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The Bone Tree by Greg Iles
Last year's Natchez Burning--the first in the "Natchez Burning" trilogy--was a best seller that further established Greg Iles as one of the finest contemporary Southern writers working today. Pat Conroy sat down with Iles in light of the publication of his next book in the series, The Bone Tree.
Pat Conroy: Does the South that we grew up in still exist? A land and people with their own unique identity? Obviously, that older South had terrible inequities built into its foundations, but it also had abiding virtues. Does that unique character still survive down in Mississippi? Or has the homogenization of America sterilized it, as it has most other states?
Greg Iles: I like that car commercial that says "Imported from Detroit." Mississippi's a little like that now, except in truth, more of the old soul of the South survives here than in most other states. The blues and rock-n-roll weren't born here by accident. We have both extremes"”joy and suffering"”in abundance, and all things between. But I've always remembered something Peter Applebome of the New York Times wrote: "We would all be worse off if in our admirable rush to extinguish the South's ancient sins, we end up burying its enduring virtues as well."
Conroy: Like me, you've written honestly about your home state and region, both its people and institutions. What kind of reaction have you gotten from "the natives" for being brutally frank about an era in which the South clearly wasn't at its best?
Iles: The thing people outside the South don't understand is the degree to which we've assimilated that trauma and moved on. Prejudice is universal"”not limited to the white race, much less the white Southerner. Down here, black and white have always lived cheek-by-jowl. In the 1960s, there were single counties in Mississippi that contained more African Americans than several northern states put together. My point isn't that terrible things didn't happen here"”they did. And they usually happened right out in the open. My point is that it's easy to pontificate on morality when you don't have skin in the game. As soon as large numbers of black Americans moved north in search of high-paying jobs (and better schools and housing), prejudice reared its head in the North very quickly.
Conroy: In your "Natchez Burning" trilogy, you're writing about what all we so-called "Southern writers" have focused on"”family and its burdens. And for sons, that always seems to come down to fathers in the end. How did your father shape these books?
Iles: They wouldn't exist without him. Though he was a doctor, my father spent his life devoted to books, to building a library on Southern history and the Civil War. And he certainly inspired Tom Cage. Tom's sins are not my father's, but my quest to understand my father runs through the marrow of several of my novels. I always felt that you were writing to work out what made the father who seemed to hate you the way he was. I've spent mine trying to penetrate the inmost heart of a man beloved by everyone"”Atticus Finch with a stethoscope"”and to discover whether any of us really knew him completely. My father's death cheated me of a key to myself.