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  • Another Song About the King
  • Written by Kathryn Stern
    Read by Karen White
  • Format: Unabridged Audiobook Download | ISBN: 9781415910634
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Another Song About the King

Written by Kathryn SternAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kathryn Stern
Read by Karen WhiteAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Karen White

Audio Editions

Read by Karen White
On Sale: March 13, 2000
ISBN: 978-1-4159-1063-4
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

"You were named for Elvis. . . .  Darlin', did you hear me? You were named for Elvis Presley. Not even your father knows that. Wouldn't you like to share a secret, just you and me?"                

Simone "Mimi" Page once dated Elvis--and will never let her daughter forget it. Though Silvie grew up in the shadow of the King, it was her mother's unfulfilled life that really darkened her childhood. Flamboyant and passionate, with a southerner's flair for colorful stories, Mimi could inspire Silvie like no one else. Nothing is worse than being ordinary were words she pounded daily into young Silvie's mind. But too much success, too much talent, too much Being Somebody--even when that Somebody was her own daughter--could stir up a torrent of envy that Silvie would come to know too well.

Determined to escape her mother's long reach, Silvie moves to New York to become an artist--something Mimi has always aspired to be. But even when her career takes off and she meets a wonderful man, Silvie finds her complicated relationship with her mother remains a forceful tide, pulling at her dreams and sense of self. Silvie has nearly given up on reconciling with her past. Then a family crisis draws her back home--and she discovers what Elvis was really all about. . . .


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Prologue

My hands are calm. I put in, take out, take my time. I’m standing inside my closet, filling my honeymoon suitcase. Three o’clock in the morning. I can’t sleep. Sunglasses. Hat. Lingerie. Bathing suit, jeans, sneakers. Outside my bedroom window, light swallows darkness until, gradually, morning will come, my wedding day. I start humming a Dylan song, “Visions of Johanna,” our song, Scottie’s—my fiancé’s—and mine, and fold a nightgown my mother might have bought me if she were here, for my trousseau.

I slip into one of my mother’s favorite songs, “All Shook Up,” picking up the pace a little, the Elvis rhythm. Tuck the sunscreen and my sketchbook in the corner of my suitcase until suddenly I’m bent over, unable to move as my mind races back, remembering.

©©©

“You were named for Elvis,” my mother says calmly, as if she’s telling me we’ve run out of milk or bread or juice. Theo’s not born yet, so I must be four, almost five. It is my first real memory, and we are in the kitchen in our small house in Michigan. It is 1966. When my father is out of town, we spend a lot of time in the kitchen, at the round Formica table—me with my coloring book, my mother heating leftovers. She cuts corners when he’s away. And she sews. The tiny square of brown linoleum floor becomes a place where outfits get made and tales get spun. Alone with me, my mother can transform herself from an ordinary wife and mother into someone capable of greatness.

I look up from the house I’m coloring without saying a word. And so she lowers her sewing and repeats, in her pretty southern accent, “Darlin’, did you hear me? You were named for Elvis Presley. Not even your father knows that. Wouldn’t you like to share a secret, just you and me?” My mother and I have never shared a secret before, and I’m flattered and shy and resistant all at once, as if she is taking me somewhere I’m not sure I want to go.

“But my name is Silvie, not Elvis!” I say, thrusting out my lip, looking at her. When I was older, I thought my mother had a stern and noisy beauty, a high forehead and long, oval face that, to me, suggested the nobility she longed for. Her large nose had a bump that only made her more beautiful, along with the thick straight hair the color of warm toast and the lips red with lipstick. But on this day in the kitchen, she frightens me—there is too much to see in her face, and I look down at the house I’m coloring, purse my lips, let my fingers graze over the shiny points of my new box of sixty-four Crayola crayons.

“Silvie backwards spells Elvis,” my mother says. “Roughly speaking, of course. The exact backwards is Sivle, but I didn’t want to get too carried away.” She laughs brightly. I feel somehow ashamed. I thought I had my own name.

“It’s an anagram,” my mother says, and I hold my sky-blue crayon tightly; I’ve been coloring the sky above the house and I don’t want to stop.

All my pictures are the same: a burnt-sienna house with a chimney, a green tree, green grass with a red tulip, and sky, sky, sky, all around and above. I love the sky, because it takes a long time to color, although, really, it’s nothing, just color layered upon color.

“An anagram is letters all scrambled up that make different words. If you take your name, Silvie, and move the letters around, you get Elvis.”

“Oh,” I say, and concentrate harder on my coloring, hooking my feet around the legs of my chair.

“You know who Elvis Presley is, don’t you?”

“Sure. The guy on the record.” I am coloring faster, only now I’m thinking of the dark-haired man with the buttery voice who my mother listens to almost every day, biting her lip and closing her eyes. A net of butterflies unfastens inside my stomach. I don’t want to be named after him—after anybody. Where’s Daddy?

She smiles. “You know those songs we play? And sometimes we dance?”

“In our pajamas?”

She frowns. “Well, yes. ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ ‘Hound Dog,’ ‘Jailhouse Rock? Those songs are his, and they’ve made him famous. Do you know what famous means?” Her eyes lift, bright and soft at the same time, like when she straps on the shoes and dances away from me. I don’t feel like answering.

“Yes.” I stop coloring and stare down at my half-finished sky.

“What?” she asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Famous,” my mother says, “is when everyone knows who you are.”

“Everyone in the whole world?” I ask, lifting my eyes from my picture. Sometimes, even when I squint my eyes and look right at her, I have trouble seeing her face. With my father, I can stand right up close and see him; he’s just there, himself.

“In the case of Elvis, yes. He’s the most famous—and the greatest—singer who ever lived. Some people might say it’s Frank Sinatra, but they would be wrong. They don’t call Frank Sinatra the King, do they?” She stabs at crumbs on the place mat, bringing her finger to her lips to taste each one. Then she leans close and her voice drops. “Silvie, I went out with Elvis once. We had a date.”

