Greg Iles on Natchez Burning: A ‘tidal wave’ of response

From 3-25-15 – “Natchez Burning” and “The Bone Tree” are now available in paperback.

By TERRY MATHEWS
Reviewer for The News

Greg Iles - sweater
Greg Iles

Mississippi author Greg Iles has been on The New York Times best seller list 14 times, so he’s accustomed to success. But the response he received last year for “Natchez Burning” surprised even him.

The book, the first in a trilogy involving Iles hero attorney and Natchez mayor Penn Cage and his father, Dr. Tom Cage, centers on several murders during the Civil Rights movement.

The paperback edition of “Natchez Burning” will be on shelves Tuesday, March 31.

“The guy [John Evans} in Jackson who owns Lemuria Books, really the best bookstore in Mississippi, said he had been selling books for 40 years, and I had done something no writer he had yet seen do,” the Natchez native explained during a telephone interview on his way home from New Orleans. “I had both black people and white people in Mississippi reading about race the way it really was.”

Iles asked Evans why he thought the book was doing so well with both groups.

“He told me, ‘I think because you were willing to go far enough to portray it as bad as it really was,’” Iles explained. “‘If readers sense someone is holding back or they sense it’s sugar-coated, then it’s not the truth and they don’t respond to it.’”

At the end of the book’s prologue, Iles writes:

So let us begin in 1964, with three murders. Three stones cast into a pond no one had cared about since the siege of Vicksburg, but which was soon to become the center of the world’s attention. A place most people in the United States like to think was somehow different from the rest of the country, but which was in fact the very incarnation of America’s tortured soul.

Mississippi.

Although this book is a novel, certain events are based on truth.

Stanley at the computer
Stanley Nelson

Iles used the work of journalist Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia Sentinel in nearby Ferriday, LA, as the foundation for the story. In fact, “Natchez Burning” is dedicated to “Stanley Nelson, of the Concordia Sentinel, a humble hero. And all the victims of the civil rights movement Mississippi and Louisiana 1960-1969.”

Since 2007, Nelson has been working on numerous cold cases left unsolved by the FBI, including the death of local store owner Frank Morris, whose shoe shop was set afire while he was there. Morris died four days after the incident and was interviewed by the FBI, but never named the men involved. Nelson has written over 150 stories about the violence during that era.

His work has won numerous awards, and he has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

He has written a book about his findings that should be published sometime this year.

“Stanley and I are a little bit different ages, so I didn’t know him growing up,” Iles noted. “I became aware of the work he’s been doing, and particularly the fact  that he had outpaced the FBI and had done so much the government failed to do. I think our friendship really began when we realized we had this common interest.”

Iles also said Nelson wasn’t getting any rewards for his work and there wasn’t any action being taken on it, so he “got mad” and decided it was a great story and maybe he could “show some attention to it and maybe that would help.”

Greg Iles giveawayEarly on in the book, a character muses, “Appomattox hadn’t ended anything; it had merely heralded an intermission.”

“It’s sad that for a certain segment of the population, that was really true,” the University of Mississippi graduated noted.

In his past books dealing with the South, Iles had shied away from using the Ku Klux Klan as antagonists for his books because “I always knew that Yankees like to think the South is full of the Klan. The truth is, the FBI pretty much infiltrated the Klan, top to bottom, by 1966. They didn’t really accomplish much.”

In “Natchez Burning,” Iles sheds light on a violent, brutal offshoot of the Klan, The Silver Dollar Group (called the Double Eagles in the book).

The Silver Dollar Group was “very, very different” from the Klan.

“Once I learned about them, I realized they were a very viable and powerful force to serve as antagonists in a very large scale story,” Iles said. “The sad thing that Stanley discovered is when you get to the heart of these crimes, they’re pretty pathetic, really. The motives the guys had for committing these crimes and the way they were committed were pretty pathetic and depressing stuff.”

Iles says the brutality came with a huge dose of paradox.

“It’s always been the irony of the violence of the civil rights movement that it was really carried out by the lowest class whites,” he explained. “Those were the ones who had the most to gain by the legislation that was implemented to help blacks. All they felt like they had was that they were one step above the blacks. But, they were willing to do anything to keep themselves above rather than join forces with them and try to better themselves.”

