“The writer needs a cupful of pain to get a thimbleful of prose. It’s the same for a musician, or a singer. That’s what we demand of our artists. They need to live like that. If they’re any good at all, they die like that.”
From Graced Land, Grove Press, 1992
In 2014 I finally succeeded in getting the North American rights to all my books returned to me, a tedious process that took far longer than it should have. But that is another story. Eventually I will offer them as e-books. Alas, the earlier novels were not produced on a computer, and the original manuscripts are probably in the basement where only the foolhardy venture.
Fortunately, I discovered that my friend, the very talented Andrea Gabriel, renowned illustrator, and children’s book author is technically adept. To begin with, Andrea took a hardback of Graced Land and somewhere out in Etherland it got torn apart and its guts fed into a machine that rendered it electronic. Andrea returned to electronic file to me for proofreading.
As a writer, it is, for me, an article of faith never to read my work in print. I might glance through the pages, read a bit here or there, but once in print, I never again revisit a book I have written. Why? Because I always immediately think: I could have made that better. Why didn’t I change that? I should/must revise. And yet, once your mss is turned to print, gifted with an ISBN number, that ship, as they say, hath sailed. I wrote Graced Land in about 1990. A long time ago. I might not like it now.
For these reasons and others, I came upon this proof-reading task with trepidation. I dilly-dallied.(Not least because I have an adversarial relationship with Microsoft Word, and I dreaded dealing with its barrage of pedantic tics and giggles.) But finally (after Andrea nudged me) I went to work.
In proofing the book, yes, I wanted to revise. But didn’t. Yes, I wanted to re-punctuate. But didn’t. But to my surprise, I found that revisiting Graceland (the original title; Elvis’s estate made us alter it) reminded me that of all the books I’ve written this was, without doubt, the most fun. I laughed all over again. Got misty all over again.
The original idea for Graced Land came from not from Elvis at all. I was not a fan. Rather, a chance conversation with my mother about a house in a neighborhood not far from the old county complex where she used to work as secretary ignited my imagination. On the porch of this modest house there was a shrine to Elvis that the locals referred to as Heartbreak Hotel. That inspiration, lightly mixed with something of my short, ill-starred career as a social worker, begat a novel with Elvis at its center, though invisible. (He does however, make one ghostly appearance.)
When I began writing I knew very little about Elvis, and cared less. My Elvis education (a story all on its own which I shall spare you) began with the music. I wrote the book with Elvis’s music blaring. I used headphones after the kids came home from school in the afternoons, so they could do their homework.
In some ways, while I was writing the novel, Elvis moved in with us. He stayed here long after the book was published, a benign sort of presence. His music permeated the house and our lives. Pictures and posters that went up when I was writing Graced Land remain on the walls still. Bear and Brendan took some of these pictures and posters with them when they moved to LA; they now hang in their homes.
For about ten years, every January 8th, we had noisy Elvis Birthday Parties. We played the music nonstop, ate Elvis’s favorite foods (like Fools’ Gold Loaf) assembled a 1000 piece Elvis puzzle in the one room and watched all the movies on three different TVs in another. We always began with the hands-down favorite, King Creole. We all stood up and shouted with Elvis, “Now you know what I do for an encore!” You had to sing an Elvis song to get in the front door. We had lyric sheets for those who needed them. People brought their instruments, and jammed. These parties lasted for ten or twelve hours. Perhaps thirty or more people, a crowd scene fueled by music.
In proof-reading Graced Land, the crowd scenes fueled by music were the most fun to read. And to write: some of these scenes I had a revised a hundred times, not because they needed that much work, but because I got to plow the music into the prose itself. I found the experience exhilarating.
Almost as exhilarating as the main character, young, bookish/literary Emily Shaw feels in the Burning Love Chapter. Emily, drinking, dancing in a local bar to a band playing All-Elvis, imagines Elvis and Shakespeare, the Burning Bard, on stage, performing together:
Everyone on the dance floor, happy heretics all, hotfooting over coals, Burning Love, their sweat flying like steamy smoke, sizzling out of that short fuse: put the key of imagination into desire and start the ignition. Imagination and desire fired Emily, who danced like the floor had been torched, like her very flesh was turning on a musical spit, smoking, and she laughed out loud to think of Shakespeare, of the violent delights, the violent ends, the fire and powder, flash of heat you could feel radiate off the Bard’s immortal pages. Shakespeare, he knew all about Burning Love, that’s why he smokes up the pages of the Norton Anthology while the rest of them just trundle and grump. Shakespeare could catch the throb, throttle, combustion of imagination with desire, lust, and suction. Oh, Little Willie, the Burning Bard, he’d met that general of hot desire, all right, he knew Burning Love and he knew what to do with it: melt it all down and pour it—molten, liquefied, and, above all, hot—into words, form them into perfect sonnets, that’s why his words still smoked up off the page, singed your very fingers: because that’s what Burning Love is all about. Shakespeare knew it. Elvis too. Emily threw back her head and laughed, imagining them both up there, the Burning Bard and the King, that hip-thrusting hunk of—what else?— Burning Love. The King in sequined white and Little Willie in sequined black, each gripping a mike while the flames flared all around them, two masters of emotion, singing to one another and anyone else who cared to experience the flames you love to lick, turn you into smoke you like to die of and here, right here, with heat wavering, flames snapping all around, Elvis and the Burning Bard who knew that water cools not love, hell no, not Burning Love. And what other kind was there? What other kind was worth having? Emily spun into Howard’s arms and out again. He caught her, pulled her up close against his hot body, and she combusted spontaneously, Burning Love at both ends, steaming spirit, just like Elvis and the Burning Bard. Breathe deep, O Burning Love, and fear not, fear not the heat, the smoke, the sizzle.
The e-book, Graced Land, will be available January 8th 2016 for Elvis’s birthday.
Shoe Sacrifice to Elvis, 2001