Best–selling author George Dawes Green appreciates a good story. As a writer and the founder of The Moth, where people get on stage and share unscripted stories, he’s done his part in preserving the tradition of storytelling in the digital age.
If you haven’t heard of it, The Moth is a wildly popular nonprofit storytelling cooperative, with sold-out events regularly held around the country. Some of The Moth’s best stories will be part of a new radio show airing on National Public Radio starting in May.
Green is in town working on his fourth novel, and will be giving a talk at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home on Sunday as part of their spring lecture series.
We sat down with him at Pinkie’s one afternoon to discuss the new book he’s working on, the art of storytelling, the importance of Flannery O’Connor, and a tour to save independent book stores.
There are conflicting reports on the internet. Are you actually from Savannah?
George Dawes Green: Originally, no. I was born in Idaho, but I have a lot of family from Savannah and we settled in St. Simon’s when I was 12. I always visited Savannah a lot and I’m very connected to it. This book I’m writing, the new book, is steeped in Savannah history. It’s set in contemporary times, but it’s about the history of Savannah and the literature of Savannah.
Was it a conscious decision to suddenly use Savannah as a setting?
George Dawes Green: I wanted to do it for a long time. Savannah is such a fascinating city. I think that some of the spirit of Oglethorpe still survives; the fact that Oglethorpe was so open to so many different groups being here. Then opposed to that were the slave owners. Savannah was churning out pro–slavery propaganda through the war.
Do you know Nelly Norton? It’s a book about an abolitionist who comes down from the north to visit her uncle’s plantation near Savannah. It’s a didactic novel, meant to persuade the readers of the virtues of slavery. She comes up with all the abolitionist arguments, but they are all crushed by slave owners who show her that slavery was endorsed by the Bible. She ends up marrying one of the slave owners.
It’s twisted. The tone reminds me of some of the letters to the editor in the Savannah Morning News.
What got you so interested in that aspect of local history? Is this something you just started researching for the book, or have you accumulated this over the years?
George Dawes Green: It’s been ever since I was a kid. We’d been moving around until I was 12 from one city to another. My mom comes from an old plantation. The Moth has a podcast, and one of them is called “The house that Sherman didn’t burn,” which is my story of my mom and me growing up in the South, starting to get adjusted.
To change gears to The Moth, were you surprised by the reception of it?
George Dawes Green: No. From the very first Moth in my apartment, I realized everyone was going to love it. You could see that everyone wanted to listen to stories. It’s just really in the last few years that it’s kind of exploded. I had a feeling it was going to. People want to go to stories. It’s in our DNA.
The oral tradition is certainly one of the oldest human practices.
George Dawes Green: The Moth does something different. For thousands of years there’s been the oral tradition, but the kind of stories we tell, these intimate stories about our foibles or whatever, those unscripted tales, those have never been presented before an audience. People talk about Homer telling stories, but they were all scripted. The Moth tells stories that Homer was telling after the show when he’d talk about the assholes at Athenian border security.
That’s the kind of story we’re telling. People had never brought that on stage before. It’s a very elemental art form, but it had never been accepted as an art form. We have this radio show now. We did the pilots back in October and November. Now we have 215 radio stations signed up.
How does the radio show work? Are you recording live performances?
George Dawes Green: We have years of The Moth on tape. We’re taking the best performances and then stitching them together into a show.
Do you have any plans to do one in Savannah while you’re here?
George Dawes Green: I’m down here to write. I kind of have to write. We have a project that’s under way now, that’s different but similar. When I was going around Georgia to independent book stores for my book tour for Ravens in July, I found that a lot of independent book stores are just waiting to die. So I’m organizing a tour.
We’re going to go to 20 towns all over Georgia in October with the Moth storytellers on behalf of independent bookstores. We call it the Unchained Tour, and we’re inviting people to take a pledge that says henceforth they will buy all their books from independent book stores, unless they can’t find them there, and then they can go elsewhere. It’s all really tied into this idea that people are becoming chained to chain stores and the internet.
Tell me if this is true: You go on the internet and you intend to spend five minutes checking up on something, and two and half hours later, you get off not knowing what you just wasted your time doing. The internet is sucking up our lives. I’m not saying it’s without value, but it brings a strange addiction. It wastes time, and that’s all we have.
What we really want to be doing is having experiences with our friends and communities. We really want to be doing things like The Moth. The Moth is the perfect thing because you go and listen to some stories and then you stay up and drink and tell stories. Talk about interactive. It’s a reaction against this manipulative corporate world; this is what we’re trying to get away from.
Did you take such a long break between the second and third books, were you taking a break because you wanted to or because you didn’t have the muse singing on your shoulder?
George Dawes Green: I wasn’t really aware that 14 years had passed. The Moth took a lot of time. I worked on a couple books that I decided I didn’t want to go any further with. It was a surprise to me that all this time had gone by. I was traveling. I went all over the world. I don’t like to write. I’d rather be outside. It’s a little bit hard for me to focus. It requires discipline.
Why is it that storytelling remained a more vital part of Southern culture than anywhere else?
George Dawes Green: I don’t know. Southern storytelling is not like Yankee storytelling. Walker Percy had a great answer for why Southerners were better storytellers, and his answer was “we lost.” I guess I buy that. Maybe it’s because we take the time.
When I went to New York, there was a sense that, at cocktail parties, you’d have 24 seconds to speak before you’d be interrupted. You could see other egos starting to rear and kick in their stalls while you were expounding. No one is given the space to weave a story. A little bit has to do with porches down here. Storytelling really suffered when they stopped building porches. When they shut up the porches, they moved social life to the backyard. It became a much more exclusive social life back there. When they moved the porch to the patio, it started destroying community, and now people don’t hang out on their patios either.
For Savannah writers, or even Southern writers, what kind of impact does Flannery O’Connor have?
George Dawes Green: People don’t talk about this, but Flannery is perhaps the most bitter writer America has ever produced. I don’t know anybody who has such extreme, constant darkness. Her characters never have a good day. Even Faulkner will give you that once in a while – a moment of sunlight. I find it very compelling. She doesn’t think the things people are doing to amuse themselves are really worthy of the amount of time they spend on them. I wonder what she would think of the internet.
Is this what your talk next Sunday is going to be about?
George Dawes Green: It’ll touch on that. Any writer who comes from Savannah is haunted by Flannery O’Connor, no matter what they’re writing, because the world today is filled with this overlay of garbage. Post–modernism demands we focus on quotidian events, on all this triviality. What Flannery wishes to do is remind us of these very painful essential truths.
A great story she wrote, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”, is the only story she really wrote about Savannah. It’s about a young girl here and a carnival. In some ways, it’s her most essential story, because it’s the only story where she’s really reaching back into her own childhood. This little girl is surrounded by triviality and the chatter of older girls. Suddenly there’s this moment where the little girl sees through all this chatter to something that feels eternal. That’s what Flannery is. People talk about the ghosts of Savannah, but to me Flannery is the ghost that haunts these streets.
'Flannery O’Connor & the Savannah Writer’
When: April 25, 3 p.m.
Where: Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home, 207 E. Charlton St.
Cost: Free and open to the public