After spending the last eight years working on a 2,000-page sweeping trilogy involving Penn Cage and his father, Dr. Tom Cage, Greg Iles could understandably use a little rest.
That’s not happening.
When he talked to me Friday evening, the best selling writer had finished up a week of media interviews and a fascinating live question and answer feed on Facebook. He hosted a benefit signing for Children’s Services at Dunleith Plantation Sunday afternoon and leaves Tuesday for a 29-city book tour to promote “Mississippi Blood,” the final installment in the “Natchez Burning” trilogy.
And, before he leaves town, he’s got to prepare an index of characters to hand out to people who come to the events, an idea he introduced during the Facebook event.
“You’re the first person who’s reminded me of that,” he said. “I forgot it already.”
The tour will be grinding.
“We’ve got two stops in one day on some of the tour,” the Natchez native said. “We’ve got 6 a.m. TV in the morning, an event at noon and then on to another city for a 7 p.m. appearance. And that’s with radio interviews at night.”
Iles will wrap things up at the Dallas Book Festival, Saturday, April 29. Winnsboro native Kate Park, executive director of Friends of the Dallas Public Library, secured Iles’ appearance.
“I think I’ve only been to Dallas on tour once to a chain store,” Iles recalled. “It’s weird that I haven’t been there more.”
Joining Iles on stage in Dallas will be Stanley Nelson, editor of The Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, LA. Iles dedicated “Natchez Burning” to Nelson, calling him a humble hero. Iles also created the character of journalist Henry Sexton based on Nelson.
For the past decade, Nelson has investigated unsolved murder cases from the Civil Rights Era.
“When you think of what he did from that tiny, little office in Ferriday, it’s pretty remarkable,” Iles said of his friend.
In addition to promoting the book, Iles and his wife are looking for a place to live – away from Natchez – at least for a few months out of the year.
“On this tour we’re looking,” he admitted. “We don’t want to get out of the South.”
While Iles admits his fame doesn’t compare to the “global notoriety” of his friend and fellow writer, Stephen King, he did say that fame does limit his ability to go places in and around Natchez.
Iles’ popularity began in 1993 with the publication of his debut thriller, “Spandeaux Phoenix.” He introduced former prosecutor-turned-mayor of Natchez Penn Cage in 1999 with “The Quiet Game.” He’s co-producer for the TV series based on the “Natchez Burning” trilogy and he’s working on his next novel.
He believes “Black Cross,” written in just three months and published in 1995, is his best work, even though it’s the only one of his books that didn’t make The New York Times best seller list.
He says the new book doesn’t involve Penn and his father.
“But, there is [at least] one more Penn book left to come,” he admitted. He wants to tie up some loose ends involving Penn’s father, the remarkable Dr. Tom Cage, who Iles has described as Atticus Finch with a stethoscope. “You’re going to be surprised when we pick up with Tom again. There are some big things coming.”
Much of the time in “Mississippi Blood” is spent in the courtroom, but Iles is quick to say some of the initial scenes were not up to par.
“The galley is full of some howlers for lawyers,” he admitted. A “lawyer friend” helped him weed out the goofs. “Thank God, we fixed it.”
Spoiler alert: If you’ve not read “Natchez Burning” and “The Bone Tree,” skip the next 9 paragraphs.
During last week’s Facebook event and again during our conversation Greg talked about killing off important characters in the trilogy.
The new book begins: Grief is the most solitary emotion; it makes islands of us all.
“People got so upset about Caitlin,” he admitted.
Caitlyn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist engaged to Penn and expecting his child, dies at the end of “The Bone Tree.” Iles said his wife would come into the office when he was writing Caitlin’s death and his face would be wet with tears.
“There were times when I was writing that I had to stop,” he told me in 2015. “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.”
The author says he still gets letters and emails about Caitlin’s death.
In the new book, an ancillary character is horribly disfigured.
“I didn’t like writing that scene,” he said. “I really hate what happened.”
The death and disfigurements of popular characters might not be easy, but Iles admits to being comfortable with the darker side of human nature.
“The dark side is my wheelhouse,” he told the 5K people who logged on to his live Facebook event last week.
When we talked Friday, I brought up the comment.
“If it was all vanilla and roses, it wouldn’t be much of a story.”
The trilogy is replete with graphic violence – most of it perpetrated by an off-shoot of the Ku Klux Klan, still operating in the books, which span a short period of time from December 2005 to March of 2006. In fact, the first two books happen in a seven-day period.
“When you hear 800-page book, you think it’s going to be like some James Michener thing covering five centuries,” he said with a laugh.
After the tour wraps up, Iles hopes to turn his attention to the TV series. He insists on it being filmed in Natchez, which presents problems, but he is determined to hammer out the details.
While Iles realizes how lucky he is to be doing what he loves, he knows the tour will take its toll.
“I’m not complaining,” he said with a laugh. “It’s still not real work, but it will sure wear you out.”
The final installment to Greg Iles’ “Natchez Burning” trilogy begins just a few months after the tragic ending of “The Bone Tree.” The first two books cover a short few days in December of 2005. “Mississippi Blood” takes up in March of 2006.
The story opens with Penn Cage saying: Grief is the most solitary emotion; it makes islands of us all.
While most of the action in this book takes place in a Natchez courtroom during the trial of Penn’s father, Dr. Tom Cage, the plot has enough suspense to satisfy Iles fans. The bad guys from “Natchez Burning” and “The Bone Tree” have been joined by a group of violent bikers who have a vested interest in keeping the truth about the murder of Dr. Cage’s former nurse from ever seeing the light of day.
Storylines are wrapped up. Old scores are settled. Penn suffers another loss, but life goes on, albeit a bit ragged and bruised. Am glad that Iles left a couple of things open for future Penn Cage stories, although he’s said he’s giving Penn a much-deserved break while he writes a couple of new books.
These are not stand alone stories. They demand to be read in order … and with great care. The three volumes pull back the curtain on an ugly period in American history – the Civil Rights Era – a history that’s still trying to work itself out of the darkness.
Iles said recently that he hasn’t had a vacation in more than eight years and champagne sent to him by his publisher remains unopened.
Maybe after he wraps up a month-long book tour, he and his wife will get away for some much-needed alone time and enjoy a bit of that bubbly.
He’s certainly earned it.
Hopefully, the film version of the trilogy will move forward. Can’t wait to see how they cast it.