AUSTIN, TX. - It all began with a birthday celebration for Elvis Presley attended by writer Peter Guralnick in January 1988, he told a packed room at the South by Southwest conference March 16.
Having already decided to write a book on Elvis, Guralnick attended Elvis' birthday celebration at Graceland with Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, where they heard Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' famous (or infamous) manager speak. Phillips approached Parker afterward to say hello, so Guralnick "tagged along," he said, and was introduced to Parker.
Guralnick subsequently wrote Parker a letter in which he mentioned his research on Elvis. In response, he received an invitation to the Colonel's 80th birthday party in Las Vegas. (It wasn't the first time Guralnick had expressed an interest in chronicling Elvis' life: he had previously sent a letter to Graceland offering his services as biographer, for which correspondence he received a Christmas card. Later, when working on the biography in earnest, "I found my letter in the archives," Guralnick said.)
The Colonel's party provided an invaluable opportunity for Guralnick, who was able to meet collegues of both Parker's and Elvis'. He thanked the Colonel for the invitation; Parker responded with the abstruse "I put you on the list." Guralnick could only assume the Colonel meant a guest list, so again he thanked him. Parker repeated, "I put you on the list." Then, says Guralnick, "I took it metaphorically."
The parties ultimately led to 1994's "Last Train to Memphis" and 1999's "Careless Love," which make up his two-volume biography of Elvis Presley.
Guralnick, whose most recent work is on a biography of Sam Cooke, had already established himself as a music writer before his work on Elvis, publishing "Feel Like Going Home" in 1971 and "Lost Highway" in 1976.
The interview at South by Southwest, conducted by Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith, marked Guralnick's first year of attendance at the annual Austin festival.
When an audience member asked Guralnick why, given their somewhat tumultuous relationship, Elvis stayed with the Colonel all those years, he answered, "In many ways, it was like a marriage….Neither of them could be the first to say goodbye."
Because he was speaking to an audience predominantly comprising music journalists, Guralnick also went into detail concerning his research and interviewing techniques and his approach to writing. "I start going around. I start talking to people. I try to put myself in a situation beyond a formal interview," Guralnick said of one of his approaches to information gathering.
As a formal interviewer (although in his opinion there is no one less suited to the task than he), "I try to show respect to the people I'm interviewing," Guralnick said. And he prefers the nonobtrusive approach: "I try to hang around long enough for everybody to forget me."
He also attempts to avoid asking questions that have been asked subjects dozens of times before. When interviewing Johnny Cash, for example, Guralnick found himself talking to the singer about reading and books. They discussed Cash's favorite authors, and the dedication by Eleanor Roosevelt of the library in Dyess, Ark., Cash's hometown.
"All the writing I do is somewhat celebratory," said Guralnick, who also stated that he only chooses to write on subjects he is passionate about. He made the distinction, however, that "it's not so much the worthiness of the subject, it's the worthiness of the writer" to tackle a certain subject that is of utmost importance.