Mar 28, 2017
The hyper-prolific, #1 New York Times bestselling author, Greg Iles, took a few minutes to chat with me this week about the conclusion to his epic trilogy, his unique writing process, and making the move to television.
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At 16 novels and counting — all but one of which have hit bestsellers lists — Greg has been called the “…William Faulkner for the Breaking Bad generation,” and his books have been adapted for film, translated into over 20 languages, and published in more than 35 countries.
His epic Natchez Burning trilogy clocks in at close to 750,000 words and started out as a single novel that he expanded after a near death experience — a car crash that left him in a coma — which ultimately changed his mind about how he wanted to write it.
His final installment in the series, Mississippi Blood, concludes the story of Southern lawyer Penn Cage, (the protagonist of six of his books including The Quiet Game, Turning Angel, and New York Times #1 bestseller The Devil’s Punchbowl).
Iles’s epic tale of “… love and honor, hatred and revenge … explores how the sins of the past continue to haunt the present,” and Stephen King described the series as “… extraordinarily entertaining and fiendishly suspenseful.”
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In Part One of this file Greg Iles and I discuss:
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Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files once again. I am still your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. The hyper-prolific number one New York Times bestselling author, Greg Iles, took a few minutes to chat with me this week about the conclusion to his epic trilogy, his unique writing process, and making the move to television. At 16 novels and counting, all but one of which have hit bestsellers lists, Greg has been called the William Faulkner for the Breaking Bad generation, and his books have been adapted for film, translated into over 20 languages, and published in more than 35 countries.
His epic Natchez Burning Trilogy clocks in at close to 750,000 words, and started out as a single novel that he expanded after a near death experience, a car crash, that left him in a coma, which ultimately changed his mind about how he wanted to write it. His final installment in the series, Mississippi Blood, concludes the story of Southern lawyer Penn Cage, also the protagonist of six of his books, including New York Times number one best seller The Devil’s Punchbowl. Iles epic tale of love, honor, hatred, and revenge explores how the sins of the past continue to haunt the present. Stephen King described the series as “extraordinarily entertaining and fiendishly suspenseful.”
In part one of this file, Greg and I discuss why the author decided to take a break from rock and roll to start writing novels, the importance of finding your unique writing voice, how Greg tries to go as long as possible without writing a word, on the author’s frenetic writing sprints and impressive word counts, and why writers need to not overthink the process.
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And we are rolling once again on The Writer Files podcast with an esteemed guest today, and a very busy guest, I would imagine. Hyper-prolific, multi-genre, New York Times best-selling author of, looks like 16 novels now, and counting, I would assume. But, we have Greg Iles on the show today. Thanks for popping on here to talk to us about your writing process.
Greg Iles: Thanks, Kelton.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. This is an exciting time for you, with your most recent publishing of book three of this amazing trilogy, the Natchez Burning Trilogy, has recently been published as of the date that this will go live. So congrats on that.
Greg Iles: Thank you.
Kelton Reid: You are just going crazy. You’re kind of on a press tour, press junket, and getting out there and meeting folks. That must be fun for you.
Greg Iles: I hope that was sarcasm. It’s fun when you actually get to the place where you’re hanging with readers. But I mean, it’s a lot of work getting from town to town doing two cities a day.
Kelton Reid: Well, it looks like you are on the road and got a lot of different dates lined up, so I’m sure that’s great for your fans and readers, to get out there and connect with you. I’ll post a link to that, all those tour dates, so that folks and listeners can hook up with you.
So, I mean, to say that this epic trilogy, the epic in quotes there, is pretty amazing, because it’s, I mean, you said something to the effect of like three quarters of a million words, all told. I’m looking at these books. They’re sitting here on my desk. They’re not thin tomes, Greg. You put in a lot of time and energy into this.
Greg Iles: You know, it started out to be one book. Now that’s three books at roughly 800 pages apiece. The third one’s 700 pages. But the funny thing about it is the first two books, I kid you not, happen over about a seven day span, and that’s 1,600 pages. Now, there are flashbacks to the 1960s, but still, it’s told in a very granular way, second by second, really.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Well, as you conclude, I’m sure you’re breathing a sigh of relief getting that out there to the world. You’ve been called the William Faulkner for the Breaking Bad generation, which is a pretty neat tag there. I mean, Stephen King said of the original, or the first installment there, that it was “an extraordinarily entertaining, fiendishly suspenseful” series. So congrats on kind of wrapping it up.