I don’t say a word. I feel her waiting for me to say something, but I don’t like this conversation. I begin to peel the paper off my crayon, so it’s smooth, naked.

“Before I was married, when I was a teenager, in Biloxi, Mississippi. m-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i.” She smiles. “You know, I wasn’t always a suburban nobody driving around in a white station wagon.”

A nobody? I didn’t understand. She was a mother.

She sweeps the crumbs into a tiny pile, smiles. “We had to sneak into the back booth in the restaurant so no one would bother us or ask for his autograph.” She looks at me. “That’s when someone famous writes their name and gives it to you.”

“I can write my name.” I write my name below the picture I’m coloring. Slowly. Carefully. Silvie Page. Silvie Page. My name. When I look up, my mother is lost in memory.

“He had the most beautiful blue eyes always folded up in that squint, as if he didn’t trust just anyone with his heart. And his voice, even just talking, was so pretty. Just a caramel-coated drawl that made you feel he had never told anyone even one of the things he was telling you. He wore a gold ring from his mama, and his hands . . . well, his hands were soft as rain. He touched my hand before we ate—a piece of fisherman’s wharf pie, that sublime pie that isn’t exactly apple but has cinnamon and nutmeg. And we shared a tall glass of milk with a straw. The strangest coincidence was that he liked ice cubes in his milk. Just like me.” Her remembering voice is quiet, slow, like a music box winding down. “There’s something so romantic about sharing food.”

“You didn’t have a chocolate soda?”

“No, but the milk was very cold, and they were famous for that pie, so warm and spicy and . . . well, it was delicious.”

“I would get a chocolate soda.”

Now my mother gazes toward the window above the sink. “Not many girls can say they were named after a king.”

I follow her eyes, but it’s dark now and there’s not much to see out the window, just a vague impression of our small yard in this suburb of Detroit, the last of winter’s snow baked on the grass like piecrust, the black expanse of driveway faded into the dark horizon; beyond that, the curb where our station wagon sits, along with the other station wagons parked on this quiet street in this quiet subdivision.

My mother looks at me, suddenly annoyed. “You will be proud of this, Silvie. Someday.”

I don’t say anything. I bite my lip and look back at my coloring, but that record cover won’t leave my mind: Elvis, in a green satin shirt and a nubby sport coat, leaning back into that smile.

“His smile is kind of limp-sided.” I squirm a little as I say this. I raise my eyes to hers, then back down.

“Oh! You mean lopsided! A half smile, as if he knows a secret. Enchanting, isn’t it?” Her eyes drill holes into me, but I don’t look up. Dimly, I know I should, but I can’t. Or I won’t. The power of her need frightens me, silences me. A minute later, she rises from her chair and, with a sigh, starts poking around inside the refrigerator, and I try to finish but never do finish my sky because, suddenly, she’s beside me and music is coming from the record player in the living room, one of the slow songs she loves—“Any Way You Want Me.”

“Let’s dance,” she says, taking my hands in hers, tugging me out of my chair.

I let her pull me up. Her perfume envelops me—magnolia blossoms—a strong flower, she’s told me. On her, the scent is more than scent; it’s an emotion that wafts out, humid as the Biloxi air, soft yet fierce, like the first breath of a hurricane wind. “Now, remember what I taught you?” she says.

I stand on tippy-toe, put my right hand in hers, the way I’ve been told. I’m still holding the blue crayon. Now I reach up and place my left hand on her shoulder just the way she showed me. I don’t see how I could be a very good dance partner with my head barely reaching her waist, but she seems to be happy.

“ ‘I’ll be as tame as a baby, or wild as the raging sea,’ ” she sings in a pretty voice, full of vigor. “ ‘Any way you want me, well, that’s how I will be.’ ” She sings with her mouth wide open, her whole face bright with teeth.

I press my head into her stomach, tighten my grip on her hand. My feet feel heavy as bricks. Her red turtleneck feels scratchy, and the old scuffed flats she wouldn’t be caught dead in outside the house make a shuffling noise across the floor.

Her palm heavy on my back, she guides me in circles around the kitchen, singing away as around we go. She leads; I try to follow. “ ‘In your hands, my heart is clay, to take and hold as you may. I’m what you make me, you’ve only to take me, and in your arms I will stay-ay-ay. Ooh-ooh.’ ”

I hear the faint delicate rumblings of her stomach; I hear her gather the air she needs to sing. “ ‘. . . Any way you wa-a-a-ant me that’s how I will be, I will be-e-e . . .’ ”

And we dance on into the night, being who we are at that time, my mother and I, she with her head full of dreams, me with my hands full of sky.

©©©

Elvis hung over us, a specter, a ghost of Mimi’s glorious past, filling our house with hope. I loved my mother and wanted to believe her; I was drawn again and again to the power of her vision, to the gauzy web of mystery she wove around us. And to the question: Does every story we tell about ourselves contain both the truth and the lie?

©©©

For nine months, I imagine now, my twenty-year-old mother put her hands on the baby growing in the globe of her belly and pressed into me, with her hands and her heart, her hunger to be somebody. I was successful in the womb—obedient and nimble, turning somersaults in those jelly seas of color and sleep. She was so sure I was a boy that she painted the small baby’s room blue, and for the whole nine months, a list of robin’s-egg names lifted off her lips: Michael, Stephen, David.

The moment I was born, I believe, I began to disappoint her. According to my father, the nurse lay me on my mother’s chest and my mother took one look and said, “A girl?” She handed me to my father and went to sleep, and I gripped his pinkie finger and yawned my eyes into the milky slits of a newborn kitten.

