Famed raconteur, founder of global storytelling nonprofit The Moth and eighth-generation Savannahian dug deep into local lore to create his latest novel
GEORGE DAWES GREEN isn’t afraid of the dark.
As an author, his books delve into complicated and mysterious stories. His first novel, “The Caveman’s Valentine,” won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1995 — a prestigious honor by the Mystery Writers of America — and became a motion picture starring Samuel L. Jackson. His second novel, “The Juror,” was an international bestseller and became the basis for a film starring Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin. His third novel, “Ravens” was selected by Stephen King as one of the 10 best books of 2009.
There’s also his global storytelling phenomenon, The Moth. What began in Green’s Brooklyn apartment in 1997 has grown into thousands of live shows as well as virtual events, workshops, a podcast, Peabody Award-winning Radio Hour and New York Times Bestselling books — all of which illuminate the diversity and commonality of human experiences through the power of telling true, personal stories.
Last year, Green released “The Kingdoms of Savannah” — his first book in 14 years. While fiction, the real people and places that inspired the novel may make this story one of his most intimate yet.
Here, the famed raconteur answers questions about his decades-long fascination with a hidden history that shaped the book. Plus, he shares what’s next for him as The Moth celebrates 25 years this summer.
Colleen McNally: You’re an eighth-generation Savannahian and have spent years researching the city, splitting your time between here and New York. I’m curious when and where you first got the idea for your latest novel, “The Kingdoms of Savannah”?
George Dawes Green: My favorite house in Savannah is this beautiful brick house on the corner of Lincoln and Hall that was owned by my cousin. That’s where I lived for many years when I first really started coming back to Savannah as an adult. The house has always played a big role in my life. I remember thinking about a character — a young woman that I had met in Brunswick, Georgia, when I was 19 years old — who had sort of invented her life and invented her accent. She was a country girl. She was from Surrency, Georgia — out past Jesup, just a little town out in the plains.
I started to wonder what had ever become of her. I imagined that she had come to Savannah and pretended to be a Savannahian, taking the non-rhotic accent of the Savannahians that has no “r” and no “ahh” at all.
I began to think of her as a detective. I imagined she was a widow whose husband had a great deal of money; she had a big, sprawling, very dysfunctional family, and she pulled all of the family members in to help her with her detective cases. I called her Morgana Musgrove, and that was the basic idea for the novel.
Then there were certain historical threads that I’ve been interested in for 30 years. Since I was a child, the history of Savannah has always been fascinating to me.
CM: Tell me more about the research that went into this book. What is fact and what is fiction?
GDG: One of the things that I’m very interested in is a community of Black soldiers who had fought on the side of the King of England during the Revolutionary War. After the war was over and their side lost, they refused to go back into a condition of slavery.
A number of them went to a wilderness island on the Savannah River, about 17 or 18 miles north of Savannah. They built a hidden fortress there and fought off the Georgia Militia. Enslaved people from all up and down the Savannah River came to join them until there were perhaps as many as 200 people living in this community with more than 20 houses, with a wall surrounding it that was half of a mile long. They flourished there for years. Finally, Georgia and South Carolina had an alliance and were able to find the fortress and tried to defeat these folks who were called maroons.
Most of the maroons were able to escape. Some of them may have made it down to Florida, which at that time was a Spanish colony. There seems to be some evidence that they appealed for asylum to the King of Spain, and they were granted it. We even have some indications that they were still very active 20 years later. They were people who fought for their freedom, and it looks like they had won.
My friend John Duncan — the great Savannah icon — had mentioned this group of folks in a conversation. He had, I think, done a college paper on the maroons of South Carolina and Georgia, and then I got sort of obsessed with them. I went to the Georgia Historical Society to look for evidence of the island. I got a kayak, and I went up the river with my friend Chad Faries and my brother. We didn’t find the fortress, but what’s interesting is that after “The Kingdoms of Savannah” came out, a number of historians were really intrigued by this tale.
