Old Crimes

by Jill McCorkle

In Old Crimes Jill McCorkle tells stories about the lies we tell ourselves and the secrets we keep that nonetheless echo across our lives. Her character’s want to connect but can’t seem to let go of the protective barriers they have built up. Her stories are heartbreaking, revealing, authentic and wise. McCorkle talked about the writing life and developing Old Crimes.

Authorlink: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that you can share with us?

McCorkle: I had wonderful mentors as an undergraduate and they all said many things that made an important impression.  My favorites are as follows:  Max Steele told me that I was a “good puppeteer” which I thought was a compliment in class only to realize while on my way back to my room, that perhaps he hadn’t meant it as such.  I was waiting for him the next day and asked that he explain.  He said I was doing a great job moving everyone around but that I was holding them arms distance from my heart.  I think about it all the time and work hard to keep that pulse beating.  From Lee Smith:  “as a 19 year old from a small town, you have as much to say as anyone.”  She also said you didn’t have to wear a tight turtleneck, chain smoke and swig bourbon all day to be a southern writer.   And finally, Louis Rubin—teacher my senior year and founder of Algonquin Books– talked to me before I went for a job interview.  He said, “I can probably tell you everything they will ask you” and I got out my pen and paper, ready to take notes.  Then he said, “But instead, I want to tell you this.  Go and just be yourself. Be completely honest and if they don’t want to hire you, then it’s not the job you want to have.”

Authorlink: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do stories come from for you?

“Some begin with a voice or one thing I might know about a character, others begin with an idea…” 

McCorkle: Some begin with a voice or one thing I might know about a character, others begin with an idea.  For instance, the story Confessional is just that.  A young couple buy an antique confessional and have it delivered to their home; what begins as fun and games turns to knowing more than they want to know, a kind of Pandora’s Box of truths.  The Lineman began with the opening line of the Jimmy Webb song that Glen Campbell made famous.  It’s about communication and all that has changed since Alexander Graham Bell first spoke to Mr. Watson through the wire.  My character is feeling left behind and yet also wondering who others will call when the big blackout comes. He very much grew out of my own longing for a kind of silence and period of waiting that is no longer easy to find.

Authorlink: How did you know you had a collection? Did you write these stories with building a collection in mind or did you find you had written a set of stories that belonged together?

McCorkle: Several of the stories are older and had already been published—Swinger, The Lineman, Sparrow—others were in various stages and I just kept them in a box off to the side while finishing my novel.  I have worked like this many times and more and more, it is the norm, ideas that belong to something else flying in and being put off to the side until there is a big chunk of time to sort and work through them.  What I find, is that when there are several stories hatching at once, they automatically start to connect thematically.  That was definitely true in this case, and those earlier stories fit right in. There was regret. There was a lesson in how assumptions and early judgments are often incorrect.  Belts figure in prominently—both literally and figuratively—and this was something easy to weave in a couple of places.

Authorlink: Your characters are ordinary people, sometimes poor, forgotten, the sinners and the sinned upon. What drives you to tell their stories with such empathy?

” I often begin by asking what haunts that person.”

McCorkle: Again, it is way too easy to size up and label or judge in stereotypical ways.  It is far more challenging to locate the source of that human’s weakness or suffering and attempt to shine a light on it in ways that make the act of judgment a lot more complicated.  They are ordinary people and key word there is “people.”  I have often told students that if they know what stands to wound a person—a grief? A secret? A regret?—and likewise, what that person loves beyond all else, then you will have all you need to know.  I often begin by asking what haunts that person. What is the deed done or NOT done that comes to them in the dark of night.  Locating the human within automatically brings a kind of empathy.

Authorlink: The mood of these stories with their sense of want and disconnection fits our times perfectly. An intriguingly dark tone of stretches across the stories in the collection. Talk about how you achieved that.

McCorkle: I think that the world is in a dark place and it’s hard to dismiss the lack of connection and trust.  I think that all of these characters want to believe in something; they want to feel loved and appreciated. These are stories designed to locate their breaking points, a regret or a memory that has completely reshaped the present.  I’m very interested in memory that way, the way that what has come before most definitely affects the present.

