Novelist Greg Iles explores the dark, complicated issue of race relations in Mississippi and his hometown in his latest book, “Natchez Burning.”
In 2011, author Greg Iles was just a week away from the deadline for his next novel, a follow-up to the best-seller "The Devil's Punchbowl," when he was involved in a horrific car accident near his hometown of Natchez. "I'll tell you that Mississippi may be last in many things," Iles says, "but the doctors and nurses at the University (of Mississippi) Medical Center are as good as anyone out there. They saved my life."
Iles was airlifted to UMMC, where he was kept in a medically induced coma for eight days and lost part of his right leg. His recovery was long and arduous, but Iles kept a humble perspective.
"If you ever think your life sucks, I invite you to go down to the Methodist Rehabilitation Center and watch the patients with spinal injuries," he says. "As bad as my injuries were, I was much better off than they were."
"The nurses shaking my shoulder and telling me that God isn't done with me, yet" gave Iles a revelation as he worked through his injuries and the long road to recovery. "I came close to death and realized that I needed to see life as it really is, and that much of the stuff I was involved with didn't matter," he says.
From this experience comes his latest book, "Natchez Burning." Instead of the original book he had planned to write, a sequel picking up right where the last one left off, "Natchez Burning" is an 800-page first book of a planned trilogy about Penn Cage, a southern man trying to clear his father's name after the elder Cage was accused of murdering an African American nurse. It is a fictionalized account of Mississippi and the nation's sad and brutal history of race relations.
"So many of us who grew up in Mississippi don't know the real story of the civil-rights struggle," Iles says, adding that he felt he needed to tell this story and to be brutally honest about it.
"Natchez Burning" will be released April 29 but already has many fans and admirers in the literary world. Chief among them is fellow author Stephen King, who describes the book as "extraordinarily entertaining and fiendishly suspenseful."
"I defy you to find a way to start it and put it down," King writes about it—bold words from someone who is an icon in American literature.
Stephen King has long been a fan of Greg Iles' work. Iles recalls fondly his first interaction with Stephen King: He received a letter with the return address of S. King, and inside was a handwritten letter from Stephen King complimenting Iles on his book "24 Hours."
Iles still lives in his hometown of Natchez and is a proud Mississippian. He believes the state produces so many top-notch athletes because "we are just old-school tough. You won't find a Brett Favre from a yuppie school up north." But Mississippi also produces high-caliber writers and artists, which Iles attributes to the fact that Mississippi is one of the few places left in the United States with a "strong sense of place—artistic voice comes from a sense of place."
Like so many Mississippians, Iles says that when he is in his home state, he can be the first to complain it, but outside the Magnolia State, others are risking a punch in the face (prosthetic leg and all) if they ridicule Mississippi.
Greg Iles will read from and sign "Natchez Burning" (William Morrow, 2014, $27.99) at Lemuria Books (4465 Interstate 55 N., Suite 202, 601-366-7619) from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 29.