My father wanted to name me Elizabeth, for his mother, but he folded his hands quietly over the blue Air Force hat in his lap, his mouth impassive, a sour taste of surprise on his tongue when he heard that his firstborn would be named Silvie. By then, my mother’s indomitable spirit had already snagged his gentle one, creating a tiny tear that one day years later would cause the long fabric between them to unravel.

I think about how they must have filled out a form with their new daughter’s name, my mother light in her bones for the first time in nine months, wondering how quickly she could get her shape back. Was she excited then, looking down at me, a real baby, flesh and bones in her arms, a being who owed her already? I imagine her picking me up, her hands heavy with the realization that from that moment on, she was a mother, bound to the ordinary things she’d claimed she wanted—a husband, a child, a harvest-gold refrigerator.

I imagine her holding me tighter, thinking, I could be someone, little girl, I could do things, go places, but now I have you. And how that thought could lead to another—that she could hurt me, stick me with a diaper pin, turn her back on me in the bath, forget to test the milk’s temperature in the crook of her arm; and there was power in this, that she could be everything to someone, and hurt her. I wonder now how power felt to her, why she needed it so. Did she bite into it and taste blood—not just hers alone but ours, everything together? Maybe she grew ravenous then, gripping me even more tightly, holding me higher, murmuring, “Silvie, eat now; do as I say now,” a round, hot, ravenous now. I’m told I howled a lot, red-faced, and rejected her milk. She had to throw the nursing bras away and make soy bottles.

The only way I slept at first, my father says, was on his shoulder, and this surely must have made her want to grab me, hold on to me tighter.

She loves me; she loves me not. For years, I played this game with flowers, revolving doors, sidewalks: Step on a crack, break your mama’s back. I love her; I love her not.

©©©

When I was older, in school, what I focused on about my mother, to justify my worries that she wasn’t right, were her shoes. She had too many pairs. The shiny, unscuffed heels lay curved together in boxes in her closet, each pair giving her some idea of herself that my father, brother, and I could not give her, as if in each of the narrow size 7 boats she could one day sail away. She came by her affection for shoes naturally: Her father, Leon, whom we called Paw Paw, made his fortune from a shoe store in the small town of Biloxi, Mississippi. He fell in love with my grandmother, Nora, or Granny, the minute he plucked her away from where she stood with her nose pressed to the store window, looking longingly at a pair of pumps she couldn’t afford, and gave her a job. In a gesture typical of their odd blend of whimsy and narcissism, they named each of their four children after shoes—Connie; then my mother, who was Simone; then Shelby; and last, Sweet Nina Baby.

My mother’s favorites were the blue suede pumps with rounded toes and ankle straps atop chunky three-inch heels. She’d found them in New Orleans, and even though they were expensive, she’d snatched them right up. They were tap shoes without the tap, she said, and that she would supply herself. They were her most glamorous pair, and whenever she put them on, she had to jump up and dance around to Elvis on the stereo.

Even when she was pregnant with my brother, Theo, who was born when I was five, my mother would pinch her swollen feet into those blue suede shoes and play the Elvis ballads, the slow songs, “Love Me Tender” and “Treat Me Like a Fool,” swaying in front of the stove in the kitchen while she made dinner, going back to that younger, freer self, the one she might have become. I wanted to ask my father what he thought when he saw those blue suede shoes on her feet night after night, but I said nothing, and he came home and left again in his cycle of days, a husband, a father, a traveling salesman who tucked his feelings inside his briefcase and under his hat.

©©©

When I was nine or ten, it started—my bizarre taste for bland. I plotted makeovers—or, rather, makeunders—ways to make myself disappear. And my mother, too—to drain her of color, tone her down. I drew her with crayons, a silhouette, a faded paper doll.

More than once I wished her gone.

And yet, with another breath, I clung to her—to the good side of Simone: the ripe, boisterous flare of her cheekbones, her manic love, her quick laugh, the high music of her anger, her lies. I needed our shrill, expensive battles, fevers raging in the one skin that held us together.

Queen of weather, my mother—foul weather that stripped leaves off the trees, that whipped your self away and left just your body standing there, a tree shorn, nothing but a few bare branches and a fistful of shaky hope. She erased you until you erased yourself.

And so where I learned to exist was in my art, safe in that silence of color, of light and shadow. I made sure I wasn’t very good—not good enough to stand out—but I lived there.

Once, I painted her smiling, in a blue silk jacket, one eye cocked to heaven, a blue kite soaring from her head. In her hands, more kites, stacked one on top of the other, lifting up and away in a powerful gust, but fragile.

“No,” Theo said, studying my efforts later, when it was all over. What did he know that I didn’t? “You’ve got her all wrong.”

I never could get her right.

Chapter 1

When I was little, my mother and I, after putting Theo to bed, would sit in the dim living room, the lamp low, she at her sewing machine and me curled up underneath her desk, watching her feet move up and down on the pedal she sometimes called a treadle. I was five, six, seven. My father had a new job selling adding and accounting machines for Sperry Rand and was gone half-weeks. It seemed it was just us two mostly. Tonight, he was in some midwestern state that started with I, Illinois or Indiana or Iowa.

“Pain in the you know what, tacking these seams,” my mother murmured, hunched over a difficult one. She was making fancy draperies for the living room, heavy pleated ones that weren’t easy. I watched her calves and feet awhile, crossed gracefully underneath the wooden dining room chair, one of six sent from my grandfather’s furniture store.

She smoothed the wide cloth under the teeth of her handsome black Singer sewing machine, pumping the pedal with her bare foot. From time to time, she strained to look out the window above her desk, as if checking to see whether something she had left out in the night was still there. In our neighborhood, the small houses were so close together they seemed threaded like beads on a string. My mother didn’t like it that all the houses looked alike and that it was April and the trees were still just skinny sticks wearing a wig. She said they reminded her of the witch in The Wizard of Oz.

