I can’t really remember a time in my life that was pre-Elvis. I probably heard his voice in the womb, because my mum is a massive Elvis fan. His face was always around, too: it was on the mirror in our bathroom that Mum had won at the fair; it was in an oil painting which hung in my aunty’s house.
About fifteen years ago, I took my mum on an Elvis tour of Tupelo and Memphis. When we went through the gates of Graceland, Mum cried. Her dream of being close to Elvis was finally coming true. Weirdly, although Graceland today is very much the public face of Elvis Presley Enterprises, I also felt close to him there: I was surprised by how homely Graceland felt. It’s quite small, for a celebrity mansion. Walking through the rooms, I could feel that a family had played, eaten, loved and argued in this place; I suppose that’s when I started to think about who this man who changed American culture really was.
When I started to research his story, I found many things I hadn’t really understood, despite growing up surrounded by Elvis: the depth of his poverty; the fact that his father had been imprisoned, and the shame that had cast on the family (Elvis kept it a secret, even from his wife, for his whole life); the complex and troubling relationship with his manager, Tom Parker, who was both father and monster to Elvis; and, most of all, Elvis’s extraordinary closeness to his mother, Gladys, and what happened to her when her son became a superstar.
Before researching the book, I’d taken it for granted that Gladys would be thrilled at her son’s success and, as a poor country woman who had struggled through the Depression, would have enjoyed its trappings. But then I read of her distress at being warned off feeding her beloved chickens in front of Graceland (it wasn’t good, she was told, for Elvis’s image), and I knew the book was going to be about Elvis and his mama. Although her precious only son had achieved impossible wealth, success, fame, Gladys Presley referred to herself as the most miserable woman on earth. Alcoholism — and loneliness — put her in her grave, aged just 46.
I’ve written a couple of novels that were based on biographical research, but I’ve never felt as close to any character as I did to Elvis and Gladys. It was immense and intense joy for me to walk a mile or two in their shoes.