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Interview with Greg Iles

I don’t remember what exactly made me pick up the first book by Greg Iles that I read (MORTAL FEAR), but I’ve been a fan ever since. He’s one of my go-to storytellers, someone whose books are excellent consistently and without exception. CEMETERY ROAD, which is out on March 5, is no exception.

Getting to speak with an author superhero is always a thrill. I have to start with a couple minutes of fangirling, which is my awkward way of saying thank you. Thank you for telling the stories that sustain readers. Thank you for bringing aspects of human nature to light that might otherwise remain shrouded in shadow. Iles does this as well as any novelist I’ve read.

In talking about Mississippi, where most of his stories are set, Iles said he’s surprised that people visit Natchez because of his books, but he’s glad that they do because writing about a real place and real historical characters can be a minefield. CEMETERY ROAD is set not in Natchez but in a fictional Mississippi town because, he says, he wanted storytelling freedom and trying to figure out which of his characters are based on which real people is something of a “blood sport” in Natchez. He joked—in a there-is-truth-to-this kind of way—that sometimes one has to “wait for certain people to die” before being able to write about them.

CEMETERY ROAD’s protagonist, Marshall McEwan, is a journalist, and Iles said that he sees journalism as “the most critical profession in a time when the truth is under assault.” Iles said that he was in Washington DC on vacation when Nixon resigned and that Woodward and Bernstein and others like Edward R. Murrow were some of his heroes.

History plays a crucial role in Iles’ novels, and CEMETERY ROAD is no exception. We talked about some of the misconceptions that are widely held about Mississippi’s present and past, and Iles pointed out that while Mississippi history has numerous shameful and inexcusable incidents, the 2016 election illustrated clearly that Mississippi doesn’t have the market on racism in America cornered, and that there is a “profound and undeniable” imbalance in American society that allows many white people to simply deny that white privilege exists.

Iles talked about three themes in CEMETERY ROAD, each of which will connect with readers for different reasons.

When Marshall returns to his home town from Washington DC, he’s at the height of his career. He doesn’t have to expect to have to repay the debt of childhood when he does, as Iles so elegantly puts it.

Iles quoted Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” in explaining the second theme:

But, somewhere back there in the dust

That same small town in each of us

The places we come from, he explained, live in our imagination, and when we return to them, we’re often still the person we were when we left. The places, though, move on, and it can be deeply unsettling to find that their current iteration doesn’t match the picture we’ve retained. Iles also quoted the eternal Faulker line in explaining this: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What lurks beneath the surface of these places and the realities to which we “willfully blind ourselves,” the “secrets we don’t want to know” is the last and perhaps most universal theme in CEMTERY ROAD. We often think we know what motivates those around us, as we cast people in the roles into which they best fit in our perception. The realities, though, can be much darker than we anticipate, and are at the heart of this spectacular story.

Finally, if you’ve read Greg Iles, you know that his books are long. And if you know me, you know I have a distinct and passionate aversion to long books. Yet I adore Iles’ stories, tomes and all as they are. How can this be? I brought it up, and Iles explained it perfectly. His books are long because they are detailed (NATCHEZ BURNING was 800 pages in hardcover and the story spanned just three days) and rich in history. They’re not Raymond Chandler nor Ed McBain (with whom he shared his first-ever panel as a novelist) nor John D. MacDonald (of whom he’s a fan). Iles pace and tone are uniquely his own, and he opens to readers a world of insight wrapped in excellent crime fiction stories that enriches our lives immeasurably.

Greg Iles was born in 1960 in Germany where his father ran the US Embassy medical clinic during the height of the Cold War. After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1983 he performed for several years with the rock band Frankly Scarlet and is currently member of the band The Rock Bottom Remainders. His first novel, Spandau Phoenix, a thriller about war criminal Rudolf Hess, was published in 1993 and became a New York Times bestseller. Iles went on to write ten bestselling novels, including Third Degree, True Evil, Turning Angel, Blood Memory, The Footprints of God, and 24 Hours (released by Sony Pictures as Trapped, with full screenwriting credit for Iles). He lives in Natchez, Mississippi.

CEMETERY ROAD is out on March 5 from William Morrow.