Rather than flunking college English: An interview with author Mike Burrell.
Alina Stefanescu talks to Mike Burrell about first novels, Elvis, blasphemy, and other sordid stuff.
Since I promised myself not to ask questions about beards in this interview, I'm going to go straight for the jugular. How did you, Mike Burrell, become a writer?
I suspect a therapist could delve into my brain and find some kind of mama issue lurking there.
My mother only had a sixth-grade education, but she was an inveterate reader. She read Hemingway and Faulkner. She read trashy romance magazines and true crime stories. She read Jane Austin and the Bronte sisters. She read comic books and the backs of cereal boxes. While I’ve developed a little more of a reading filter than she had, there’s no doubt that I caught the reading bug from her. Long before I could call myself a creative writer, I was a shameless imitator of what I had read. In that sense my mother was my main inspiration to write.
I was twenty or so before I attempted to write any kind of story. For one thing, I thought being a writer was much too lofty a goal for someone like me to pursue. Wasn’t writing for guys with white beards and three names? For another thing, my first year of college demonstrated how poorly prepared I was to write anything even if I had wanted to. I took English 101 twice and was in the middle of flunking 102 when the instructor gave the class an assignment to write a short story. Every writer out there knows that nothing can make you feel more inadequate than hours of staring at a blank page. Several nights of doing that convinced me that I had no business trying to write a story or even being in college for that matter.
The night before the assignment was due, I had completely given up and sat with my roommates, drinking beer and listening to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. After the third or fourth playing of the album, somewhere between “Tombstone Blues” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry,” I had a vision of a homeless guy watching a wealthy old lady emerge from a Cadillac. Now, the lady actually shopped at the A&P where I worked, and the homeless guy used to come in to sell us his empty soda bottles. So Dylan didn’t paint them for me completely, he just put them together for me somehow. My buddies laughed at me when I said Dylan was a muse. But I can’t help but notice he just won the Nobel Prize for literature. With Bob Dylan’s help, I stayed up all night writing a story about the homeless guy struggling to retrieve a ring the lady accidently dropped down a sewer grate.
After grading all of our papers, the instructor stalked angrily into the classroom. She fairly well dog-cussed the class for not trying. She said everyone got an F on the assignment except one person who earned an A+. While slumped down in my seat, accepting my failure as a college student, she picked up a stack of paper and began to read. I could see visions of being drafted into the army and slogging around a swamp in Viet Nam. If I lived through Viet Nam, I figured I could probably come back and get a job in a sock mill or continue working at the A&P. When my attention drifted back to the instructor’s voice, I thought the words she spoke sounded awfully familiar. My god! I thought. She’s reading my f***ing story.
Over the years, I suppressed the urge to write because I had been hungry in my life, and I had no desire to be a starving artist or a starving anything else. After ensuring there was little chance of me doing without food through early failure, I took Carolynne Scott’s fiction writing class at UAB. Carolynne encouraged me while I wrote some really bad short stories. Next, I wrote a couple of really sucky novels. I got a few stories published before writing a novella for a thesis in an MFA program. Then I revised the hell out of that novella and turned it into The Land of Grace.
I love knowing that what started as a novella wound its way into a novel. Of course, I have to ask about influence and inspiration. Which five writers do you list when someone (like me) asks for favorites? What do you learn from them? What do you covet or admire in their work?
These are the writers I reread when honing craft. I can’t give you just five, so I’ll sneak a couple more in by grouping them according to the tools I most want to borrow.
- Francine Prose and Richard Yates—Great practitioners of the free and indirect style of close third-person narration. In Prose’s Blue Angel and Yate’s Revolutionary Road, a reader is always viewing the world through the eyes of the point-of-view character while moving unnoticed in and out of the character’s voice.
- George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle only)—Dialogue. Realistic dialogue. Dialogue that develops character. Sadly, in his subsequent books, he leaned on dialogue way too much, substituting it for narrative and leaving his characters to communicate with each other through ponderous shaggy-dog stories. But if I only had only one book in me, hell I’d settle for The Friends of Eddie Coyle in a second.
- Graham Greene—Plotting. He’s the master of the plot. He wrote with the movies in mind even the literary masterpieces like The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American.
- Raymond Chandler—The most elegant sentences written by an American (Well, actually he was born in England). Never mind that The Big Sleep really didn’t make a lot of sense—it’s an American classic.
- John Kennedy Toole, Joseph Heller and Stanley Elkin—Humor, satire, and in the case of Elkin, an amazing, jazz-like style of prose that cannot be duplicated on this planet.
What do you love most about Alabama? Conversely, what do you find most challenging about being a resident of this state?
I’ll answer this in reverse order. I find it challenging to stay around and watch my state continually come down on the wrong side of history on everything—the civil rights struggle, marriage equality, LGBTQ rights, health care, immigration and on and on. Our schools lag behind most of the country, and it’s a shame that we refuse to adequately support them.
With all of my complaints, I love Alabama because it’s my home. I can tell it’s my home because sometimes when I’m standing on a familiar piece of dirt, a pleasant childhood memory will pass in front of my eyes behind a whiff of honeysuckle or an autumn breeze rustling through the dry leaves. And no matter where I go, how long I stay, or whatever good time I’ve had while I’m gone, I’m always flooded with that sweet coming-home feeling every time I return.
My neighbors may not see the world as I do. They probably think I belong to some kind of liberal cult, and, I’m sure, they’ve never voted for any of the candidates I’ve supported in any election that’s ever been held. But I still like them because I’ve lived around them and people like them all my life. I know there’s a lot more to them than the crap they regurgitate from Fox News. And I suspect they like me. I imagine when I’m not looking, they shake their heads and say, “Ol’ Mike’s got some weird ways of looking at stuff, but he’s a pretty good ol’ boy.”
