Barnes & Noble.com: How did you come to write this biography of Elvis, given your fame as a writer of fiction?
Bobbie Ann Mason: It's a short biography, so I couldn't tell everything. It's more of an essay with a point of view. I came at all of this as a southerner, and I approached it in a somewhat literary way, using images and descriptions of photographs and little moments in his life that were not that well known but that I thought might be revealing. It was Elvis's dream to rise above his impoverished background and to buy his mama a Cadillac and a nice home, and that dream fueled his music. I am from western Kentucky, and my fiction takes place in that setting, which is directly north of Tupelo [Mississippi, Elvis's hometown] and Memphis. So I grew up hearing the same music and being aware of a similar culture. I felt I had some insight into him.
Another motivation for writing the book was to counteract that stereotype, all of those clichés about Elvis. Many people don't know much more than spangle jump suits, the guy who shot out TV sets, gorged on peanut butter sandwiches, and gave away cars to perfect strangers. That's really not Elvis. His people were country people, and they had their own culture, and Elvis was always loyal to that world at the same time he wanted to get out of it. And he was always uncomfortable when he would cross class lines. There is so much about Elvis that you can understand when you understand the textures of that upbringing.
When Elvis first was able to buy his parents a house in Memphis in 1956, I imagine that there was probably nothing more exciting in his life from then on -- the ability to achieve that dream, the idea that they could have a real house, a nice house with two bathrooms, four bedrooms. Gladys hung her wash out on the line because it was what she was used to, but the neighbors didn't approve. Life became impossible at that house because Elvis's fans stole the wash, and it was getting on his mother's nerves. It was his parents who found Graceland because it was out in the country -- so Gladys could have some chickens and Vernon [Elvis's father] could raise some hogs. Elvis bought it and kept it as his home for the rest of his life. It was the place he was devoted to, where he honored his mother.
B&N.com: He was extraordinarily close to his mother, Gladys. Could you talk about his relationship with her?
BAM: I think it was a very volatile relationship. She was very strict with him as well as indulgent with her affection. And after she died, it is often said that he lost his moral compass. And part, I think, of his lack of inhibition in his performances and as a performer are ways of rebelling against her, in a way. He could let loose on stage in a way and cause all of the girls to squeal when he would go on road trips and was discovering his sexual magnetism as a performer, much to his surprise. He was totally devoted to his mother. At the same time, he couldn't be what she wanted for him to be, which was to marry a nice girl and have children. And Gladys died and Elvis had difficulty after that.
B&N.com: Please tell us about Elvis's early career and why he was considered so controversial.
BAM: Nobody had done anything like this before: the mixing of the music, rhythm and blues, and country music. Elvis loved all kinds of music. He was hearing it in his head from the time he was born. It was the way he performed without inhibition and the way he brought in these new strains of music that upset the nation at large. I think that maybe southerners were not so shocked, depending on what class level they were. So, it was the revolutionary new music and the fact that he swiveled his hips.
He thought it was funny. All his life he mocked his image. When he first, very first, went on stage, and his leg was shaking out of nervousness, he didn't know why the girls were squealing. He thought they were criticizing him, but it took him not very long to discover what they were responding to. I think he just let loose in a way because he didn't know any better. He was always very polite and had manners, but that kind of crude behavior that he let loose with, he just thought, What the hell? This is creating some excitement. I like it.
B&N.com: Elvis did a large number of films but grew dissatisfied in Hollywood. What bothered him about it?
BAM: He wanted from the very beginning to be taken seriously as an actor. Singing was natural to him. He always sang -- gospel music especially -- but had also grown up with movies. That was just a dream -- something you couldn't even imagine you could ever do. But he got the chance to go to Hollywood and was so serious with Love Me Tender that when he showed up the first day he had memorized not only his own lines but also everybody else's. Not just that day's worth of dialogue but the entire script. He kept losing out on big opportunities to make serious movies because the Colonel discouraged him.
B&N.com: There was a very spiritual side to Elvis. He grew up a fundamentalist Christian. As an adult he explored numerous religions, including many Eastern religions.
BAM: Elvis was a very serious, introspective person. He had a very religious upbringing in the Pentecostal Holiness Church. It didn't suit his needs as he got older and more famous, but he couldn't stop thinking about these more spiritual questions: Why was I chosen to be Elvis? Why did this happen to me? What should I do about it? So, because he had a religious bent, he explored a lot of religions and underlined a lot of passages in books that he thought applied to his situation. He just read all the time and was tormented by these questions.
Ultimately, he thought he had an important role to play, not as a minister but as an entertainer. He was devoted to being Elvis. His tragedy was that he was so sincere in trying to move up to the image that the public imposed on him. He would say nobody could live up to an image but he was so grateful to his fans for making him the King of Rock 'n' Roll that he felt he had a duty toward them -- a responsibility. So, in a way, he was the servant of his fans. And that probably inhibited him artistically as well.
B&N.com: How did Elvis get involved in taking drugs, and how did the habit lead to his death?
BAM: Elvis started to take amphetamines in the army because his officers gave them to him so he could stay awake during tank patrol. And he loved them and he placed his faith in them, because he innocently thought they could not be bad for you if the army officers agreed to give them to you. He liked it, and he kept using them after he got out of the army. That really was his drug problem, because he had to take downers to go to sleep. His faith was in prescription drugs. He then abused them, because he thought they were all right. So, he ruined his health.
B&N.com: How do you explain that Elvis is the great American musical figure, a great American phenomenon -- even in death? Why is he such an important figure in American history. And exactly why has his image survived him?
BAM: Elvis, of course, changed American culture [and] American popular music. By the end of the 20th century, rock 'n' roll was the dominant world form, I guess. And he was largely responsible for that. And his image -- and this is a scary thing -- he had the power to communicate directly with people. First of all, he was musically electrifying. Secondly, he was an electrifying performer. But it is a complex question, why his image has survived him. We may not realize how huge his popularity is, but [during] Elvis Week in August there are fans in Britain [who] will charter 10 to 20 jets. Also, that recent [recording] of 31 No. 1 hits went platinum in Brazil and many other countries. It went triple platinum in the U.S. The power of his music is his ultimate legacy. I hope it is not jump suits from the '70s. Most people got to throw away their clothes from that time.
B&N.com: What are you working on now?
BAM: I am working on a novel. It takes place in Lexington, Kentucky, where all my fiction does. I don't know much more.