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The George Dawes Green Interview: A Storyteller's Storyteller...

The George Dawes Green Interview: A Storyteller's Storyteller...
By James Calemine

"Necessity is the mother of several other things besides invention."
                                                         --Flannery O'Connor

George Dawes Green knows storytelling. He’s an expert. Green wrote The Caveman’s Valentine (the film adaptation starred Samuel L. Jackson), which won an Edgar award. Green’s next book, The Juror, was a best seller in 22 countries as well as adapted into a successful movie starring Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin. Green’s latest book, Ravens, takes place in our hometown of Brunswick-St. Simons Island, Georgia . Ravens tells the story of the Boatwright Family who just won 318 million dollars in the lottery, and how trouble begins from that moment on…

In 1997, Green founded The Moth—“a raconteur club”—a not-for-profit storytelling organization based in New York City. Now, The Moth conducts at least eight ongoing programs and has brought more than 3,000 live stories to over 100,000 audience members. The Moth storytelling club now operates in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles as well as Dublin and Kazakhstan.

Some Moth Storytellers and Notable Headliners of the past include: author Jonathan Ames, author Kurt Anderson, actor William Baldwin, author John Berendt, comedian Louis Black, humorist Andy Borowitz, writer Jim Carroll, actress Teri Garr, actor Ethan Hawke, screenwriter Buck Henry, NPRs Garrison Keillor, filmmaker Albert Maysles, Pulitzer winner Frank McCourt, the late George Plimpton, Salman Rushdie and Gay Talese among others.

In this Swampland interview, Green discusses his early days, his huge success, The Moth, the latest book Ravens, Bob Dylan & Joni Mitchell, Flannery O’Connor, a Georgia/Moth tour to support independent bookstores and his latest thriller he’s writing in Savannah, Georgia. Even in conversation, like his prose, he doesn’t waste words…a silver tongued-raconteur indeed, but there’s a scope and depth in his work unparalleled in at least a few generations. I look forward to our periodic interviews. He's a force in the modern day literary scene...

James Calemine: Well, let’s get into this thing…our big connection remains St. Simons Island, Georgia--we share the same hometown…prowled the same streets in our youth…

George Dawes Green: Yeah, I was born in Idaho. My dad was a publisher of a weekly newspaper, but it would belly up and we would go from one town to another. Finally, when I was 12 we came back to Saint Simons Island. My mother is from Georgia. She always wanted to be down here. I was kind of resistant coming to Georgia because I’d been around all over the country and Georgia seemed so backwater. For a while I was resistant…

JC: What were your early literary influences?

GDG: As a boy Thackeray was an influence. I don’t remember why particularly. I really got into Mark Twain. I read everything by Mark Twain—I was a fanatic. I was pretty young, 7 or 8. I fell in love with Letters From the Earth. That’s my earliest influence.

JC: I know you told me before about how you took a bye on school, but somehow you broke into the literary world.

GDG: It took awhile. I was in my early 20s. At some point I decided to travel particularly around Central America. Then I started a clothing company. That was kind of exciting. So, I became a businessman, which seemed like a very strange aside from my life. Then I finally just decided that I wasn’t going to be a good businessman. I was doing well and I enjoyed it for a while, but I finally realized I just had to write. It came to a crucial moment when I decided to sell my company. That’s when I decided to sell my company. That’s when I wrote The Caveman’s Valentine. From then on I was a writer…

JC: Did you find it weird that in some respects you went to sleep obscure, and woke up famous? Suddenly Hollywood was throwing money at you…

GDG: Yeah, that’s what happened. It happened very suddenly. I sold The Caveman’s Valentine and it was a little while before they actually published it. So, I was working on The Juror and finished it just as they published The Caveman’s Valentine.

JC: Good timing…

GDG: Yeah, I thought The Caveman’s Valentine was going to get lost, like most things get lost. What happened was that I was getting the Valentine reviews just as The Juror publisher gave me lots and lots of money. Then Hollywood gave me a lot of money. So yeah—I had money…two hit books…I was doing very well…it was all great. It was really fun. There wasn’t really a downside to it, although later when I wrote Ravens, it’s about a family that suddenly comes to wealth and how that can be destructive. I knew I had to give away a lot of money. That’s when I decided, ‘God, I’ve got to do something here.’ That’s when I decided to start The Moth.

JC: Before we get to The Moth, I wanted you to talk a little bit about a quote of yours where you said Flannery O’Connor is a “looming presence in your fiction.” Swampland’s Mystery And Manners is named after her book…she’s a hero around here.

GDG: I don’t remember when I started reading Flannery. I guess I was about 16 when I started to read her stories. Flannery is a very unkind writer. She can be very brutal and cruel to her characters. She never shows them any generosity, which doesn’t appeal to me as a writer. I feel as though—even if it is necessary to treat them unkindly—I always try to show them a good time for at least a little while. Let them relax and enjoy life because otherwise we have no connection to them. They seem like ciphers. I think that’s true with Flannery O’Connor.

