The postcards started coming last month. “Stanley,” “Marge,” and “Toby” wrote to booksellers from “Pine Haven” to draw attention to Jill McCorkle’s first novel in 17 years, Life After Life, coming from Algonquin in March. Algonquin used the characters in the postcards (one read in part: "I know you are hoping I die an early death so you can get my money”) to whet booksellers’ appetite for a recent galley mailing, sent from the same fictional Fulton, N.C., continuing care retirement community where the book is set.
“We thought the promotion was funny, and it grabbed our attention,” said Tracy Taylor, general manager of Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle, Wash. “It didn’t take long to figure out that this was not a real retirement home and that the promo was from Algonquin. Really, who else does such an amazing job promoting books? Stan sounds a little like the grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine, so I can’t wait to read the book.”
It took John Valentine, co-owner of the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C., a bit longer to figure out why Pine Haven sounded so familiar. “It was startling,” he said, “because I was halfway through the book.” For him, the novel struck a personal note, because his father lives in a retirement community. “[McCorkle] writes with a sense of humor and poignancy. Our generation is dealing with aging parents,” Valentine said. “I think it has a chance to be a really big book. It goes way beyond the Southern novel niche.”
For longtime booksellers like Valentine, McCorkle needs no introduction. She’s one of the few, possibly only, writers to publish her first two novels simultaneously. The Cheerleader and July 7th came out on the same day in 1984. Louis Rubin signed The Cheerleader when he started Bright Leaf Books (soon after renamed Algonquin Books). Shortly afterward, he acquired the next novel McCorkle was writing, which was being completed while she was waiting for her first book to come out.
But for Craig Popelars, Algonquin’s marketing director, the postcards, which McCorkle wrote at his request, were a way to signal that the book is a very big deal. The galleys include a note from Shannon Ravenel, McCorkle’s longtime editor, who called it “a masterpiece.” “Hands down, it’s her very best,” said Popelars, “and we plan to break out all the fireworks to give it the launch it truly deserves.” That includes bringing her to ABA’s Winter Institute and sending her on a 15-city tour. “The campaign reflects our in-house excitement for the novel,” he added.
Despite the hoopla for Life After Life, McCorkle has been steadily writing and publishing for the past three decades. “I’ve spent a lot of time writing short stories. I think the time I spent focused on short fiction fed this novel.” As did her longer work. From her third novel, Tending to Virginia (1987), McCorkle borrows the model for the whole town, and the geography resembles that of Ferris Beach (1990).
Life After Life (yes, that’s also the name of Kate Atkinson’s new novel due out in April) grew, as much of McCorkle’s work does, organically from her family. “Ironically, I think this idea started perking in the aftermath of losing my father [two decades ago],” said McCorkle. She also based it on her mother, who suffers from dementia and lives in a nursing home. And, she added, “there’s probably a little of me in everybody.”
In an essay she wrote to accompany the galleys, McCorkle noted, “I am very interested in that fine line between fiction and reality and between comedy and tragedy—and pushing the line as much as possible. In this novel, I was also interested in pushing the line between life and death in hopes of finding that split moment when the reader is aware of both places.”
Although she is already at work on her next novel, along with more short stories and a poem or two, don’t look for it to come out at the same time as Life After Life. Algonquin, now an imprint of Workman, and McCorkle have both grown over the years.