Author Greg Iles’ roots are in the Mississippi mud

Mississippi author Greg Iles has written numerous best-sellers and even had one of his novels made into a film.
Yet, Iles quickly admits he’s yet to write that “one great book.” And he is perfectly fine with that.

“Cemetery Road” latest for writer whose had 15 books appear on NY Times’ best-sellers list.

(This article first appeared in the March 6, 2019, issue of The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register newspaper.)

By Michael Banks

Greg Iles has had 15 books appear on the New York Times best-sellers list, including one that reached number one. The Mississippi-raised author has had one of his novels made into a film and his work’s been published in more than 35 countries.

Yet, he readily admits, he’s still to write that “one great book.”

And Iles is perfectly fine with that.

 “I’ve tried to walk the line between entertaining people and really saying some things that really help people. Maybe the day will come where I write that one. Maybe not. But as long as you can sleep at night, it’s good enough,” said the 58-year-old. “I’m alright where I’m at right now.”

And where Liles is at right now is on the cusp of another appearance on the best-sellers list as his newest novel — “Cemetery Road” – was released March 5, 2019. Liles was in Clarksdale, Ms., on Friday, March 8, 2019, for an appearance and book signing at the Cutrer Mansion as part of the Carnegie Public Library’s Community Book Talks lecture series.

Iles attributes his success to the ability to “mine your own experiences and touch people.”

And that’s something he’s been doing since his first novel, “Spandau Phoenix,” was released in 1993.

Yet, the path to success has been filled with long hours spent away from family and a tragedy that nearly took his life.

In 2011, Iles was seriously injured in a car wreck on Highway 61 near Natchez, MS. He sustained life-threatening injuries, including a ruptured aorta. He was put into an induced coma for eight days, and lost his right leg below the knee.

 It was during his three-year recovery when he wrote the Penn Cage trilogy — “Natchez Burning,” “The Bone Tree” and “Mississippi Blood.” The series follows the life of a fictional Mississippi prosecutor turned author.

He said while everyone is on “pins and needles” wondering where “Cemetery Road” is going to debut on the New York Times best-seller list, he’s fine with his station in life.

“On one hand, do I care? Yes, I do, as it certainly affects my future career. On the other hand? No, man, nothing. None of that matters.

“What matters? Are you still vertical, are you healthy, are your kids OK? And nothing else, nothing else, matters,” he said. “You got to get a little bit old to figure that out. Sadly.”

Author Greg Iles. (Photograph by Michael Banks)

One of the hardest things in writing “Cemetery Road,” according to Iles, was having to write about a character who had a terrible relationship with his dad. That wasn’t the case with Iles and his father, Jerry, who was a well-respected physician for nearly 50 years in Natchez, where Iles grew up.

“My dad was Tom Cage. I didn’t have to make anything up,” he said of the character from his books who is Penn’s father and a revered physician in Natchez.

“Cemetery Road” has been described as an electrifying tale of friendship, betrayal and shattering secrets that threaten to destroy a small Mississippi town.

A review by the Washington Post said the book is “an ambitious stand-alone thriller that is both an absorbing crime story and an in-depth exploration of grief, betrayal and corruption. Iles’ latest calls to mind the late, great Southern novelist Pat Conroy. Like Conroy, Iles writes with passion, intensity and absolute commitment.”

Iles believes the second book he wrote, “Black Cross,” which was set in World War II, was the best book he’s written.

“I wrote that book in three frantic months… I’m really proud of that one,” said Iles, who was born in 1960 in Germany as his father ran the U.S. Embassy Medical Clinic at the height of the Cold War.

The book, which is his only work to not reach the New York Times best- seller list, did provide the author some personal satisfaction.

“My father called me and said his partner from Washington, D.C., had called him and said, ‘There’s a bookstore in the United States where they sell you and they don’t sell John Grisham,’” Liles told the large group, which burst out in laughter.

It was at the museum book store at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington.

“That was a really high bar for me to make, in terms of research and writing and things like that,” Liles said. “Those are those small moments you get that you never forget. So, that book is special to me.”

The two books he wrote from a female perspective – “Blood Memory” and “Dead Sleep” – are also among his favorites.

But with all his books, Liles said, “I just don’t write those books. I live those books, every one of them.”

The act of researching and writing a book is “an intense experience,” he said. But once he’s written and completed the book, he’s on to the next one.

“I’ll go as long as I can without writing a single word,” Iles said of his writing process. “For me, the writing is the easy part. It’s the drudgery, the slavery. It’s just something I could always do. It’s the story, the working out the emotion, the psychology and the facts and the research is something else.

“When I start, it’s just bursting to get out. I say, ‘It’s like a pregnant woman when her water breaks.’ This story’s coming,” he said to a roomful of laughs.

At that point, Iles races to his recliner and starts the process, working about 12 hours a day. That moves up to about 16 hours per day and, near the end, he’ll stay up 24 hours, 30 hours until he’s finished.

