by Leonard Gill
“There was this guy in the English department at Ole Miss. He asked me to stay after class one day.
“I said: ‘Did I do something wrong?’
“He said: ‘No, Mr. Iles. I just want to make sure you know something.’
“I said: ‘What’s that?’
“He said: ‘I want to make sure you know you can write.’
“I said: ‘Well, um, yeah, thanks.’”
“John Grisham took one of Willie’s classes. It was Willie who told his student Donna Tartt to go to Bennington to study writing.
“I wouldn’t say, though, that at the time I was steered into writing. I didn’t even have any intention of being a writer. I was more into music, and that’s what I did for eight years after college. Writing was just something I always could do. But it meant nothing to me. It wasn’t going to help me get the best-looking girl. It wasn’t going to be my career. The last person I knew of from Mississippi who’d written anything was Eudora Welty. Back then, it wasn’t like Grisham or anybody pointing the way.”
And it wasn’t like Iles’ mother could point the way either.
“When I was 14, my mother told me: ‘You know what you’re going to be? You’re going to be a Hollywood screenwriter.’ I was like, she’s out of her mind. Nobody from Mississippi could be a Hollywood screenwriter.
“What it took for me to become a writer was getting to be 29 years old, being married, touring as a musician 50 weeks out of 52 and thinking, This ain’t no life. I gotta do something. I sure wasn’t gonna get a real job.
“So that’s when I quit playing music, locked myself in my apartment for one year, and wrote Spandau Phoenix.”
It would be the first in a long line of novels that eventually landed Greg Iles on nationwide best-seller lists.
“That professor, by the way, was Michael Dean,” Iles added of the teacher who told him he could write. “He comes to my book signings. His prophecy came true.”
“Sort of Crosby, Stills & Nash but more alternative” was how Iles described the sound of the band. “It was fun, and look: Playing in a band is a lot more fun than being a writer.”
Proof of that: The Rock Bottom Remainders, the lit-rock band Iles still plays in when he can and depending on who can join him onstage — names you may recognize: Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Roy Blount Jr., Matt Groening, Stephen King, James McBride, Roger McGuinn, Ridley Pearson, Amy Tan, and Scott Turow.
The Remainders may be inching toward retirement, but just the other day they took a gig in Tucson. “Old rock-and-rollers never die,” Iles said. “They just keep on going.”
And Greg Iles is still touring despite the serious car accident he was in in 2011. His tour stop on Thursday, May 1st, from 6 to 7 p.m. for Natchez Burning: The Booksellers at Laurelwood. Memphis? Iles, who lives in Natchez, Mississippi, feels almost home.
“New Orleans … Natchez … Memphis: They're all river towns though they aren’t all the same, but you could drop me in Memphis and I’d feel practically just as at home as I do in Natchez,” he said. “And my best childhood friend, John Ward: He went to Ole Miss too, and when I was 14, 15-years-old, he taught me to play guitar. John now owns Ecko Records in Memphis, and he’s given me some insight into the blues.”
And it was Ward’s older brother who helped land Iles a place to live in Oxford when he was a student: the cabin of “Mammy Callie.” She’d taken care of William Faulkner and his brothers when they were children. But Iles, who said he isn’t about to go New Age-y about the ghost of William Faulkner, admitted: “Living there did affect me, for sure.”
What, apparently, didn’t affect him as it has so many Southern writers: a long line of family storytellers.
“No, not really,” Iles said of any such family line. “My father was a physician and amateur historian. My mother was an English teacher, though she never tried to mold me. But based on my father’s library and what my mother cared about, maybe I did absorb writing by osmosis. My uncle, however: He could tell a story, including stories about being a barge captain in Africa. I’ve heard everything.”
“For some reason, people feel compelled to tell me things, people I’ve barely met. They sense I care about their stories, their lives. And as a writer, you can’t be an elitist. Like Faulkner said: ‘Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes.’"
Which is another way of saying: “You gotta keep your ears open, your eyes open,” Iles concluded. “That’s what a writer does.”
And listening to Television, the band, is how Memphian Corey Mesler opens his poem “I Was Listening,” one of the nearly 100 outwardly observant but deeply introspective poems in Mesler’s latest collection (and borrowing from Frank O'Hara), The Catastrophe of My Personality (Blue Hour Press). But more than listening, visualize this: “Picture of the Poet Reading,” another poem in the collection.
No reason to have to picture the poet, however, on the evening of Thursday, May 1st. That’s when Mesler will be reading from and signing his new collection (cover design by Mesler’s daughter Chloe and Susan Sweetland Garay). The signing is from 5:30 to 7 p.m., with the reading at 6 p.m., and the location is the book store Mesler co-owns with his wife, Cheryl. You know it — as Memphians have known it since 1875: Burke’s. •