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Jill McCorkle draws from memory and its totems

David Wilson for The Boston Globe

The couple in Jill McCorkle’s seventh novel, “Hieroglyphics,” share a painful history rooted in real-life tragedies. Lil’s mother died in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove fire, while Frank’s father died in a horrible train accident in Rennert, N.C. For McCorkle, one detail of the North Carolina tragedy always stuck with her.

“Reading about the train wreck in my native county, the image that I just could never shake was that bridal veil up in the tree,” McCorkle said. “I was inspired by having read those various catalogs of the way people were identified or objects found in the aftermath. The real inspiration for the novel was the idea of those little traces we leave behind.”


Another inspiration came from a foundling hospital she once visited in Florence (“Italy, not South Carolina,” she quipped in her rich southern accent). “I was just mesmerized by Florence,” McCorkle said. “That foundling hospital was one of those places that just moved me incredibly, because of all those little keepsakes that people left with the hope that they would reconnect” with the babies they left there.

Artifacts, loss, and memory form a backdrop to Frank and Lil’s story as it unfolds. “I think a lot about memory,” McCorkle said. “As a writer it was so important to me that I trace my own.” In her case, that personal history includes the years she spent in Massachusetts, where she taught at Harvard and Tufts. “I love Massachusetts! It was one of those places the first time I ever went, I just felt like I had been there before,” McCorkle said. “Of course, it was the home of my children, which really does make it a home. When I came back to North Carolina, I was surprised at how homesick I felt about Massachusetts.”

Jill McCorkle will participate in a virtual conversation at 7 p.m., Aug. 5, hosted by Brookline Booksmith. More information at www.brooklinebooksmith.com/events.


Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.