Your debut novel about Elvis touches so many southern spaces, though some readers might find it irreverent. How does irreverence serve as a literary technique in your fiction (if it does)? And how did you tackle research while writing a fiction novel about the King?
Irreverence is in the eye of the reader. A blogger recently refused to review my book because, she said, it was blasphemous. That assessment left me with an image of her quietly reading a couple of chapters and suddenly throwing it down as if she’d been holding a big chunk of glowing brimstone.
Being irreverent wasn’t a consideration in writing the book. I began with these questions: What would an Elvis worshiping cult look like? Who would be the most susceptible to its charms? How would a cult like that have originated? And what would it ultimately evolve into?
Of course, I visited Graceland and Elvis’s Tupelo birthplace for perspective. The remaining research for the book consisted, for the most part, of some pretty easy and pleasurable reading. Peter Guralnick’s definitive Elvis bios, The Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love are both riveting. Elaine Dundy’s Elvis and Gladys not only describes the singer’s extremely close relationship with his mother, it also traces the history of his mother’s family.
There may be some benign, positive and beneficial cults out there. But I didn’t look for any of those because a nice cult wouldn’t make for much of a story. I concentrated particularly on cults like The Branch Dividians, The Children of God and The People’s Temple. Cults of this kind have some common characteristics. They have a charismatic leader and a need to isolate their followers from the outside world. They teach that outsiders are the enemy, and they exercise control through fear of physical violence and fear of excommunication.
I also needed to know something about brainwashing techniques. For this I went back to the kidnapping of Patty Hurst by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). I always found it fascinating that one day she’s Patty Hurst, heir to more money than I can even count, and a few weeks later she’s Tania, sporting a snappy little beret and waving an automatic rifle around a branch of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. If we are to believe the psychiatrists and other experts that her attorney, F. Lee Bailey, put on the stand at her trial, she was isolated in a closet and infantilized. Her life was constantly threatened, and she was forced to depend on her captors for her welfare, comfort, her very survival. The resulting behavior is called the Stockholm Syndrome, in which the victim comes to sympathize with and even love her captors.
That was essentially my research. Then my imagination kicked in. I imagined that the ultimate Elvis cult would have its own property–remote, isolated and designed in the likeness of Graceland with Elvis’s birthplace tossed in. It would be populated by cult members playing characters from The King’s life. Now, that by itself is a pretty absurd set-up. Add to that my answer to the question of who would be the most susceptible—an Elvis impersonator. Elvis tribute artists (known in the trade as ETAs) are as serious as a heart attack in the practice of their craft. Their fans take them seriously, too. But most people look at a guy who goes around looking like Elvis 24/7, making his living or extra income squeezing into a gaudy jumpsuit and performing Elvis’s clichéd Las Vegas act, and they see a clown. So I didn’t have to do much digging to mine some humor from that combination. In fact, it was pretty hard at times to restrain the humor because the more seriously the characters play their roles, the more absurd they appear.
I suspect that answering those questions I started with, especially the third one—how would it have originated—created the alleged irreverence in that blogger’s mind. I figured my cult needed an authoritative text with myths and rules for living. I came up with the Book of Gladys, a fictional book that is essentially a copycat version of the New Testament, with Elvis as the savior and written by his beloved mother. To those people who insist on being offended by this, I can only point out that if you take a close look at actual religious cults you’ll find that most of them model themselves on interpretations of the Bible or other religious texts. You’ll also find that some of the underlying beliefs of those cults are a hell of a lot wackier than the divinity of Elvis.
Thank you so much for sharing your time and imagination with us, Mike. One last question: who should buy The Land of Grace?
Well, if you can get into a wild roller coaster ride through the land of an insane Elvis worshiping cult that takes a few neck-jerking turns that you won’t see coming, you should definitely buy it.
Mike Burrell's most recent short story is available to read online in the current issue of Still: The Journal. You can purchase a copy of Mike's novel, The Land of Grace, from Alabama's own Livingston Press. And you should.
Kirkus Reviews calls it: "An intoxicating tale that’s simultaneously gaudy and exquisite."
Mike Burrell on Mike Burrell
"In 1956, at eleven years old, I was one of the world’s first Elvis impersonators. I was a miserable failure at it. The pompadour didn’t work, and I couldn’t sing, so I wound up looking like a nerdy little kid with greasy hair who kept curling his lip as if he had an over-sized booger hung up in his nose. My only performance, a leg-shaking lip-sync of “Hound Dog” at a school assembly, was a big hit, but not for the desired reason. Instead of squealing girls, I was met with uproarious laughter. Kids laughed and called me Hound Dog till I traded in my droopy pomp for a buzz cut and left my Elvis impersonating career on a barber shop floor. But Elvis had made a life-long impression on me. And that impression, along with an eerie encounter with an Elvis cult in my later life (see my blog) were the inspirations for The Land of Grace.
I have earned my living as a farm laborer, a grocery clerk, a military intelligence analyst, a revenue examiner/manager, and a lawyer. I am a native of DeKalb County, Alabama and a graduate of Valley Head High School and Jacksonville State University. I earned an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. My short fiction has appeared in: Still: The Journal; Southern Humanities Review; The MacGuffin; and the Livingston Press anthology, Climbing Mt. Cheaha: Emerging Alabama Writers. I live with Debra, the love of my life, in Birmingham, Alabama."