Peter Guralnick is the author of over ten books, including the award-winning biographies of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke. His work has prompted wide-ranging critical acclaim from the likes of music critic Nat Hentoff, who has referred to Peter as a “national resource,” to Bob Dylan, who noted of Last Train to Memphis that “this book cancels out all others.” In addition to his written work, Peter has won a Grammy (for his liner notes for Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club), and has been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
His most recent book, a biography of seminal Sun Studio and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips entitled Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll, has also won a number of awards and was a finalist for the Plutarch Award for Best Biography of the Year, awarded by the Biographers International Organization. We spoke on the phone two and a half weeks after Peter’s appearance at Nashville’s 2016 Southern Festival of Books.
Interviewer: During your Southern Festival of Books talk, you mentioned that it’s important for any writer—and especially any nonfiction writer—to avoid imposing a specific narrative upon a story, that the writing process needs to be a more organic process of discovery. Can you speak to this belief in the context of your writing process for the Sam Phillips project?
Peter Guralnick: From my point of view, writing fiction or nonfiction is a process of total immersion. You want to be writing freely, you want to be writing spontaneously—ideally, you want it to be a kind of automatic writing. But I think that’s kind of an idealization of how it actually is. You want to be writing blindfolded, or with your eyes closed. But with nonfiction, in order to further that process, you first have to completely immerse yourself in the subject matter. In writing the Sam Phillips—and there’s two parts to the Sam Phillips book; there’s the first, which is more of a standard biography, which takes you up to about 1960, when he leaves the music business; then the other, which is a more associative kind of storytelling—but in both cases, what I tried to do was absorb the material before I got to the act of writing. And then write in exactly the same manner that I would write a novel or short story: by feel. Put down what jumps into my mind first, even if it wasn’t going to end up that way. Follow the processes of association that were almost beneath the surface rather than follow a strict outline. And then go back and see if it made sense afterwards. There’s no question that with biography, there’s so much material—and it involves such a large expanse—that it seems to me impossible not to need a pretty good knowledge of what you’re writing about.
And you knew Sam so well. I’m sure on the one hand, that was beneficial in terms of being able to completely immerse yourself in the story. But did your closeness to Sam ever present certain challenges as you wrote this book?
I don’t think it did. Sam was so insistent on the idea that you were obligated to tell the truth, which matched up with my commitment in all the books I’ve written. So for me, it was just a matter of getting deeper and deeper into the story. I don’t feel that I came to know Sam Cooke any less well than I did Sam Phillips, even if I came to it by a more circuitous route. [For the Sam Cooke project], I approached his family, his brothers and sisters, his father, his closest friends, people who knew him best—I came to feel that I was arriving at a rounded picture of him. And the same with Sam Phillips. Sam was so voluble that you could be overwhelmed by the material. But what I was looking to do was not to reproduce every word that he spoke—not even close to every word—but to try to get to an understanding of what was behind the statements he made, the context.
Everything that he said to me the first time we met in 1979 proved to be the undergirding for his entire philosophy of life. But I had no idea what the context for that was when I met him in 1979, and that allowed me to write in a certain way. I used him for the final chapter in Lost Highway, which came out in ’79, and I don’t feel that I did a disservice to him. But I had no idea of the context—his background, the historical and biographical background. Nor did I have any sense that what he was giving me, in a sense, were the principles upon which he had lived his entire life, because I didn’t know that much about his entire life. So there was no way that I could fully grasp the import of what he was saying. Writing a biography didn’t change any of the facts of his life, it didn’t change any of the things that he said. But it changed my understanding of what they meant. That’s what I think is the aim as much of any novel I’ve written as any biography.
In the vein of complete understanding of a subject, I was struck by the moment in Sam Phillips in which you discuss the Johnny London instrumentals that Sam chose to release on Sun Records in 1952. You write, “even by Sam’s standards it was weird…I never heard Sam speak about this; in all the years I knew him, and all our far-ranging conversations, I never heard him bring up this record.” As a biographer, and as a nonfiction writer, how do you grapple with running into things that—no matter how much research you do—you just can’t definitively know?
