'Natchez Burning' author Greg Iles discusses 'The Bone Tree,' the twist-filled sequel

Iles's new book, 'The Bone Tree,' includes an investigation into the JFK assassination. 'If Oswald did not act alone, then I would say there’s a 95% chance that a conspiracy of the size and type that I laid out in this book is the most likely thing to have happened,' Iles says.

Caroline Iles
Before setting off on a book tour, Greg Iles spoke to the Monitor about his Penn Cage trilogy and his fascination with the American South and the ghosts of JFK and America's civil rights victims.

Greg Iles calls himself a 20-year overnight success story. This despite the fact that his first book, published in 1993, hit The New York Times best-seller list.

Iles mentions the possibility of overnight success while discussing a soon-to-be-announced cable TV adaptation of his 2014 epic novel, “Natchez Burning.” He promises a series or miniseries with the production quality of “True Detective” or “Game of Thrones.” Until all the contracts are signed, though, he is forbidden from disclosing which network is buying the rights.

“Natchez Burning,” published last spring, spanned 800 pages and blended the pulse-pounding machinations of a thriller with Southern Gothic elements while dazzling the likes of Ken Follett and Stephen King. AARP Magazine described the atmospherics and narrative as a mash-up of William Faulkner and Stieg Larsson. Most of all, “Natchez Burning” left readers desperate to know what happens next in the lengthy tale of violence, corruption, and racial strife.

Now comes “The Bone Tree," the second book in Iles’s trilogy. The novel picks up where the last one left off but veers off in the direction of constant action and twists and turns without answering one of the central questions posed in the earlier book.

Instead, Penn Cage, the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi, and Iles’s main character (Penn happens to be both an author and former prosecutor), spends much of his time trying to find his father, a small-town doctor accused of murder, and sorting out whether his family played a role in the death of President Kennedy at Dealey Plaza. 

At the same time, conspiracies involving New Orleans mobsters, rogue CIA operatives, and other nasty characters thwart Penn as he teams with crusading reporters and a hell-bent FBI agent in an attempt to solve a string of cold cases from the Civil Rights era.

Late next year or in early 2017, Iles will publish the last book in the trilogy. Whether Penn can save his hometown and his shattered family is one of several prominent questions left to be resolved in the final book.

Penn Cage starred in several stand-alone novels before Iles was in a near-fatal car wreck four years ago in his hometown of Natchez. Doctors kept Iles in a medical coma for eight days after the crash and his injuries included a torn aorta and the loss of his right leg below the knee.

He still struggles with rehab, but his writing career is on a roll. And he remains a member of The Rock Bottom Remainders, a literary garage band featuring Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Stephen King, and Scott Turow, among others. 

Iles was the singer and guitarist in his own rock band, Franky Scarlet, after graduating from Ole Miss in 1983. Later, he ditched rock and roll for a career in thrillers, a path similar to the one taken by Norwegian thriller writer Jo Nesbo.

Before setting off on a book tour, Iles spoke to the Monitor about chasing the ghosts of JFK and Civil Rights victims as well as what’s ahead for the self-proclaimed overnight sensation. Excerpts from our conversation are below.

On his interest in President Kennedy’s assassination:

I really wasn’t [intending to go there] and I’ll tell you what’s funny. There’s a guy who interviewed me for Publishers Weekly [Lenny Picker in 2013]. They did a thing on the 50th anniversary [of the assassination and the fiction and nonfiction books around JFK’s death]. And this guy’s going to kill me. Because he called me and he quoted me a couple of times in the article, but I kept telling him, 'Look, these books really are not about the Kennedy assassination. I’m really not going there.'

And, then, while re-writing the next book, I found myself doing that [laughs]. I felt so guilty. I thought, this guy is going to think I was lying to him. It’s just that the more I sort of slid southward towards New Orleans and found out more about the [Louisiana crime boss Carlos] Marcello stuff, the more I just couldn’t resist it.

On how much he blends fact and fiction in his depiction of November 1963:

In a general way, I would say that the basic thesis of what I’m putting forth is, if Oswald did not act alone, then I would say there’s a 95% chance that a conspiracy of the size and type that I laid out in this book is the most likely thing to have happened. The fact is that none of these grand conspiracy theories are really even possible.

If you really boil away all the sensationalism and you say what really could have happened and who truly had a motive to kill him, you’re left with a pretty small group of people.

I don’t want to get too much into saying things about the Marcellos or people like that, but I think the points in the book are very well taken, which is we tend to look at the killing of a president as this massive thing of epic proportion. Whereas the guys who had that kind of power and especially at that time, when the kind of scrutiny that exists now did not exist, I think guys like that would not at all have been intimidated taking that kind of action.

Especially since they were embedded in the process to try to assassinate [Cuban dictator Fidel] Castro [before Kennedy was killed]. I think all those things facilitated toward making the killing of a president a mundane thing. I guess what I’m saying is I think [a conspiracy like the one detailed in "The Bone Tree"] could’ve happened. I’m not saying it did happen, but it surely could have, and it’s far more plausible than most of the things [people have suggested].

On why he decided to write a trilogy:

The real sort of Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment with this trilogy came four years ago when I was almost killed on Highway 61 and was in a coma and everything. It happened at a point where I had realized the book had grown beyond the bounds of a single book and that the first book, there was no way it could stand alone, nor could the second stand alone and I was about to have to break all the rules of mainstream fiction.

My publisher was trying to adapt that, they weren’t real happy with it. And that was the process I was in when I got hit by a truck and nearly died. So when I came out of that, I just really no longer gave a damn what the rules were, what the publisher thought or whether it sold. At that point, I said, you know, I’m writing about Mississippi and Louisiana, I’m writing about my family, I’m writing about race and the South and America. When you’re going to do that for real, you can’t worry who gets mad or who doesn’t think it fits in a box. So I just threw away the rule book.

On writers he admires:

I'm one of the main speakers at [a festival] in New York in July. I've never met a guy who I always idolized [when I was] a young writer in my career and that's Nelson DeMille. DeMille's early work especially. [Now] I'm actually going to get to meet him.

[A few weeks ago] I got to meet Pat Conroy and that was just one of those bucket-list moments. We just talked and we just bonded instantly and we talked on the phone subsequently. Those are some of the little joys you find.

On his main character:

A lot of people have always asked, is Penn Cage me? And I say no. There’s an early character in an earlier novel, "Mortal Fear," that’s closer to me. Penn sort of began as a Grisham-esque character. He’s an attorney and kind of a noble guy and almost too good to be true. I never set out to write a series at all, but about every seven years, he would come back to me. Before I knew it, there were three [Penn Cage] books and "Natchez Burning' turned into [a trilogy]. Penn tends to be an observer more than an action hero, but I think in "Natchez Burning," even though he starts that way, because of the destruction of the image of his father makes him question everything, I think now we’re dealing with a Penn who no longer has his feet on the ground. That’s an exciting thing for the reader.

On "The Bone Tree":

As the middle book, it had always been sort of a more conventional thriller and made more concessions to genre. I went back and thought, I really don’t want to do that. Because the third book, the conclusion, is better than "Natchez Burning," that’s how good it is. And the second book I felt like, OK, it’s a good book, but it’s a more conventional thriller and "Natchez Burning" deserves more than that. So that’s why it took a while: I went back and really re-wrote that book.

A lot of the stuff in these books are very close to reality. This isn’t just made-up stuff. [A former New Orleans and Natchez police officer Iles knew] had either a copy or office notes of the entire Jim Garrison Kennedy investigation in his possession over in Ferriday, Louisiana. There are a lot of weird things that went on.

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