Saturday, December 7, 2019

#105 Inside the Emotion of Fiction "THE LAND OF GRACE" by Mike Burrell

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****Mike Burrell’s THE LAND OF GRACE is #105 in the never-ending series called INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific excerpt from a fiction genre and how that fiction writer wrote that specific excerpt.  All INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION links are at the end of this piece. 

Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? My novel deals with a religious cult founded on the worship of Elvis. I finally settled on The Land of Grace because of the religious reference, the irony (there is no grace in this land) and the setting inside a replica of Elvis’s Graceland. And, you know, I had to call it something. Titles are tough. During the first draft, I used That’s All Right, Mama as a working title because of Elvis’s first hit, because he was a mama’s boy, and the cult’s matriarch is known only as Mama. But the story outgrew that title. Besides that title had already been used in Elvis fiction, and it obscured what I was trying to say in the book. I also passed on The Passion of the King because it was so one-sided I felt as if I were beating the reader across the head with a title. I am gratified by people gleaning some commentary from the book, but essentially, I wanted to tell a story

Fiction genre? Ex science fiction, short story, fantasy novella, romance, drama, crime, plays, flash fiction, historical, comedy, movie script, screenplay, etc. And how many pages long? Genre? I’d say satire if that’s an actual genre. I never see it listed anywhere. Literary agents said they had a problem with it because it seemed to be a cross between comedy and horror. It’s 253 pages in length.

Has this been published? And it is totally fine if the answer is no. If yes, what publisher and what publication date? The Land of Grace was published by Livingston Press in July, 2018.

What is the date you began writing this piece of fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? When I started writing this story is a harder question than it appears. I won’t go into the weird inspiration for it. You can find it on my website. But I started dabbling with this idea as a short story back in 2003. After it failed as a short story, I picked it up as a thesis project in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte in 2010. I pounded away on it for about a year and produced around 120 pages. It was pretty good but not a publishable length. It was more like a fairly well-written rough draft, looking for a purpose and an ending.  
It lay dormant in my hard-drive till 2015 when I was trying to come up with a secondary submission for a workshop I was attending at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. Maybe I’d learned something in all that time because I saw the problem was my character. Once I chose Ol’ Doyle Brisendine from San Angelo, Texas, I was hooked. I finished it sometime in 2016.

Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work? And please describe in detail. Most of my writing is done in my home office. There’s nothing magical about the environment. It just allows me to be in the house with my wife while giving me the solitude I need to do this kind of stuff. Instead of springing for one of those fancy elevated computer desktop thingies, I’ve propped my ten-year-old MacBook on a stack of thick, coffee table-sized books to keep from having to look down at the screen all the time.
     While I write, I’m flanked by shelves of books. This is not by any kind of design. It’s just where they happen to fit in the room. But glancing at the spines of those books coincidentally remind me of what I’m supposed to be doing there. To my right as I sit in front of my computer, is a non-descript file cabinet. On the wall to the right of the file cabinet is a window, overlooking some of my wife’s beautiful flowers and our lawn (or meadow if I’ve been delinquent in mowing, which I very often am). Beyond the lawn is the street. And beyond the street, my neighbor’s yard. In front of the window is a portable table that I find handy sometimes, but, more often than not, just collects clutter.
     Behind me is a clunky teacher’s desk that my wife bought years ago. I keep a notebook on that desk along with a cluster of pens and pencils big enough to arm a schoolhouse full of scribblers. Sometimes I wheel around and sketch out a scene or a character if the writing isn’t going well on the computer screen. I haven’t smoked since 1986, but my pipes still rest on that old desk. They are amazing dust magnets, but for some reason I find them interesting.

           The desk is flanked by a printer/fax/copy machine on the left and a barrister’s bookshelf on the right. Beside the bookshelf, on the other wall near the door is a closet where I keep some office supplies and a few items of clothing.

My only real extravagance in this room is my Herman Miller chair. I figured if I’m going to spend a lot of time sitting, I might as well save my back. But the real focal point in the room is the picture of me and my wife, Debra over my writing area. It reminds me that even if I fail miserably and make a complete fool out of myself, I’ll still have someone who loves me far more that I’ll ever deserve.

