It was Dolly Parton’s first national tour in 25 years, and I couldn’t stop crying. My mom and I were to the right of the stage at Tanglewood, the 10th stop on Dolly’s 60-city tour.
“Are you crying?” my mom asked, as she swayed to "Jolene."
“I feel like I owe my novel to her.”
My mom nodded, as she always does when I say something kooky. But I do feel that Dolly helped me with my first novel, both with the conception of it and with the writing of it. I didn’t thank her in the acknowledgements because I felt that would have been crazy (on the other hand, I did thank my dog), but in some very important ways, Dolly Parton has been my literary inspiration and guide.
When I was writing my novel, I listened to Dolly Parton’s music every morning (the same five songs) because the songs always energize me, put me into a creative space. But the inspiration I get from Dolly Parton goes beyond her music. It’s her whole persona that’s helped me, and the way she’s handled her career.
I don’t know exactly how I came to love Dolly Parton, but I have a pretty good idea. When I was seven, my aunt took me to Graceland. We took a tour of the house, and I remember they wouldn’t let us upstairs; I thought it was because Lisa Marie Presley still lived there. I remember the green shag carpeting, the wall of televisions, the giant ceramic monkey on the coffee table. The man had class
, I thought. My aunt bought me a T-shirt with Elvis’s face on it.
When I came home, I wore that T-shirt to bed every night. Once, my mom overheard me praying before bed, and she leaned against the doorframe to listen. “Take me back to Graceland, Elvis,” I said into my clasped hands. “It’s the only place I’ll ever be happy.”
I had adopted a new religion.
Through my love of Elvis, I found my other musical saints: Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson might seem unrelated to Elvis, but he was dating Lisa Marie Presley back then; it was 1993.
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“Write about your obsessions,” I tell my students now, in my classes at Grub Street, a writing center in Boston. I teach classes on the novel. “It will keep you in love with your own work,” I say. “And you must be in love with your novel, because you’ll work on it for years.”
It took me four years to write my novel, which isn’t so bad on the scale of how long it can take. I wrote about my obsessions. I set the novel in Alabama, not Tennessee, because I was living in Alabama. The novel, Rabbit Cake
, is about a 12-year-old girl named Elvis whose mother drowns while sleepwalking. Elvis’s mom loves Dolly Parton, which is mentioned a few times: There was a Halloween years ago when Mom had dressed both Lizzie and me up like Dolly Parton, with big hair-sprayed bangs and country music outfits, make-up heavy on our faces. We were sent home from school that day, because of the socks in the push-up bras we were wearing.
“Dolly Parton has a genius level IQ,” Mom had screeched at Principal Witherspoon, who put his hands over his ears like he was a little kid.
You could say, with some fairness, that I got the entire idea for the book from that 1993 trip to Tennessee, that I have been writing the novel ever since I first learned about Elvis, and then about Dolly. The book comes out this month, so that’s 24 years of work and obsession. Obsession has never been a word I’m afraid of: I went to four of Dolly Parton’s concerts last year, four different cities, three different states: two in Massachusetts, one in Chicago, one in South Carolina.
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My mom told me about Dolly Parton’s IQ when I was a teenager, one night when we were watching Nine to Five
. I remember loving the way Dolly looked as a kid, like she was on the cover of those romance books sold in the supermarket, but I remember I was surprised that someone who looked like her was a genius. Dolly herself describes her look as based on the “town trollop.” Dolly is never afraid to poke fun at herself, but I think it was important for me to know what a genius could look like, because at the time I was wearing shorts so short you could see the half-moons of my butt cheeks. I needed to know that I could dress like a tramp, but I could still be a genius. I could wear as much eyeliner as I wanted, and still be brainy.
For most of high school, I do remember people treating me as though I was dumb because of the way I dressed. My best friend had it even worse than I did — when we started high school, she looked like a walking Barbie doll. But by senior year, she’d tired of the wrong kind of attention, so she shaved her head.
It’s rumored that Dolly Parton has a shaved head underneath her blonde wig, and that her arms and chest are covered in tattoos.
“Do you think that’s true?” my friend Jessica asked, during the intermission of the Boston concert.
“I don’t know if it’s true,” I said, shrugging. I was careful not to say I hope so
. I don’t need Dolly Parton to be secretly punk rock to be cool. I love her for who I know her to be: for being a genius songwriter and a person who is incredibly hardworking. Dolly Parton started writing songs as a child, and she left her home for Nashville at 17, and she’s been working ever since. She’s 71 now; she says she writes songs every day, unless she is sick or on a movie set. It’s hard work to maintain a career that spans decades. This is important to remember for all creative people. It is a long game. There is no overnight success.
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If you google Elvis and Dolly Parton, you’ll find out that they never met, despite being on the music scene together for years. Elvis did ask to record Dolly’s song "I Will Always Love You," but he wanted half the publishing rights. She refused, and a good thing too, since it turned into a major cash cow after Whitney Houston’s recording. Dolly usually closes the concert with that song: “People always say this is Whitney Houston’s song, and that’s fine, she can have the credit, as long as I get the cash,” she laughed. “And it is my
song,” she added.
This is something I love about Dolly Parton, another thing I learned about writing from her: you should be proud of your work. You should demand credit, claim ownership. At the concert in South Carolina, she made sure to announce that she’d just been awarded the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement award, even though I’m sure most of the crowd already knew.
Shortly after I’d finished the first draft of my novel, I was talking with an established writer at a party. He was politely asking me about my novel. I told him I really liked my book, so I was hopeful others would like it too. He looked at me like I had two heads.
“What?” I asked.
“I’ve never heard someone say that,” he said. “I’ve really never heard anyone say that they like their own book.”
“I’ve always believed in my talent,” Dolly Parton said to Southern Living
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But Dolly is not full of herself, and she’s no diva. You do not need to put down others' work in order to build up your own. If you read interviews with Dolly Parton, you find that she is never short on compliments for other songwriters and singers: she loves Adele, Alicia Keys, and of course Miley Cyrus, her god-daughter. And Dolly seems so sincere when she addresses her fans at the concerts, gushing how much she appreciates us. She radiates kindness. “My heart is the only real thing about me,” she regularly jokes.
A well-known writer recently tweeted: “A short acknowledgments section makes me like the author more. You don’t have to thank everyone.” I know this writer is a nice person, because we have a mutual friend who vouches for her niceness, but I think this is bad advice. I would always rather thank too many people than too few. Dolly Parton thanks everyone at the end of every concert: she thanks her band, her manager, her entire crew, her truck drivers, bus drivers, caterers, security. And her band members have been with her for 30 years, so thanking them must work.
I don’t think there is ever a danger of being too
gracious, too generous, and that is the kind of writer and person I hope to be. There’s a tote bag for sale online that is printed with the words: “What Would Dolly Do?” It is currently on backorder.
I’d like to make all my decisions based on how I imagine Dolly would: work hard, be proud, be gracious, and have fun with it. And if I ever meet Dolly Parton, I will be sure to thank her, for everything.
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is a 2013 graduate of the MFA program at the University of Alabama, and was the 2013-2014 Writer-in-Residence for the Associates of the Boston Public Library. She currently teaches classes on the novel and the short story at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston. Her debut novel, Rabbit Cake
, is forthcoming from Tin House Books in March 2017. She is at work on her second novel, Driver's Ed
, which is a darkly comic story about a sex crime in a small town.