This story has been mentioned before in academic histories, but it’s never really become popularized. Very few Savannahians had ever heard this story before “The Kingdoms of Savannah.” But now, there is a very active group of people who have formed The Friends of the Hidden Fortress who are contacting foundations to get money for research. Archeologists are coming down to visit, and this group thinks they can find the site of the original fortress, which has been lost for 235 years.
When I say “fortress,” I want to be clear: I’m not talking about a big, stone fortress. They had simply created a wall out of logs and reeds, and they had built all of these houses, and they had lots and lots of boats. But it wasn’t by any means an offensive fortification. It was simply defensive fortification.
They knew if the militia seriously attacked them, they would just have to run, and they did. But they wanted something that would slow down the militia so that their wives and children could get away.
It is interesting that all traces of that community were lost, but things survive in Savannah stories for generations. I heard a story from this Savannah gentleman whose family had property not far from where the fortress was. He heard a tale that had been passed down through generations, and the tale got really mixed up. It was a tale of what you call “runaway slaves” that were living on one of the islands and had come across a pirate ship that had run aground. The hold of it was full of gold, and they took the gold and buried it somewhere. So, when he was a boy, he and his friends would try to go and find the hidden pirate gold.
Well, that story isn’t true at all, but it is really interesting how the old, true stories of Savannah will survive. They are always tinged with wealth porn. It’s always about how you can become rich, plantation glories or stories of the like. But it’s interesting that there are little traces still in our collective memories.
CM: You mentioned the Georgia Historical Society. Can you talk a little bit more about what information you were able to find there?
GDG: The Georgia Historical Society (GHS) is a strange institution, and it is really quite a great institution. There was a librarian who was perfectly willing to help me to find these old documents — old court records. Some of the community were arrested. One of them was tried for murder, convicted and beheaded, so you’ve got the whole court case that really tells the story of the community. They keep old maps and records.
Right now, some people involved with the Friends of the Hidden Fortress are probably over there looking for some of the old title deals — very, very difficult to track down. But we think that might help us to find the location of this community.
The thing about the GHS is that there are really lovely people working there, and it has become a great institution of learning. But, it’s also a repository of dark deeds. Savannah’s history has been very, very dark at times.
Still, I love the city. It’s the most beautiful city in the country without question. Oglethorpe’s designs are still amazing — how he thought about all the different ways in which a community would interact when he designed the squares, and how all the small businesses would be centered around the squares. Some of that design has gotten lost over the years with some bad zoning legislation, but some of the design is, of course, still with us and makes for this gorgeous city. So, I love Savannah.
But it’s very important that Savannahians recognize how dark our history is and how dark the character of the city has been — and in some ways, continues to be. There is still a lot of that corruption and darkness that still survives.
CM: Earlier this year, you gave the opening address at the Savannah Book Festival. What has been the reaction to this book from readers — both in Savannah and beyond?
GDG: I thought I was going to get a lot more trouble since I painted such a dark picture of Savannah. But a lot of Savannahians are well aware that there was, initially, a tremendous reaction against “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” until they realized that telling real things about Savannah doesn’t besmirch the character of the city.
[Real stories] actually, in some ways, enhance the character of the city for those who come to visit, because they feel that it is a real place filled with human drama.
So, I haven’t heard a lot of complaints at all. I’ve heard a lot of excitement, actually, from people who think that it’s time to really engage with the history of the city.
Also, much of the book has to do with the way the city is now and some of the threats to our happiness. The ghost tours have just inundated the city, and we are over-touristed, and we may be losing some of the sense of what makes Savannah a brilliant place to live: that deep sense of community. But, when you have areas of the downtown that are simply owned by absentee landlords or Airbnbs, and there are fewer and fewer actual residents living downtown, that detracts from the quality of the city as a living city.
We could turn into a tourist city the way downtown Charleston has. But the greatness about Savannah is that it’s really living. It’s thriving. It has all these different kinds of industries. So, that’s one of the issues that we have to grapple with, and people are very interested in talking about that.