“I don’t sit there on page one and agonize. I’m going on instinct the whole time,” he said. “I’m living the story with characters. I’m not someone who cries easily, but I’ve found that I’m sitting in the chair and my face is covered with tears because I’m going through it.”

Yet, to have that success, Iles admits a price has to be paid.

“That writing process is not good for your health, not good for your family life. It’s putting work above all things and working 18 hours a day, month after month after month after month,” said Liles, who admits to not having a vacation in 10 years. “You get successful, but you pay a high price.”

Iles lives in Natchez with his wife and three children.

“You just blink and your whole life’s gone. That’s just the way it happens,” he said. “You figure out where you get to where I am now, none of this matters.”

As far as television and movies, Iles had one of his books, “24 Hours,” made into a movie, “Trapped,” which was released in 2002.

With his success, the author now has the luxury of handpicking his future television projects.

“I’m successful enough now, where I don’t have to go, ‘Oh my god, I’m getting a TV show.’ At this point, I don’t want to have just a TV show. I want to have ‘the’ TV show… or at least I want it to be what it should be,” he said. “I’ll just sit tight, be cool.”

Let me tell you a story …

Words have always been a constant in my life — from my days of growing up among the corn fields and coal mines of western Kentucky to various newspapers around the South.

Growing up amidst the corn fields and coal mines of rural western Kentucky in the 1970s and early 1980s, my mind was oftentimes 1,000 miles away.

You see, I’ve always had quite the imagination — something that comes in quite handy when growing up “out in the country” where playmates were limited and trips “to town” were considered a luxury.

Often, I could be found roaming the woods and creeks that lined our property. Imaginary playmates have often been by my side, whether we were doing battle against “those damn Yankees” in Civil War times or I was on the mound of Game 7 of the World Series, pitching for my beloved Los Angeles Dodgers against, once again, “those damn Yankees.”

The Banks family in the mid 1970s. I am shown with my mother, Linda, and my sister, Stacie, on our way to somewhere important, I’m guessing, judging by our special Sunday church clothes. (Photo courtesy of the Banks family)

That imagination, I imagine, was fueled by the numerous books I read via bookmobile or those times I got to go “to town” and spend an afternoon in the Morganfield Public Library. My grandparents got the Evansville (Ind.) Courier-Press each day and I’d read columnist Joe Aaron and scour the sports pages. And when the dad of my neighborhood buddies — the Woodrings — allowed me to read all of his old copies of The Sporting News, that was the greatest thing ever — boxscores of every major league baseball game, even the West Coast teams?

All that reading and love of sports led me to work on the newspaper and yearbook staff at Union County High School and eventually on to Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, where I learned plenty of life lessons and lots of journalism.

My first job was in January 1990 when I was hired as the sports editor of a small weekly newspaper, the McLean County News, in Calhoun, Ky., on the banks of the Green River. That was followed by two stints as the editor of my hometown paper, the Union County Advocate, sandwiched around a term at the daily Murray (Ky.) Ledger and Times.

In October 1999, I made the leap to a much-bigger newspaper and town when I put everything in a Ryder moving van and came to North Carolina to work at the Gaston Gazette in Gastonia. For 19 years, I worked as part of an award-winning team of journalists in putting out one of the state’s finest daily newspapers.

A victim of staff cutbacks in September 2018, I flirted with the idea of becoming a court reporter and even began training for the work until I was offered the chance to get back into newspapers in March 2019 as the publisher/editor of the Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register.

For a little over a year, I learned a lot about publishing a weekly community newspaper in the Mississippi Delta and also rediscovered my love of writing and photography. I was pleased with our work as the newspaper was recognized by the state press association with a General Excellence award in the Better Newspaper Contest.

Me and my wife, Danette, on our wedding day, Sept. 22, 2017, at Kure Beach, NC.

Today, me and my wife, Danette, have returned back to our beloved home on Woodbend in Belmont, NC, where I continue to write on a freelance basis for a number of clients.

My story is one that is being written and rewritten with each passing day.

— Michael Banks

July 17, 2019

All hail the Kingfish

Riding a wave of popularity from the recent release of his first album and appearances in the Netflix series “Luke Cage,” young blues musician Christone “Kingfish” Ingram reflects upon his days growing up in Mississippi and the musical influences shown in his work.

No longer a babe Bluesman, Clarksdale’s own gentle giant lands on the big stage.

This article first appeared in the April 11, 2018, issue of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register.

By Michael Banks

Some scoff when they see not-even-20-year-old Christone Ingram enter the stage. What does this baby-faced kid know about the blues?

But that tune soon changes when he adjusts the strings and his fingers start to dance and dangle, strum and stroll along the neck of his Fender Telecoustic.

And it’s his voice. Oh, that voice.

It’s not the high-pitched cry of a teenager who just recently celebrated his 19th birthday in January and still lives at home with his mother.

