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Apr 4, 2017

How Bestselling Author Greg Iles Writes: Part Two

In Part Two of this file, the hyper-prolific, #1 New York Times bestselling author, Greg Iles, returned to chat with me 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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If you missed the first half you can find it right here.

In Part Two of this file Greg Iles and I discuss:

  • The author’s take on writer’s block
  • A tour of Greg’s “space shuttle” desk setup
  • The mad science of how the author intertwined multiple narratives and historical flashbacks over three epic novels
  • Why truly creative people never get bored
  • Some great writing advice from a truly prolific author

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

How Bestselling Author Greg Iles Writes: Part Two

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Kelton Reid: Welcome back once again to The Writer Files. I am your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. In part two of this file, the hyper-prolific number one New York Times Best-Selling author, Greg Iles, returned to chat with me about the conclusion to his epic trilogy, his unique writing process, and making the move to TV. 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 it 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 two of this file, Greg and I discuss the author’s take on writer’s block, a tour of Greg’s space shuttle desk setup, the mad science of how the author intertwined multiple narratives and historical flashbacks over three epic novels, why truly creative people never get bored, and some great writing advice from a truly prolific author.

The Writer Files is brought to you by the all the new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for authors, bloggers, podcasters, and affiliate marketers, as well as those selling physical products, digital downloads, and membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress now. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. And if you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.

The Author s Take on Writer s Block

Kelton Reid: So, do you have anything to say to writer’s block or the … Is it a thing? Do you believe in it? Have you ever experienced it?

Greg Iles: I wrote a line last night in the first chapter of my next book, I went back and revisited. And this writer in residence is having trouble with his book, but anyway, the wife of the dean, kinda catty, in a catty way, he says he’s … She asks when the book’s coming out and he prevaricates. She says, “Not having a bout of writer’s block are you?” And he says, “That’s not a real element.” And she goes, “Oh, you mean like blue balls? Or Fibromyalgia?”

So, anyway, writer’s block … my real story’s this. When I was in college, I studied with Willie Morris, who now is a great thing. A lot of writers were in that program right around that period, Donald Tarup, John Grisham, just several people who went on to be writers. And he brought William Styre, James Dickie, a lot of these writers down. But, one of the writers he brought was John Knowles who wrote A Separate Peace.

And Willie had talked a lot, with all respect to Willie and he’s passed away now … He talked a lot about writer’s block in that class, to the point where it got kind of scary. So I remember a student asked John Knowles during the Q & A about writer’s block and he just got this bewildered look and said, “What is that? That’s just a fictional thing. That doesn’t exist.” He said, “I’ll never live long enough to get down everything I want to get down on the page.” And that’s exactly how I feel. If I open my Dropbox thing of book ideas on my cell phone, there’s already more stuff there than I’ll ever live to do, so …

Writer’s block, in the sense of “I’m paralyzed and I can’t go on,” I guess you could get yourself into that state, but mostly it’s going to be a self manufactured syndrome where you’ve set in mind your goal is to be the next Jonathan Franzen, or the next whatever, and so you re judging every single word you put down on paper. There’s just no point in doing that.

A Tour of Greg s Space Shuttle Desk Setup

Kelton Reid: Good point there. Well, it sounds like you’ve got a pretty exotic setup there in the office. Are you a PC guy or do you use a Mac?

Greg Iles: I’ve got a setup … man, my setup looks like you could fly the space shuttle from it. Three monitors, one s a TV monitor, one’s a Mac monitor, one’s an IMac 5K and the other is a Windows to the right. And the reason is because Bill Gates, or Paul Allen, or whoever are so … I don’t even want to use the word I want to use, but they don’t allow Word for Mac to have the full feature set. So, there are certain things, like the floating command window, wherever your cursor is, that exists in the Microsoft version, but not the Mac version.

When you re drafting a novel, that’s fine. But, when you get into the copy edit stage, especially on something like mine with 800 pages with 3,000 queries from copy editors and researchers, you’ve got to go through that markup document with balloons. The Mac doesn’t handle that worth a crap. So, once I get to that point at different times I switch to the Windows machine. I know that was a long answer, but as a matter of practicality, I like Macs much better. But in terms of business, I always have to keep Windows machines ready to go for that reason, and there’s some other software programs that are like that too.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s pretty fascinating. I’ve never heard that before. But, of course, with three quarters of a million words to sift through, I’m sure that that comes in handy. So, do you have … with a trilogy like the Natchez Burning Trilogy, how on Earth are you staying organized? With all of that information and these historical pieces and so many characters, do you have any organizational hacks that you can share with other writers that keep you … help you keep it all together?

