On March 8, 2011, shortly before his life took an unexpected turn, Mississippi novelist Greg Iles was stopped at an intersection, lost in creative thought as he debated what to do with his new thriller about unsolved civil rights murders—a subject that was too big for one book, or maybe even two. Most writers would consider that a great problem to have. But for Iles, being forced to choose between art and commerce always sends him into a desultory funk. In such moments, he readily admits, he should not be driving.
“I pulled onto Highway 61, and a 19-year-old girl in a pickup hit my driver’s door going 70,” Iles says. “I have no memory whatsoever. I woke up nine days later with no right leg, a torn aorta, as close to dying as you can come.”
Natchez Burning, the first installment of his incendiary new trilogy featuring former prosecutor turned Natchez Mayor Penn Cage, is the book that almost killed him. It is also, not coincidentally, the book that helped save his life.
“When you don’t know if you’re ever going to get up, you’ve got to find some way back,” Iles recalls. “There’s nothing better than realizing that you’re shepherding this narrative along, and that if you don’t do it, it’s never going to exist.”
The Natchez native credits a journalist friend with sharing the real-life cold cases that inspired Natchez Burning, in which Cage’s physician father, Dr. Tom Cage, is accused of murdering an African-American nurse who worked beside him during the racial unrest of the 1960s. Penn Cage’s search for the truth leads him into a dark chapter in Natchez history involving a murderous offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan under the direction of some of Mississippi’s most wealthy and powerful men.
“I’m not pulling a single punch when I write this book. Life’s too short; I’m not going to play that game.”
For Iles, whose flagrant genre-hopping has embraced Gothic World War II thrillers (Spandau Phoenix), supernatural ghost stories (Sleep No More) and even apocalyptic sci-fi (The Footprints of God), this was clearly a story only the Cages could tell, even if it meant temporarily bending his own rule: no series. In each previous Penn Cage outing—The Quiet Game (2000), Turning Angel (2005) and The Devil’s Punchbowl (2009)—Iles had thought one-and-done.
But events, including his accident and the 2010 death of his father, a physician who inspired the Dr. Tom character, conspired to send the author into new territory: the “thrillogy.”
“This really came in the wake of my father dying, and then, as I got going, me being in that car wreck, which was the biggest transformative experience in my life,” he recalls. “That’s what made me say, you know what? I’m not pulling a single punch when I write this book. Life’s too short; I’m not going to play that game. I’m just going to put it down.”
He broke another longstanding vow by placing a real-life KKK offshoot called the Silver Dollar group (which he renames the Double Eagles) at the center of Natchez Burning.
“Despite being considered a Southern novelist, I have always fought off any temptation to use the Ku Klux Klan as antagonists, because in real life, by 1967-68, they were pretty much irrelevant, and had long been totally penetrated by the FBI,” he says. “But in this case, when I found out about the real-life Silver Dollar group and how that worked and how none of those murders had been solved, I realized, OK, this is the story; this really is scary stuff.”
That Iles manages to sustain the suspense in Natchez Burning for 800 pages bodes well for the trilogy’s future installments, The Bone Tree and Unwritten Laws, to be published in spring 2015 and 2016.
Simply put, this is Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County for the “Breaking Bad” generation: life’s rich pageant, delivered unharnessed and uncensored by a writer at the peak of his powers who is mad as hell, and just as heartbroken.
“I think what makes people accept this book is that so much of it is meticulously based on things that really happened, so when you get to things that might strain credulity, you think, wow, did that actually happen or is he making that up?” Iles says.
The author admits the timing of a certain popular HBO TV series may work in his favor.
“I think I’m fortunate that ‘True Detective’ came along when it did,” he says. “It’s like all of a sudden, Southern noir has gotten to where I’ve always been, which is pretty dark and pretty violent.”
Helping Iles through his long rehabilitation were his band mates in the Rock Bottom Remainders, the legendary literary rock band that includes Dave Barry, Stephen King, Ridley Pearson, Scott Turow and Amy Tan. For Iles, who years ago left his post as front man for the ’80s rock band Frankly Scarlett to try his hand at prose, the Remainders are his equivalent of literary Paris in the 1920s.
“You can’t help but absorb from the people you’re around,” Iles says. “To have Scott Turow and Steve [King] in the band, guys who I had read along the way before I started writing and was so profoundly influenced by, to be able to sit on the bus or in the hotel and just talk to those guys is just unbelievable.”
Iles, now 53, shares a special bond with King, who survived his own near-death experience at a similar age in 1999 when he was struck by a van while walking near his home in Maine.
“Steve and I talked about it during our gig last fall in Miami,” he recalls. “I told him about wondering, what am I going to do with one leg? And how I realized, man, I’m the luckiest SOB in the world because I don’t dig ditches anymore; I write books, and I don’t need my leg! I know Steve wrote at least one book out of his own agony. But I’m good now. I’m walking erect. And as Steve said in The Shawshank Redemption: ‘Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’, man.’”