The title story of Going Away Shoes, the new collection by Lumberton-born Jill McCorkle, who teaches creative writing at N.C. State, gives something close to a vicarious statement of its author’s literary purpose. The story’s protagonist, Debby, once wrote for the local newspaper, “covering social events and activities in town”:
She was thorough without being boring; in fact, people often told her they felt that they had been present at an event, she described it so well. She tried to make the most modest attempts (a church fellowship hall strewn with confetti, plates of pimento cheese-stuffed celery) seem elegantly simple, and those that were ostentatious […] she let speak for themselves.
Debby’s writing style could be applied to McCorkle’s as well: the drama of the everyday drives all of Going Away Shoes, her fourth book of short stories. McCorkle usually elides gaudier plot attractionsdeaths, injuries, sexin order to work her way into life as it’s lived daily: singing in the car, calling the plumber, watching TV.
The result is stories that are refreshingly unconstrained by conventional storytelling; they’re looser, more garrulousif perhaps less “structured” than some readers might like. “Surrender,” for example, only glances at its red-letter events, focusing instead on domestic scenes between a woman and her cantankerous granddaughter. The climactic encounter in the 25-page “Intervention” is only two and a half pages long, and it quietly peters out. In the title story, virtually nothing happens at all; it is a sort of third-person diary, a catalog of frustrations and disappointments.
“For me,” McCorkle said in a recent interview, “it’s almost an organic way of telling a story. If I’m listening to someone tell a story and I’m interested in what’s going on with this [character], I’m the person in the circle who wants to stop the teller and say, ‘Tell me a little bit about her.’ It’s very hard for me to view a character in that one dimension of the present. I am just naturally curious about what brought that person to that place.”
But that isn’t to say that McCorkle is unconcerned with plot, and she strives to find the proper balance between action and description. “For every time it works well, I’m sure I have a time where it probably doesn’t. Sometimes the backstory does have to be pared down in revision,” which McCorkle does very rigorously and not only for the sake of mere cutting. “I think that our mind goes in and wants to make connections and order in places where there’s seemingly [none]. In the revision process, [you] begin to see those threads and connections that you wouldn’t necessarily see if you didn’t take the time to come back and go over it and over it.”
The stories in Going Away Shoes find their shape in assiduous revision and their color in gimlet-eyed comedy, but their essential energy comes from regret. Most of McCorkle’s stories feature women suffering variations on Debby’s grievances, especially over men. McCorkle says it’s “a theme that just emerged […] There were a couple of stories that focused on men, and they were kind of dwarfed by the women and ended up not making the cut in the collection.” Many of the men who do appear in Going Away Shoes are concisely summarized in “Driving to the Moon”: “corny, immature, unfaithful.” It’s no surprise that McCorkle’s stories paint a jaded picture of matrimony. A representative slice: “Love or apathy. The game of marriage. The game of monogamy. Some would say monotony.” (And yet one of the deepest emotional notes in the book comes at the climax of “Surrender,” when a long-married woman virtually races, her heart racing along with her, to her beloved husband.)
Going Away Shoes is full of backward-looking characters: women revisiting old losses, old boyfriends, remembering “sitting on Santa’s lap in front of Taylor’s Hardware on Main Street” and driving “past the homemade-ice-cream shop and farm stands.” But McCorkle forces them to turn and face the day. “I think that I’m writing about people in transition,” she says, “and that kind of regret and longing is automatically a part of it. The whole process of transition is about both accepting a kind of truce and, by way of that acceptance, being able to let go. What a lot of my characters have in common is that they are trying their best to reach this threshold of change, and some of them I take over the doorway and some are left with it barely in view. But they’re all having to cast off a lot of these heavy regrets, angers or frustrations. I’m asking myself as a writer what made this person so timid or so angry.”