The Mad Science of How the Author Intertwined Multiple Narratives and Historical Flashbacks Over Three Epic Novels

Greg Iles: Imagine the most Baroque looking steampunk perpetual motion machine from some artist’s imagination. That’s the state your mind has to get into to pull this off. I’ll be 100 percent honest with you. It was being in that state that caused me to have my wreck and lose my leg and nearly die, because you can’t … I don’t know how other people do it. I guess you could tack 500 notecards to the wall.

But, for me, to manage something like this for multiple narrative voices and historical flashbacks and all that kind of stuff, you have to bring it all to life in your head in perfect relationship with each other and that is such an immersive experience that if everything else has to be blocked out. You can’t worry about bills and your kids and .. you have to have somebody in your life or multiple people who protect you from all that, and you have this slowly turning perfectly integrated machine spinning in your head while you are putting it out.

That’s not to say you’ll get it perfectly, and I was in that state when I had my accident and nearly died, and once you get to the copy edit phase, what you really need is a brilliant copy editor with obsessive compulsive disorder. All copy editors have that to a degree, but some are truly gifted and you gotta have one of those.

Kelton Reid: Wow, wow. Yeah you are kind of a mad scientist, it would seem, of the words sphere. So how does Greg Iles unplug at the end of a day and turn it off? How do you get to a place where you can rest?

Greg Iles: I haven’t had a vacation in eight years. You never turn it off. You can’t escape it. That’s the reality. I’m not whining or griping. I wouldn’t want any other job, but you just .. If you get in the kind of state I just told you about, that doesn’t ever go off. Now that I’m at the end, people say, What do you do to chill? Well, a vacation for me is just a different kind of work. I ll work on TV series, or I ll work on my next thing, or whatever. But, I really don’t know how to stop and chill, you know?

I mean, let’s just say this. Along the way, certain human experiences that we all know about are so intense that they can take you away from reality. And I’m not talking about drugs, or sex, but something has to rise to the level of intensity that it can blank out everything else. I think that’s the reason. Coming from the music business, I think that’s the reason so many artists wind up with addiction problems because they are seeking escape and they are involved in a career that doesn’t have any structure to it, specifically. It’s not related to days or hours or time or anything like that. The commitments, or the demands, generally overwhelm you so, you just seek escape wherever you can.

Why Truly Creative People Never Get Bored

Kelton Reid: Well put. Well, your steampunk analogy brings to mind a very creative mind, but do you have a definition of creativity in your own estimation?

Greg Iles: You know, I hear people talking about that term a lot. They have developed this noun, creatives, the developed people who are … it can be anything from graphic artists to whatever, you know, but creativity … every kid, I think, to a degree, has a certain amount of creativity, except maybe some engineers. I’m not saying some engineers aren’t creative. I’m talking about that personality type where everything is A + B + C + D = E or whatever, you know what I mean? They see everything in black and white. But creativity is just imagination, is what it is.

In a way, it’s what Bobby Kennedy said, “I look at things that aren’t and say why not?” You look at a blank space and you see something there. That’s why I think the … for true storytellers, the form doesn’t even matter … I mean, I’m a songwriter … the first movie I sold, I wrote in 5 days and I’d never written a script in my life. And I’m not bragging about that, I’m just saying writing and telling stories is just what I do. In the same way that somebody who sings … I’m not a great singer, I’m an average singer. I m never gonna be a great singer.

I know guys who didn’t even finish high school who can walk in a room and in one cut can make you cry with their voice. People have different talents. Creativity … that’s a big general question. But what I’m saying is that it’s a talent that if you have it, it applies to almost everything. You’re lucky when you have it. It’s not a curse, it’s a blessing, because if you re really a creative person you will never in your life be bored, ever.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, I like that a lot. Well, I’ve got a couple fun ones for you. If you could choose any author from any era for an all expense paid dinner to your favorite spot in the world, who would you take and where would you take them?

Greg Iles: I’m trying to think of the hottest writer I can think of … nah, I m just kidding … I would take .. I might take Carl Jung, actually, maybe. I might take one of the Greek tragedians maybe.

Kelton Reid: You can bring them all.

Greg Iles: You can bring them all?

Kelton Reid: Yeah, sure.

Greg Iles: I thought you said I had to choose one.

Kelton Reid: Well, I’m breaking the rules for you.