But, you know, I want to get into kind of your process. I understand that you kind of write in sprints, and you’ve always been, I mean, hyper-prolific is a pretty apt term, I think. But, if we could dig into your productivity a little bit, and kind of talk about that. I guess first, for listeners who aren’t familiar with your journey just as a writer, how did you go from being kind of like a young rock and roller to a number one New York Times best-selling author?
Greg Iles: To an old rock and roller, that s about
Kelton Reid: Right.
Greg Iles: It’s a … I’ll try to condense it there, really. First, I’m of the school, I’m firmly convinced writing is something you’re just born to do. I think you can make people better writers by teaching, but inherently, storytelling is just something, I think most people have it by the time they’re six or seven years old. It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do. It was just something I could do.
I liked music a lot better. Music is a lot more fun, honestly. After college, I played music till I was about 29. But the first year I was married, I was on tour for 50 weeks out of 52 playing music, and that was just getting old, you know? I realized at a certain point I was never going to be Sting. I could make a living, but I wasn’t going to be the best in the world. At that point it was either do something else in the arts or get a real job, which I wasn’t about to do.
That was when I turned to what I had just always known I could do. People frequently … and my first book was really a huge book in terms of size. It was about 240,000 words. It did become a best seller. But the funny thing is, people would say, “What was the last thing you wrote before that?” I’d say, “My college term paper 10 years ago,” which was true. I’ve turned to something that I knew I could do.
Greg Iles: The thing I always say is this, Kelton, writing meant … command of the English language is nothing but a hammer and nails. It’s just a bag of tools, man. That’s not what writing is. Writing is having a voice, and command of narrative and time and these intangible things. That’s the thing that gets sort of baked in when you’re young, I think, and you steer it where you want to go from that.
Kelton Reid: Well, I mean, I think it’s interesting to read about this story you tell about kind of shutting yourself in your apartment with library books and just, it’s like you decided to be a writer. Did you have that aha moment, like right then, when the words started to hit the page? Or did it take a little bit longer to kind of set in that this was going to be a lifelong journey for you?
Greg Iles: Well, about five years earlier I had, I got one of the first desktop computers that was available to buy. It was an IBM clone, and I mean ’83, I think it was a 10 megabyte hard drive. But anyway, it had a very early word … the very first version of Wordperfect, which is a pretty much moribund software program now.
Anyway, I sat down with that, I remember, and I wrote two paragraphs, just out of the blue, of what six years later would become that novel and best seller. It’s like it was just … I didn’t just decide to be a writer one day. It’s just like I said, I just decided one day, I mean, I knew I could write, so I just decided, well, the question is, Can I really pull off a book at the level where people will pay me to do it? That’s all it really was, you know?
Kelton Reid: Well, I know that you’ve got this great website where listeners can find all of your books. Obviously, they’re not hard to find out there. Because since the publishing of Spandau Phoenix, I think most of your books have been best sellers.
Greg Iles: All but one, and the one that’s not is actually the best one. There’s your typical publishing irony right there.
Kelton Reid: Well, I have definitely been a fan since The Footprints of God. One of the definitely different genres that you write in there. You’ve done so many different things. What are you working on now? What could you possibly have up your sleeve?
Greg Iles: Man, I’m doing a couple of things. Although Footprints of God, that brings up an interesting thing. If you want to know how hectic and crazy this business gets, back when Footprints of God came out, that was something that broke the … that was so out of the box for me. The publisher didn’t really want to do it, after it was done. But I eventually won that battle. What’s funny, back then a guy who was friends with or working with Dave Matthews, the rock star or whatever, contacted me about making that into a film. And I was excited about it. But, my life was literally so hectic, I didn’t call back, and I didn’t even remember till like three years passed.
Kelton Reid: Oh, man.