“Hey, sugar pie, whatcha doin’ down there?” Her voice smiled; her drawl lifted certain words and stretched others, into a song.

“I’m watching your feet,” I said. They were pretty feet, long, in skin-colored stockings, with fire-engine-red toes.

“Well, that can’t be much fun,” she said, humming to our new Camelot record. I’d rather have had The Sound of Music, but at least Camelot wasn’t Elvis. Her feet moved in perfect rhythm to “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight.”

I crawled out from beneath the desk, watching her hands. I believed my mother’s hands could do anything: install zippers and flat-felled seams, make all our dresses match: summer shifts in orange cotton, polka-dot jumpers, a pink sundress with daisies—all with button straps. In the winter, plaid wool skirts. I loved it when she sewed—even her complaints had a lilt to them. Sewing was focused activity, a discipline, a gift, really, handed down to all the girls in my mother’s family—not just from Granny, but from Paw Paw’s mother, my great-grandmother Henriette, who at Auschwitz had her name taken off the death list because, so the legend went, her needle’s speed and precision made her too valuable to kill. Sewing became equated with strength, with sanity, one shimmering bubble that each of us tried to live inside. There were times, much later, when my mother would renounce sewing altogether, forgetting how the small, cold glint of the needle had shaped her happiest afternoons, how the industrious whir of the machine had structured her nights.

She sighed down at the material in her hands and said, more to herself than to me: “You know, it’s nice when Dan goes away for a few days. I mean, I get more done. I really do.” Her nod was a small gesture, chin close to her chest, one part of her agreeing with the other.

Hearing her talk about my father always made me fidget. “Mom, I’m bored. What can I do?” I didn’t want to bake another tiny pie in my Easy-Bake oven or build another rickety Lincoln Logs cabin or send a Slinky down the stairs. I didn’t even want to take Barbie swimming in a cake pan filled with water.

Her foot stopped, moving off the pedal and becoming too still, poised. It was the same stillness I’d observed lately in the kitchen, always followed by sudden movement.

Sure enough, she jumped up, darted to the coffee table. “I’ve got it!” she said. “Did I show you what Helen, that sweetie at the sewing shop, saved for me?” I crawled out from under the desk and sat up, eager to see what she had in her hands: huge books with the names Butterick, Simplicity, and Vogue in large letters. She went to the kitchen, came back with a pencil and paper, sat down cross-legged near the sewing machine’s pedal, and patted the speckled linoleum. She wanted carpet in the living room, wall-to-wall. That was why my father worked so hard, she explained, so someday we could buy carpet, a bigger house, a better life. “I’ll set you up right here by me.”

Nestling close, I watched as she spread the Butterick book open over our laps and tore from a tablet a piece of the thinnest paper I’d ever seen.

“It’s onionskin paper. The best for tracing.”

My eyes grew wide. “The paper’s made of onion?”

“No, it’s just thin as an onion’s skin.” She held it over a picture of a little girl in a pretty flowered dress, pattern #8117, and traced its outline with a fat pencil in slow, careful strokes. “Now, you try. When you’re done, you can color in the pretty dresses. Design them. They don’t have to match the ones in the book. We can make them any color we want.”

I stuck out my lower lip. “I want them to match the book.”

“Fine. Whatever is most fun, that’s what you should do.”

I loved it when my mother was like this—calm, happy, a friend whose lips curved in a sweet smile. I got up on my knees and quickly turned several pages until I found a picture I liked, of a small brown-haired girl holding hands with her mother, a tiny black dog prancing at their feet. They wore matching outfits—even the dog wore a little jacket from the same plaid fabric. Pattern #9219, the book said. I clutched the pencil so tightly that I almost broke it in two, trying to guide my lines to be as graceful as hers.

The pencil marks smudged easily on the strange paper, but I didn’t mind. Soon I was lost in a new world of drawing, of pretty girls in pretty clothes living inside this grand make-believe coloring book, my mother’s foot dancing on the pedal beside me.

After a while, I noticed an absence of sound and I looked up. Her foot had stopped and she was inspecting her work so closely that she seemed to be in a different room.

“Mom?” I said, and she glanced up distractedly, biting off a length of thread with her teeth.

“I’m bored. I want to sew, too.”

“Well then, sugar pie, why don’t you rummage through here and find me some olive-green thread?”

I loved my mother’s sewing kit. It seemed to me that the whole universe was contained there, that my mother’s happy life was inside a black wicker basket lined with flowered fabric that she’d had ever since I could remember, and to be part of it, of her, you only had to lift the lid. Inside, hundreds of pins, some with bright red heads, dozens of needles of various sizes, tiny scissors, at least three rippers, a small metal ruler to make straight hems, a pair of shearing scissors with a heavy black handle and ferocious jagged teeth.

“I know you miss Daddy, Silvie,” she said without looking up from her work. “But aren’t you happy with just the two of us here?”

Something open, expectant in her face, and inside me a vague notion stirred—to make her happy, I would have to lie. But I hadn’t learned how; not yet. “I like you both here,” I said.

Her hands flashed; the needle sped over the fabric, darting and jumping like a fish. I looked from her small wrists to mine, liking how similar they were, the pale skin, the veins on the translucent underside milky blue as moonlight.

“But we have fun, just us two, don’t we?”

Something in her tone made me angry, and I opened and closed the sewing box lid. It had a little hinge that looked like a strawberry. Didn’t she miss him too? On the day he came home from a trip, she always wore a pretty dress and heels that weren’t the blue suede, and she checked her lipstick in the mirror before lifting the curtain to peek out the window.

“Silvie, don’t we have fun? Sewing together, listening to music . . .” She looked up, a hint of glitter there.

“Yes, Mommy.” I watched her lips for a smile. But she could turn, she could. I didn’t know when to trust her lately. Something in the way she looked at me—or didn’t quite anymore.

