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