Greg Iles: That’s how crazy things get when you sort of get on this book a year commercial thing. It’s just nuts. Now as far as what I’m doing now, my next book is going to be about a third as long as these books. It’s set in Oxford, Mississippi, at Ole Miss. It’s sort of a film noir put to paper that’s going to be fun. It has sort of a literary side to it. I’ve also gotten some opportunities to do some TV writing, and I’m exploring that right now. Because the new dramatic extended cable series are just where it’s at, man. That is … that’s so much better than feature film, and it offers so much potential for story that you just can’t resist it, you know?
Kelton Reid: That’s cool. That’s cool to hear. When you look at stuff that guys like Elmore Leonard did with Justified, I think, those are cool to see. Then of course there’s so much happening in that space right now for writers. They need great writers like yourself to put words on the page for those actors, for sure. So we’ll be interested to see how that goes for you.
When you … before you kind of sit down to get going on a new piece, I mean, it seems like you’re just doing an enormous amount of research. Are you kind of processing, interviewing, researching for weeks on end before you get into something, years on end, before you kind of synthesize everything onto the page?
Greg Iles: It depends on what you’re doing. A lot of guys who do this for a living essentially rewrite the same book every time, so that makes it easier. I’ve never done that. I’ve jumped from genre to genre to genre. Certain things I’ve done were enormously research intensive. But my little, the lesson I learned there the hard way is, throw away 99% of what you learn. Never include anything because it’s just so cool you have to put it in, number one.
But, once you start writing about what you know and following that ancient dictum, Write what you know. Obviously, a lot of what you need to know has been distilled into you over years and decades. But, also, the thing I want people to understand is, writing is a much more passive thing than people think it is. That goes back to what I said about the actual writing, words to a page is like a bag of tools. The real work is done passively in your mind, deep in you, when you’re doing other things. I try to go as much of the year as I can without writing anything, and the story’s working itself out.
Greg Iles: I think of a story as sort of jungian potentials of these different characters, protagonists, antagonists, shape shifters, shadow characters, whatever. I don’t think of them that way, but that’s what they are. It’s working itself out. Then one day it’s like you’re a pregnant woman and your water breaks, and I haul butt to get to my ease reclining chair with the hospital table over it, and I start working in bouts of 12, 16, 24 hours. In the last third of the book I’ve worked bouts of 36 hours straight.
Kelton Reid: Wow.
Greg Iles: A good day for me is like 30 pages. A bad day for me is like 10 pages. I have a very frenetic, intense, immersive way of working. For me, especially if you’re going to write something that’s supposed to be a thriller, at least loosely a thriller, the fact that you’re living it real time, just boom, boom, boom, boom on the page rather than calculatedly writing three, four pages a day and overthinking everything, to me that’s the way you get that intensity down on the page.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I mean, you have a very interesting process, and that kind of illumination phase, obviously, is kind of when you’re sitting there and getting all that stuff out of yourself. There are such cinematic qualities to your writing. Do you feel like listening to music kind of assists that process? Or are you someone who needs to sit in silence and get it all onto the page?
Greg Iles: Well, I’ll tell you what. I used to listen to music. Like, I had playlists. I know some writers who do that. Some writers, the writer John Connolly, he actually released a CD of the stuff he listened to while he wrote a certain book. But, I got over that, and I’ve reached the point where now I have this cool setup with multiple screens. To the left of my main screen is like a TV screen, movie screen, whatever. So I actually play movies while I’m writing, sometimes.
Like, when I was writing The Devil’s Punchbowl, I watched Michael Clayton probably 436 times in a row. It sort of plays in the background. I’m not really processing it. But something like that, that’s not the ideal background, what I call background movie. But, things that have really well written, tightly written scripts, that are mood pieces can sort of just wash over you without you having to engage. My eyes really stay on the screen, and I do my writing. But I don’t know, man.
Greg Iles: What you’re trying to do is not overthink the process. If you sit there in dead silence and stare at every word, think of how long you’re going to ask yourself, “Oh, is that right? Is that not quite right? Should it be this?” You can’t do that. You’ve got to get in the zone. It’s like an athlete, really, getting in a peak state. Then once you get in that, the only thing that will really intrude on you is like super sudden noises, or calls of nature, or whatever. That’s it, man, you know?
Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s cool. That flow state seems pretty important to your process, and to a lot of writers, I’m sure. But getting those sprints where you’ve said you get 5,000, 10,000 words, that’s pretty impressive stuff.
Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show, and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. And you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.