Greg Iles’ “Natchez Burning”

Natchez Burning is just the start of a Mississippi town’s “secret history.”

Things weren’t only going good for Greg Iles back in early 2011. They were going great. He’d been the author of more than a dozen novels. Those novels — thrillers his specialty — had been translated into more than two dozen languages. And one of them, 24 Hours, had been the basis of a film (retitled Trapped) starring Charlize Theron and Kevin Bacon.

In 2009, The Devil’s Punchbowl — the third of Iles’ novels to feature Penn Cage (successful prosecutor, turned best-selling novelist, turned mayor of Natchez, Mississippi) — reached #1 on The New York Times best-seller list. The author was at the top of his game and ready to embark on another Penn Cage book, a project, he soon realized, big enough for two books. He was finishing the first of them when, on the evening of March 7, 2011, and just south of Natchez, a truck on Highway 61 slammed into the car Iles was driving. He was airlifted to a hospital in Jackson and spent eight days in a medically induced coma. When he woke up from the coma, he was missing part of his right leg.

That accident nearly cost Iles his life. It did not put a stop to his writing life. Now the first novel in what is to be a trilogy of intricately interwoven novels is here: Natchez Burning (William Morrow). And what a novel it is — close to 800 compulsively readable pages that take readers from some very dark crimes in the Deep South of the 1960s to more recent times and just as deadly activities.

Penn Cage, who is white, is at the center of this sprawling story. His physician father, Tom, has been charged by the town’s district attorney with the assisted suicide (or was it murder?) of Viola Turner, Tom’s former nurse, who, due to illness, has returned to Natchez from Chicago to die. Decades earlier, Viola, who is black, had been raped on more than one occasion by members of an especially sinister splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan operating with impunity in and around Natchez and across the Mississippi River in Concordia Parish. Reporter Henry Sexton of the Concordia Beacon in Ferriday, Louisiana, has been working for years to bring the murderous activities of that splinter group to full light and surviving members of the group to justice. But Penn Cage, who’s drawn into Sexton’s efforts, has more to discover when facts that he’d taken to be truths about his father turn out to be not exactly truths once certain facts emerge. Natchez Burning isn’t only a thriller, then. And it doesn’t only track the horrendous racial violence and broader social issues of the civil-rights era. At its core and at the family level, it asks: What was right and what was wrong to do decades ago? Update those same questions (Penn and Tom Cage are forced to) to read: What is right and what is wrong to do today?

“Once I’d been that close to dying, I thought, This is not just some thriller I’m writing. This is about the South, about race, about family,” Iles said from Natchez, his hometown, and of Natchez Burning. “My father died just a few months before my accident, and I said to myself: I’m going to write this book the way it needs to be written. I’m not going to pull a single punch. I’m going to let the chips fall where they may. That’s the first time I’ve ever said that to myself.”

By the time of the car accident, Iles was days away from turning his manuscript for Natchez Burning over to his publisher. The entire project, however, had already taken on extraordinary dimensions. Because of the complexity of the plot and number of characters, one book had become two (the follow-up to Natchez Burning is scheduled for 2015), then two had grown to three (the third volume in 2016) — the length, Iles said, of eight conventional thrillers. Seldom, though, do thrillers come with such (as Iles called it) “granularity”: the tiniest details to round out a comprehensive portrait of the violent times. No less the case in Natchez Burning: multiple plot lines advancing, intersecting, retreating, then re-advancing chapters later with no loss of clarity for the reader. It is, all told, a gigantic example of authorial control. Surely writing at this scale required extensive note taking. But it did not. According to Iles:

“This is what people don’t understand about writing: Command of the language is not the secret. That’s just your hammer and nails. The difficult thing, the ‘magic’ trick, and particularly when you’re writing a book like this: You have to reach a mental state in which everything, from the smallest thing, has to be held in your head simultaneously in order to manipulate the cast of characters.

“That was the state I was in when I had my accident. When your mind is that full of an alternative universe, there’s no room for anything else. You don’t know what day it is, what time it is, where you are. No, I’m not one of those writers who has 500 note cards taped to the wall.”

What Iles did have was a copy editor — a “genius obsessive” — who combed every word of Natchez Burning for inaccuracies, contradictions, and inconsistencies.

Iles also had reporter Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel in Louisiana to serve as sounding board and inspiration. Nelson has spent years investigating the area’s unsolved murder of African Americans during the 1960s, crimes that to this day have gone too often unpunished. Iles, who grew up in Natchez, called that period “this secret history.”

It’s a history he too remembers partially but vividly, and it includes the largest Ku Klux Klan rally in U.S. history. Iles, with his father, was there. It took place less than a mile from his house. It was a scene that looked to the boy like “crazed hysteria.” But decades later, Iles believes that the murder of blacks by whites is not all that’s tragic about the South of his boyhood and long before that.

“The tragic thing is the silence of the good people who knew better,” Iles said, inspired by statements made by Martin Luther King Jr.

“That’s the category my own dad and Tom Cage belonged in. They knew it was wrong. They wanted to do more, but out of fear for their own safety and that of their families, among other reasons, they weren’t going to risk it to help others. That gets at the core of being human, of being Christian. When I say that, though, it sounds like ‘heavy-lifting.’ I don’t want readers to think that Natchez Burning is some preachy book. It’s not. It’s a thriller and a page-turner. And at the end of the day, I’m a thriller writer. But I’m here maybe to teach along the way.”

But along the way and despite his success, Iles — who studied under Willie Morris at Ole Miss in the early ’80s but who didn’t graduate with an interest in becoming a writer at all (playing in a band during his 20s was Iles’ career of choice) — has stayed his ground: Natchez. The folks in Natchez have kept him grounded too.

Oldest town on the Mississippi, Natchez is an educated city, Iles said. In 1840, it was home to more millionaires than any city in the country. It has a tradition of literary open-mindedness. The attitude to Iles’ work among the town’s citizens: very tolerant. Even he’ll admit, however, that guessing the real-life counterparts to his fictional characters has become “practically a blood sport down here.” And yet, he said, he’s never been “that guy who believes his own press.”

Maybe he should start believing. Natchez Burning has received plenty of advance praise from other writers (Ken Follett, Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, and Scott Turow), and it’s earned starred reviews in the important trade publications. Is Greg Iles humbled by it all? Perhaps. Appreciative? For sure. But he’s downright uncomfortable to see his name and William Faulkner's in the same sentence. On one point, however, Iles has no problem taking a lesson from Faulkner to heart, and Iles acknowledges his own great gift: listening.

“I think people sense I care about their stories,” he said of those who seem almost to feel compelled to tell him things — and that includes the nurses who talked to Iles throughout the night during his recovery from that car accident.

“Life — you can’t be an elitist,” Iles added. “Like Faulkner said, ‘Good art can come from thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes.’

“You’ve got to keep your ears open, your eyes open. That’s what a writer does.”

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