I think that’s the “meta” aspect of biography. If you read Richard Holmes’ book Footsteps, the introduction describes, really eloquently, the idea that you’re pursuing this figure—the subject of your biography—and you think you’re getting closer and closer, but every time you get close, the figure disappears around the corner or down an alley. And you never quite catch up. And I feel like in order to be honest—as opposed to the Olympian figure from on high—I’ve often felt that I wanted to include some aspects of the actual process of trying to understand the person. And also some elements of ambiguity. It’s very much the way that Alice Munro writes her stories: you can never fully understand what they mean, and often she’ll introduce that note of doubt in the storytelling itself. I don’t want to ignore ambiguity. I don’t want to ever suggest that the book I’m writing is meant to be the “definitive” biography; it’s my biography. So in terms of that particular example in the book—it was admitting that however much I might seem to understand [Sam], Sam wasn’t giving himself over to be understood too quickly. I think there’s a quote from André Gide that Norman Mailer uses: “don’t understand me too quickly.” Sam was a person of such manifold talents and personalities.
So it’s to provide context, to suggest in a certain way that the person who’s telling the story is not so self-assured or so full of himself that he thinks he knows every aspect of the story, or that there’s no mystery. Alice Munro is willing to suggest that note of ambiguity or doubt. And I feel no less ready and willing to suggest that even in a biography—like the biography of Sam Phillips—no matter how you may disguise it, in the end it’s the author who is determining what material to put in front of the reader. In the end, there’s always an author.
Speaking of Munro, I was actually going to ask you about fiction. I’m especially curious to know if you feel like writing fiction is very different from the process of writing nonfiction and if you see major boundaries between the two genres.
I don’t see the boundaries particularly. Take the Epilogue to [Munro’s] Lives of Girls and Women. You know, if we were to call that nonfiction without knowing the facts of Alice Munro’s life—I don’t know what would prevent you from calling that nonfiction, assuming that it essentially reflects [her life]. I don’t think it would have to be written any differently if it were nonfiction. It reads like nonfiction; it has the same impact, I think.
I’ve written ten novels. The last sort of got stuck in mid-flow; I’ve written about half of a third draft so far. Whether I’ll go back to it I don’t know—the last time I had a chance to work on it was about seven or eight years ago. I’ve written maybe fifteen or so short stories over the last ten years that I see as inspired by a book by Dawn Powell, who was a novelist of manners known best for her New York novels. But her novel My Home is Far Away—which is about her growing up in Ohio—opened up something for me. I don’t think you’d find a direct connection [to the novel] in my stories, and yet they were inspired [by the novel]. I’m writing about elements of my own life and background without being bound in any way by the facts of my background. Writing about my mother, for example, as a young woman—trying to imagine the life she led, the fears and the disappointments, the radiance that she felt. It’s something I never really saw in real life. So I’m portraying a mother that is suggested by my own mother, but is not in any way bound by the biographical facts, by the observed facts. And that’s what I got from Dawn Powell.
All these stories are to some extent like that. They sort of follow odd paths of their own. And I hope that in some ways, they’re better for the examples of Dawn Powell and Alice Munro without my claiming in any way that they’re the equal of that. Alice Munro has been such a shining example to me in the freedom that she seems to feel with her construction of narrative. She can have flash forwards, she can change points of view—she can write in whatever way feels appropriate to her at the time. And from what I can understand and from what I’ve read about her, she’s totally averse to over-interpreting, which, again, is something that I admire.
It’s recently been announced, of course, that Paramount Pictures will be developing your book into a feature film [starring Leonardo DiCaprio]. I know that you did a documentary on Sam [for A&E] in 2000. What differences do you foresee between these two projects?
There are creative differences. When we did the documentary, we were bound by a structure that was more linear than I would’ve chosen. But we did everything to present Sam in as open and honest and uplifting and tragic and comic a way as possible—while still staying true to the many elements of his personality.
That seems to me like the ultimate challenge—trying to craft something linear about someone like Sam, who seemed to kind of inherently resist narrative.
