Interview with Greg Iles
TSM: First of all, I am so happy that we will see your name appearing on the bestseller lists again. Many of us were very concerned after your car accident. How are you doing?GI: I’m doing very well now. My injuries were extensive, the most serious being a torn aorta and the loss of my right lower leg. My friend and band mate Stephen King and I now share more experiences than we’d like, but for writers, everything is raw material for our work—so there’s that consolation. On a more positive note, last week I got engaged, and I’ll be getting married in October of this year. Six hours after my accident, not one of my doctors would have predicted I’d be alive for that.TSM: Tell us about your most recent novel, Natchez Burning?GI: Natchez Burning is probably my magnum opus, if I can say that without being pretentious. It’s an ambitious novel about race, family, and murder in the American South. One film agent called it the “Southern Godfather,”but perhaps the director of the Southern Independent Booksellers Association said it best. She said, “Imagine Jem Finch grew up to learn things about Atticus that no boy should ever know about his father.” That’s the territory of Natchez Burning.
TSM: You love music. Do you find that writing and music have similarities; does one feed off the other during the creative process?
GI: They don’t necessarily feed off each other, but each informs the other in an instinctive way. Like music, writing (and storytelling) is a rhythmic process. Words have their own rhythm, even without musical accompaniment, and good writers instinctively sense this. Often I will refuse to make a copy editor’s suggested change based solely on rhythmic considerations. The proper rhythm of words is far more important than facts or even the grammatical rules we all learned in grade school. Music informs writing in countless other ways, but that’s another discussion!
TSM: Your dad worked for the U.S. embassy in Germany. What are some of your earliest memories of your time there?
GI: I have only a few direct memories, as I was so young. However, my parents’ experiences there—particularly their feelings about the Nazi period and the Cold War years—deeply affected me as a child. I was far more aware than my peers of twentieth-century European history, and the unparalleled drama and tragedy of those eras imprinted itself upon me. I have no doubt that this led directly to my first two novels arising out of real-life mysteries from World War Two.
TSM: What do you think is the secret to capturing an audience when you write?
GI: Capturing an audience is easy if you’re a natural storyteller. The thing is to give them more than escape, and preferably without them knowing it. Works like Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels are as addictive as any drug, but they teach and give countless insights into human nature as they entertain. I aspire to that goal, on my good days.
TSM: Do you start off with an outline?
GI: In a way. I begin with whatever sparked the story. It might be something from real life, or an imagined moment, or an interest in a particular historical event. But then I muster the characters in my mind, and each represents a sort of Jungian set of potentialities. In that way, no matter what my intention, in my subconscious they may act according to their own self-interest, which causes collisions with the motives and desires of other characters—hence, the drama. That keeps the creative process alive throughout the novel, even a very long one.
TSM: Who are some of the authors who inspired you to write?
GI: Alexandre Dumas, J.R.R. Tolkien, the team of writers who wrote The Hardy Boys mysteries under the nom de plume Franklin W. Dixon. Later on, John LeCarre, Hans Hellmut Kirst, Frederick Forsyth, Harper Lee, and countless others.
TSM: What books are currently on your nightstand now?
GI: Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series. I’m rereading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. Malcolm Gladwell. Tracy Thompson’s The New Mind of the South, a wonderful update to the classic by W.J. Cash.
TSM: How do you get inspired to come up with plots? You strike me as a person who is far more interested in seeing a small scene from real life than turning it into something rather grand.
GI: No, plot is my thing. It’s true that some of my novels have grown out of very small moments, or indelible images. But there’s absolutely nothing like the first 36 hours after being struck with a new story idea. It’s like mainlining the energy that drives the universe, like Balboa standing on the peak in Darien, viewing the Pacific for the first time. After that initial euphoria passes, the rest is mostly labor. But that first rush… there’s nothing like it in the world.
TSM: What did you think of the film version of 24 Hours?
GI: I have mixed feelings about that. The film was made under great pressure, prior to a strike, and the original cinematographer—the wonderful, award-winning Piotr Sobocinski—died one week into shooting. Piotr was the director’s creative partner, and his death had a huge impact on the film. Finally, while I wrote the original script, it was cut down and changed by another writer, and I was brought in—unsuspectingly—one day before shooting to try to “fix” problems in this new version. All that aside, I loved working with the actors, and I learned a great deal about filmmaking: what not to do as much as what to do.
TSM: Tell us about The Lost Century. You haven’t done anything like that before?
