With Humor And Sorrow, 'Life After Life' Explores Death

Mar 22, 2013
Originally published on March 28, 2013 5:17 pm

A woman who moves from Boston to be near the grave of her lover; the widow of a judge who keeps a scrapbook of murder and crime; an 85-year-old who has always seen the sunnier side of life; an old man feigning dementia. In the fictional Pine Haven retirement center, together and separately, these characters face the ends of their lives. They're the stars of Jill McCorkle's new novel, Life After Life, which balances humor and sorrow as it explores the moment of death.

In the novel, McCorkle mixes narratives from the residents' lives, notes from a hospice volunteer who witnesses their deaths, and the actual final thoughts of the dying. While it sounds like a recipe for seriousness and tragedy, McCorkle also incorporates a healthy dose of comedy — humorous moments that, in some cases, were inspired by watching her own mother's experience with dementia. The character Sadie Randolph, for example, starts a business in which she takes a Polaroid of a friend and glues it onto an image of the Taj Mahal or a racehorse, inventing memories of adventures they've never had.

McCorkle tells NPR's Melissa Block, "The idea actually came from my own mother, who has dementia and in the earliest phases did this very thing where she puts someone she thought should have been present in the photograph."

When McCorkle asked her mother why a friend suddenly appeared in a photo she knew he wasn't present for, she told her, "He should be there. There's his wife in the picture, and he needed to be with the rest of us."

McCorkle joins Block to talk about her father's death, her mother's dementia and how to write humorously without descending into caricature.


Interview Highlights

On the character of Sadie, a former elementary school teacher who picked up McCorkle's mother's photo-editing hobby

"I see her as the ideal way to leave this Earth. She's someone very comfortable in her own skin, proud of how she's lived her life. And I feel like she's someone, at the end, taking as much control as she possibly can. ...

"Her friends in this facility indulge [her Polaroid business] because they're really, you know, trying to keep her on the assisted-living side and not make the move over to the nursing quite yet."

On why she chose to present moments of death from two perspectives — that of a hospice volunteer and that of the dying person

"I was with my dad 20 years ago as he was dying. I was there at the moment of his death, and I kept wondering the whole while what it must feel like from his point of view to still be there thinking, hearing all that was going on as people came and went, and life continued all around him. So that was the beginning idea. And as a writer, I'm very interested in those intersections that are often hard to pinpoint — the intersection of tragedy and comedy or fiction and reality, and in this case very much life and death."

On the character Stanley Stone, who provides some comic relief

"He is faking dementia to avoid life with his son, and it starts to backfire on him pretty early because it's getting harder and harder to maintain the act. But he poses as someone who's totally obsessed with professional wrestling and also has the habit of basically saying very nasty, bad things to anyone who makes eye contact with him. So I had a tremendous amount of fun with Stanley."

On blending humor with the shadow of death

"It is a very tricky balance. And an idea for a character, for me, often grows out of something that I see as humorous or lighter, and then I'm always circling and trying to go downward into that person's memories to find what is the more serious part. ... And avoiding caricature: We've seen plenty of elderly characters or people with dementia who are only funny, and I really wanted to make sure that my guys were firmly tethered to Earth and reality and respected in that way."

On what she has learned from her mother's dementia

"It has taught me a lot in life and on the page because [of] the kind of nursing area where my mother now lives — she's on a hall with a lot of people with dementia. And I never visit that I don't come away with something funny and something very sad. And so the visits are all about finding the balance, finding the humor, the part that allows you to be there for the darker, more difficult parts. And, you know, as a person, I think what I've learned is to patiently wait for those moments when there's a little bit of light and those moments when you really recognize the person who was always there. And some days, obviously, are better than others, but these people are still very much there."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Here are some of the characters at the fictional Pine Haven retirement facility in North Carolina. They come to life on the pages of a new novel by Jill McCorkle titled "Life After Life." There's a woman who's moved from Boston to be near the grave of her lover, a widow of a judge who keeps a scrapbook of murder and crime, and then there's the delightful Sadie Randolph. She's 85 years old. And as writer Jill McCorkle describes her, she's always seen the sunnier side of life.

JILL MCCORKLE: I see her as the ideal way to leave this Earth. She's someone very comfortable in her own skin, proud of how she's lived her life, and I feel like she's someone, at the end, taking as much control as she possibly can.

BLOCK: She's a former elementary schoolteacher, and she has a wonderful little business that she's set up in the retirement home. It's called exposure.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: So Sadie will take a Polaroid picture of one of the - her friends in the nursing home and glue it onto an image, say, of the Taj Mahal or glue someone onto a racehorse, make them a jockey, give them these wonderful lives that they never had.

