LUMBERTON — Author Jill McCorkle lives in Hillsborough, but her imagination lives in Lumberton — or someplace that looks a lot like it.
The Lumberton native says her hometown often inspires the setting of her work, although she is careful not to revive a real-life person on the page.
“My fictional town looked a whole lot like Lumberton,” she said. “I’ve just taken the liberty of moving it about 30 miles toward the coast.”
That fictional town recently came to life as Fulton, the setting of McCorkle’s 2013 novel, “Life After Life.” In her career, McCorkle has penned nine works — five novels and four story collections — five of which have been named New York Times Notable Books. She has been the recipient of the New England Book Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature and the North Carolina Prize for Literature, and now she can add to that list the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Prize from the University of North Carolina.
Awarded by the school’s Department of English each fall, the prize honors Thomas Clayton Wolfe, a 1920 graduate of UNC who went on to write “Look Homeward, Angel” and “You Can’t Go Home Again,” among other notable works.
The award “recognizes contemporary writers with distinguished bodies of work,” according to the university, and comes with prize money, a medal and the opportunity to give the Thomas Wolfe Lecture, which McCorkle will do in front of students, faculty and the public on Oct. 4.
“I was thrilled and excited and within that moment immediately a little panicked at the thought of giving this big lecture,” she said, of learning she had won the award.
A graduate of UNC, McCorkle said the honor “really does feel like coming home again,” despite the title of Wolfe’s novel suggesting that can’t be done.
McCorkle said she will look to her late friend, professor and publisher Louis Rubin, when she takes the podium at the Genome Sciences Building Auditorium on UNC campus. Rubin started Chapel Hill-based Algonquin Books and wrote a book on Wolfe.
McCorkle herself has attended the the Thomas Wolfe Lecture many times and heard from writers she admires. Past recipients of the prize include Clyde Edgerton, Sandra Cisneros, Roy Blount Jr., Pat Conroy and Tom Wolfe.
Before the lecture, she will visit with UNC writing students.
“I think the best advice I can give a young writer is just to jump in there and do it and not worry about if it’s perfect or publishable that first time. So much of writing is a process,” she said. “I think getting started sometimes is the hardest thing. My advice is to read all you can, pay attention to the way it’s put together and write regularly.”
McCorkle says when she sits down to write, she’s “in that place where I first realized I love to write and wanted to write and that was as a kid.”
“The setting of Lumberton is there but it’s Lumberton in the late ’60s and ’70s,” she said.
She visits often and teaches a monthly writing workshop at Wesley Pines Retirement Community, with the next session on Oct. 18. Her best friend from Lumberton still gives all of her work a first read.
“Part of what she does is make sure I don’t use a name accidentally of someone I knew at Tanglewood Elementary,” she said.
Currently, she’s working on a book fans of “Life After Life” will be eager to pick up. It features the same setting and some new characters.
“My last novel ended in a way that several people got upset with me because I let a crime go unsolved, which I think is perfectly realistic but on the page people wanted it resolved,” she said. ” … I’m dealing with the crime that happened. It does pick up a little bit with the lives I left behind.”
For more on McCorkle, the Thomas Wolfe Prize and the lecture, which is free and open to the public, visit englishcomplit.unc.edu/wolfe.
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.