Greg Iles discusses his latest Penn Cage thriller – an epic tale of the Deep South, which tackles “America’s deepest psychic wound”…
The biggest joke in our all-author band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, is a question we’re all asked all the time: “Where do you get your ideas?” Stephen King has been known to yell this from the back of the tour bus. There’s never a simple answer to that question. Novels might grow out of a single image, a powerful moment in a writer’s life, or they may be huge works built on complex concepts. While Natchez Burning is a big book, I think it began when I was five years old. In 1965, the largest Ku Klux Klan rally ever held in the South took place less than one mile from my house. My father, a dedicated physician who treated a large percentage of African Americans, walked me down the road until I could see men, women, and children wearing white hoods and robes. But what most sticks in my mind is that even the horses wore Klan regalia, like horses going into battle during the Crusades. This sight frightened me enough to burn itself into my brain.
As I grew older, I came to understand the complexities of black-white relations in the South in ways I could never have guessed at, and ways no Northerner could even begin to understand. Some realities must be lived to be understood. For example, how do you explain a world in which violent white men claim to be fighting to preserve the purity of the white race while fathering children by black women? I’ve touched on race in my past novels, but after I was nearly killed in a car accident, I realized that the time had come to try to illuminate the darkest layers of what lay hidden beneath the surface of life in the South during the 1960s, and also today. One task was dealing with the mindless violence of poor white Southerners who feared change. A far more interesting one was dealing with the tragedy of educated white Southerners who couldn’t find the courage to stand up for what they knew was right. As Martin Luther King said, what must be repented for in this generation are not the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people, but the “appalling silence and indifference of the good people.”
It was this inquiry that led me to my own family. For my father, despite his deep empathy for the blacks he had grown up working beside—and had treated as an adult physician—felt a lot of guilt for not doing more than he had during the toughest years of the 1960s. He died while I was in the early stages of writing this trilogy, but thankfully, we had several in-depth discussions about the civil rights struggle in Mississippi. I came to realize that my very existence—along with that of my mother and brother—had been the primary basis for his caution. White men, too, feared reprisals by the Klan, and as Natchez Burning makes clear, they had very good reason.
I’d always refrained from using the KKK as antagonists in previous novels, because they were effectively neutralized as an organization by the late 1960s, when even notorious Klan leaders had become paid FBI informants. But a few years ago, the dedicated work of a local reporter, Pulitzer-finalist Stanley Nelson, began to expose the horrifying details of a secret offshoot of the KKK. Calling themselves the Silver Dollar Group, this ultra-violent splinter cell of the Klan wore no robes, held no organized meetings, and knew only a small fraction of their own members. As identification, each specially recruited man carried a silver dollar minted in his birth year. Experts with explosives and other weapons, these men functioned as a highly effective terrorist unit that murdered at least seven men, and brutally attacked countless others. Only one Silver Dollar member ever went to prison, and that was more than forty years after the crime.
Villains like these would bring electric evil to any thriller. But it’s when our heroes are revealed to be disturbingly human that we’re shaken to the core, and that is the true heart of Natchez Burning. I can’t reveal more without ruining the book, but suffice to say that Penn Cage is about to learn that his father—the man he’s always seen as Atticus Finch with a stethoscope—is far more complex and flawed than Penn ever suspected, and this revelation will force Penn to question everything he ever believed about himself and his family.
Reviewers are raving about the book’s brutal honesty, and my hope is that readers will turn the final page feeling that they’ve experienced much more than suspense and a few thrills. If I’ve lived up to the goal I discussed with my father, you’ll leave this book with a sense of having run down a terrifying levee road beside the Mississippi River—in a Mississippian’s shoes. Race is America’s deepest psychic wound, but my years of researching and writing this novel have shown me that despite the centuries of oppression, violence, rape, and murder, forgiveness and redemption remain possible. For it was in the Deep South that the two races truly lived together, and despite the scourge of slavery and all that followed, blacks and whites intermingled in countless ways—none more profound than in the blood.
Greg Iles, for Waterstones.com/blog
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