Mississippi author Greg Iles reflects on ‘Southern Man’ the book he put off cancer treatment to finish

Published 8:41 pm Wednesday, May 29, 2024

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, New York Times Bestselling Author and Mississippi author Greg Iles had a needle in his vein slowly administering the drugs to combat cancer that threatened his body.

A few hours later, he would head to Cathead Distillery in Jackson for a Q&A session organized by Lemuria Books on the launch of his latest book, “Southern Man,” the much-anticipated follow-up to Iles’ “Natchez Burning” trilogy.

While Iles was looking forward to meeting his fans in Jackson and talking about “Southern Man,” he was a bit apprehensive, as well. The chemo drugs that have kept him alive until now have caused his body to puff up from water retention — he’s gained 40 pounds, he said — and made him diabetic. 

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“I will be up there in a wheelchair, looking fat. Needless to say, I don’t feel very presentable,” Iles said Tuesday early evening in a phone conversation while on the road.

Southern Man is Iles’ latest Penn Cage novel, the seventh to date. In it, Iles continues his exploration of racism but this time delves into its terrifying national implications.

Despite an illness that threatens his life to this day, Iles put off a stem cell transplant that could save him in order to finish “Southern Man.”

“I waited to do the stem cell transplant, which some people will tell you is insane, but this book is so important. What it deals with is so dangerous and is what the country is dealing with right now. It’s an important political novel,” he said. “I was not going into a procedure like that, which could potentially kill me without it being finished.”

Southern Man has earned rave reviews from authors like John Grisham, who wrote, “A first-rate political thriller…an unflinching look at the frightening rise of fascism and Trumpism,” and Stephen King, who wrote, “Greg Iles is one of America’s great storytellers. This is his latest and best.” 

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “This is a perfectly done political thriller with genuine resonance…Astonishing.” 

Writer Stuart Miller published an extensive story in the L.A. Times on May 23 about “Southern Man” and Iles’ work writing it and the backlash he expects from it. Iles told Miller, “If I can make white readers see America — even a little bit — through a Black character’s eyes, we have a better chance of finding common ground.” 

Iles, 64, in the meantime, has to forgo the typical press junkets to promote his book because of his illness, which he revealed in a letter to his readers on Jan. 29.

“In 1996, when I was 36 years old, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer that had recently killed Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart,” Iles wrote, released on his website, gregiles.com.

Iles wrote he was asymptomatic and remained so until two years ago. His “extraordinary run of luck ran out, and my myeloma ‘switched on.’ I nearly died before I was even aware that the disease had reawakened.”

The chemotherapy Iles is receiving is preparing his body for that stem cell transplant, which he will undergo in Jackson when his body is ready.

“They monitor my numbers every week. I could have easily gotten to those target numbers when I was re-diagnosed. Once it switched on, I could have had the transplant within two months. But that’s when I made the decision to push ahead. It’s not as easy to get to those numbers now,” he said.

Finishing the book while dealing with his health challenges hasn’t been easy, but he praised the physicians and healthcare providers he works with.

“It’s been a struggle, and it’s taken longer than I anticipated. Dr. (Jack) Rodriguez (Natchez oncologist) has been great. He’s working with some of my transplant team. I was hospitalized twice in Jackson at UMMC and once in Natchez,” Iles said.

Because he is unable to travel extensively to promote “Southern Man,” several independent bookstores are offering signed copies for sale. A list of those bookstores is available on Iles’ website, gregiles.com.

He is also determined to have a book signing in Natchez, as he has done for his recent books. Past proceeds have gone to Natchez Children’s Services, The Stewpot or other charities.

This time, Iles is working to make certain that proceeds will go to those fighting a battle with cancer right here at home.

“We weren’t able to put a book signing together before publication. We are in consultation with some people to organize the right group. It’s important the right person runs it in order for every dollar to get to local cancer patients, the people who really need it,” he said.