That thread. I wanted to find it for her. Olive green.

My mother put her needle down. “Silvie, you’re quite a big girl now, aren’t you?”

I nodded, trying to guess the answer she wanted. In my stomach, a knot tied all by itself.

“If you help me with that thread, I’ll show you a surprise.”

My pulse quickened. I nodded, barely able to speak. My fingers scurried over spools and little silver bobbins of white, brown, yellow, blue—maybe we’d get a puppy, with a tail that wagged when I called his name—and I seized upon the perfect color. I lifted it triumphantly.

But she shook her head. “That’s lime, sugar.”

My mind filled with green, raced with green, until I wasn’t sure I knew green at all. In the sewing box, so much thread, all the colors of the rainbow, and a ripe red sand-filled tomato pincushion with a green-felt stem and a leaf at its crown, every inch stuck with pins and a few needles, waiting patiently, small lengths of thread strung expectantly through their eyes. I loved that soggy, faded tomato, thinking for a long time that it was just hers alone. When I grew older, I found that a lot of mothers had the same little red tomato, and that made me like it even more. I always wanted us to be like everyone else.

“Olive green is more—you just need some reminding. Come with me.” She held out her hand, and we tiptoed to my room and stood in front of my metal-framed dollhouse, open on one side to reveal several rooms, miniature beds, assorted tables and lamps, and a little doll family of four—a father, mother, little girl, and little boy, just like us. She’d decorated it for months, sometimes changing a room three times to get it exactly right, cutting colored squares of felt for carpeting, tiny swatches of brocade for tie back drapes trimmed with a thumbnail strip of jingle-ball fringe. For the parents’ room, she had stuffed cotton balls in leftover scraps of crimson velvet to make a puffy bedspread and matching bolster, mounting painted Q-Tips above the windows, from which she hung the diminutive drapes. From pipe cleaners, she made accessories—umbrellas, a birdcage. One day, when we had a big house, she said, she wanted it to look just like this one. Then it seemed as if the dollhouse were really more my mother’s than mine.

“This is olive green!” She pointed to the carpet in the doll parents bedroom. “Very chic, very fresh, deeper and darker than a true grass green. More sophisticated. On every page of House Beautiful. Do you like it?”

I nodded. “Yes.”

“I thought you would. Now, your father, he likes plain old green. He doesn’t go for anything too modern.”

I blinked. “He doesn’t?”

“He’s a Republican!” She laughed, and the night seemed enormous and strangely beautiful. “I’m positive I bought olive thread. Let’s check again.” She took a last glance at the dollhouse, and we walked to the living room.

“Mommy, are we Republican too?”

“Oh, sugar, no. We’re Democrats, like Jacqueline Kennedy.”

“We’re not the same as Daddy?”

“No, we’re different. We have flair. We could go places.”

Part of me wanted to be like Daddy, but I held on to her hand, an odd sound in her voice leading us back to our places by the sewing machine, where I reached into the sewing box and put my hand right away on the olive-green thread. I held it out to her proudly, shyness giving way to breathless joy.

She smiled, taking it from me and planting a kiss on my hand. “Remember, Silvie, when I told you that you were named after Elvis?”

Then she led me into her bedroom, where she slowly opened the lid of her jewelry box and, like a magician, reached in and, out of thin air, conjured up a silver charm on a long chain. “This was his good-luck charm. Saint somebody or other engraved right here.” She held it high, and I watched it sway back and forth between us. “See, it’s really a locket.” She opened it and held it out to me.

I peered closely at the silver piece, the size of a half dollar. In the tiny picture were two miniature people. My mother reached back into the jewelry box and pulled out a snapshot. “Here’s the same picture but bigger.”

In that one, I saw a chaise longue in front of a swimming pool. On the ground, a boy in a striped bathing suit, arms looped casually around his knees, dark hair swept back, maybe this same necklace around his bare chest, and a pretty girl beside him, sitting up on her knees, her face eager, even surprised.

“That was the bluest water I ever saw,” my mother said, gazing at the snapshot. “You know who these people are, don’t you?”

I peered closely. “Mommy, is that you?”

She nodded, running her thumbnail across the image. “That’s me with Elvis Presley. I like to think he came to me near water because water is what dreams are made of.”

She touched the chain with her fingertip to stop its motion and glanced down at me, lowering her voice. “Someday I’ll tell you even more about it. But for now, this can be our secret.”

I wondered what my father thought about all this, or if he knew at all, my father with his strong chin and even features, short curly brown hair, handsome mouth, and a space above his eyes that seemed to shine and go on shining all the way up to his hair. He wasn’t tall, but he seemed tall to me, and when he spoke, I felt he pulled each word up from some deep, true place in the earth. I began to twist my hair around my finger, then to suck it, a nervous habit I would later find hard to break. I wondered where Daddy was. He had told me what state. I wished I could remember.

Gently, my mother placed the locket back in the jewelry box. I felt hot and dizzy. She looked at me. I looked at my shoes.

“Well.” She snapped the box shut, and I followed her to the kitchen, where she set out crackers and Brie, a cheese my father said we could afford only on special occasions. Standing up, she ate a few crackers, then moved to the freezer, took out the chocolate ice cream, and filled two bowls. Something had changed; I felt it. She was edgy now, bored in her skin.

We sat down. She beat her ice cream into a smooth mash with a spoon and quietly we ate small bites. The room seemed too bright.

My mother leaned on her elbow, licked ice cream off her spoon. “Silvie, passion is . . . feeling things very deeply. Having the capacity for deep emotion. Don’t just think with your head and hold things in. Think with your heart. You probably have the potential for deep feeling. You just have to learn to use it.”

She carried our bowls to the sink and returned to the table with a sponge, wiping our place mats, scrubbing around a bowl of waxed fruit in the center of the wooden table. I sat very still as she cleaned my place, moving my hands to my lap, holding them quietly, thinking, But I do feel things very deeply. Just too many things. Or the wrong things. I felt confused.

