ocean, but that if he just sat there and stared and my mother saw, she would start nagging him: “What are you doing just sitting there? Go and do something.”
He said, “This is why I fish”. And he said the trick is that if they ever start biting too much, you stop baiting the hook. I was his fishing buddy. We rarely caught anything, but it was just that kind of quiet thinking time, and so I did learn a lot as a writer.
It’s hard to justify to the world, especially to your family, why you’re just going to sit in a chair and stare like a zombie. And so my whole life I’ve had hobbies that are solitary in nature. You know the saying “busy hands, busy minds.” As an adult I built a dollhouse. The work of putting a house together and then decorating is very similar to writing a novel; you’re creating this world and you have a certain level of control over it. Most of my activities are singular. When I think about sports or activities I liked growing up—ballet, gymnastics, swimming—I realize they were actions that didn’t require me to interact with others. My mind was free to roam.
SE: Do you believe all writers need “rooms of their own”?
JM: Yes, I do, and I think all writers already have a room of their own in terms of within the self. I find when I don’t get that quiet time nothing else in life feels quite right; I think it’s a constant struggle to find a room of your own. I do have an office in my home, but when there is a lot going on in I can’t work. Sometimes the room of my own is the car parked in the grocery store parking lot, or wherever I can get it.
SE: Willa Cather once said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” Do you agree?
JM: I do. I think we are very limited thematically and that’s why we all identify with each other’s stories. It’s the specific detail and history that we can bring to them that makes our work or characters lives unique.
SE: You are quoted as having said, “I have always believed that by the ripe age of adolescence . . . our emotional baggage is packed.” In your novel The Cheerleader, a story about young women coming of age, Jo challenges stereotypes of popularity. Do you believe that Jo’s and Beatrice’s “emotional baggage is already packed”?
JM: I think the characters have more than enough to think about and unpack and to understand through adulthood. I had a professor say to me when The Cheerleader came out,”My god, Jill! Most of us spend all our lives trying to forget all this stuff, and you have dedicated yourself to dredging it up.” And I thought, well, I guess it’s sort of an exorcism. It’s such a classic period of life and I am interested in young women because there are so many fears and things that happen in that little space of time, the whole body image, the everything! I hate to say it, but I don‘t necessarily think we’ve come too far in taking care of it.
I feel really drawn to that age group and more than any other work, I’ve gotten more letters about The Cheerleader, mainly from seniors in high school and freshman in college, and one, a letter that I will always treasure, from a grandmother who said that the book had helped her understand her granddaughter, which really meant a lot. I guess of all my books this is the one that most consistently gets the most letters, and they always begin with "Did you read my journal?" And it feels so good, and so right, that this is such a universal phenomena. We all fit somewhere on that spectrum of Jo and Beatrice. What I had wanted to show in that novel is regardless of stereotype—positive stereotype, negative stereotype—there are real dangers in being labeled by others. I think (I hope) that this book shows that these two girls have more in common than anyone would think.
SE: Do you pre-select the time frame in which your stories and novels will occur?
JM: No. The only time I consciously did that was with the novel July Seventh, when I knew was going to write about just one day.
SE: You have often written in the first person, as in your novels Ferris Beach and sections of Carolina Moon. When you write a story or a novel do you know beforehand which point of view you will use?
JM: I don’t always know, sometimes I flounder back and forth. I feel that usually if I stick with the story and keep revising it, the story dictates which point of view best serves it; the same with tense and genre, for that matter. Very often in student work I will see a student set out to write a story in third person, present tense, and it just won’t stay there: it won’t be in the past, they’ll flip into the present, or they’ll flip into "I," and so I can always tell when the story is pulled in another direction. I think that’s something you listen to.
SE: How do your choose your titles, for example Creatures of Habit?
JM: Titles are often the last thing to come. I was very relieved to be able to look up Creatures of Habit. I thought it must have been used zillions of times. I think there was only one novel years ago. It’s a phrase I use a lot, to describe myself. The other one that my husband always says in reference to me is “Spontaneity has its time and its place,” and that’s me: I have a plan and when I’m without a plan I’ve sort of lost the concept and I can’t see. I’m always saying, “I’m a creature of habit.” In childhood I went through that obsessive-compulsive thing where you have to go back and make sure the drawer is closed; then I had years of checking the coffee maker. Now I have one that automatically cuts off. I have a system and I am a creature of habit. I had jotted down a lot of title ideas and I was reading Darwin at the time, what I could read of Darwin. I kept tripping on the word “habit.”
SE: In the story “Crash Diet,” Sandra White Barkley is left by her husband for a woman who is thinner and years younger than she is, and in the story “Departures,” Anna Craven, a widow, spends her free time trying to escape from the emptiness of her home. Do the themes of these stories represent a feminist perspective?
