Millikin University’s LJ Pemberton releases debut novel ‘Still Alive’

The work was released on February 8 from Malarkey Books.

DECATUR, Ill. – When it came time for LJ Pemberton to write what would become “Still Alive,” her debut novel, the words came pouring out of her.  

“The stereotype is that writers go to coffee shops and put on their headphones, but for me, I would write at a Mexican restaurant,” LJ said. “The story came out as a book. The beginning came out with the characters fully formed already. That doesn’t always happen. When you write, sometimes, you can struggle to create and invent a character. This wasn’t one of those situations. It was like I was taking notes. I was in the flow, and there (the characters) were.”

LJ Pemberton
LJ Pemberton's debut novel "Still Alive" is out now. Photo by Eliz Hulick. 

LJ started writing “Still Alive” in 2016 and finished it in 2019, just before the COVID pandemic. She joined Millikin University in 2022 as the Marketing and Patron Relations Manager for Kirkland Fine Arts Center

“Still Alive” is a first-person narrative centering on V, who, after meeting Lex, a butch painter, begins a multi-year relationship that ranges from Portland to New York City and finally to Los Angeles. While V’s family interjects dysfunction into her life, Leroy, V’s gay best friend, has chosen rural peace, but V can’t find the same satisfaction – anywhere. While searching for love, meaning, and temp work, V hurtles across the U.S., resisting the store-bought narratives of mainstream life to create a freedom all her own.

“When I get a hold of a story that will take me a while to explore, it is almost always because I have a question I want to answer. The only way I can find the answer is by telling the story,” LJ said. “For this novel, the question I wanted to answer was how do you create meaning in your life when you pin all of your hopes and dreams on it being a relationship at the center? Once you have that relationship, maybe you realize that won’t cut it. How do we find contentment or satisfaction in that scenario? That is one of the driving questions of the story.” 

Still Alive Cover

“Still Alive” was released on February 8 and has received positive critical reviews. Publishers Weekly Review, which LJ also reviews books for, described the work as “a peripatetic and promiscuous young woman seeks her life’s meaning in the fresh and vivid debut from Pemberton.” 

Hilary Leichter, author of “Temporary” and “Terrace Story,” has said: “This is a book for wanderers and searchers, a love story with all of the attendant cliches wadded into a ball and tossed overboard. LJ Pemberton has written a quarter-life raft for the dissatisfied and unmoored. ‘Still Alive’ is punch-drunk and furious, listless and wondrous, brilliantly funny and sexy as hell. I devoured it.”

The novel was published through independent publisher Malarkey Books, and LJ’s experience bringing her work to market has been positive. 

“I am very fortunate to work with Alan Good, Editor of Malarkey Books. He’s a writer and started this press because he just wanted to publish great books,” LJ said. “Malarkey is an independent press, so Alan doesn’t have the pressure to publish for any other reason other than what he loves. In terms of being an editor that you work with, Alan has been a writer’s dream.”

LJ Pemberton

Along with serving as an Instructor at Millikin and teaching classes such as Arts Management and Arts Administration, LJ has a book tour ahead of her this spring, including stops in Kansas City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. She will soon announce details of events in Decatur at Decatur Brew Works and 121Coffee Run in March and April, respectively. When she can find the time to continue her writing, she is working on her next novel project.  

“Generally, if I haven't written in a while, I make myself a set time. I usually work on something twice a week, whether it means I get up early in the morning before work or I spend like all Saturday,” LJ said. “If I sit down and the stuff I'm writing is just not working, that's a signal to me that I need to go do something else for a while. But when things are happening and flying, once you are in that state, it is magical.”

“Still Alive” Book Tour

February 10, 7 p.m.
The Brick in Kansas City, Mo.

March 5 – Decatur Brew Works

6:00 p.m. | Gather
6:15 p.m. | Reading
6:30 p.m. | Book Signing
6:00-? | Drinking / Chilling / Partying

April 10, Doors at 6 p.m., reading at 6:30 p.m.
TEST Literary Series, The Whistler in Chicago, IL

April 13, TBA
121 Coffee Run in Decatur, IL

June, TBA
Women & Children First in Chicago, IL

July 5, 7 p.m.
Unnameable Books in Brooklyn, NY

August, TBA
Zoom virtual reading

November, TBA
North Figueroa Bookshop in Highland Park, California