My mother plucked up a glossy red apple from the fruit bowl, perfect as one in a magazine, held it by the stem, the way she had held the Elvis necklace. Suddenly, she brought the apple to her face, crunched her teeth into the shiny red fruit, and slumped over onto the linoleum until she lay with her arms and legs akimbo, her neck as loose as one of my floppy dolls.

I waited, expecting her to jump up, finish the story, take a bow—something—but she didn’t budge. Trembling, I stood over her body.

“Mommy?” I peered down at her, said, “Mommy?” again, in a tentative voice that curled higher and higher, like smoke. Cold seeped all the way into my bones, a ridge of ice hardening underneath my skin. My breath came in sharp gasps that hurt like a stomachache.

Just when I felt my knees going soft as Jell-O, she sprang to her feet like a jack-in-the-box and pulled me into a rough hug. Her laugh sounded mean, with an air of victory about it.

“I’m not dead, silly! It was just a joke, a little trick. To make you feel something, to feel passion.”


From the Trade Paperback edition.
Kathryn Stern|Karen White|Author Q&A

About Kathryn Stern

Kathryn Stern - Another Song About the King

Kathryn Stern lives in Chicago with her husband and two children. This is her first novel.

About Karen White

Karen White - Another Song About the King
Karen White is an actress on stage, film, television, and commercials and has worked in Los Angeles, New York, and Boston. She is also a voice coach, and has taught voice and acting at Brandeis University and Emerson College.   Favorite books she’s narrated for BOT include The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, the Miss Julia series by Ann B. Ross and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series for Listening Library.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Kathryn Stern
Fred Shafer
was an editor for several years with TriQuarterly, the international literary journal published by Northwestern University, where he has taught fiction writing in the English and Radio-TV-Film departments and the School of Continuing Education. His stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in several journals. He also leads private workshops in story writing and novel writing, of one of which Kathryn Stern is a member.

FS: At a time when many fiction writers and poets have been publishing memoirs drawn from their lives, you chose to write a novel based on your relationship with your mother. Why did you decide to write a novel, rather than a memoir?

KS: My mother was diagnosed with cancer before a number of things between us could be resolved. She died just as I was becoming engaged to be married, and there I was, falling in love inside a space of great loss, forced to close one door when another door was being flung wide open. This novel began as an attempt to explore everything that had been left unsaid about our complex relationship, and to make peace with losing her so soon. But it never occurred to me to write a memoir. I didn't have the confidence to blatantly expose the emotional truths of my life, or the arrogance to assume they would be interesting. It takes courage to say, "This happened to me and I'd like to tell you about it." I guess that's because we are ashamed of our weaknesses and flaws, even though they are what makes us human.

Writing a novel, rather than a memoir, gave me a license with language and imagery that was utterly compelling. And it was the best way I could find of trying to understand the things that had always puzzled me about my mother's personality. I wanted to write a version of our story. As it turned out, that didn't keep me from feeling guilty about using the people I love for the sake of art or for my own personal catharsis. But the need to hold my life up to the light, in order to study it and find meaning in the struggle we'd gone through, somehow outweighed all other concerns.

FS: From a writer's standpoint, what distinctions have you found be-tween memoirs and fiction based on autobiography? Does a work of fiction give the writer more of a sense of being protected?

KS: It only seems easier to hide behind a work of fiction than a memoir. I have found that it's impossible to hide behind any writing that strives to reach a deep place. But the line between fact and fiction is always indistinct, and even a memoirist must, at times, be forced to invent. I don't see how anyone can remember entire paragraphs of dialogue from her childhood. I know I can't. A weakness in my character, but perhaps one of my strengths as a writer, is that I rarely tell the whole truth. If I come home and say to my husband that I was involved in a fender bender, the minor scrape on the bumper will invariably lengthen and deepen, and the time it took the police to arrive will grow from twenty minutes to forty-five. Conversely, if I set out to write a novel based entirely on things I've imagined, I suspect I'd be unable to resist throwing in a character who resembles someone from my family, or a few lines of dialogue lifted from last year's Thanksgiving dinner when Aunt Pearl drank too much wine and began cursing her dead husband. The impulse to liven things up, to embellish, to make the world a more profound and interesting place, is what separates art from life and makes a person a storyteller.

FS: John Irving, in an interview published several years ago in The Paris Review, said that he starts out by writing about real people, then invents and exaggerates until he has produced "autobiography on its way to becoming lie," and the lie interests him more. Is this what you're talking about?

KS: Yes. Looking back, I'm not always sure which things I made up and which are true. When she was a teenager, my mother had a date with Elvis Presley, but she rarely talked about it while I was growing up, and I was left to color in what was shrouded in mystery. It always intrigued me that my mother was so hush-hush about the dates she'd had with men. She was the kind of person who you'd expect to shout it from the rooftops.

Elvis was nowhere to be found in any of the early drafts; it was primarily a book about a stormy mother/daughter relationship, end- ing in loss and grief. But as I wrestled with it, one line kept popping up: "Silvie, did you know your mama dated the King?" It hung over me, and I didn't know what to make of those words. It wasn't until I went to a neighborhood barbecue, where a woman actually drove home to get a scrapbook she kept of the time she met the Beatles, that I began to pay attention to the Elvis theme in my novel. I was struck by the air of discontent this thirty-year-old woman wore like a cloak, and how it dissipated only when she launched into her story, holding court in that tiny backyard, recounting her fifteen minutes of fame. It was clear that nothing in her life had equaled, or ever would equal, the experience she was describing. And I thought, "That's what Simone has been trying to tell me!" Unlike my mother, Simone had been holding herself and her family hostage to a story about the date with Elvis. I was on my way to loving the lie I'd invented, and I couldn't turn back from the sense of freedom it brought to my writing.

