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An Alternate Universe and a Third-Party Presidential Candidate

The Big Thrill Interviews New York Times Bestselling Author Greg Iles


By R.G. Belsky

Book Cover: Southern ManGreg Iles pushes the “ripped from the headlines” concept to fascinating new heights in his latest thriller, SOUTHERN MAN, which could best be described as “ahead of the headlines.” If you think Donald Trump is the most controversial figure to ever hit the American political scene, wait until you meet Robert E. Lee (Bobby) White.

Author Photo: Greg Iles

Greg Iles

Bobby White is an American war hero, a popular radio host, and an incredibly charismatic candidate who at first seems like he could ride an unprecedented Third-Party avalanche of support to the White House—but we soon learn Bobby is hiding deep, dark secrets from his adoring supporters.

“It’s a huge and ambitious novel set in 2024, just ahead of where we were as I was writing it,” Iles said during an interview with The Big Thrill. “It’s not ‘ripped from the headlines,’ as the cliché goes. It attempted to predict the headlines a year ahead of where I was when writing it, and that’s a very dangerous game in the polarized America of the present election year.

“Robert E. Lee White is one of those rare characters you’re not sure about at first. Is he a hero or a sociopath? I don’t want to give spoilers here, so I’ll just say that I’m a little afraid of how my readers will respond to Bobby. Will they love him or hate him? Will they wish he was real, someone they could actually vote for in November? Or will they be thankful that he’s only a fictional creation? How readers feel about Bobby—at least up to a certain point—is almost a Rorschach test of every reader’s character.”

SOUTHERN MAN—a sprawling epic that runs nearly 1,000 pages—is the seventh book by Iles featuring iconic character Penn Cage. For readers who aren’t familiar with Cage, we asked Iles to give us a brief description:

“Unusually for a thriller protagonist, Penn is more of an observer than an action figure. He’s not a cop, a detective, a psychiatrist, or even a journalist. He’s a lawyer who gave up the law to become a writer, and then, seeing his hometown declining around him, let the crusader part of his personality drive him to run for mayor. As mayor, he’s found himself in the midst of murder, corruption, and other crimes,

“But by the time of SOUTHERN MAN, he’s 15 years past all that. Or so he thought. A tragic case of police misconduct resulting in mass casualties creates a situation in which the town’s Black mayor—whom Penn helped get elected—recruits him to try to prevent open warfare in the streets. Someone sets fire to the antebellum mansions that remain the cash cow, keeping the town alive by drawing tourists from around the world.”

There’s also a great deal of emphasis on Penn Cage’s personal issues in the book: the death of his mother, his health, etc., which Iles says he wrote because they reflect many of the same challenges the author has been facing in his own life.

“I was re-diagnosed with an incurable cancer while writing it. My mother died of the same cancer while I was writing it. And Penn Cage has always been at least partly based on me. I found that in writing an epic novel like this—almost 1,000 pages of a very personal nature—I was facing a major dilemma. I either had to let Penn diverge from me and lead a sort of bulletproof life or have him reflect and experience all the adversity I was going through in the real world.

“I gave Penn the same terrifying challenge with mortality that I myself am facing. In fact, I wrote most of this novel while going through what they call ‘double-chemo,’ in order to finish the book before undergoing a stem cell transplant, which I will endure shortly after the publication of SOUTHERN MAN.”

Like much of Iles’ work, SOUTHERN MAN is set in the history and culture of the Deep South, where Iles has lived for 60 years.

“They always say, ‘Write what you know.’ I sort of broke that rule in the beginning by writing two novels centered around the Second World War. I was born in Germany, while my father served there as an army doctor, so I knew a fair amount about all that from him and my mother. But once I made the transition to writing about the South—in Mortal Fear and then The Quiet Game—I realized I was pretty much stuck. I haven’t gotten too far away from my little postage stamp of earth since then.”

Racism is also a big issue in the book, as it is for the country, and Iles talks about why he did that.

“I made it a prominent theme in my fiction because I’ve known for quite a while that race is the primary driving force of most of the conflict in our nation, regardless of the surface skin of that conflict. Remember when Obama was elected, and people started talking about ‘post-racial America?’ How absurd does that sound now? My deepest conviction is this: it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

SOUTHERN MAN is such a huge, ambitious work that it took Iles four years to finish.

“I wrote it twice. The first time, Bobby White was not even in it. Can you believe that? I can’t even imagine that now. That’s why I had to trash the whole first draft. I’d never once done that as a writer. In fact, I’ve mostly published first drafts because I was so worried about my cancer switching on that I felt I had no time to polish anything. By the time I sit down to write, I’ve usually lived the whole book in my head, and it’s almost like taking dictation while flying in a trance state. This time…no. Thank heaven Bobby White brought himself to life to save my career, if not America.”

Did Iles know how the book was going to end when he started to write it? “No. No more than I know how this insane election year will actually end. I only wish I could be God of this world for 2024 in the way that a novelist is the God of his novel while he or she writes it. But alas…”

What’s next for Iles?

“Oh, man. I’m actually writing a much shorter book that involves historical characters in an alternate history. One is Elvis Presley, during a critical year of his life when he was reading nearly a book a day. Another is Richard Boone, the actor, an unbelievably interesting guy in real life….

“I’m done with 1,000-page epics for a while. Cancer will do that to you. But I plan on getting the last word—to the extent that any of us ever does. As a nurse once told my mother, who died of the same cancer I’m fighting now: ‘We ain’t put here to stay, baby.’ And as my friend and bandmate, Stephen King famously wrote in the story that became The Shawshank Redemption: ‘Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin.’”


The Big Thrill Interviews New York Times Bestselling Author Greg Iles

R.G. Belsky
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