Of all the novels I have published, all the stories, all the work and words and time I have invested in creating fictions, Graced Land has had the most impact on my life. In 1992 it was released to rapturous reviews both here and in the UK where the London Observer selected it as one of the Best Books of the Year. It won prizes. It paid for a new roof and bought our first computer. On tour with the book, I met people who have remained friends ever since. I still use the coffee mugs and tee shirts I bought on my first trip to Graceland. More poignantly, Elvis became a sort of presence in our lives. And on June 28th 2022, Paint Creek Press will reissue Graced Land in all its rock-and-roll glory.
The novel emerged from a seemingly random collision of circumstance
The New York Times described Graced Land as a “charming, wonderful book.” The pages ripple with humor and energy because even the writing was joyous and rewarding. Elvis’s music pulsated through the speakers while I pounded on the typewriter. I reveled in creating the first-person voice of Cilla Jackson, a sassy, snotty know-it-all thirteen year old girl. I re-arranged the mental furniture for Emily Shaw, a bookish young woman afflicted with too much imagination. (I have autobiographical access to both of these characters.) There were chapters where I wept to finish them, but there were also chapters where I (still) laugh out loud. Some of these chapters (“Burning Love,” for instance) I needlessly revised again and again just to enjoy the high that went with them.
Once the novel was finished I worked with an enthusiastic agent, Charlotte Sheedy, and when offered a choice of a corporate house or Grove Press, I opted for Grove and their artistic cachet. At Grove I worked with energetic young editors and creative publicists in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere on the phone and several trips to New York. The book got optioned for a TV movie that came out the following year, and though I was not happy with the movie, I was happy with the money.
Instantly the core came to me: a callow young social worker interacts with an Elvis Nutburger
However, before writing Graced Land I had not given Elvis Presley a thought since the day he died. I was not a fan. This novel, like much else in a writer’s life, emerged from a seemingly random collision of circumstance.
One afternoon in 1990 my mom and I were folding laundry and we began to reminisce about a shrine to Elvis on the front porch of a tacky little tract house in San Bernardino, California. The small porch was festooned with posters of the King, black streamers, twinkling lights and fake flowers. It was a corner house by a stop sign, and my mom passed it every day as she drove to her job as a secretary to an orthopedic surgeon at County Hospital. The shrine was still there when she retired in the mid-1980s.
I said to my mom, “You know I always thought that a woman with two daughters must have lived there.” And as soon as I said it, I knew their names were Priscilla and Lisa Marie. Instantly the core story came to me: a callow young social worker interacts with an Elvis Nutburger welfare client. (I also knew the title would be Graceland, but as they say, that is another story.)
I had once been a callow young social worker. For the novel I salvaged this otherwise forgotten brief episode to portray Emily’s job: the florescent-lit office, acres of metal desks, the punitive supervisor, the array of humanity I would never otherwise have met, homes I would never otherwise have entered
I earned a PhD in Elvis
But how to portray the Elvis Nutburger, Joyce Jackson? I had to know what Joyce knew and to feel what Joyce felt. As I wrote I educated myself in Elvis’s music, the books, the movies, the life, the legends. In truth, I earned a PhD in Elvis.
Like my character, Emily, I was in Italy in the summer of 1977. I had a whole glorious month, at the invitation of a UCSD friend, Paola who lived in Venice. I paid for the trip with the advance from my first novel. In mid-August when news reached us that Elvis Presley had died, I was astonished at the outpouring of grief all around me. In Venice people were crying in the streets. Paola was devastated. Really? I thought. Why are these people all so stricken? Wasn’t Elvis just an overweight, cape-swinging relic, his heyday long past? Clearly, that estimation could not be altogether true, or his death would not evoke such grief. I seriously re-thought what Elvis might have meant, but on my return to the States, I forgot him altogether.
Until that day, many years later folding laundry and talking with my mom about a tawdry front porch shrine festooned with posters, black ribbons and fake flowers. Who was the woman who erected it in August, 1977, and maintained it for years afterward? (The novel takes place in 1982.) What must her life have been like? What did Elvis mean to her? “A presence without being present,” Joyce Jackson says, Though Elvis (literally) informs the novel, Joyce had never seen him in person, and he makes no appearance in my pages. Except. . .
“A presence without being present,” Joyce Jackson says
Late in the book Emily is in County Hospital awaiting word from a doctor. She leaves her friends to find some more deserted place to make a private call. There in the phone booth she looks up and detects an ambiguous presence nearby. “His eyes were full of pain, both endured and inflicted. The tensions in his hands and his expression were at once humble and dramatic; everything about him simultaneously evoked, implored, and offered pity.” When she looks back up, he is gone.
Emily returns to her friends, pacing in front of a bank of elevator doors. “Down the hall in the Orthopedics office, a secretary played an unrelenting riff on the electric typewriter.” A few minutes later, “At the end of the hall, the typing came to a halt. The light in Orthopedics went out and the secretary locked the door. She waited for the elevator, nodded, smiling at Emily.”
This cameo appearance is my mother, working late, after hours using the typewriter in the Orthopedics office, as she did for months, typing the manuscript that became my first novel, the book that sent me on that life-changing visit to Italy in August, 1977 that I was able to revisit when I wrote Graced Land. This month, that novel will be reissued in a new edition. On my birthday, no less!