FS: Does this mean that you made up many of the things that people say or do to each other in the book? What limitations or boundaries did you set in regard to inventing action or dialogue?

KS: I invented almost everything the characters say or do to each other. Which doesn't mean that I didn't live in New York City or meet my husband there, or that I didn't have a difficult relationship with my mother, that she didn't date Elvis Presley, or that she didn't die and I didn't sit beside her on the couch while it was happening. But not one of the events in the book happens as it did in real life, and very few lines of dialogue were actually spoken. Isn't it a writer's duty to carry a conversation a step further than might have happened in life, to unveil hidden truths so that a reader has no choice but to respond deeply?

I didn't consciously set boundaries. The only guideline I followed was to stay true to the characters I had created on the page and to the action that was taking shape. In chapter two, for example, Simone sends Silvie a manila envelope full of perfume samples torn from magazines. I was never the recipient of such a gift, but I seized upon the idea one day while leafing through a magazine in a doctor's office. It was exactly the kind of project Simone would undertake, collecting those samples for her daughter, and the kind of unspoken message she would send: "All you need to have in order to succeed in the big city is your femininity and a good perfume." After I'd written a monstrous first draft, the characters gradually became entities in their own right, separate from my personal history. And whenever I used situations from my life, I'd always ask myself whether the characters would behave differently than the real people did under those circumstances.

FS: The novel is structured with chapters that describe incidents from Silvie's childhood are interspersed with chapters concerning her mother's illness and death. How far into the writing did you decide on the structure of the novel? Did your choice of this structure have any impact on your understanding of the story?

KS: I wrote several drafts in chronological order, and that helped me to get in touch with my story. In the course of producing a later draft, I realized that the structure itself would help carry the issues of the plot forward. By juxtaposing Silvie's childhood self with her adult self, I found that I could create suspense and make connections that might not be apparent otherwise, because, of course, the past influences and, at times, foreshadows the future. Once I'd rearranged the structure, some of the connections surprised me. For instance, the chapter that follows the Thanksgiving scene, in which Simone misbehaves when Silvie brings home Scottie, begins with the line, "My new friend, Martine LaRue, gave me courage." What I realized in putting the two together was that, just as Silvie's friendship with Martine helped her to gain a measure of independence, her relationship with Scottie is bound to grant her a life beyond her mother's grasp.

FS: Did the need for introducing a plot enable you to learn anything about the characters?

KS: It's astounding how much a writer can, and must, learn about her characters as she watches them respond to situations into which she has thrust them. How will they behave when a new person enters their lives? How will they react when someone they know well does something unusual? A writer's reward for all the grueling hours spent in isolation struggling with one sentence occurs when characters surprise you by acting in ways you never dreamed possible or by saying things you never expected them to say. You just shake your head and exclaim, "Wow, I didn't know they had it in them."

One area of the plot where the characters continually surprised me is what I came to think of as the Simone and Silvie dance; it's a kind of love versus hate, dependence versus independence two-step. In order to sustain the ebb and flow of this dance, I invented many scenes in which the characters draw together, but then fall back, due to insensitivity on the part of one or the other. For instance, after Simone bites into the apple, Silvie stops calling her "Mom" and eventually renames her "Mimi," as a way of gaining distance from behavior that has become increasingly confusing. Later in the book, following her own failure in the sewing contest, Simone criticizes Silvie when she wins the art prize, then Silvie sets out to destroy her mother's carefully organized closet.

In writing these scenes, I wanted to create tensions that would lead the characters to react strongly to each other, to the point that both of them might become capable of changing and growing. What I realized, instead, was that this mother is the major impediment to Silvie's being able to find her own identity. With each small act of rebellion, the girl moves a step closer to the independence she seeks, but also fears. I was like a surrogate parent, cheering for Silvie whenever she quietly fought back.

FS: Did you ever feel the urge to make things happen between Silvie and Mimi that you wish had taken place between you and your mother? Is there ever a place for wish fulfillment in an autobiographical novel?

KS: In writing the hospital scenes, I often felt the urge to compose a farewell that my mother and I did not actually share. Those were the first scenes I wrote, beginning only a month after she died. That room was still vivid in my mind, and the dialogue came easily. It was often stitched around a single line that my mother said, but that, because of limitations imposed by her illness, our shared denial that she was dying, and my usual tongue-tied response to her, did not go any further. The Hollywood deathbed ending, with the apologies and white lies and good-byes, rarely happens. People die, and very little is said. That was certainly my experience, and at first it may have fueled my need to make the final chapter happen as I wished my real life experience had.

Like dreams, wishes are potent, and very much a product of our imaginations. I believe that anything that comes from such a deep place is valid territory for a writer to explore. But there is no place for wish fulfillment in a novel, unless the words or details fit with the story you're telling. You have to be true to the story. You can't just get your ya-yas out, in terms of wishes or revenge, because the possibility of engaging in self-indulgence is too great.

FS: Speaking of dreams, one of the most powerful and disturbing moments, apart from the deathbed scenes, occurs at the end of chap-ter four when Silvie, soon after she arrives in New York, has a nightmare about riding the subway with her mother. Did you actually have that dream?

KS: It started with a dream I had before beginning to write the novel. My mother was a few weeks from death. I woke up and jotted a note on an index card: "Riding the subway with Mom in NYC. She is turning round and round, crying, confused, like a dog, and I am trying to hold her by the shoulders." That was the central image, and I built the entire sequence around it, just letting my imagination go. I rewrote that section countless times, and with each new draft tried to get closer to the characters' deepest need, which, at that time in their lives, was to connect, really connect, before it was too late.

FS: Do you feel that Simone and Silvie have achieved closure by the time Simone dies?

