Robert K. Elder
'Christmas with Elvis: The Official Guide to the Holidays from the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll'
Interview conducted by Nigel Patterson, September 2021
About the author: Robert K. Elder is the author of several books, including Read Your Partner Like a Book, The Mixtape of My Life, and Hidden Hemingway. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Salon.com, and many other publications. He has worked for Sun-Times Media and Crain Communications, and is the founder of Odd Hours Media. He lives and writes in Chicago.
EIN: Robert, thank you for talking to us today. Before we talk about your latest project, I’d like to find out more about who you are and your other works. You have an eclectic body of work including the books Hidden Hemingway and Read Your Partner Like A Book. In addition, your articles have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe. Briefly, what is the Robert K. Elder story?
RE: Really, it’s driven by my curiosity. Whether I’m writing about the death penalty or movies or comics or Elvis or Moby-Dick — I’m an insatiable autodidac who loves diving deep into a topic and discovering its hidden history. When I was in college, I was a student archivist for the author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), which was a profoundly life-changing experience. Journalism is the same thing: It’s the greatest job in the world because you’re paid to be curious.
EIN: Your new book, Christmas with Elvis: The Official Guide to the Holidays from the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, is due out soon. How did the idea for the book originate?
RE: I got a phone call from my editor, it was as simple as that. She knew that I was a huge Elvis fan and spent much of my early journalistic life as a music reporter and concert photographer. In fact, I just donated all my photos and negatives to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. (So, if you’re looking for photos of everyone from Fiona Apple and Rage Against the Machine to U2 and blues legends like Pinetop Perkins — you can use my material, free of charge, as long as you credit me).
My goal in writing Christmas with Elvis was to provide the most insightful, authoritative book that was both fun for the everyday fan, but also illuminating for historians. I tracked down the stories behind every single one of his Christmas songs, and wrote about Elvis’ holiday traditions. We also made it a party book, so there are dessert and cocktail recipes mixed in with rare Elvis photos and behind-the-scenes stories. There’s also a list of Elvis’ lavish Christmas gifts to friends and family, and what people bought him.
EIN: Christmas was very important to Elvis and it is surprising that unlike other parts of the Elvis story, it has not been the subject of many books. There have been numerous reissues of Elvis’ two Christmas albums and numerous other Elvis Christmas song compilations, but I think until your book, there has only been one other non-fiction book released on the theme, the similarly titled 1999 book by Jim Curtin and Renata Ginter. Why do you think Christmas was so important to Elvis?
RE: Simple: It was an anchor for him. Christmas reminded him of home and his mother, who he loved more than anyone else in his lifetime. Generally, during the holiday season, he would focus on being with friends and family, sing gospel songs around the piano and have very illegal fireworks fights with his cousins. That was particularly fun to write about.
EIN: What can fans expect to find in your book?
RE: It’s the most complete book on the topic of Elvis, his holiday traditions and his Christmas music. Not only did I discover his favorite Christmas song, but also the one that was written under the influence of hashish (not Elvis, the songwriter). It’s an entertaining read, and I also managed to write about both Kurt Russell — a cinematic idol of mine — and the 1968 Comeback Special, which was originally intended to be a Christmas special.
Fun fact: The producer of that landmark piece of television, Steve Binder, also produced the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, which not only introduced Boba Fett, but also paired the original cast, including Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, with awkward segments from comedy icons Bea Arthur and Art Carney. George Lucas hated it and wanted it buried, buried, buried, although there is a certain camp pleasure in watching the bootlegs that are available.
EIN: Did you discover anything about Elvis that surprised you during your research and writing?
RE: As I mentioned above, I loved writing about the annual fireworks fight at Graceland. It was an intense, unhinged bit of screwball comedy and I’m surprised that more people weren’t badly hurt. Over the years, it evolved and the participants got smarter about wearing thick clothes and goggles — although if you got hit with a Roman candle or buzz bomb, you’d get lifted off your feet, depending on the range. Researching all those accounts from his friends and family was such a joy.
EIN: As the “official guide” I assume EPE was involved. What was its assistance to you in researching and writing the book?
RE: Yes, it’s an official, licenced property. Not only were the staff at Graceland helpful, but I owe a lot to my fellow Elvis scholars, notably my friend Peter Guralnick (Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley) and Ken Sharp (Writing for the King), both who have written some invaluable resources for fans and historians.
EIN: Did you visit Graceland as part of your research for the book (and if yes, what was your impression of it)?
RE: I love Graceland. It’s one of my happy places. Part of the reason that I said, “yes,” to the book was the prospect of getting work with the Graceland archives. Then, of course, the coronavirus pandemic hit and everything went on lockdown, but I was able to get everything I needed — just not in person.