MCCORKLE: Correct. And her friends in this facility indulge this because they're really, you know, trying to keep her on the assisted-living side and not make the move over to the nursing quite yet. The idea actually came from my own mother who has dementia and in the earliest phases did this very thing where she puts someone she thought should have been present in the photograph.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Your mom would actually glue the person into the picture.

MCCORKLE: She did, and when I recognized this man who I knew had taken the picture years before, I said, how did he get there? And she said, well, he should be there. There's his wife in the picture, and he needed to be with the rest of us.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You know, all through the book, you're doing a complicated and tricky thing. You are describing the moment of death seen from two perspectives, right? The perspective of Joanna, the hospice volunteer who's witnessing a death and writing down what she has seen and heard. And then right after that, we read the final thoughts of the person who died.

MCCORKLE: Yes. My idea for that, I was with my dad 20 years ago as he was dying. I was there at the moment of his death, and I kept wondering the whole while what it must feel like from his point of view to still be there thinking, hearing all that was going on as people came and went, and life continued all around him. So that was the beginning idea. And as a writer, I'm very interested in those intersections that are often hard to pinpoint, the intersection of tragedy and comedy or fiction and reality, and in this case very much life and death.

BLOCK: I wonder if you could read one section. These are the final thoughts of the character named Luke Wishart(ph) as he's dying in New Hampshire.

MCCORKLE: Sure.

(Reading) The light on the lake skips and shimmers like glass. He can walk over slick, cool, shiny glass, and his body tingles and moves without him. Slick and cool and there's barking and singing and laughing, lapping waves on the beach. And there's the clanging of the boat rocking, and it slipped while he waits in the warm water with the light whispering above. His grandparents are there at the outdoor sink, scaling and cleaning the fish they caught, and his parents are inside dancing.

(Reading) Feet turning slowly on that worn braided rug. And when it gets dark, they will all squeeze onto the bench at the end of the dock and watch the lights over the lake, the stars and fireworks and distant island. The glowing face of his father's watch, he reaches and holds as he leans in close and closes his eyes.

BLOCK: That's Jill McCorkle reading from her novel "Life After Life." There are a lot of sections in the book where very funny things happen...

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: ...in this retirement home. And I'm thinking especially of the character of Stanley Stone, who's actually faking dementia. He's mentally fine, but he is faking dementia for complicated reasons of his own.

MCCORKLE: Yeah. He is faking dementia to avoid life with his son and...

(LAUGHTER)

MCCORKLE: ...it starts to backfire on him pretty early because it's getting harder and harder to maintain the act. But he poses as someone who's totally obsessed with professional wrestling and also has the habit of basically saying very nasty, bad things to anyone who makes...

(LAUGHTER)

MCCORKLE: ...eye contact with him. So I had a tremendous amount of fun with Stanley.

BLOCK: When you were thinking about how to mix humor into what is often a very poignant and sad story, how did you calibrate where that balance would be and how to make it seem not conflicting, not two very different things?

MCCORKLE: You know, it is a very tricky balance. And an idea for a character, for me, often grows out of something that I see as humorous or lighter, and then I'm always circling and trying to go downward into that person's memories to find what is the more serious part.

BLOCK: Is part of what's tricky about finding that balance, you know, making sure that you're not making fun of these characters, that you're not treating them as the butt of jokes?

MCCORKLE: Absolutely. And avoiding caricature. I mean, we've seen plenty of elderly characters or people with dementia who are only funny, and I really wanted to make sure that that my guys were firmly tethered to Earth and reality and respected in that way.

BLOCK: Hmm. You mentioned that your mother has dementia, and I wonder, as you've observed her and listened to her go through that process, how that's shaped you as a writer? What that's taught you?

MCCORKLE: You know, it has taught me a lot in life and on the page because the kind of nursing area where my mother now lives - she's on a hall with a lot of people with dementia - and I never visit that I don't come away with something funny and something very sad. And so the visits are all about finding the balance, finding the humor, the part that allows you to be there for the darker, more difficult parts. And, you know, as a person, I think what I've learned is to patiently wait for those moments when there's a little bit of light and those moments when you really recognize the person who was always there. And some days, obviously, are better than others, but these people are still very much there.

BLOCK: Jill McCorkle, her novel is "Life After Life." Jill, thanks so much.

MCCORKLE: Thank you. It's been great to be on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.