CM: At the heart of the book are strong female characters. In addition to the widowed matriarch and socialite, Morgana Musgrove, there is her granddaughter Jaq — a student who is working on a documentary called “Some Town Out of a Fable” — and a middle-aged archaeologist named Matilda Stone. Can you share the inspiration behind these women?
GDG: There are a lot of different people I’ve known who have inspired the character of Matilda Stone, called “Stony.”
One of them was Cornelia Bailey who lived on Sapelo Island. When I was 19 years old and living in Brunswick, I worked as a tour guide for a while and went out to Sapelo Island. Cornelia was a few years older than me and was also a tour guide there.
She gave a personal tour of her childhood growing up in the Geechee community on Sapelo Island and the incredibly powerful memories she had of all of her relatives. There was one point on the tour when we went to an area that was abandoned after the former owner, R. J. Reynolds, made the community leave.
She brought us up to that place, which was called Raccoon Bluff. We walked through a palmetto field — there was nothing there — but she could show us where her aunt had lived, where the general store was, where the post office was.
As we walked down this nonexistent avenue, she absolutely painted this vivid picture before us of a living community that was gone and her love for that community. That influenced me profoundly.
Cornelia was an extraordinary raconteur, and so to some extent, she inspired the creation of The Moth. She was one of those storytellers whom I met here as a child, and I couldn’t shake the memory of their profound stories.
Years later, I brought Cornelia to New York — after we had launched The Moth — to tell some of her Sapelo stories.
The other thing that inspired me was her pure dedication to that community and to the memory of it. And that went into the character of Matilda Stone, who is in love with this historical community and has such an intense passion for it.
Cornelia was one of many women who inspired me. Of course, so did my mom, Inez. My mom is called “Little Inez” because she comes from a family that was filled with [women named Inez]. Her grandmother was called “Big Inez,” and Big Inez was a powerful matriarch. Big Inez, and all of those stories from the old days, all find a way into the book somehow.
[The character] Jaq also is inspired by several people whom I’ve known, particularly a young activist who was at the Savannah College of Art and Design and then went off to Ethiopia to find her roots. She was very aware. She is in love with this city, but she also hates the neglect of the real history of Savannah. There is always that profound mix. I just wanted to talk about these women like Jaq who are going to create the Savannah of the future — and why I feel fairly confident that it’s going to be a great city.
CM: In the novel, Morgana is a member of a book club named for Flannery O’Connor, though the other members generally dislike O’Connor’s “grotesque” and “miserable” stories. I wonder if her book club would read “The Kingdoms of Savannah”?
GDG: This is a good question. I think the ladies would read it because it’s a contemporary thriller, and because it’s about Savannah.
I don’t think they would have quite the same problems that they had with Flannery. Flannery, as you know, is very, very dark. “The Kingdoms of Savannah” has some darkness in it, but it’s interleaved with a lot of humor and lightness and beauty. And it’s also a thriller. There’s a big mystery.
Some readers are taken aback a little at the beginning, when they say, “This isn’t like the thrillers that we normally read. This is about real history.” But, for the most part, I think people really do engage with it.
I have this great book club here in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which is really old Brooklyn. When you think of Brooklyn women, these are the women of Bay Ridge. [The club is] a group of women, mostly in their 50s and 60s, who have been meeting for years and years at this book club, and their response to “The Kingdoms of Savannah” was hilarious. They would talk about Morgana and her political struggles in Savannah, and they seemed to grasp it very well. I think it felt a little bit to them like the Brooklyn that they remembered.
CM: The characters in your book speak in a variety of dialects. Given your experience with The Moth and vocal storytelling, did you have some particular opinions about how the audiobook was recorded?
GDG: I didn’t record the audiobook because it’s obviously very delicate. I can’t go around imitating voices, so I was glad they hired actors.
Now, I do wish I had recorded some of it. I love to read the book, and sometimes I will make an attempt to do Morgana’s accent.
I didn’t move down to Brunswick, Georgia, until I was 12 years old. We had lived in a bunch of little towns up north, and then finally my mother prevailed. She is the old Georgian, and she finally said we are going to move back down south.
