Buckle up, y’all. Who doesn’t love the freedom of hitting the road? Beginning in coastal South Carolina, winding its way through the sun-drenched backwoods of Alabama and Mississippi, and landing in the epicenter of bluesy, kitschy Americana, Kim Wright’s Last Ride To Graceland is the quintessential Southern road trip novel. Cory Beth Ainsworth is thirty-seven, but rolls like she’s twenty-five, unencumbered by the trappings of typical adult life. She’s eking out a living singing the blues in roadside dive bars, single but for the occasional hookup with random losers, when she makes a startling discovery in an old shed belonging to her father. It’s an unusual car—a vintage Stutz Blackhawk—and right away Cory knows to whom it must have once belonged.
Elvis wouldn't be my first thought if I discovered a cool old automobile languishing on my family’s property. But Cory, who is still aching from the recent death of her mother, has always known there was something sketchy about her birth. Just read the novel’s hilarious opening sentences: I was a premature baby who weighed nine pounds and nine ounces. Yeah, I know. Impossible.
Cory, despite her roguish existence, is perfectly capable of basic arithmetic. She has always harbored suspicions about her parentage, especially since she knows her mother, Laura—nicknamed Honey—spent the year before her conception at Graceland, singing backup for the Big E. On the fateful day of Elvis’s death, Honey fled Memphis, retreating to her hometown, where she immediately married her high school sweetie. Finding the car, it doesn't take Cory long to decide what to do. She gets the Blackhawk rehabbed lickety-split, and uses the perfectly preserved contents of the car—trash and all—to retrace her mother’s metaphorical tire tracks. Journeying through hundreds of miles, and decades of secrets, Cory embarks on the ultimate voyage of self-discovery.
I was lucky enough to interview Kim Wright, the author of previously acclaimed novels Love in Mid Air, The Unexpected Waltz, and The Canterbury Sisters, about the creation of Last Ride To Graceland.
Kimmery Martin—-You’ve said the inspiration for LRTG came after reading an article about the car Elvis Presley drove on the last day of his life. Did you have a personal interest in Elvis? How did you conduct your research regarding his background singers, and how real were the parts of the story involving him?
Kim Wright—I enjoyed Elvis’s music prior to writing the book, but wasn't an obsessive fan. Writing fiction about a real-life historical figure is tricky—I read quite a few books and online articles about Elvis to bring myself up to speed on the details of his life. But my main research was driving the three-day route Cory takes in the book, from Beaufort to Memphis—although in my case instead of rocking a vintage Blackhawk with a hound dog at my side, I was in a Prius with an overly excited terrier. You can’t always recreate your character’s journeys, metaphorically or literally, but in this case, physically experiencing part of the story gave me a lot of descriptive material. And then, when I reached Graceland, they allowed me to actually sit in a replica of Elvis’s car, which was fantastic. Regarding the Elvis-related events in the book: again, it’s fiction. But his actions in the book are consistent with the real-life Elvis, who, as everyone knows, was quite a personality. He carried guns on stage, he had a karate instructor living with them at Graceland; the more far-fetched the detail, the more likely it was real.
KM— Give us some insight into Cory’s character as it developed in your mind. Were any of her actions on her journey of self-discovery a surprise to you?
KW— Yes! The dog! Acquiring the dog was totally accidental. But once this half-witted dog appeared at a rest stop and jumped in the car with her, I realized he was perfect. Cory is alone on this journey into her past, and I worried about how she’d communicate her thoughts. Being inside a character’s head is great, but sometimes you want them to speak, and the dog gave her someone to talk to as she drove.
As far as her development goes, it was very voice-driven. Cory’s voice came to me right away. Because of the time period in which the book is set, I didn't have any leeway on her age; she had to be at least thirty-seven years old. This presented a challenge, because Cory is kind of drifty and rootless. She has nothing to lose by leaping into the unknown—no house, no car, no permanent job, which are characteristics you’d associate more with a younger person. But readers seem to have responded positively to her odd combination of innocence and worldliness. She’s simultaneously older and younger than her age.
KM—Last Ride To Graceland combines a lot of cinematic qualities; a beautiful, pastoral setting in the deep South, complete with roadside diners and blues bars, not to mention America’s most iconic musician and home. If LRTG became a movie, who could you envision playing the main characters?
KW—Writers have a great term for fantasizing who'd they want to star if their book ever became a movie: casterbation. Of all my novels, this is the most visual, and thus probably the most adaptable to film, but I don't want to get my hopes up so I try not to think about it.
KM—Talk about your writing habits. How do your novels progress from an idea to a finished story? How has your style evolved over the course of your four novels?
KW—I’m a hybrid between a plotter and somebody who just goes with the flow. I generally have ideas of how the story will progress, and I map scenes in advance, but I’m also fluid: I leave the route open enough so that the book will, to some degree, write itself. I’m also ritualistic, nerdy and progressive. I have a strict process: I write 1000/words a day—that’s about 3 pages—and I write probably 350 days/yr. I do all my new writing in the morning. In the afternoons, I work on publicity, revision, and research. I’ve never been a binge writer—my quality goes down after 1500 words or so. Over time, I’ve become a faster and more efficient writer: my first book took several years, but now they are usually complete in six months, although I do need a good long break from the material after I’ve written it to be able to revise more objectively. But some of the plotting I used to do on paper now happens mentally and unconsciously. The more you write, the more your personal process smooths out.
KM—And, finally, a question about your latest effort: what are you working on now?
KW—I just finished the first draft of a book I'm calling Four Stories. It's about four writers who take a weekend retreat on a remote barrier island off the SC coasts. Each of their rooms has a balcony and each balcony faces a slightly different direction, giving them all their own angle on the beach. So when they witness a crime they each literally have their own point of view on what happened and can't agree on what, if anything, has truly happened. It's sort of a suburban thriller with lots of behind the scenes looks at the writing life. Way different from anything I've ever done but I'm excited about it!
KM—I can’t wait to read it. You can buy Kim’s books here or at your local independent bookstore. In Charlotte, check out Park Road Books.