NATCHEZ — Tearing open the wounds of the past is an uncertain business. When that past involves smoldering racial tension and injustice, it can be incendiary.
Author Greg Iles has learned, however, that dealing with the past can also cauterize what would otherwise fester. When “Natchez Burning,” the first book in a trilogy dealing bluntly with the complexities of race in Mississippi, began bringing black and white folks together, he felt relief.
“Until it came out, nobody had any idea what would happen,” he said. “But John Evans from Lemuria [Books in Jackson, Miss.] told me, four months after it came out, ‘You’ve done something that nobody else I’ve seen come through here has done yet. You’ve got white people and black people reading about race.’”
When Iles asked him why, Evans told him, “Because you’re willing to portray it as bad as it really was.”
And, added Iles, “It was bad.”
The Natchez-based author’s quest to tell “the unvarnished truth” about the civil rights era over three books totaling more than 2,000 pages was a gamble that cost him his publisher. But after narrowly escaping death in a car accident on U.S. 61 south of Natchez in 2011, Iles’ concerns changed.
“When a truck literally slams an inch from your head and rips your aorta, you suddenly perceive that life
is truly ephemeral in a way that you don’t before,” he said.
As Iles clung to life with the torn aorta, his ribcage a shattered mess and his pelvis broken in four places, doctors placed the odds firmly against him surviving. Yet, he woke up two weeks later to a realization of “the transitory nature of life,” and began the slow climb back to health even as he lost much of his right leg.
His outlook wasn’t the only thing to change. The Natchez story grew to three books, culminating in the final installment, “Mississippi Blood,” which topped both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists this spring. The story brings the trilogy he started in 2014 with “Natchez Burning” and continued with “The Bone Tree” to its denouement.
“After the accident, I realized I can’t halfway do this,” he said. “You can’t deal with race and family and those things pulling punches.”
Iles never cared much for taking the safe path, anyhow. In a literary world that segments “serious” writers from commercial authors, Iles found his own way by hacking away the kudzu from the old idols of the South and weaving those galvanizing topics into more than a dozen bestselling thrillers.
Growing up in Natchez, Iles had a natural talent for writing but didn’t spend much time mastering the craft. His interests leaned more toward playing music, which he did professionally for about a decade after college. Before he graduated from Ole Miss, though, he took a class under Willie Morris that broadened his perspective on writing.
What Morris did for Iles — and other young writers such as John Grisham and Donna Tartt — was show him that it was possible to make a living, and a life, from writing. He brought authors such as John Knowles to speak to the class. Iles listened to author James Dickey talk about Deliverance before a class screening of the film at the Hoka theater. Those experiences altered the course of his life.
“You grow up in Mississippi in my generation, you’re expected to be a doctor or lawyer if you’re gonna succeed,” he said. “It doesn’t enter your mind to be an artist. The artists in Mississippi were rebels.”
Iles’ writing style developed directly from his love of music and his innate sense of timing and grooves. Early in his writing career, when editors would suggest rewordings and other edits, Iles would balk if they threw off the rhythm.
“Music is inherently rhythmic, melodic,” he explained. “When you’re a musician, you understand (how) every note is transitory. It exists for a while, it goes away — everything exists in relation. Writing is the same way. It happens to be static on a page, but people experience it one word at a time, the same way we listen to a song.”
Iles had two paragraphs written for his debut novel, Spandau Phoenix, when his band Frankly Scarlet disbanded. He committed the next year to finishing the book, and hit pay dirt when it came out in 1993. His popular character Penn Cage first appeared in The Quiet Game in 1999 and, although Iles never intended to build a franchise around a recurring character, the pull of storylines brought Penn back for three more successful thrillers before Iles conceived of the Natchez trilogy.
Mississippi Blood finds protagonist Penn unraveling the crimes of the racist Double Eagles and VK gangs while his father, Tom Cage, sits on trial for allegedly murdering Viola Turner, his former black nurse and mistress. Like Penn, Iles grew up the son of a doctor who provided services to the black community. Although Tom is loosely based on his own father, he asserts that “(Tom’s) sins are not my father’s sins.”
There’s little more common ground between Penn and Iles, either, beyond a few garnishes — Penn drives a sporty black Audi, which Iles drove until the day of his near-fatal wreck, and lives at Edelweiss, Iles’s 19th century Swiss chalet overlooking the Mississippi River. Penn is too much like a “Boy Scout,” unlike himself, Iles said.
Like Iles after the accident, Penn takes more chances in Mississippi Blood, now that his life has been upended by his father’s murder trial. He pulls a gun on members of the VK gang and gets his hands dirty eluding both the gang and the FBI agents who are protecting him to secure witnesses he believes can help his father. Before it’s over, though, Tom has to deal with all that he’s wrought.
“Even a good guy like Tom sees things through a sort of rose-colored lens without even being aware of it,” Iles said. “We all tend to judge ourselves in the fairest light, all the time. And that’s not how history will judge us.”
Iles doesn’t carry the weight of his characters and stories on his shoulders, at least not visibly. He is a lively, animated speaker with a passion for music and arts and strident moral and political beliefs. As a man who bears the scars of life so plainly, he seems somehow unaffected by its burdens.
He had his first big stirring of hope for race relations in his home state while helping coach his son’s little league game, where teams of white and black kids played together on fields that were still segregated when he was a kid playing Dixie Youth baseball. On his son’s team, there was no favoritism or prejudice in who played what — it was a meritocracy based entirely on talent.
“I’m not saying that’s the be-all and end-all and everything’s solved, but I knew if you’ve got black kids and white kids on those old segregated fields playing baseball, whooping it up, you’re on the road to something good,” he said. “If you can have that, you can have it all.”
Some other things have changed, as well, especially since Iles has taken on the ghosts of the Old South in his books. He’s had a stalker scare. He doesn’t spend as much time at Edelweiss, opting instead for his 40-acre tract outside Natchez. When he gave the Statehood Address at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson in 2016, he brought a security detail for the first time ever — he anticipated threats after speaking out against the state flag of Mississippi.
“[There’s a] dichotomy in Mississippi to me. On a one-to-one scale, relations are often very, very good between the races, even in places you assume are very prejudiced. It’s when you get together in groups or start talking to people as groups that Mississippi suddenly becomes polarized.
“I love the South,” he added, “But it doesn’t do anybody good to pretend it was a bed of roses. It clearly wasn’t.”