KS: If closure means accepting the most basic truths about a relationship and letting go of things that shouldn't matter, I'd say, yes, they do achieve closure, and they find peace. When Simone asks Silvie to drop the Elvis locket in the wastebasket, it shows that she recognizes the extent to which she's hidden behind the myth, and is finally able to set it aside. Elvis is a symbol of the ambition and desire that were very much a part of my mother's personality, but we never talked about Elvis when she was dying; there wasn't room for him in our conversations.

However, it seemed right that, on the threshold of Sylvie's and Simone's marriage, the two of them would gain closure through talking about him. I have trouble reading those scenes aloud now. They transport me back to my own experience so completely: the feel of the room, the smell of death, the longing to keep my mother alive. I used the present tense in chapter fourteen to convey the fact that the dying ends only for the person who closes her eyes; death lives with the survivor forever.

FS: In the last few years of revising the novel, you gave birth, first to a daughter and then a son. Did becoming a parent have any impact on decisions that you made about Silvie and Simone? Have you learned anything from writing about those characters that has influenced the approach you and your husband take in raising your own children?

KS: I feel that I have a lot more sympathy for Simone now. Being a mother is hard, and until you have children of your own, you can't fully appreciate how hard it is. After my daughter was born, I saw Simone as a fellow mother, and I was concerned about making sure that she seemed sympathetic, even likable. I felt I truly understood how a woman like Simone could be pushed, out of tedium over endless loads of laundry and drives to and from school, to invent a glamorous counterlife for herself and to behave in ways that are unpredictable and, at times, cruel. And when I began to see Silvie as having an identity separate from my own, I was able to regard my daughter as separate from me, something Simone was never able to do with Silvie.

As a parent, I try to look the other way when my daughter, at four, refuses to brush her hair or insists on wearing her pink tutu over her overalls. I am not, by nature, overbearing and competitive in the way Simone is, but I am much more aware now that the role assumed by a parent can stifle a child's creativity and identity. By the time I revised the final scenes in the book, I cherished my own budding relationship with my daughter, and I wanted Simone and Silvie to come as close as possible to forgiveness, understanding, and a kind of mutual respect. It was painful to let Simone die. I kept wanting to keep her alive, through another paragraph, another page, so that Silvie wouldn't be left without a mother at her wedding or when she, someday, had a child of her own.

FS: What do you think would have happened in their relationship if Simone had lived?

KS: In some ways I find it difficult to imagine what Silvie's married life would be like if Simone were still around, because the premise of the novel has to do with the sense of freedom that Simone's death brings Silvie. But it is a writer's job to learn more about her characters' lives than goes onto the page, and that may even include speculating about the roads that were not taken. Once Silvie was married, I think that Simone might have felt jealous of the happiness and love that she'd attained with Scottie. The tension might have kept building between them until Silvie had children, and Simone began to acknowledge her daughter's new role as a mother. But I don't think that Simone would have been pleased to find that she'd become a grandmother. She certainly wouldn't have allowed herself to be called Granny. They would have needed to come up with a more glamorous name for her, perhaps something like Mimi!

FS: Have you ever wondered how your mother would have felt if she'd been able to read the scenes from your book that describe Silvie's childhood?

KS: I've thought long and hard about that. Her pride at my accomplishment in writing and publishing the book, I know, would have been filtered through a sense of competitiveness. She would have regarded the story itself as a black-and-white picture of our relationship, without the subtle shadings that I see there. And I'm sure that she would have been unhappy with the portrayal of Simone, whereas I regard Simone's shortcomings as human and real and often lovable. Would I have written this book if my mother were alive now? I don't think so. Not this book. If she were still actively making an imprint on my consciousness, I would have felt too restricted.

FS: You said earlier that, following your mother's death, you wanted to solve the puzzles of your relationship with her. What have you learned through writing the book?

KS: It has been part of my journey as a woman to come to terms with my mother. Many women have an opportunity to do this face to face as they grow older, but I was denied that luxury. Writing this book enabled me to grow into myself as an individual, with an identity separate from the one I had with my mother. What took place between us was so powerful that I could not easily let go of it. I had to stick my hands into it, all the way up to the elbows. That deep digging has been tremendously therapeutic for me, and that's why writing a memoir would have been insufficient: I needed the freedom to take conversations into places where they never had a chance to go. What I've come away with is the understanding that those conversations did not go further in real life because I was too weak and passive; as a fiction writer, I am far more courageous. But I was young then, and I shrank from challenging her, without realizing that confrontation might very well have led us into the dark night that pre-cedes the day.

Although some readers may not believe it, this book is intended to be a love letter to my mother, an offering of tremendous potency, and I feel certain that, at her very best, she would have seen it that way. The book honors her by saying that ours was the most difficult but also the most important relationship of my life. Our lives gain meaning from sorrow and pain, not from comfort and ease, and often the people who affect us indelibly are those against whom we have struggled but ultimately loved.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Praise

Praise

"It is Kathryn Stern's blessing to have created, in Another Song About the King, a mother-daughter act that shocks us to remember those we've worshiped, then pitied, then fled, and then become. Simone is a Mississippi Mama Rose and a midwestern Madame Bovary--a misguided missile bent on blasting a way to the stars for Silvie, the daughter she has named by rearranging the name of her girlhood obsession, Elvis. She has also rearranged the facts of her own life, like a Chanel courageously run up on the Singer, shredding hearts and intentions along the way; and still, though we empathize with Silvie's every wound at Simone's hands, the author forces us to take this mother to our hearts, with a writerly compassion so honest we can cringe but not look away.

"Another Song About the King is a majestic debut, and while it may be Kathryn Stern's first hit, it will not be her only."
--Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean


From the Hardcover edition.

  • Another Song About the King by Kathryn Stern
  • March 13, 2000
  • Fiction - Family Saga
  • Random House Audio
  • $17.50
  • 9781415910634

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