So, normally I would feel condemnatory of that kind of style—it’s brutal and unnecessarily dark. But because Flannery O’Connor is so brilliant—she’s so essential—you have to always be forgiving of her. So, anything I find to be extravagant about her approach I automatically forgive because she is constantly reminding us her approach to the world. Her approach was very simple. She thinks the world was redeemed by a savior 2000 years ago. This blood sacrifice took place out on the fringes of the Roman Empire in this small and obscure execution and the reaction to it in an obscure Jewish cult is the principle fact of existence. All existence has to be seen through this, and if it’s not seen like this it’s an utter waste of time. I find that to be so fascinating that I’ll always be enthralled by Flannery O’Connor…

JC: I thought of “Good Country People” a couple of times while reading Ravens. So, you were living in New York, and in 1997 you started The Moth. It’s a not-for-profit storytellers club. It’s grown considerably since then…

GDG: Yes. Well the Moth has always been about people gathering around listening to stories. People say this is a revival of ancient art forms, but actually it’s never really been regarded as an art form. Storytelling is what we do at The Moth—just spontaneous personal stories. The kind of stories you would tell in your kitchen or out on the porch. That kind of storytelling has never been celebrated. In other words there’s always been storytelling on stage, but that kind of storytelling was all memorized. Mostly religious storytelling that is throughout history and I don’t think that before The Moth there had really been an example of storytellers really being brought up on stage to tell their unscripted tales. Even Mark Twain on his lecture circuit was telling stories that were written down. So, there was something quite new about The Moth in the sense that The Moth isn’t going to be a success if people feel it’s just a memorized story. They have to feel the storyteller is reaching into his skull while he’s telling the story bringing up phrases and images. That’s what makes The Moth so present and immediate. It’s had this overwhelming success. Now, we have Moths all over the world. We were recently in Perth, Australia. Kazakhstan, Edinboro—all over. We have ongoing Moths...

JC: Not to mention Chicago, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles…

GDG: Exactly. We just did a radio show last Wednesday. I was hosting this NPR show with Wanda Bullard. She’s also a native of St. Simons. The Moth keeps growing and going in new directions. There’s a Moth in Dublin, Ireland, now that involves some Celtic rituals. It’s very interesting. It’s one of our new offshoots, but they’re all over.

JC: Tell me more about the Georgia school bus touring the state to support independent bookstores…

GDG: I went on a book tour for Ravens back in July and independent bookstores are in such trouble. In these little towns bookstores are just waiting to die; waiting to be crushed by the new Books A Million down at the mall. That seems to me a tragedy. Independent bookstores should be the center of community life. Physical books have a magic that we lose at our peril. I decided to put together this tour because The Moth has always sold out, no matter where we go. What we’re doing is, we’re putting four or five great Moth storytellers, musicians and a juggler on a painted school bus. We’re going to travel through little towns throughout Georgia on behalf of the independent bookstores. We’re asking people to understand that bookstores are a vital part of the community. We’re inviting people to take a pledge that whenever possible they will buy their books from independent bookstores—not from a chain or downloaded to some electronic pad. I think this is part of the resistance to the technology that has been overwhelming us. Three hours online I go stumbling away and I don’t know where the time went. There’s just not that same rich sense that you get when you spend three hours with a book. We’re just in the beginning stages of organizing. The plan is to do this in October.

JC: What are some of your favorite musicians? Howlin Wolf? Bessie Smith?

GDG: I love Bessie Smith. I love Bessie Jones (from The Sea Island Singers). The people who I feel mostly moved by are usually singer-composers. I was amazed to hear Joni Mitchell come down on Bob Dylan a couple of weeks ago. Is he authentic? I thought this was really interesting. Dylan is un-authentic, which is exactly what he should be as an artist. Authenticity doesn’t sit well on the shoulders of the true artist. All artists build themselves up—Walt Whitman did it—you create yourself. Dylan did create himself and so did Joni Mitchell. I was looking at some of her TV performances back in 1965 when she was playing up in Winnipeg, Canada, and she was just this pretty little Canadian folk singer singing about rainbows and you realize how she re-created herself because she had to. She had to keep expanding herself. Very typical Joni. She’s not very generous herself, but I thought she was an amazing writer. The amazing and compelling writer of today that I love is Cat Power.

JC: Chan Marshall—she’s great. Georgia girl.

GDG: There are a lot of great Georgia musicians.

JC: Were you living in Georgia when you started writing Ravens?

GDG: No, I was living in New York, but I have a place down here in Savannah. I spent a lot of time driving around Brunswick. I made some friends with a Georgia police officer who’d take me on his rides. So, I was sort of reabsorbing Brunswick, which is an amazing and strange community. It always has been. It’s not right on the coast, so all the energy gets sucked up by St. Simons, which allows Brunswick to retain its old self, mixed in with all these weird elements and influences of being a port city. What I love about Brunswick is pockets of—well you know—driving down Norwich Street it’s all one storefront church after another. I love Brunswick.

JC: Ravens is a fine book—very economical. No wasted lines and it plays out right on the last page…

GDG: That’s high praise.

JC: The character Romeo certainly is cut from the same cloth as Hazel Motes in some respects.

GG: (Laughs) Well, the other influence of Flannery is—as you say in Ravens the main character Romeo who is struggling so hard to be the mass murderer he’s expected to be; this psycho killer. He has a great struggle within him—it’s a little related to the struggle in The Red Badge of Courage—this sense of can I kill when I’m asked to by my beloved peers? I also kept thinking about a line from Flannery where she said—I guess it was a question—‘if one’s integrity ever lies in what he is not able to do.’ There’s power in that…

JC: Where the idea and reality meet…falls the shadow?

GDG: Yeah, I think that’s exactly it. I’m going to be touring for Ravens some more. It keeps coming out in different European countries so I’ll be back over there.

JC: I know you’re working on a book now revolving around Savannah. Anything you want to say about it at this point?

GDG: Well, the book touches on questions of slavery. It gets on historical ideas about Savannah. I just gave a talk at the Flannery O’Connor House about Flannery and Savannah writers. Obviously, this whole decision to allow slaves in the state…so slavery is touched upon, but the book is a contemporary thriller-taking place down in the storm drains beneath Savannah. It’s a scary book…

JC: Well, let’s leave everyone one the ledge with that, and we’ll catch up soon…

GDG: Sounds good James.


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