Greg Iles’ ‘unvarnished truth’ about racial tension culminates in ‘Mississippi Blood’

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Photo by Melanie Thortis / © The 'Sip

Greg Iles overlooks the Mississippi River in his hometown of Natchez.

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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 also can cauterize what would otherwise fester. When Natchez Burning, the first book in a trilogy that deals 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) 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, “It was bad,” Iles added.

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 in 2011, when a pickup truck plowed into his Audi on U.S. 61 south of Natchez, Iles no longer cared about his book numbers or what his publisher or agent thought about his work.

“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.

“After the accident, I realized I can’t halfway do this. You can’t deal with race and family and those things pulling punches.”

On Tuesday, the Natchez trilogy he began with Natchez Burning in 2014 and continued with The Bone Tree reaches its denouement in the final installment, Mississippi Blood.

Despite the trials he has endured, Iles never cared for the safe path. In a literary scene that segments “serious” writers from commercial authors, Iles found his way by hacking away the kudzu from the old idols of the South and spinning those galvanizing topics into thrillers that have taken him to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

After spending his first several years in Germany, Iles moved with his parents to Natchez, where he worked summers laying pipe and loading trucks on mostly black crews. His interests leaned 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.

Photo by Melanie Thortis / © The 'Sip

Author Greg Iles in Natchez, the setting for his latest book, Mississippi Blood

 

What Morris did for Iles — and other young writers like Donna Tartt and John Grisham  — 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 several lives, and they always stuck with him.

“You grow up in Mississippi in my generation, you’re expected to be a doctor or lawyer if you’re gonna succeed,” said Iles, who will turn 57 next month. “It doesn’t enter your mind to be an artist.”

Photo by Melanie Thortis / © The 'SIp

A photo of Iles, left, with Rock Bottom Remainders bandmate Roger McGuinn, best known for his work with The Byrds.

Iles had two paragraphs written for his first novel, Spandau Phoenix, when his band Frankly Scarlet disbanded. He committed the next six months to finishing the book and, when it came out in 1993, Spandau Phoenix became his first in a string of books to land on major best-sellers lists. 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 story lines brought Penn back for three more 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 black nurse and mistress. Like Penn, Iles grew up the son of a doctor who provided services to the black community. He is quick to assert that although Tom is loosely based on his own father, “[Tom’s] sins are not my father’s sins.”

Like Iles after his 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 be believes can help his father. Before it’s over, though, Tom has to deal with all that he has 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 with strident moral and political beliefs. As a man who bears the scars of life so deeply, he seems somehow unaffected by its burdens.

Iles remembers getting 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. But 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.”

Photo by Melanie Thortis / © The 'Sip

Author Greg Iles

Some other things have changed, as well, especially since Iles has taken on the ghosts of the old South in his books. 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 because he anticipated threats after speaking out against the state flag of Mississippi.

“[There’s a] dichotomy in Mississippi to me,” he said. “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.”

  • bash0001

    Leeches all of them. It seems the only way to make a buck off of featuring Mississippi is to emphasize Mississippi in the worst light possible. This Trilogy and movies like A Time to Kill, Mississippi Burning, The Help, all have made money by unashamedly casting Mississippi and Mississippians as uneducated, inbred, hick, depraved, dastardly and racist. Leeches all of them. Mississippians are not proud of the past but they DO OWN up to it. It makes one think “Was there EVER anything good about Mississippi?” For the record, it does no good in Mississippi to initiate a dialog about race in Mississippi when one side wants only to dominate the conversation and refuses to listen to the other side with an open mind, so the conversation remains one sided or it ends. Race in Mississippi is an exercise in frustration. That is why Mississippians will not talk about race. I would be willing to bet that if you dug down deep enough you could find evil, vile things even about our beloved Eudora Welty. Did she have a house keeper or maid at anytime in her life? Did blacks ever talk bad about that white boy, Elvis, who was trying to play their music? There are many things good about Mississippi and Mississippians, but they don’t sell books or cinema tickets. We had maids and house keepers and cooks when I was a child too and when Mom got on my rear end, our maid Sally’s lap was as good as Grandma’s to climb in and sulk and still get lovin’. That was good and Sally and her kids were as much a part of our family as any aunt or cousins. Mine was not the only family that felt that way either in Mississippi. But woe be it you can’t let the rest of the U.S. know such things or no one will ever come make a film in Mississippi. Just stop it. Stop leeching off of Mississippi’s past and start looking for what is good about Mississippi.

    • Robert Hegwood

      Amen

    • Twinkie Eater

      It’s not really good if only a certain selection can enjoy it. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away.

      • bash0001

        Racism IS a problem and it is not going to go away as long as one side uses it to consistently cast shade on the other side. If you dominate the dialog about racism then you are not discussing it, you are then merely using it as a platform to complain. There HAS to be two voices and two sets of ears if there is to be a conversation. If there are not two voices, it is no conversation it is a speech.

      • Ken Campbell

        I’m sick of the Mississippi bashing and that of the South as well. I’m 60 years old and I lived in Michigan my first 13 years. There were neighborhoods in Muskegon MI. in the 1960’s that a white person wouldn’t go in at night. I remember the race riots in Detroit. Heck, study history. Months into the Civil War New York had riots when white men were told they were being drafted to free black slaves in the South. Blacks were killed in the streets and hung from street lamps. Some of the largest groups of the modern day KKK are in the North. I’ve lived in the South 47 years. My parents and ancestors are all from the South and I have never seen more racial tension here in the South than I have in the last 8 years. Mississippi has been bashed ever since Reconstruction. It’s the righteous Northern thing to do. And it sells books.