Authorlink: This is your fifth short story collection. How has your writing changed over time?

I love the story form and the challenge to create what feels like a whole world in that limited space.

McCorkle: I think that I have become more and more confident with the story form and as I result, I find that I give a lot more to the work.  In the beginning, I often tried to fashion stories out of the scraps of what was left over from a novel.  Now, more often than not, it is the scraps left out of a story that might find a home within a novel! I love the story form and the challenge to create what feels like a whole world in that limited space.

Authorlink: These stories highlight the power of past secrets and regrets, and how those can influence present behavior.  Did you have a literary role model in mind when you developed these stories or one you can credit with showing you the power of secrets in stories?

McCorkle: Certainly Alice Munro is a master.  Arthur Miller.  Tennessee Williams.  I love the suspense in a work like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (speaking of what is kept secret).  I’m also inspired by daily life and the power housed within the mundane.  Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” remains a touchstone work as does Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.”

Authorlink: What was your greatest challenge in developing Old Crimes?

McCorkle: I think that the most challenging story for me was Act III.  I wanted it to feel like we were moving from the chaos of reality to an attempted control as my character, Vera, tries to sum up her life and children.  I wanted to get as close to strong opinions about these children as I could take her without losing her deep love for them.  I wanted the stages of her own life—her childhood memory/ her children’s childhoods/ the current secret she holds—to carry equal weight.  I wanted to evoke grief and joy- bringing the sensations as close together as was possible.

Authorlink: You teach and I’m wondering what advice you offer to apprentice writers about either craft or staying encouraged in the face of rejection.

McCorkle: Two entirely different topics!  I often tell my students that the act of publishing is the antithesis of writing.  So first for craft- clear the room of ghosts and whoever in your life judges you (advice in graduate school from visiting writer, George Garrett) write the first draft in all honesty as if you are the only one who will ever see it.  And maybe you will be.  That granted freedom is part of my daily routine.  I don’t think or worry about who is the audience or this or that.  My only allegiance is to the characters and situation on the page.  THEN, revision begins and I am on a very different channel and as you move closer to that place where you need the opinions and thoughts of others, you must zip up every suit of skin hanging in your closet because you will be criticized and you will be rejected.  BUT if you successfully followed step one and were true to yourself and to your characters, then rejection might be something you take to heart and learn from OR (as Louis said about the long ago job, which I got by the way) then that wasn’t the right place for your story to be and you zip up another layer and keep trying.   I also like to think that I instill in my students what makes for good criticism that it is pointing out something that works or doesn’t work for you with thoughtful reasons and examples to back it up.   I hate this or I love this—thumb up or thumb down simplicity is NOT good criticism and it certainly isn’t helpful.  Respect is an important part of it all and harsh criticisms and rejections without respect or attempting to understand what someone is trying to do–even if not succeeding– is not good criticism.  If nothing else, I would hope that level of respect and consideration is part of what might be learned and practiced.

Authorlink: Discuss what you are working on now.

McCorkle: I always have a couple of stories started and waiting around or the idea for an essay I’d like to write. I have the beginning of a novel that I have had in mind for quite a while.  Last year I wrote a play—something I have always wanted to try—and am in the process of revising.  I think I can’t live long enough to get to the bottom of the box and hope that it continues to fill up!  I never let go of a work without something firmly in hand.  I think that’s always been my biggest superstition of all and there are several.


Jill McCorkle published her first two novels on the same day in 1984, The Cheer Leader and July 7th. Since then she has published five other novels—most recently published is Hieroglyphics (2020, Algonquin Books)—and five collections of short stories including Old Crimes. Five of her books have been named New York Times notable books and four of her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories. McCorkle has received the New England Booksellers Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and the Thomas Wolfe Prize; she was recently inducted into the NC Literary Hall of Fame. McCorkle has taught at Harvard, Brandeis University, NC State University, and the Bennington Writing Seminars.