Greg Iles: Or I might … you know the smart thing to do might not be take like Euripides. The smart thing might be to take like Jimmy Buffett, you know?

Kelton Reid: And where would you take Mr. Buffett?

Greg Iles: I’d get on his sea plane and let him take me to some low surf and go bonefishing or something like that.

Kelton Reid: Perfect, perfect. Do you have any writer’s fetishes? Do you collect any first editions or weird pencils or old typewriters that you keep around for inspiration?

Greg Iles: I’ve got some first editions. I’ve got a first edition of The Honorable Schoolboy by John le Carre, which is a book that I ve reread a lot. I’ve got a couple of first editions of Thomas Harris who wrote Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.

Kelton Reid: Oh nice.

Greg Iles: He is a hippy guy like me; a lot of people don’t know that, but he is. As far as fetishes, though … You know, I do a weird thing that I’ve been trying to … if somebody wants to make a billion dollars, here’s what they need to do. I have this thing where before I go to bed when I m almost just totally passed out, I write longhand in the bed. And I can’t even read my own writing, it’s such a waste, you know? But for note taking, somehow coming through your hand, when I write prose I want to write on the computer, but when stuff flows out of my head, I want to write it longhand.

I know Donna Tartt writes longhand. A lot of people do. Peter Strob writes longhand. But almost all of the tablet apps that do that are just non organic, you know? The ergonomics of them are just stilted. If somebody could really, really hack that, to where you could write anywhere on the tablet and it translates into searchable text that’s just worth a billion dollars, man. And nobody has really done it yet.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s cool. And I’m sure somebody is patenting that as we speak, hopefully. All right, well, before we leave listeners with your advice on how to keep going, do you want to say a couple more words about Mississippi Blood the final book in the trilogy, the Natchez Burning trilogy, featuring Penn Cage, the protagonist?

Greg Iles: Yeah, I’ll just tell yeah. It’s not what you think it is. Don’t hear that it’s this massive epic about the civil rights murders etc., and think it’s going to be dry or pedantic or anything like that. This trilogy is one of those things you start reading and you go, Holy s***, this is real. I like this. I’m not going to waste your time. The other things is, I’d like people to go back to the Natchez Burning, the first one, because really it’s the most intense of all three. But you can start on the third, Mississippi Blood if you want to.

I took enough care that someone can come to it cold and understand it, but I’d suggest you go back. And the reason I tell you that is, you know, when President Obama was elected, a lot of people were talking about America being a post racial society, and that just seems like a tragic joke now. Race is and will remain one of the central problems in American life for a long time, and I think there’s a lot of insight about that in this trilogy.

Some Great Writing Advice From a Truly Prolific Author

Kelton Reid: Yeah, for sure. And it is timely. A very interesting time in history. But, congratulations on the publishing of that final piece of this epic, epic trilogy, that interweaves crime, lies, and secrets, past and present, in a mesmerizing thriller. Listeners should seek that out and they can see you on the road. We’ll link to those tour dates as well. My final question is to your fellow scribes, can you offer some advice on how to keep the ink flowing, how to keep the cursor moving?

Greg Iles: I’ll tell you something Grisham said that’s the best advice I ve heard. I’m not very good at taking that advice, but it’s pretty good advice. And that is, when it’s really flowing well for him, he stops. It’s like, Don’t write to the end of what you are into right now, because then you re at a stopping place, and the next day you get up and you re stopped. You procrastinate, you whatever. If you stop while it’s flowing, when you wake up, you know, you want to go on.

Now, I’m so damn compulsive that doesn’t work for me. I’ve got to like, fully exhaust myself, okay? But just … the thing about this business, this art, this trade, is every book is different. Even every one of my books is different for me, and certainly every writer is different. So just, man, live in whatever it is you are doing. Once you’ve started, forget about whether it’s going to sell or about what anybody’s going to think or whatever. Just get it out, man. Don’t even say, It’s gotta be perfect. Finish it. Then you can go back. Perfect is the enemy of good. That’s my final advice.

Kelton Reid: Love that. Perfect is the enemy of good. Keep going, listeners. Greg, thank you so much for stopping by the show and sharing your writerly wisdom with us. Best of luck in all of your endeavors. We look forward to anything new that comes out from you. Good luck with the tour.

Greg Iles: Thanks Kelton. I enjoyed it, man.

Kelton Reid: All right, cheers Greg.

Greg Iles: Bye, bye.

Kelton Reid: 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.