EIN: Interestingly, there is also a Christmas with Elvis Bobblehead: With Music set comprising a push-button Elvis figure (with Elvis singing the refrain from three of his Christmas carols) and a mini-book. That is a great idea. How did it come about?
RE: It was just good timing. Running Press does a lot of these amazing little boxed gift books, so they asked me to write the smaller version of Christmas with Elvis in tandem. I also have mini books about Marvel Comics characters Thor, Black Panther and Captain Marvel coming out next year. Those projects made the 13-year-old inside me very happy.
EIN: The COVID-19 virus is playing havoc with many things. Christmas with Elvis was originally planned to coincide with the release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic. It must have been disappointing that Warner Bros has postponed its release until 5 June next year, as it is likely to stimulate interest in “things Elvis” and arguably would have helped boost sales of your book.
RE: I can’t say what the original plans were—you’d have to ask my publisher, Running Press. The plan was always to come out during the Christmas season of 2021. To me, Elvis is omnipresent and evergreen. It’s always nice when there is media serendipity, but I think Elvis is an icon who will always sell books. The persistent curiosity and hunger for all things about the King of Rock n’ Roll is pretty astonishing. I think Christmas with Elvis will be a catalogue title that will go into many printings and sell for years.
EIN: Do you have plans for your next project?
RE: Yes, in fact, I’m finishing two up right now. I have a pair of projects coming out in 2022, one is a history of the Doomsday Clock, which turns 75 next year, and will be published by Hat & Beard Press. It’s as much about the science and policies the Clock influenced as it is about the pop culture impact that it’s had. The Doomsday Clock has appeared in comic books (notably, The Watchmen), in movies, on TV—even in a novel by Stephen King. It shows up all over music, with songs about the Doomsday Clock by The Who, The Clash, Bright Eyes, Smashing Pumpkins, Hosier — it’s pretty amazing. Lastly, we tell of the story of Martyl Langsdorf, the Chicago landscape painter who designed the Clock, and how she felt about her legacy.
The other is a book (edited with the great Thomas Bevilacqua) titled Mythbusting Hemingway and will be published by Globe Pequot. Essentially, it debunks all those myths and memes (example, Hemingway wrote the six-word short story, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn," and celebrates the truly amazing stories from his life, including the fact that he survived back-to-back plane crashes in Africa in 1954.
EIN: You obviously have an interest in Ernest Hemingway, having published both Hidden Hemingway and Hemingway in Comics. What is your perspective on him?
RE: Actually, I’m writing this response to you from his house in Ketchum, Idaho, where I’m the artist in residence for the Community Library. They put on this beautiful, complex art exhibit, a mix of items that Hemingway owned and art from the book, that is really breathtaking. I couldn’t be proud of the exhibit, part of which we’ll take to the San Diego Comic-Con next year, and then it’ll be a traveling exhibit with Museums USA for the five to seven years after that.
My take on Hemingway is: He’s a fascinating figure who lived in some of the most beautiful places, in the most dangerous times. He witnessed World War I as a volunteer for the American Red Cross, and he reported on both the Spanish Civil War and World War II from the front lines. He was capable of great gravity and impact as a writer, and great kindness as a friend. But he could also be a bastard and awful friend. Hemingway, as a scholarly subject, has remained remarkably resilient and relevant to modern audiences, whether it's examining toxic masculinity or exploring Hemingway’s gender fluidity.
EIN: Robert, is there anything else you would like to say to EIN readers?
RE: Mostly, just: Thank you. Elvis fans and EIN itself--the website--were invaluable to me as resources and getting this book written during a really tough pandemic year. I’m hoping that I can meet all of you out there on tour.
EIN: Robert, thank you very much for talking with EIN today and all the best with Christmas with Elvis.
EIN Note: Both the Christmas with Elvis book and Christmas with Elvis Bobblehead set were released a few days early in the USA. For Australian fans, Amazon Australia shows release dates in February 2022 (book) and January 2022 (Bobblehead set) – it is unclear if this is or is not an administrative error.
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Interview by Nigel Patterson.
-Copyright EIN September 2021
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.
Book Review 'Christmas with Elvis: The Official Guide': Out Now from author Robert Elder, 'Christmas with Elvis: The Official Guide to the Holidays from the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll'
Written in collaboration with EPE, the book helps you Celebrate Christmas with the King of Rock n' Roll!
In this spirit, Christmas with Elvis is designed like a Christmas party Elvis himself would have liked. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the iconic music and songs Elvis sang and recorded for his bestselling holiday albums, alongside favorite stories, trivia, and Yuletide cocktails and munchies, all wrapped up with a merry Christmas twist fit for the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.
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