What were your writing habits while writing this work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? I usually write in the mornings, beginning with reading the first two or three pages from the book. Then I read what I’ve written the day before. Since I’m writing in the voice of the point of view character, I may read it two or three times. If the point of view character has changed, I’ll go back and make sure I’m consistent with the one who’s doing the looking and thinking.
I compose directly into a laptop. Occasionally, I’ll turn around to my desk and work on some stuff with a pencil.
While writing I drink a lot of black coffee. I’m not sure that’s relevant because while I’m not writing, I drink a lot of black coffee. They say Balzac (Above Left) drank 50 cups per day. I’m not up to his level of writing, but I’m at least making a dent in the coffee drinking part.

What is the summary of this specific fiction work? The plot summary of The Land of Grace When a beautiful young woman takes Elvis impersonator Doyle Brisendine to a replica of Graceland, he first thinks he’s landed in some kind of amusement park staffed with actors playing characters from Elvis’ life, including some of Elvis’s relatives, the Memphis Mafia, and an impersonator who looks like Elvis in his last days. But Doyle quickly learns that he’s in the midst of a zealous cult built around the worship of the King, led by a ruthless high priestess called Mama. Since childhood, Doyle has secretly dreamed of being Elvis. Soon he’ll have to decide if he’s willing to pay a very high price to become the King of Rock and Roll.

Can you give the reader just enough information for them to understand what is going on in the excerpt? This excerpt is the beginning of the novel (pages 1,2, and 3). It finds my Elvis impersonating protagonist, Doyle Brisendine at a crossroads in his life. As he’s waiting to go on stage, while he’s performing, and after the show, he experiences a roller coaster of emotions.