Iles likes to say he doesn’t write who-done-its, but why-done-its. Getting to the motive behind the evil that men do is at the heart of every Iles book.

“That’s the thing that unites all my books,” he said. “They explore the nature of evil.”

Having more than 10 million copies in print gives Iles the freedom to explore evil in numerous ways.

“I’ve crossed a lot of genres, which is not something a lot of writers get to do even if they want to,” he noted, talking about the wide spectrum of subjects he’s covered. “Unless you manage to sell a lot of books, they won’t let you do that.”

Iles says he grew up thinking in terms of black and white.

“We think our parents are good and the police are all good and the criminals are all bad,” he noted. “Of course, the older we get, we realized we have friends that are doing borderline things and we are doing some borderline things. Then, the preacher gets sent to jail or run out of town, and then the cops are abusing somebody. You find out the world is a much more complex place than your parents led you to believe.”

The relationship between Penn and Tom Cage, beloved and respected family physician, is truly tested in “Natchez Burning.” Dr. Cage is accused of murdering his former nurse, Viola, who is dying of cancer. Both father and son are forced to face truths they’d rather leave alone. Because the book is the first in the series, many questions are left unanswered – on purpose.

In 2011, Iles had almost finished the first version of “Natchez Burning,” when a tragic car accident changed his life. He lost his right leg from the knee down and came very close to dying.

As he recovered from the injuries, he decided he had been given another chance and realized he had a finite amount of time to tell his stories. He began working on the trilogy.

His father, a Natchez physician, died during the time he was working on the books.

Writing about evil and violence is part of what Iles does best, but these stories came at a price. He understands why his readers have told him they had to stop when the plot gets too intense.

“There were times when I was writing that I had to stop,” he confessed. “There were moments when my wife would come [to my office], and I’d be sitting there with tears on my face and [I] didn’t even know it. That sounds corny, but I can remember certain moments, usually it’s the moment of self-sacrifice on the part of a character. I’m done with it [now]; and I’ll probably never look at it again because once was all I could stand to do it.”

Iles appreciates the toll this work must have taken on Nelson, too.

“When you think about it, that a guy like him working at a paper that serves 5,000 people, maybe,  who certainly does not have any kind of significant resources to operate with, has done all that work and has gone so far,” he said. “That’s really the definition of heroism. If you ask me, that’s bigger than Woodward-Bernstein stuff. They had a big paper and all the incentive in the world. With Stanley, nobody was ever going to thank him for doing [the stories] except some poor people nobody cared about.”

Thanks to Iles, hundreds of thousands of people now care about Frank Morris and the other victims of those hate crimes.

“There have been a few books where certain issues touched things like repressed memories of child abuse,” Iles said. “But nothing ever triggered the tidal wave of response like this book has.”

***********
When asked about “The Bone Tree,” Iles said, “Some truly emotionally shattering things happen. I don’t want to give any hints beyond that, but you definitely will cry several more times in this book, and probably cheer in it, too.”
He also graciously promised to take time for interviews for “The Bone Tree” and the final book “Unwritten Laws” (2016), which he promises is “more powerful than ‘Natchez Burning’ on an emotional and moral level.”
*************
Editor’s note: I was 12 in 1964 and knew only what I saw on the nightly news.
Even though I studied the civil rights movement in college, “Natchez Burning” hit me like a sledgehammer, a blow from which I haven’t quite recovered.

I was so intrigued that I contacted Stanley Nelson, who is a gracious, soft-spoken man doing his best to set right some terrible wrongs.

When I told him I was making a trip to Natchez, he invited me to stop by his office.

He took me on a tour of Ferriday and stopped to show me the very spot where Frank Morris’ shoe shop once stood. It was a chilling reminder of the evil that strangled the area during the not-so-distant past.

Nelson has promised to visit East Texas and give a public program covering his work and his book, “Devil’s a-Walkin’: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s ,” published by Louisiana State University. “An Evening with Stanley Nelson” should be a night to remember.

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