I was trolling through Twitter and noticed a post by my favorite book store Parnassus Books, stating that Greg Iles, author of the best selling Natchez Burning Trilogy and multiple other novels, would be signing his book Mississippi Blood at Salon@615 at the Nashville Public Library downtown. I looked over at my husband who was sipping his morning coffee and asked him if he’d like to go. He’s a big fan, having read a few of Greg Iles books, including Natchez Burning. We looked up the time and purchased our tickets. We have lived in Nashville for a total of 7 years (combined over two moves) and have never been to the Library downtown. I do have my much used Library card though and use it through the Overdrive app to check out ebooks and audio books all the time I’ve just never been in the physical location.
I was kind of excited! An outing downtown is always kind of fun, and I know Greg Iles writes a great novel and I was interested to hear what he had to say. Before the book signing, Greg Iles spoke in a mini auditorium to a crowd of about 100 fans. He was charming and told some great personal stories, as well as answered questions from the crowd. I took notes, and will try to recreate as much as possible. Please note that I did not record his conversations, so these are recreations from my notes and memory, not exact quotes.
Mr. Iles started off by telling us about when he was writing Natchez Burning in 2011. He said initially he was writing it to be a stand alone novel. One day, he took a break from writing and went on an errand. On the way home, his car was broadsided by another car going 70 miles an hour. He was in a coma for eight days and lost his leg. When he woke from the coma, he realized his vision for the book had changed. He realized that he couldn’t tell the story he wanted to tell in one book, it was going to take three. It was Natchez Burning that took him to a new level of writing, and that level brought him recognition. He could remember one reviewer’s comment in particular about that book. That reviewer stated that Greg Iles was the William Faulkner for the Breaking Bad generation. Kind of a cool review, right?
Questions from the audience-
- When you played in Frankly Scarlet where did the road fork, and you knew you would become a writer? We learned that Greg Iles started off in a rock band, and in fact, is still in a band with Stephen King. Wild! Anyway, that rock band was named Frankly Scarlet.He said that it was one night when he’d gotten in a fight with a band member, he called his wife afterwards. He was tired of traveling for 50 out of 52 weeks and told her he was quitting. He said his wife sighed and asked what he would do and he said that he’d write that book that he’d always wanted to write. He wrote for 18 hours a day on a book about Rudolph Hess in WWII called Spandau Phoenix.
He went off topic for a bit after that question, talking about how he got that first book published. It was actually a pretty funny story and I’ll try to remember some of it for you guys. He said it was a much easier process back when he first got published, not that getting published was easy, but that the system was simpler. He had an agent and that agent held an auction for his novel. She said 30 publishers were interested at the start of that auction. In fact, he got his first bid pretty quickly. His agent called him and said his bid was for $10k. He thought that was great! In fact, that was how much he and his wife were living off of, while he wrote that book, so he wanted to take that bid. His agent advised him against it, even though everyone in his family thought he was crazy not to accept that money. He didn’t get another bid for two weeks and he was so nervous! But at two weeks, his second bid came in for $30k. He was ecstatic! His family again told him to take the bid. His agent advised him against it. On the final day of the auction the entire day passed without hearing from his agent. At 5:02pm he got the call from his agent that he had a bid for a two book deal for over $100k. Whew! He said that the publisher got John Grisham, who’d written The Firm, write the blurb for the cover and it meant so much to him that he’d done that. They’ve actually gone on to become good friends.
He told a story about writing another novel that revolved around religion. (I didn’t catch the title, maybe one of you guys know?) When he sent this book to his agent, he was shocked to learn that the publishing house didn’t want to pick it up because they thought it wouldn’t sell. That year, Dan Brown released The Da Vinci Code which was a huge hit. He was so angry that the publishers wouldn’t pick up his book that he was determined to show them they were wrong. He tracked down an editor at Dan Brown’s publishing house and made him promise to send Dan his manuscript. Dan was notorious for not giving blurbs on any book covers, so Greg knew if he could get one from Dan Brown, it would make all the difference. Two weeks went by and he got a call from that editor. He said, wait by your fax machine. He got a one page letter from Dan Brown saying that he’d been moving houses and his life was in boxes, when one day he got this package in the mail. He was curious and opened the box. He picked up the first page and didn’t stop reading for three days! Needless to say, Dan Brown wrote a blurb for that novel, actually a whole paragraph. Greg, called his agent and said “Wait by your fax.” That book was published and became the lead title that year.
2) How do you get all that information in your head and then put it down on paper? Greg (I can call you Greg, right?) said that he’s done the grass roots research approach, but he said that sometimes he also just meets people who help him out. He said he’s found interesting people at book signings before too. He gave a word of advice about doing research for a novel. He said ‘Don’t use but 1% of your research- it’s the kiss of death.’ You just need to write non stop.
3) What is the hardest scene you’ve had to write? Greg said that it’s some of the deaths he’s had to write. He doesn’t really think that hard about killing someone off, but then will get caught by surprise over how attached to these characters some of his fans will get, and they’ll send tons of letters. He did say writing deaths of children is disturbing.
4) How did Mississippi and Ole MIss influence your writing? Greg travels the country constantly. He said most places look the same and feel the same. When you get to Mississippi, it doesn’t feel like anywhere else. He joked about it ranking 50th for everything, including fattest state, but said that Mississippi has great art, Faulkner was from Mississippi, they had Elvis and the Blues was born in Mississippi. There is a lot of suffering in Mississippi. It’s a place of contradiction. The last three years have shown that racism is not just in the south, it’s everywhere in America. Double standards run very deep in this country, with people caring more about white kids missing than black. One on one, white people and black people get along well. It’s when they’re in groups that things get ugly.(referring to multiple police/race brutality issues in the last couple of years, in the north.)
5) How do you separate the difficult things you write about from your own life? How do you handle it? He chose to write about these things. His books at their core look at the nature of evil and why people do good and bad things.
6) How do you push through when your deadlines loom? He said that writing isn’t sitting there banging out sentences. It’s about telling a story. You’re born with it. You just got to have a gut feeling about it. It’s not postcards on a wall. It’s getting that character to the next thing, and then the next thing.
The last part of Greg Iles conversation really struck a note with me. He said readers are waiting for that epiphany. That moment where you feel it. Everyone learns by suffering and some people only have a limited amount of suffering that they can handle. He said that personal experiences are like gold nuggets. When you are writing you dole those nuggets out one at a time. He referenced one book where he got emails from people all over the world. All of those emails referenced the same moment and page number in the book. The same page resonated with all of them.
Suffering makes art. Are you willing to do that?
After he was done speaking, he went out to his table and signed books for everyone interested, my husband and I included. That’s my husband, Derry, with Greg Iles above. This event was definitely worth my time and I’m looking forward to reading this book.
Until next week!