Fictional Ingredients

This entry is the kind of thing that writers often stick at the end of their novels. I didn’t put it in my book because I think it’s really kind of boring and out of place in something other than heavily researched historical fiction. But some people are interested in how the sausage of fiction is made, so here are some of the other influences for The Land of Grace:

I’ve written about how I was spooked by the little shrine to Elvis back in December, 1977.  And I’ve told how I failed to turn that event into a short story. Since the idea of an unsuspecting guy being traumatized by an Elvis cult failed as a short story, what made me think it might succeed as a novel? The problem was, I kept trying to tell the story of this guy who took a lady home from a party to find out she was a member of an Elvis Cult. In other words, I was too hung up on the actual facts.

This is another way that reading comes in handy. In George Saunders “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” his protagonist is a “verisimilitude inspector” in a historical-like attraction where the hosts stay in character for the amusement of tourists. After reading “CivilWarLand,” I decided the setting of my story would be a kind of ElvisLand without the tourists. That required the introduction of more characters interacting over a longer period of time, which stretched a short story into a novella. From a hundred pages of almost continuous action, I blended in some back story that I already had prepared for my characters. Then my publisher, Joe Taylor, suggested I augment a couple of characters that he found interesting. The result is a two-hundred-and-fifty page novel.

The setting, ElvisLand, was renamed The Land of Grace sometime during the first draft. The name change came about while creating some myths to support the cult. I didn’t have to look far because Elvis’ early life was replete with miracle-like coincidences: He survived birth when his identical twin was stillborn. He wanted a rifle for his birthday, but out of the blue, a clerk at the Tupelo Hardware suggested to his mother that she buy him a cheap guitar, even though Elvis had never expressed any interest in the instrument. Sam Phillips had grown tired of Elvis’ audition session at Sun Records when Elvis suddenly began clowning around with Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama.” The coincidences go on and on.

I steeped myself in Peter Grualnick’s very fine Presley biographies and Elaine Dundy’s Elvis and Gladys. After reading those books, I relied on my flawed memory while writing because I wanted my myths to be loosely based on facts instead of being totally bound to them. Actually I wound up creating more than twice as many myths as I used in the novel because the recitation of so much faux scripture put a terrible drag on the action of the story.

While passing through Tupelo, Mississippi years ago, I toured Elvis’ birthplace, but it would be a while before I would look in on Graceland. On the first few drafts of the book, I used as a reference, Graceland: The Living Legacy of Elvis Presley, a book with some great photographs of Elvis’ mansion and estate. After I actually visited Graceland (which I’ll write about later) I had to revise some chapters because of the skewed perspective I had formed from just looking at photos all the time. Of course I added a few additional rooms in the wings of the mansion because my characters needed them. And I converted the horse barn into a garage for the restoration of antique Cadillacs because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

One man’s cult could very well be another man’s religion, so I will not attempt to distinguish the two. It seems to me that the really harmful cults (and wouldn’t this story really suck if it were built around a beneficial or benign cult?) seek not only adherence to a creed and a belief in their myths but an unnatural degree of control over the behavior of their believers. Exercise of that control often involves violence or the threat of violence (some polygamist cults,  The People’s Temple at Jonestown,  Solar Temple, and Heaven’s Gate). Cults seem to have a tendency to exploit their believers sexually. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s some kind of natural perversion of power. They do it because they can. But I can’t help thinking that most cults begin with good intentions. I can picture the leaders being narcissistic enough to believe that only they know what’s best for everyone.

Since Elvis was devoted to his mother in a very profound way, the leader of my cult had to be female. Mama, a local industrialist’s daughter, came back home to lead her father’s down-and-out former mill workers to the promised land.

Finally, how do you make someone believe he’s actually Elvis? The answer to this I owe to Patty Hurst. According to her lawyer and a stack of psychologists, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) kidnapped her and infantilized her by keeping her bound in a closet, continually threatening to kill her and making her totally dependent upon them. All the while, she was indoctrinated in the organization’s radical politics. Through a phenomena known as the Stockholm Syndrome, she emerged as Tania, picked up an automatic rifle, donned a snappy little beret, and helped rob the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. Now, if that Stockholm stuff can turn a privileged heiress  into a revolutionary bank robber, I believe it would be a piece of cake to make some unsuspecting bozo believe he was Elvis. Of course it wouldn’t hurt if the bozo really wanted to be Elvis to begin with.