An Epic Tale of Friendship, Betrayal, and Secrets
By Dawn Ius
In an era when many believe the attention span of readers is at an all-time low, New York Times bestselling author Greg Iles embraces the “epic tome.” He has no choice; that’s pretty much how his books come out these days, whether he plans for it or not.
Last year, when the final chapter of his bestselling Natchez Burning trilogy released—a series spanning more than 2,400 pages—Iles considered writing something simpler, shorter even. But his latest novel, CEMETERY ROAD, is a hefty standalone thriller that to no one’s surprise reads at a seemingly impossible rapid pace—or perhaps, would be impossible in the hands of a less capable master of the craft.
“I’d initially planned to write a small-scale noir novel set in Oxford, Mississippi,” he says. “In the end, I couldn’t make the transition from the epic canvas to the small canvas that quickly. CEMETERY ROAD occupies that middle ground.”
The novel begins with a poignant, powerful, and shockingly short first chapter, propelling us into a story that is a stunning tale of friendship, betrayal, and—in typical Iles fashion—the secrets that threaten to destroy a small Mississippi town.
At the heart of this thriller is Marshall McEwan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is reluctantly lured back to this town—his home—by his terminally ill father. Not only is his dysfunctional family hanging on by a thread, so too is the family-run newspaper.
“I generally don’t write protagonists who are cops, spies, army officers, etc.,” Iles says. “I write about people in more ‘normal’ jobs, who by the nature of their work get into moral dilemmas and physical confrontations.”
While McEwan is a blend of the journalistic heroes of his youth—think Woodward, Bernstein, or the more modern archetype of Jon Meacham—Iles admits the character profile was influenced somewhat by the distinct scrutiny facing today’s news media.
“The more external plot dimension in this novel involves corruption in a small town, corruption that stretches back to Washington, DC,” he says. “It’s very timely because it’s related to things like deregulation and the stunning changes at the EPA. Our journalists are at the forefront of this inverted reality where obvious facts are denied, and the agencies created to protect things are being used to destroy them.”
Also not surprising is the fact that the inspiration for McEwan isn’t the only thread of truth in CEMETERY ROAD, though divulging much more than what can be found on the book jacket copy would spoil the shocking twist at the end.
“Let’s just say that both the questions of business corruption and sexual histories are about as timely and relevant as any issue I could be writing about in this moment,” he says.
This perceptiveness is one of the hallmarks of an Iles thriller, and CEMETERY ROAD does more than just tackle headlining topics—it’s a thought-provoking body of work that taps into another issue close to the author’s heart: the sense of desperation in a lot of US small towns.
In this case, the river towns in Mississippi.
“I suspect readers will wonder what lines they might cross to gain economic salvation if they were in such dire straits,” Iles says, adding that there are additional messages to be gleaned from this novel, particularly from the book’s dense interior drama.
“I hope people will come away more attuned to the reality that the behavior of people around us is often motivated by facts we don’t know—in other words, secrets. Quite a large percentage of folks around you at any given time are in the midst of extramarital affairs. I think we blind ourselves to this to get through the day. But if you pay attention, you’ll realize that the most significant dramas going on around you are just beneath the surface—invisible, but immensely powerful in determining events.”
It’s a lot to cover—not something Iles could do in a shorter book. And anyway, fans would argue that when it comes to his extraordinary prose, longer is better. With his characteristic blend of historical reality and fiction, and a staggering command of the craft, Iles weaves in a tremendous amount of emotional depth, while keeping the linear timeline short, and the pacing more parallel to “fast” conventional thrillers.
A daunting feat for some, yet one Iles makes look easy—while remaining humble.
“In truth, my process is almost 100 percent instinctive. As a musician I never read music. And as a writer, I try not to think consciously about craft. I’m certainly aware of the many levels of this art that we practice, and I’m decently well-read (with some shameful gaps), but I try not to think about craft as I write,” he says. “When I’m writing, I tend to produce 3,000 to 6,000 words per day, and I very rarely go back over that. To the extent that it’s possible, I try to live the novel with my characters in each moment, letting the demands of the story dictate style.”
For aspiring—and even seasoned—writers, Iles will distill some of this methodology at the Kauai Writers Conference this November, where he’ll be teaching a master’s class on craft. In addition, Iles says he’s working on three different projects—“but I’m learning to keep my mouth shut until the proper one makes itself known.
“I’ve gotten involved in both local and national politics behind the scenes in the last three years, and it’s been a stunning education in human nature,” he says. “My favorite novel is All the King’s Men, and it might just be time for an update to that genre.”
No promises, but Iles hints that readers may not have seen the last of Marshall McEwan.