Greg Iles' bestseller, Natchez Burning, is a thriller about race crimes from the past, and it's likely to be made into a movie.
Iles, 54, has already decided he can see Morgan Freeman in the crucial role of a wheelchair-bound defence lawyer.
"I was thinking of him when I was writing the book," says the author.
"I kept saying, 'It's Morgan Freeman!' He's from Mississippi, too!
"I'd give my left arm for that."
Um … that's kind of a startling turn of phrase from a guy who actually did give up a limb not long ago after a terrible car accident. The 2011 wreck cost Iles half his right leg and almost killed him, but the Mississippi native swears the accident breathed new life into his writing.
Iles is a publishing veteran, with 13 bestselling novels under his belt (and sales of about 10 million over 20 years), but still — how the heck do you write 800 gripping pages of something like Natchez Burning at the same time as you're recovering from a near-fatal accident?
Iles just laughs. "The really hard thing to believe is that this novel is just one of a trilogy. I've actually written all three since the accident. So, since the accident that almost killed me," he says, laughing again, "I've written the equivalent of say, nine Michael Connelly novels."
We'll assume that's a friendly little dig at the Lincoln Lawyer author.
"It was probably the writing that got me through the recovery," Iles admits.
"On one hand, it was very difficult, but on the other hand, it gave me such a sense of purpose. Nearly dying is what transformed this book."
Iles was a week from deadline, "When I was hit by that truck," with a finished book he now says he'd never have been happy with. It was certainly not part of any trilogy.
"My dad had died five months earlier, and his death really started making me take a harsh look at my own work. I felt I was being too careful, making too many concessions, but once I lived through the accident, I just threw all fear and caution to the wind."
He changed the book; he switched agents and publishers, too. Natchez Burning is part of a trilogy and the books are not standalone. It's a big gamble in the publishing game.
"So a week ago, when we got the call that it was going to debut at number two on the New York Times bestseller list, everybody got out champagne," drawls Iles.
"But there was also a massive sigh of relief, because that was just one of several possible outcomes, the rest of which were not good."
Iles is a southerner through and through, raised by parents who taught him that all men are equal, regardless of colour. Natchez Burning, much of it based on real people and real crimes, casts a cold eye on unsolved murder cases from the civil rights era and their impact on the life of Iles' beloved hero, attorney Penn Cage, in present-day Mississippi.
The author's own education in civil rights began in childhood. Iles' father worked as a doctor in Germany after the war, where he was exposed to the aftermath of the Holocaust. His parents are both southerners, says Iles, "And when they returned to the south and saw the nascent civil rights movement, they saw the parallels of intolerance. They understood what was going on."
Iles' father seems to have had a keen understanding of history in the making. When the biggest Ku Klux Klan meeting ever held in the U.S. took place a mile from his childhood home, Iles — aged maybe five — was walked over by his father, who intended to take photographs.
"I remember men, women and children in the road. And I remember, what scared me, was that even the horses were wearing the robes. It looked like the crusades, almost."
Iles' has dedicated Natchez Burning to the victims of the civil rights movement and to Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel, a journalist whose relentless investigations into the past have led to convictions in the present.
"His only reward was the satisfaction of helping bring closure for those families."
Iles, who started his working life as a musician (he played in a band called The Rock Bottom Remainders with other authors such as Stephen King, Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Amy Tan and Matt Groening), recently got a big compliment on his new book from the owner of the fabled Lemuria bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi.
"He told me, 'Greg, I think you've accomplished something here that people have tried to do before, but they weren't willing to be cruel enough and brutal enough and merciless enough in their depictions to do it — and that is, to make us here in Mississippi see what really happened all around us... People are reading this, processing it and dealing with it, and that's something we need to be proud of.'"
Iles himself sees a shift in the culture that's reflected in the popularity of cable TV shows like Game of Thrones or True Detective.
"It's like America has finally reached the point where it's willing to process unpleasant things head-on," he says.
So yes, he's being courted by producers and casting agents who want to talk to him about the movie version of Natchez Burning. "But to me, the greatest outcome would be to have a True Detective-style series made of these three novels," says Iles.
"Then we might really do something."
Natchez Burning Review
Natchez Burning is a thriller that marries past and present in the Deep South.
The story is put in motion in the mid-'60s at the height of the civil rights movement: A group of white vigilantes decides to work outside their Ku Klux Klan chapter to take aim at bigger political targets, and their plans visit death and destruction on a handful of black locals. With the characters (and violent crimes) in place, the story picks up 40 years later in 2005.
And secrets can't be kept forever.
Attorney Penn Cage, the hero of a few of Greg Iles’ novels, is at the centre of Natchez Burning. Now mayor of the city, Cage is stunned to hear that his father, Dr. Tom Cage, may be arrested for murder. The elderly doctor is a pillar of the community and respected by all, black or white, but the death of his aged former nurse looks like a mercy killing.
As Cage soon discovers, his father's predicament is just part of a much larger conspiracy to keep the past buried in the past. With the help of Henry Sexton, a local reporter determined to find answers to a handful of unsolved murders from the 1960s, Cage delves into a nightmare world of crime and violence.
Natchez Burning covers racial and class divisions in a gripping narrative about power, ambition, illicit relationships and corruption in high places.
The novel is dedicated to reporter Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel, who is the model for the Henry Sexton character; the really mind-boggling element of Natchez Burning is the fact that its people and events are all based in reality. The book is full of references from the civil rights movement in American in the '60s, and Greg Iles unfolds a riveting story against this rich historical background.
Natchez Burning is part one of a planned trilogy.