JM: Yes, I think so. It’s so interesting, I’m glad you’re asking this question because people often avoid the feminist question. I have all these young students now who will say, “Well, I’m not a feminist.” And I’ll say, “Well, of course you are, you should be. That’s why you’re sitting here taking this class.” Somewhere along the line the word got distorted. I don’t think all my characters are knowledgeable enough or wise enough that they would necessarily see it that way, but I guess I always feel that they’re coming into their own. I love that Rebecca West quote, “I’ve never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” So I do think they are feminists in nature in that they are finding a place in the world, and focusing on where they stand and how they affect others, rather than just how they are feeding into the lives of everyone else. It’s not always pleasant. I think for someone like Anna, it’s as if her limbs have been ripped off; Sandra is a bit more open about her independence, I think.
SE: You’ve been living in Greater Boston for many years. Do you think that the sensibilities and styles of the North have influenced you as a writer?
JM: Yes. If nothing else, I am always making a mental comparison to the way the experience might play out in the South. More than anything though, what I experience is how much humans—regardless of age, race, religion, geography or any other label you might choose—have in common. As a teacher—both in New England and in the South—I think the bigger differences have to do with urban or rural childhoods.
SE: In the story “Final Vinyl Days” you write from a male perspective for the first time. Can you comment on what this experience was like for you?
JM: That was a stretch. He was a hard character but it was a challenge I needed because I knew that one of my main characters in Carolina Moon was going to be a guy. Once I get inside a character and have a sense of who he is, then I don’t think it matters that much. I really do think that if you find what is motivating a character emotionally, it allows you to transcend race and age and gender.
SE: What are the greatest rewards of writing for you?
JM: It always sounds so selfish when I think about it. For me, the greatest reward in writing is the stability and the pleasure that it brings to me. I love the act of writing. That may be why I have trouble rationalizing to everybody why I do it, because I’ve never come to a point where I feel like its work. I feel it is a real luxury. I think it is fantasy life.
SE: What about the hardest parts of writing?
JM: Sometimes it’s the frustration of not being able to get there. I’ve never had just unlimited time to write, so I don’t know how I would function that way. I’ve always taught and had responsibility with kids and family, so it’s difficult sometimes to carve out that time. I also think that as much as writers are driven by the desire to be published and read by others, I think there’s a kind of love-hate relationship—because I think the whole act of then being published is the antithesis of what your writing life is all about. I mean your writing life is cocooned and safe and then all of a sudden you’re stripped and out there, and that’s not always easy. I think you have to find ways to keep yourself upright and somehow attached to that center that makes you want to write anyway.
SE: In a recent article you wrote for Food and Wine magazine, you quote the chef of a restaurant:“I need to know the rules before I break them.” Do you believe this adage apply to writers too?
JM: I think it applies to most endeavors. I certainly encourage students who want to write experimentally that they first go with the more conventional pieces, to show that they can do it. I think there is a lot to be learned within the basics and tradition that will only make it better as you experiment.
SE: In another recent magazine article you wrote, this one for Real Simple, you state that comedy and humor helps people cope with tragedy. Do you believe that as a writer, you have purposely given your fictional characters humorous situations to help them cope with the traumas in their lives?
JM: Absolutely. Or maybe more specifically, I believe there is always humor to be found. Even within the most hideous situations, people continue to say and do quirky things.
SE: Who are the writers that you believe have most influenced your work?
JM: That’s a very long list. I can certainly say among contemporary writers my teachers Lee Smith and Louis Rubin and Max Steele, and in terms of just "old faithfuls" and writers I feel I’ve learned a tremendous amount from reading, the bulk of them being of the old southern school: Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter. I would also have to say Sherwood Anderson; Winesburg, Ohio is one of those books that made a huge impact on me as a writer.
SE: Justice Brandeis is quoted as having said, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” When you have finished revising your work how similar is it to your initial draft?
JM: It varies piece to piece, but I would say quite different, I would hope different. I would say that the first draft for me, especially with stories, is like a skeleton and then each run of revision is like transparencies in an anatomy book, you’re adding the muscles and the tissues and the organs, and you begin to see how they all connect and work together. That’s why I find revision so very exciting and satisfying.
SE: Do you have a sense of knowing when something is done and when it’s time to stop revising?
JM: Sometimes it’s just being so sick of a piece that I can’t look at it anymore. But I feel like I know when I’m almost there, and usually that’s when I ask for a reader. My editor is very good about responding. She can just zero in on little areas that need a little more or less.
SE: What are you working on now?
JM: Well, I’ve got a novel I’ve been working on forever, a situation about a group of friends who have come together. Talk about how many stories there are! How many times have you heard that one: women gathering to talk? And then I’m also writing some stories.
SE: How would you describe the changes in your writing over time, for example the characters you choose, their situations and their voices?
JM: I feel they’ve really changed. I have felt that my work has gotten progressively darker. I think there is still light in there, but I think that I’ve felt safe enough or confident enough as a writer to push my characters further than I have before. I love to see and express humor in life but I’m always curious about the underbelly of it all.
SE: Do you think you will keep returning to Fulton?
JM: Oh yes. I’ll always go back. Actually this new novel takes place very near Fulton. Right now in my mind it’s set on Bald Head Island, right off the Carolina coast.
Sherry Ellis teaches creative writing and is at work on The Goode Books, a novel in progress. Her recent interview with Paul Lisicky is included in the 2003 edition of “Provincetown Arts,” and her interview with Lise Haines was published in the on-line edition of AGNI.