My first question for Mike Burrell, author of Land of Grace, the fictional tale of a lonely Elvis impersonator, was not to ask how much time he had spent at Graceland.
The book details the intricate décor and style of the legendary mansion with precision and grace.
It was not to ask him how dedicated he is to Elvis’ extensive songbook. The novel references tracks that a fair weather Elvis fan would never have heard.
It was, instead, to first and foremost ask how much time he spent analyzing and studying the practices of brainwashing used by cult societies. For the delightful, humorous, if slightly sad tale of Doyle Brisendine takes a deep, dark turn that will leave you questioning his decisions long after you’ve turned the last page.
Doyle is an Elvis impersonator, and a darn good one. So good in fact that members of the Our Lady of TCB Church, yes, you read that correctly, have decided they need to have him as their own.
Their own what? Their own Elvis.
Church members believe Elvis is alive and well. He, in fact, performs in their sanctuary every Sunday morning. When one Elvis passes away, well, they need a resurrection. Enter Doyle.
But first, they have to convince him this calling is more than acting the part every weekend. They have to convince him that he is, in fact, Elvis.
For inspiration, Burrell said he turned to the 1974 kidnapping and subsequent brain washing of Patty Hearst by a group of armed radicals that billed themselves as the Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA.
“At her trial she had a lot of psychiatrists and experts testify about the brainwashing and how they infantilized her and made her dependent upon them,” he said. “That was the transformation part of all of this.”
Our protagonist, Doyle, faces many of the same cult-inspired tactics as the leaders of Our Lady of TCB Church begin to wield control over him.
That’s the fiction. Burrell said the book is based on a smidgen of fact.
In 1977 he was leaving a party and the host asked him to drive another guest home. When he arrived at her home, a tiny house set back from the road with flickering lights, she asked him to come in.
“The first thing I noticed was that the walls were splattered with picture of Elvis Presley,” he said. “In the middle of the room she had a sort of shrine to Elvis. There was a statue and candles. She went over and blew the candles out, and said, ‘one of these days my sister is going to burn this house slap to the ground’.”
When he asked her if she was saddened by Elvis’ death, Burrell said she went ballistic. She yelled and argued that the king was not dead.
“I backed out of there,” he said. “I felt something crawl up the back of my spine. I kept thinking of that and how it was just about the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen in life. It made an impression on me.”
Burrell began to wonder if the dedicated following of fans had ever in fact morphed into a worshipping community.
“There isn’t really an actual cult but it seems like there is and seems like there could be,” Burrell said.
Burrell remembers seeing Elvis on television for the first time and said he understands why fans are so devoted, even decades after his death.
“I was 11 … this guy walked out like he was shot out of cannon. I understand why he was just like a one man revolution. He caught lightening in a bottle,” he said.
Burrell, who lives in Birmingham, went on to be drafted in the late 1960s and serve in the U.S. Army’s military intelligence division. Afterwards he became a criminal defense lawyer and earned an MFA in creative writing from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C.
His first novel, The Land of Grace, had a hard time finding a publisher because the story didn’t fit neatly into one genre. Publishers were leery of the swift dark turn from light humor to deadly serious.
Burrell said he knew he was violating a classic rule of novel construction. He knew that stories typically didn’t turn light to dark.
“I thought about that and how people would take this but the central driving force of the story is, what does the character want,” he said. “When it got down to it, Doyle has to make the decision.”
How badly does Doyle want to be Elvis? Check out The Land of Grace and find out.
The Land of Grace is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and at the Livingston Press website, www.livingstonepress.uwa.edu