Iles explores the unrest in the South during the 1960s in his fourth Penn Cage novel, Natchez Burning.
You were born in 1960. What do you recall about the civil rights struggle and violent lynchings?
In October 1965, the largest KKK meeting in the South was held less than a mile from my house in Natchez [Miss.]. My father walked me far enough down the road to see adults and children wearing white robes, and even horses decked out in Klan regalia. I’ve never forgotten that. He shot photos to document the event, and explained to me, even at that young age, that this meeting symbolized the essence of intolerance and evil.
To what extent were these events discussed at your home?
My father served as an Army doctor in West Germany in the late ’50s and early ’60s. As a result, he and my mother—both native southerners—were acutely aware of what had happened during the Holocaust. They taught my brother and me about this when we were very young, and they drew the direct and obvious parallel between what had happened in Germany and what was happening in Mississippi.
Is it a coincidence that both your father and Penn’s father, Tom, were doctors?
No coincidence at all. A large percentage of my father’s patients were African-American. By sheer chance, he was also the company doctor for Armstrong Tire and Rubber. Armstrong employed not only a significant number of Ku Klux Klansmen but also Wharlest Jackson, the NAACP treasurer murdered by the Silver Dollar Group—the violent Klan offshoot upon which part of Natchez Burning is based. I’d like to stress that Dr. Tom Cage’s sins are not my father’s, but my dad and Tom share many of the same virtues. I was lucky enough to be raised by a man of great integrity and rectitude. That said, he was also human and had his secret sins, as we all do. It was quite a blow to have my perfect image of my father shattered, but that’s something we all face before we come to full adulthood. The threads that make up this novel were weaving themselves together long before I wrote my first book in 1993. It was probably the death of my father that cemented my decision to go forward to completion.
Did you need to do research?
My ancestors fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War; I was raised in Natchez, Miss.; I performed in the Confederate Pageant for a decade; I dug ditches and loaded trucks with black men who taught me more than any book ever could; and I graduated from Ole Miss. Anyone who survived that is a de facto expert on the South.