From where he stood, backstage at the Willow Ruth AMVETS, the murmur of female voices and the clamorous shuffling sounded like a pretty lively crowd swarming into the club. And after a few minutes all the clapping and the foot-stomping, accompanying the furious chant of “WE WANT ELVIS! WE WANT ELVIS!” had him imagining a standing-room-only throng of rabid Elvis fans. It even ignited an old, familiar spark down in his gut that he thought he’d lost somewhere on that long road he’d been traveling.
“This is why I do this,” he told himself under his breath. “By God, this is what gets me up in the morning.”
As if he’d recited some magical incantation, the memory of the latest string of skimpy, unresponsive audiences across the plains of Kansas and Nebraska faded into a mist. But when he drew back the musty stage curtain and peeked down on all the white hair and wrinkled faces scattered over a dozen rows of metal folding chairs, his sudden euphoria dissolved into the trickle of bile he felt rising up in his throat. He washed down the bitter taste with a hard slug of his Pepsi and wondered if this was what seven years of lugging his King of Kings Elvis Tribute through every little Walmart-raped town to-hell-and-gone had finally come down to: senior night at the AMVETS.
“Well, what the hell,” he said, shrugging. “It’s show time, and they got out of their rocking chairs to see Elvis.” He crushed his Pepsi can, dropped it at his feet, and cued his backing tracks with his remote. The club lights dimmed, the overture to 2001: A Space Odyssey swelled through the room, and the unruly knot of old ladies fell as silent as pallbearers. But as the overture segued into the “That’s All Right, Mama” vamp they sounded like a cage of hungry animals about to be fed. When the curtain opened and he walked onstage through a swirl of lights in the white Aloha jump suit with the E-L-V-I-S sign flashing red behind him, turning while spreading out his cape to let the spangled eagle on the back glitter like the Las Vegas Strip, he felt as if he were in the middle of a prison break.
Except for one old lady in a wheelchair, they all bounced out of their seats and jammed in around the foot of the stage. A couple of the club’s employees tried to get them to sit down but gave up when it looked as if they were going to have a riot on their hands.
All the excitement and the beat of “See, See Rider” kindled a firestorm inside of him. Next, he kicked straight into “I Got a Woman,” already soaring on a hot wave of senior hysteria.
Right in the middle of his hunka, hunka move in “Burning Love” he experienced that rare moment all the great entertainers speak of in whispered reverence; that moment, often compared to lightning being captured in a bottle, when singer and audience magically become one. And the magic stayed with him all the way to the end, though one granny had thrown off his timing a little between “Teddy Bear” and “Don’t be Cruel” by pulling up her dress and ashing her black panties.
If anyone could tell his vocals had stumbled for half a minute, they didn’t show it. All through his performance they stood, squealing at every wiggle of his leg, every curl of his lip, sounding as feral as any mob of hormone-charged teenage girls he’d ever heard.
As the final notes of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” faded and he handed out the last of his scarves, it dawned on him that the youngest one out there had to be somebody’s great-grandmother. So getting laid was way out of the question. But he figured that loss was more than compensated by knowing that these ladies were the King’s contemporaries, the only audience that could appreciate a truly artistic interpretation of Elvis’ persona.
While taking his final bow to raucous screams and applause, he felt as if they had given him the power to rise up from that drab little club and take his place among all the stars in the galaxy. Before he could make his exit, one old
woman was ailing away to swing her leg over the stage apron. Afraid she might fall, he bent over to help her to her feet.
A squad of AMVET employees jogged over to intercept the invader, but he waved them off. She looked harmless enough, and from the way she tilted her head back, he figured she was just excited from the concert and wanted a kiss. But when he dipped down to give her a little thrill, she said in his ear, “You were purty good out there, son. But you wouldn’t make a pimple on the King’s ass.”
Now, he knew he wasn’t Elvis. Not really Elvis. Nobody had to tell him that. But as he tossed back another cold Pepsi and rested his haunches on a ragged lawn chair in what passed for a dressing room, he had to admit that the old woman had kind of hurt his feelings. And it wasn’t so much what she said, although that was bad enough, it was the trouble she went through to deliver her message. He felt a sinking sensation accompanied by a wave of nausea as if he were on an elevator that dropped a little faster than he expected. It was a feeling he often had anytime he suspected he’d never be anybody but ol’ Doyle Brisendine from San Angelo, Texas.
The only thing left was for Mr. Parker, the club manager, to deliver the rest of his fee. Dressed in jeans and a red and blue plaid sport shirt, with the Aloha airing out on a rack behind him, Doyle waited. “What does that old bitch know, anyway?” he snarled. “The rest of them liked me. Hell, they loved me.”
The room was powdered in dust and carried the faint scent of a wet dog. The spotted mirror in front of a cluttered table told him it had tried to be an actual dressing room at one time. But all the broke-leg chairs and cracked table tops piled in the corners made it look more like a storm-littered beach on Galveston Bay.
He’d gone over the graffiti on the walls a couple of times and didn’t find any of it very interesting—just a few numbers to call for “a good time” and the names of a some people who were “here” on various dates. The art work, mostly crudely drawn genitalia, did have one sketch of a vagina that, to the best of Doyle’s memory, looked like a pretty convincing representation of the real thing.
Something written over the mirror caught his eye, but the lettering was too small to make out from the chair. When he got close enough, he saw that the words were drawn in such a fine calligraphy that he figured it must have taken its author a long time to write. It declared simply, “If you’re reading this, you are standing in the heart of my broken dream.” And it was that inscription along with the old woman’s harsh assessment of his act when he exited the stage that made him wonder if it was too late to go back home and take his uncle up on that grocery clerk job at Albertsons.

Why is this excerpt so emotional for you as a writer to write? And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt? I wanted to launch the story by  tossing my character right in the middle of the action. Right up front, the reader learns that he’s an Elvis impersonator, waiting to go onstage. It’s revealed that he’s from west Texas and that he’s been at this so long that it’s become drudgery. While waiting, while performing, and while in the dressing room afterward, his emotions range from enthusiasm to disappointment to euphoria to despair. This emotional roller coaster rolls on through the first chapter until he lands in the Graceland replica.  The roller coaster effect continues through the book, but it slows down a bit until the end.

Were there any deletions from this excerpt that you can share with us? I don’t keep deletions. I begin with a MS Word file and keep banging away at it until it reads the way I want it. There were a lot of changes that I made on my own. A substantial number of changes suggested by my wife, who’s an amazing critical reader. Then several changes suggested by my publisher. I made the changes or didn’t if I didn’t agree. I didn’t keep the uncorrected or marked-up drafts. I can see where that might be instructive for someone. But it gets kind of cluttered in my office, and I just recycle all the old pages.

Other works you have published. The Land of Grace is my first novel. I’ve published several short stories. One of them can be read online at

Anything you would like to add? Only that I apologize for photos. I am not a photographer.

     I am a native of DeKalb County, Alabama. I am a former criminal defense lawyer. 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 in Birmingham, Alabama with my wife, Debra. The Land of Grace is my first novel.


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