MISSISSIPPI author Greg Iles' best-selling novel Natchez Burning—all 790 pages of it—is just the first book in an expansive trilogy about race and retribution in America.
His familiar character Penn Cage, protagonist of three of Iles’s previous novels, faces the modern-day ramifications of murder and intrigue from the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement.
With sex and violence galore to go along with the more weighty subject matter, Natchez Burning will be followed by this spring’s release of the second installment, The Bone Tree.
The garrulous and funny Iles, disabled in 2011 after a catastrophic and profoundly life-changing car accident, is also known for playing guitar in the rocker/writer “supergroup” Rock Bottom Remainders, with Stephen King, Scott Turow, and other authors.
Iles speaks at the Savannah Book Festival this weekend.
Not only did you survive an almost unsurvivable car accident, but it came just as you had done a big rewrite of Natchez Burning for the publisher.
Greg Iles: People tend to exaggerate these incidents. But this was the real thing. It took off my leg, shattered the other leg, shattered my pelvis. Most notably, it ripped my aorta.
After I came out of that coma, I told myself, “you do not have an infinite number of books left to write. If you’ve got something to say you better say it.”
Three Penn Cage books existed before that car wreck. The first one was written about race, but only to a certain depth. What really changed everything was in 2010 when my father passed away. My father was the basis for Tom Cage. It got me thinking much more seriously. I call it the Atticus Finch Syndrome, the child of a parent of almost heroic stature. Then you come to realize they’re just as human as anyone else.
Then I got to know the reporter who was the basis for the character Henry Sexton in Natchez Burning. A reporter working for little money in the middle of nowhere. On his own he literally outpaced the FBI in these old cold cases from the Civil Rights days. I was really inspired by that. So this book was already outpacing the dimensions of a commercial novel when that truck pulled out in front of me.
So you rewrote the book yet again. Then what happened?
Greg Iles: Then I had to find people willing to go with me on this journey. Within six months I no longer had the same agent or publisher. People are used to the idea of trilogies because of the success of these YA series. But in mainstream fiction you don't see three novels, each of 200,000 words.
It was a huge risk and nobody knew what would happen. But we just bet the farm on it. Then a couple of reviews came in that were really good.
And then Ken Follett Tweeted that Natchez Burning was the “best thriller in years.”
Not of the year, but in years. Then I thought, you know, maybe something’s about to happen here.
It goes back to something my first editor said to me. He talked about the notion of “granular perspective.” He said you can tell a story from an inch off the desk or a foot off the desk. This book is written from an inch off the desk!
The crazy part is that the first two books together are at least 550,000 words total, with the action taking place only over eight days. So talk about granularity! A James Michener book would cover ten generations in less time than one of my books!
Does the question ever come up that being a white writer, especially a Southerner, you might not necessarily be the most compelling or credible spokesperson on issues of race and social justice?
Greg Iles: My mother grew up on a subsistence farm in Louisiana and actually picked cotton herself. She graduated first in her class. She came from poor as you can come. My dad was a doctor, and the bulk of his patients were African American. He didn't see race.
As a younger man I worked laying sewer pipe alongside an otherwise all African American crew. You do that a little while it will open your eyes to the reality. You find out what they really care about and what their lives are like.
Now, of course you can’t truly put yourselves in someone’s shoes. A lot of people in the North don’t understand these things as well, because the truth is many of them simply have very little experience in their own lives of black people.
I will say that one of the great cultural tragedies of modern times is you can speak to a group of young African Americans and most of them won’t know the names of the people who died during the Civil Rights movement. So it’s a complex thing.
Despite the length of these books, you say producers immediately approached you about a screen adaptation.
Greg Iles: I didn't think I had a chance in hell of ever seeing this on screen. Because it's so long and complex, almost by definition it's too complicated to compress to a 120-page movie script.
But with True Detective, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, all of a sudden there’s a new format that exists for which my books are actually perfect. Networks are completely retooling their schedules to buy and schedule TV drama series.
Most movies are made for 14 year olds. How many people 45 or older even go to the movies anymore? But now with cable and streaming services, you’ve got an audience that’s basically quit consuming film and is suddenly now watching TV full-time in binges.
And here’s the really telling thing: It’s drawing A-list actors. Guys who once only headlined films, thanks to Matthew McConaughey they all now want to work in TV. 15 years ago these same people would have laughed in your face at the idea of being on TV.
Do you and Stephen King and the Rock Bottom Remainders still get together and perform at all?
Greg Iles: Frankly with people like this it's really tough to get one time for us all to be together. We're scheduled to play a book festival in Tucson in a few months. But that'll probably be the only gig of the whole year. Technically we're supposed to be retired!
You still play guitar, though.
Greg Iles: Oh hell yeah, I still play. I've been working on some songs. I'm trying to get good at "Paperback Writer" so we can play it the next time. But that's a song for real men!