You know, the ideal thing—what Sam would want, what I would want—would be a great, imaginative feature film. Like, you know, There Will Be Blood. [I] want to see that kind of imaginative resourcefulness brought to the story of Sam. I think this is the kind of thing you hope for with any feature film—for it to create its own language, its own vocabulary. You have all kinds of opportunities. You have, in a single scene, the feel, the smell, the grime, the beauty—which you might spend three pages describing in a book. I’ve gotten involved to a small degree in writing scripts for film; the most I ever did was to begin a script with the playwright, Frank South, for a film about Merle Haggard that never got made. It wasn’t a biopic; it was going to be a dramatic, character-driven picture. And I wrote a treatment for Last Train to Memphis that confined itself from roughly 1954 to July 4, 1956. The idea was to create a dramatic structure that was unique to the genre, that was not bound by what’s in the book.
That’s what I hope will be done. That you get that kind of feel for it.
That struck me while reading your book, too—that so much of the truth of the person was contained in texture, and in detail, and in language. Early in the book, you write that Sam “had been begging his mama and daddy for music lessons, beating on pots and pans till he like to drove his mama crazy.” And that wasn’t in quotes; that was just embedded in your description of Sam’s childhood.
I think you’ll find the same thing in the Sam Cooke and the Elvis books, too. It’s falling into the spirit of the people, the moment.
It’s collapsing that distance.
Yeah. I think I’ve always tried to write like that. I’ve wanted to be idiomatic without being limited to a single voice, without being limited to a single era. To me, you always want to suggest an idiomatic approach to the material so that you’re in it—you’re writing from the inside out. You’re not writing something—as I mentioned before—from some Olympian height. You’re totally involved in it. It’s evaporating the distance.
And the voice almost seems to grow with the character of Sam.
I think that’s true. And just to go back to the movie. You see a movie like The Aviator—a film about Howard Hughes. It has this romantic aura about it. And it’s not the only story to be told about Howard Hughes, but it’s done with such distinctiveness, and such sensitivity. And that’s what you’re carried away by. And so you get this commitment to this particular vision. That’s the kind of thing you hope for, the kind of thing you hopefully achieve. With the documentaries I’ve been involved in, it’s what I would have like to have achieved.
But at least with a book, you know, you’re in full control of it. Then there’s something like the exhibit we did about Sam Phillips at the Country Music Hall of Fame—that was as complete a realization of what I had imagined as anything. But it was a collaborative process. And film, particularly, is a collaborative process. And you want to be in synch with your collaborators, but also be prepared to throw your ideas against a wall even if they’re not going to be accepted.
Does this multiplicity of ideas present a challenge to the crafting of a nonfiction story?
I think it’s a total challenge, and in the end, you can only go with your gut feeling. That’s why I talk about how important it is to immerse yourself in the subject—and again, I’d say that that’s as true of fiction as it is of nonfiction.
It’s a matter of making those choices. And they’re not objective choices. There is no such thing as definitive objectivity. There’s no definitive biography, there’s no definitive objectivity. But you don’t want to violate your vision of the truth; if you have a nonfiction story that you feel is the strongest narrative choice you can make and yet you know it to be untrue, you can’t present it as the truth. And you have to recognize that you’ve got to give some things up. You’re given attractive example after attractive example about ways to portray the character you’re portraying—they can be vivid, they can be colorful, they can be funny. But you have to choose one. You can’t say, “He was a humorous fellow,” and then have five examples solely to reinforce that. You can’t do it if you want your story to come alive, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.
Those are the choices. And they’re very difficult choices to make. And you can go to bed after worrying over it for twelve hours and hope that you’re going to wake up with everything clear in your mind, but you may not.
And at a certain point, it’s about finding the balance between honoring the fact that this is not the “definitive” story—but also recognizing that you have to tell a story.
There’s where you have to close your eyes. You could be blindfolded at a birthday party, playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey. And where you pin the tail is where [the story] ends up. The big difference, though, I think, is that as a storyteller—fiction or nonfiction—you can take a stab at it. And time and again, I will do that. But you have the opportunity to go back to it. If the tail turns out to be in the completely wrong place, and you can see that on the second or third draft, you always have the option of changing it.