Fans of best-selling thriller writer Greg Iles may be surprised to find him crossing over into Stephen King country with his latest psychodrama, a spooky supernatural tale called Sleep No More.
As it happens, the Natchez, Mississippi-based Iles has been hanging out with the master of horror lately. Several months ago, longtime friend and fellow thriller writer Ridley Pearson invited Iles to join the Rock Bottom Remainders, the infamous all-author classic rock band headed by King, Pearson, Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Roy Blount Jr. and a revolving cast of characters.
It was a natural choice. Like Pearson, Iles used to make his living as a rock musician (he was guitarist and vocalist for the band Frankly Scarlet) before switching to fiction writing. But he'll never forget the thrill of meeting the rest of the Remainders for the first time.
"I mean, here I was, the night before the gig, sitting in Amy Tan's loft having a conversation with Scott Turow," he says by phone from Natchez. "People frequently ask what it's like to have made it and I looked around that loft, at Scott and the other people in the band, and I thought, I'm happy, man. This is what it's about. They just took me in like a family. They're the nicest people in the world." While he and King have since become friends, Iles says he followed his own muse into the supernatural.
"This book is about something almost everyone has experienced: a passionate love affair that haunts you for the rest of your life."
"Actually, the plot of Sleep No More has been with me for a long time. Now, the willingness to actually use the supernatural in the way that I did, I wasn't always sure I would go that far. But I don't think I picked that up from Steve; I think I just did what I've always done and I was willing to go a little farther. I just did it the way I had to do it and I think the readers will go with me." That's entirely possible. In seven novels during the past decade, Iles has been something of a free-range maverick, pursuing historical thrillers (Spandau Phoenix, Black Cross) and serial killers (Mortal Fear, Dead Sleep) with equal aplomb.
"I would say that almost every book I've ever done has been a departure for me," he admits. "The formula today is basically to rewrite your last book. I just follow my nose; I write about what interests me each year. I don't put a governor on my imagination, you know what I mean? When something comes to me, I just follow it and do it."
Sleep No More centers on John Waters, a successful petroleum geologist and family man who spends his life drilling holes in and around Natchez, hoping to tap enough crude oil to reward his investors. He's a man obsessed with what lies beneath the surface of things, whether it's a Mississippi river bed or the subtleties of small-town society.
One day while coaching his daughter's soccer game, he notices a beautiful woman watching him from the sidelines. Her seductive stare seems hauntingly familiar; years ago, he escaped an obsessive love affair, only to learn later that his former lover had been killed under mysterious circumstances in New Orleans.
Or had she? As he pursues the mysterious Eve Sumner, she leads him into dark places of the heart that defy his scientific method.
"If I'm anything, I think I'm a psychological novelist," says Iles. "This book is really about something almost everyone has experienced at some point and that is a passionate love affair in the past that haunts you for the rest of your life. So rather than just explore it on the literal level, the use of a supernatural device allows me to really delve into the intensity of those feelings." Iles sets Sleep No More in Natchez, where he grew up as the dutiful son of a physician.
"I was in the National Honor Society, captain of the football team and all that," he recalls. "I was always a very intense kid, very serious and searching, but I also went through the motions of being a normal kid." Natchez serves as the perfect setting for his modern-day Southern Gothic.
"As far as the supernatural, I think the South always has that legacy of appearance being very different from the underlying reality; I think there's a sense in the South that there's so much hidden, so much is repressed, that anything is possible," he says. "And there's also a sense in the rest of the country that we're still a little backward; that communication is not as good, there's not as much civilization, there's not as much law holding human impulses in check. I think a lot of that contributes to a vibe and the feeling that anything is possible."
Iles admits his unique creative process leaves little room for a series or sequels.
"When I deal with characters, I like to completely explore that character down to the bottom of his life, and once you've done that, it's hard to go back," he says. "I think it's like Murder, She Wrote; I mean, how many murders can happen in one small town, much less in one character's life?" The author's free-range philosophy recently extended into screenwriting; his script of his 2000 thriller 24 Hours—the Sony film version has been retitled Trapped—is scheduled to hit theaters in September.
Meanwhile, he's hard at work crafting his eighth thriller and the first under his new three-book contract with Scribner. Although he still keeps rock-musician hours, writing all night and sleeping all day, Iles is willing to concede that this writing thing just may work out after all.
"I feel like that now," he chuckles. "It's when you first sit down to write that first book that you don't feel that conviction."
Jay Lee MacDonald is a professional writer based in Naples, Florida.