Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Greg Iles discusses from his Adams County house what he calls his most ambitious book to date, the first book of a trilogy set in Natchez called “Natchez Burning.”
Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Greg Iles discusses from his Adams County house what he calls his most ambitious book to date, the first book of a trilogy set in Natchez called “Natchez Burning.”

Back on the shelf: Natchez author Greg Iles pens most ambitious book to date

Published 12:01am Sunday, April 20, 2014

NATCHEZ — Greg Iles was a week away from deadline for his latest book “Natchez Burning,” when he pulled onto U.S. 61 South and was struck by a truck going 70 mph in March 2011.

After eight days in a medically induced coma, a torn aorta and countless broken bones, Iles woke up in a Jackson hospital missing part of his right leg.

“Every doctor I talked to just said, ‘It is a miracle you’re alive. When people rip their aorta … we usually open them up and watch them … die,’” Iles said.

During his stay in the hospital, Iles did little sleeping and a lot of talking to the nurses, many of whom were African-American.

“When I woke up out of my coma, I was sleeping one in 24 hours,” he said. “They were giving me some of the strongest medicine they had to make me sleep, but I just refused. I think it was a fear reaction because I had come so close to death, I was afraid that if I went to sleep, I wouldn’t wake up.

“So I would talk to these nurses all night about the book I was working on, and I would tell them about the Civil Rights angles and ask them about their experiences.”

Iles said he realized “Natchez Burning” was “my way out.”

“I realized that this was a way to come back to life,” he said. “It’s a narrative; it’s not some fluffy thriller about some made up thing. It’s about some of the most serious issues in the South, and I realized I’ve got a duty to get this right.

“From the time of the accident, I said, ‘You know what? I don’t care what happens in a publishing sense, I’m going to let this book be whatever it has to be, however long it has to be, whoever it makes mad, I just don’t care.”

Suddenly, Iles said, the book became a trilogy and a story that would be treated in a very different way.

When Iles wrote his first Penn Cage novel, “The Quiet Game,” published in 1999, he never expected the book to turn into a series.

“Seven years later, without really intending to, the characters of Penn Cage and Tom Cage, (the latter of which) is inspired by my father, those characters called back to me,” Iles said. “I saw a story that needed to be told.”

By the time Iles was in the car crash, the single novel and had grown into two because Iles said he had realized the scope of the story was so great.

“But it was still then more of a conventional Greg Iles novel,” he said.

The car crash that nearly claimed his life and the death of his father, Dr. Jerry Iles, just six months before are what made “Natchez Burning” the book it is now.

“When my dad died during that process, I realized I was going to approach it more honestly and more seriously. He was the one who taught me so much about Mississippi history,” Iles said. “He was the one who taught me not to be prejudice … so when he passed on, I felt this immense obligation to deal with this subject with brutal honesty.

“Natchez Burning,” which hits shelves April 29, is the first in a new Penn Cage trilogy. The book picks up where “The Devil’s Punchbowl” ended and finds Penn determined to save his father, “a beloved family doctor who has been accused of murdering Viola Turner, the African-American nurse with whom he worked with in the dark days of the 1960s,” according to the summary on the book’s jacket.

Penn’s quest to clear his father’s name sends him into his father’s past, where “a sexually charged secret lies waiting to tear their family apart.”

Iles said he has always wanted to take on the disillusionment children sometimes feel toward their parents in his work.

“We all go through a disillusionment with our heroes, in particular our parents,” he said. “We may go through it at 14, and we may go through it at 40, but whenever we do go through it, it’s a shattering experience.

“With that said, the sins of Tom Cage in this book are not the sins of my father, but it is about the disillusionment of a parent, and he gave me his blessing for what was in the book, even though it was very hard.”

Iles said he also wanted to explore the idea of secret interracial relationships in the South.

Just those aspects of the storyline would have been sufficient enough for a thriller, Iles said.

“But I wanted to communicate the scale of the issues that were working themselves out in the 1960s, so I needed a broader canvas,” he said.

Iles turned to the work of Concordia Sentinel editor and Pulitzer Prize finalist Stanley Nelson, who has written more than 100 stories on unsolved civil rights murders in Concordia Parish.

Nelson’s work has focus on the murders committed by the Silver Dollar Group.

“The Silver Dollar Group was an ultra-secret, ultra-violent offshoot (of the Ku Klux Klan) that was fully committed to terrorism in the way that terrorist cells are now,” Iles said.

Iles said he had previously shied away from using the KKK members as antagonists in his books only because “by the mid- to late-1960s the Klan was fully infiltrated by the FBI and had been largely neutered as a group.”

But not the Silver Dollar Group.

Iles said the more he read Nelson’s work and the better he got to know Nelson, the more he became stunned by the violence that had happened in his own backyard that he had no idea about growing up.

“Those murders across the river, I had absolutely no idea about them, and I had spent two years writing a novel about race murders,” Iles said. “I had talked to a lot of people from ex-cops that worked for the mafia to ex-klansmen to Charles Evers. No one in all that time had talked to me about those murders.”

Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris died in 1964 after four days of suffering from third-degree burns on 100 percent of his body. The injuries came after Morris’ shop was burned down in the middle of the night, with him inside.

Morris’ murder is one of the murders that inspired similar — but fictional— murders in “Natchez Burning,” Iles said.

The book is dedicated to Nelson, who Iles calls a “humble hero,” and the victims of the Civil Rights Movement violence in Mississippi and Louisiana from 1960-1969.

The Concordia Parish victims are essentially forgotten victims, Iles said, for one “heartbreaking reason.”

“They weren’t Civil Rights leaders or committed Civil Rights workers, they were mostly just regular people trying to get by who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they died because of that,” Iles said.

Readers won’t find the answers to the real-life cases in Iles’ book, though.

“If you want to find the solutions to those cases, you should go to the work of Stanley Nelson, because that’s where it is,” he said.

For all the gritty and real-life issues that Iles takes on in “Natchez Burning,” Iles said the book is still an entertaining thriller.

“I don’t want people to think because so much attention is being paid to the racial angle, that this is some heavy-lifting book about Civil Rights,” he said. “It’s not; it’s a thriller. It’s a book that you can’t stop turning the pages, and I’m crazy if I don’t say that because I don’t want people to misunderstand what it is. It’s just that it has a background that deals with those issues.”

Natchez readers have always been tempted to look at Iles’ books set in Natchez and try to figure out the real-life people on whom the characters are based. They’re almost always wrong, Iles said.

“It’s because no character is ever based on one person,” Iles said. “What you inevitably do is you blend facts about a lot of things that you know about and people you know about.”

Iles said he does not want Natchezians to feel that he is trying to put himself in a position to educate Natchez.

“There are people in this town that know far more than I do about Natchez history, about certainly the black experience in Natchez,” he said. “And let me say something about that, I wish I had more black characters in this book and more positive black characters in this book, and I’m trying to remedy that in volumes 2 and 3.”

The reason he does not have more positive black characters, Iles said, is that he wrote “The Quiet Game” as what he thought would be the only Penn Cage book.

“And then when I went on to write the series, I was stuck with the characters I had created. My sort of corrupt black (district attorney), I was stuck with him. I wish I could have somebody different, but I can’t, unless I kill him,” Iles said, laughing.

Although some reviews have said differently, the book is not an angry one, Iles said.

“It’s not an angry book,” he said. “This is a book about the way things were, not the way they should have been. I get that a lot of times… it’s like people want you to write about the way they wish the world was, not the way it is.

“That’s not really my job. Some people do that, and if I did that, I’d probably sell more books.”