Greg Iles Takes An Unflinching Look At The Real South [INTERVIEW]
March 31, 2015 Leave a comment
Natchez, Miss. survived the Civil War virtually unscathed. Gorgeous antebellum homes, lush gardens, and rich history continue to make this town one of the crown jewels of the South. But it is also a community rife with secrets, scandal and tragedy. These stories remained buried for years, until one of the city’s most prominent citizens, author Greg Iles, decided it was time to reveal them once and for all.
After writing the thriller The Quiet Game, a book Iles describes as “a valentine to the Natchez I grew up in,” something happened that woke the novelist up. While on tour in Seattle, Wash. a fan told Iles that he had driven all the way to Natchez with his family because of that book. It was then that the author realized that if he was going to write about his home town, he needed to be pretty honest about how it is today. “That set me on the path to getting a little closer to reality,” Iles says.
Following his own father’s death, Iles came to know a reporter in Ferriday, La. who was painstakingly working some unsolved civil rights murders that Iles had never even heard of. “I had always avoided dealing with the Ku Klux Klan, and he was investigating the most violent offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan ever to exist,” Iles says. This splinter group, known as the Silver Dollar Group, became completely secret and acted very much like a terrorist cell. Most of them were war veterans who killed lots of people and started a lot of fires and yet not one of them was ever arrested for 40 years.
It was then that Iles realized this story offered him the way to deal with some of the South’s worst baggage as well as with the topic of race in America. He would focus on the family members of this offshoot cell who still happen to be involved in criminal activity. But how would he make this novel attractive to today’s readers?
“The only way I’m going to get people to go through the horror of the Sixties is by having an irresistible family story,” Iles realized. That’s when he decided to bring back Penn Cage, the protagonist from The Quiet Game, because he’d always had a special relationship with his father Tom, an Atticus Finch type figure. All the threads came together and put him on the road to Natchez Burning, his latest novel and the first in a trilogy.
That isn’t to say that this new work came together easily. Iles had been trying to make the book fit the traditional boundaries of a commercial novel, but the story gave him trouble, not to mention the friction it caused with his publisher. It was also at this time that Iles suffered a brutal car accident that put the author in a coma, claimed his leg, tore his aorta, and broke more than 20 of his bones. He woke up eight days later.
“At that point, the whole world looked different,” Iles says. That’s when he thought, ‘If I’m going to deal with race and America in the South and family, I’m not going to pull a single punch.’ He suddenly didn’t care if the new book sold a single copy or whether or not his publisher or agent would even like it. He certainly never thought it would sell to Hollywood. “Ironically, it became the biggest thing I ever did,” Iles says.
Outside the book, Iles is also trying to tell the story of the real Southern experience. The Natchez Pilgrimage is an 83-year-old tradition that Iles says for many years was an unabashed celebration of the antebellum South. When his daughter was asked to be queen of the event this year, she was initially going to refuse the offer unless they told the whole story of the city.
So Iles took the production over, threw out half of it and brought in very brave, African-American cast members. “We’re telling the story of slavery and everything else right there on the floor,” the author says. The new production incorporates period music as well as more recent selections like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Iles believes it is because of his celebrity status that he has been able to raise this kind of awareness, yet that doesn’t mean that everyone is happy with his decisions.
“Deep in the comments section of the newspapers where people can anonymously post things, you get a feeling that… there are some people who are very, very unhappy with things that I’ve done,” Iles admits. But he says he’ll start listening to those naysayers when they start identifying themselves by name.
For my full interview with Greg Iles, enjoy the clip below.