GI: I’ve set The Lost Century aside temporarily to work on a “middle grade” series called The League of Invisible Orphans. The first volume takes place in Victorian London and involves the Baker Street Irregulars. It’s fantastic fun, and I think it’s going to be huge.
TSM: You can live anywhere in the States or the world; why do you choose Mississippi? Tell us about Natchez.
GI: Natchez is a small but unique city. It’s completely unlike the rest of Mississippi, almost like a nineteenth-century city preserved in amber. It’s changed a lot since I grew up, but like an aging beauty, Natchez still casts its spell on new visitors. Many friends who grew up here would love to come back and raise their children, if only they could make a good living. I’m lucky in that respect.
TSM: Sleep No More delves into the supernatural. What would you say inspired that novel—would you describe yourself as spiritual?
GI: In that novel, I sought to deal with pathological jealousy—sexual jealousy—which I had experienced from the victim’s end early in my life. The destructive passions released in those sorts of situations are difficult to make people understand in simply realistic terms. They cry out for a semi-supernatural treatment to convey the levels of fear and fury that are released. People kill and commit suicide under the influence of these passions, especially when the desire to fully possess another is thwarted. That’s a basis for true horror, even in the modern technological world, because all rationality is suspended
As for my being spiritual, I would say that I’m a rationalist, profoundly fascinated by and devoted to science. Yet I believe we have what I would call a sacred purpose: humanity represents the universe becoming conscious of itself. We have a duty not to destroy ourselves—the spark of consciousness—and one way to ensure that we preserve ourselves is to spread into the stars
TSM: Were there any events that you drew upon for The Quiet Game?
GI: Yes, The Quiet Game was loosely based upon the murder of a black Korean War veteran and tire factory worker named Wharlest Jackson, which occurred in Natchez when I was a child. I used that murder as a jumping-off point for my own literary journey, but I have since come to know who murdered Jackson. The truth is far more mundane, and more tragic, than my story in The Quiet Game. In many ways, Natchez Burning is the true successor novel to The Quiet Game, and fans of that novel will love this one.
TSM: Besides writing, what are some of the things you enjoy in your free time?
GI: I still play guitar when I can, and my 17-year-old son now does as well. He’s getting very good. I’m setting up a new recording studio, but I never seem to have enough time to put down my own music, which friends have asked me to do for years. My son and I are also working on a documentary about unsolved civil rights murders from the 1960s in this area, and a heroic reporter named Stanley Nelson who has been working alone to solve them.
TSM: Tough question: you have mixed and matched genres and have never written the same book twice; how have you managed to be so successful when authors seem to treat their series characters as trusted brands whom they can’t let go?
GI: Had I chosen the other road, I would surely be much wealthier and more of a household name. But thankfully, I’ve managed to do what Michael Crichton and only a few others have managed—to write about what most interests them and pull the audience along with us. It’s always a risk because people may hear about me from a friend, order one of my books, and be disappointed by something I did that was “outside the box.” Had they chosen another book, they would have gotten a very different experience and one they might have loved. But that’s the price of this road, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’m never bored.
TSM: What advice you do you have for aspiring authors?
GI: Realize that command of the language is nothing but a hammer and a box of nails. Story, story, story is the thing! If you want to show the world how smart you are, or how well you can turn a single phrase, or construct a perfect sentence, you’re choosing a very small audience. Don’t pander, of course, and don’t follow formula. But I believe you have a duty to your characters to give them full rein and a rich existence, and that means creating a fully fleshed-out world in which they can struggle and triumph or struggle and fail, as we all do sometimes. Plot is not a dirty word. Dickens and Faulkner knew that, and that’s good enough for me.
TSM: Are you currently working on another book and if so, what’s it about?
GI: I’m currently finishing the Natchez Burning trilogy and outlining one more Penn Cage novel. But I’m also working on a film adaptation of an Oscar Wilde work, my middle-grade novel entitled The League of Invisible Orphans, and a mainstream post-apocalyptic novel called The Select. All of them are great fun and a breath of fresh air.
TSM: After that scare from the accident, what would you say is the greatest thing you’ve learned from it all?
GI: I learned many things from nearly dying. First, it’s a lot easier to give up and die than we think. We live in terror of death, but it’s always right around the next corner, and you can pass through that wall as easily as passing through a silk curtain. Second, no matter how bad you have it, someone else has it worse. Third, as Mississippian Morgan Freeman said in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,“Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”
(photo by Caroline Hungerford)