Rather, it’s the timbre and down-home drawl of a man who’s already been to nine countries, performed in festivals across the United States and is on the verge of releasing his first album.

“Even though I’m young, I’ve had some tough situations in my life,” says the man known as Kingfish.

Blues-speak?

“While I haven’t had a woman leave me,” he says with a chuckle, “I do know about heart break. Some people will say, ‘He doesn’t know the blues. He’s just 18 or 19.’ But I’m very mature for my age. I’ve always been that way. I’ve been around grownups all my life.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is shown during a performance on Tuesday night, April 3, 2018, at the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in downtown Clarksdale, Ms.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

And it was his days spent in the Oakhurst area in Clarksdale, Ms., where Ingram got his first exposure to blues music. Next door was a blues band that would see the likes of famed musicians Joshua “Razorblade” Stewart, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, Dr. Mike and Terry “Big T” Williams.

“They were all the time having house parties and such, and they’d let me come in and watch them as they played. I’d just go and soak it all in,” he said.

Another of his earliest musical influences came from gospel music, in particular, the gospel tape by The Canton Spirituals titled “Living the Dream. Live in D.C.” Listening to that tape is where, Ingram says with a laugh, “I got my gospel chops.”

“That’s one of my favorite gospel albums and one I listen to on a daily basis,” said Ingram, who recalls parts of his childhood at Faith Temple Word of Faith Christian Church in Tutwiler, Ms., and the St. Peters Missionary Baptist Church in Sardis, Ms.

Combine that gospel background with the next door house parties and that love of music only grew with Ingram, who found himself wanting to learn more and more.

A cousin of county music star Charlie Pride, Ingram would enroll in the Delta Blues Museum’s arts and education program where he would fall under the tutelage of Daddy Rich and Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry.

At the age of 6, he began playing the drums. Three years later, he took up the bass guitar. And by the age of 13, he was playing the lead guitar.

And not only did he gain that musical education and confidence, but he would also come away with the nickname Kingfish. The moniker was handed down by Perry, who believed Ingram looked like the character “Kingfish” from the “Amos and Andy” show, one of television’s first black sitcoms.

“At first, I didn’t like it,” Ingram recalls. “But then I’d be walking around at school and there’d be these kids that I didn’t think knew me and they would yell out, ‘Hey Kingfish. What’s going on?’ Then, I started to like it.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, right, speaks with musician Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, left, and Stan Street, the owner of the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in downtown Clarksdale, Ms., during a break in his performance on Tuesday night, April 3, 2018.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

Another thing to like was the popularity that soon followed. He has shared the stage with musical greats such as Bob Margolin, Eric Gales, Rick Derringer, Guitar Short and Buddy Guy. He’s been a guest on “The Rachel Ray Show” and comedian Steve Harvey’s show “Steve.” And he even performed at the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama.

“I’m trying to not let it go to my head,” he said. “I’m just riding the wave, man, riding the wave.”

His mother, Princess Pride, acts as his manager and handles all his bookings.

The presence of his mother at all of his shows, as well as talks with his father, Christopher Ingram, and other family members have helped keep him grounded.

But still, Ingram knows more awaits him.

“No matter how good you are, there is always somebody out there better than you,” he said. “And that’s always grounded me and pushed me.”

He’s on the verge of releasing his first album, “Been Here Before.” The 12-song album features all original tracks and should be out by the end of April or May, Ingram said, as he finalizes a distributor.

In addition to that, Ingram and his bandmates — drummer Christopher Black and bassist Shaun Reddic — have a full schedule this spring and summer that includes trips to the Beale Street Music Festival in May in Memphis, Tenn.; the Chicago Blues Festival in June; and festivals in Colorado, Utah and California.

Still, he says there’s something special about coming back to Clarksdale.

“It’s always good to play here when I get the opportunity,” said Ingram, who will be performing as a solo act in his fifth Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale this weekend. On Saturday at noon, he’ll perform a set on the Mr. Tater Memorial Stage (350 Issaquena Ave.) before taking the main stage at 8 p.m. Saturday at The Bank (123 E. Second St.).

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram says “it’s been a lot of sweat and tears” and he’s “still paying my dues.” He is shown performing on Tuesday, April 3, 2018, at the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in Clarksdale, Ms. (Photo by Michael Banks)

“I’m not lying. It’s been a lot of sweat and tears. And I’m still paying my dues. I have a lot more to put in,” he said.

As one who has been presented with numerous rising star awards, Ingram believes the genre is alive and well thanks to the efforts of himself and other young top blues musicians such as Marquise Knox of St. Louis and Georgia’s Jontavious Willis.

The young songwriter compares blues music to the roots of a tree. You may chop off a limb, but as long as you have the roots, that tree is going to survive.

“It’s not going anywhere. Blues is the roots. It’s the roots for everything you hear.”