So, I don’t really have a Georgia accent. I don’t really have a Yankee accent either. I’m sort of someone who is stuck in my own strange voice. But I do love those voices. And if you give me enough Madeira, I will sometimes venture to do a Savannah voice.
Morgana’s voice is, of course, based on my grandmother’s accent. I still hear it in my head.
Those are beautiful voices, and we’re losing them a bit, aren’t we? There isn’t a sense of the old guard anymore. The community of the old guard is always mixing with the new folks who have moved down from New York or Atlanta, so you don’t hear too much of that perfect, non-rhotic accent anymore. And that’s a real loss.
CM: Other than the storytelling and the accents, what do you miss most about Savannah when you’re away?
GDG: The thing that makes Savannah so beautiful is a real sense of community. When you go to the great cafes of Savannah like Foxy Loxy or The Sentient Bean, you instantly have this sense of this community.
Go into the courtyard at Foxy Loxy. I sit out there to work, but friends come up all day long — all these folks that I know — and that’s a beautiful thing. … I will always keep coming back to Savannah.
CM: Congratulations on 25 years of The Moth! How are you celebrating this impressive milestone? What stories are you telling next?
GDG: It has been fun! As you know, The Moth has grown to be a global phenomenon. Somebody once said, maybe it was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Moth was the first global movement to come out of Savannah since the Girl Scouts.
We are everywhere now. There is a Moth or a Moth clone, something inspired by us, in every capital of the world. Last year, we had about 200 million downloads of our podcast.
Now, from mid-May to mid-June, I will be going up and down the coast of Georgia collecting great personal true stories on video and audio. [The project] is for a group called One Hundred Miles, a conservation group along the coast. We will be going with a team of some fabulous people — just collecting stories.
The people whom I love [to talk to] the most are the 90-year-olds who can remember how things used to be. But sometimes you get great stories out of 12-year-olds. You just never know.
We really do tell better stories here than anywhere else, in my experience. And that is probably all mixed up with the darkness of our history. Southern Gothic comes out of inequality. There are just so many different strains of culture that go into our storytelling prowess.
But I do think that South Georgia is the capital of stories. Almost anywhere that I’ve been, people love to hear the stories of South Georgia.
The greatest raconteur living is Edgar Oliver, one of our great Moth storytellers, who grew up in Savannah. You should listen to his stories about his mother and his sister. They had a profound impact on me. When we do the story-collecting project, I think I’ll bring Edgar down as well.
Also, Aberjhani is a poet living in the city who is a brilliant raconteur and a bit of a recluse. I was able to coax him out one evening back in July, just to tell an incredibly moving story.
It’s amazing how much talent there is. It’s not just Flannery O’Connor and John Berendt. There is a lot of genius in this city.
CM: Speaking of genius, you’ve created New York Times Bestselling books that have been adapted to major motion pictures and the Peabody Award-winning Moth Radio Hour, as well as have inspired more than 50,000 stories told at 6,000-plus live events since 1997. Of which accomplishment are you the proudest?
GDG: I’m proud when I write a page that I feel good about. There are certain moments — I guess for every writer — when you go back to a book that you’ve written and certain pages seem to flow. There is just some connection between the characters that you dreamed up and some sense that they really live, or deserve to live. If they aren’t living, they should be. Those are the moments when I feel most proud.
But I’m also very proud of the communities that we’ve built from The Moth and the other storytelling organizations that I’ve been involved with.
Once, I brought a bus full of folks — great storytellers like Neil Gaiman were on the bus — and we went to the little towns in the South where there are still independent bookstores to tell stories, and crowds of people turned out. We had a huge crowd in Savannah. There was that real sense of community of people listening to stories.
We all understand the power and the necessity of our electronic media, but I think I’m proudest when I’m at some event and a whole audience is electrified by the connection between a storyteller and the people hearing the story.
To learn more about the author, visit georgedawesgreen.com.