(typewriter dinging) (dramatic violin music) - My name is George Dawes Green and my book is "The Kingdoms of Savannah."
"The Kingdoms of Savannah" is a mystery story about an imperious old widow who lives in a great big Savannah mansion.
And when her husband dies, he leaves her a detective agency.
So she inveigles the members of her family, her adult children and grandchildren into helping her.
Even though they all pretty much despise her, they're also in awe of her.
(dramatic violin music) - So, George, what is it about Savannah?
Why is it that it just ensnares writers?
- Well, it's a fascinating place and first of all, it's gorgeous.
I think it's the most beautiful city in the United States.
It's all those live oak trees and the Spanish moss and the vines, and the vine flowers and the fragrances and the gorgeous buildings with their towers and their turrets and the mystery.
And beyond that, it's always had a big streak of evil.
(intense piano music) - What's your deal with ghost stories?
Because in the first chapter of the book, the characters are deriving the ghost stories and they are great stories, but they're not necessarily true.
- Yeah, I mean, Savannah has been permeated with this spiritualism for, I mean, at least since the Victorian era.
We would often have seances.
They were called tip table seances.
Do you know, have you ever don't seen this?
- I don't.
- Well, what you do is you'd take a little three-legged table and then everybody would sit around in a circle and join pinkies, and then after a pause, my mother would say, "Is there a spirit "present in this room?
"If so, please rap once for yes."
And so after a little while, the table would sort of magically rap.
And who knows why it did that.
Maybe somebody was guiding us.
- But then mother would call would call out for some kind of message to be delivered from beyond the grave.
And usually we had the sense that it was big Inez, my great-grandmother, who was telling us something, but the messages take a long time because well, you have to go through the alphabet, A, B, C. And then finally, finally you get to W, it raps, and then all the way back to the beginning.
So I'd be sitting there and it was very hot in this rooms.
- Right, right.
- And then finally a message would emerge which never particularly made any sense to me.
I remember one time the message was "wrong direction" and I didn't know what that meant, but there was always that kind of gentile spiritualism.
And then over the years, the ghost tours have moved in.
Everybody knew, I mean, you know, there's all the Spanish moss and the old houses and the and the graveyards everywhere.
And now the principal industry of Savannah is death.
You know, ghost tours have become this enormous industry and they're not like my grandmother's ghost stories.
It's sort of like now they're like "Gone with the Wind" meets Quentin Tarantino, very brutal and violent stories that just, I don't know why there's such a hunger for them, but yeah.
- Yeah, I have to tell you though, for a book about murder, I sure did laugh a lot.
- That's great.
- Is that kind of like a salve almost when you're cutting characters to a bone that you have to inject some humor?
- Yeah, I mean, I honestly, I don't like anything that isn't funny.
I just, all the things that I really love, all the art that I really love is also really funny.
I can't even conceive of making something.
I just want to be funny.
And I also want to be horrific.
I know that I'm writing a thriller.
I want it to be thrilling and I want it to be historically intriguing, but I'm just so glad that you're said that it's funny.
(gentle music) - [Jeremy] So "The Kingdoms of Savannah," is that a concept that's real in the city?
- Savannah has these neighborhoods or realms and Savannah's a pretty small city.
You know, it's a couple hundred thousand people.
And so for such a small city to have so many different areas and neighborhoods all sort of jam packed, there's extremely wealthy old money neighborhoods, and then there are several old Black neighborhoods.
There are the gay neighborhoods.
And so, you've got all these different kind of neighborhoods and they've all somehow worked out how to live together.
And so I like to think of it as an aggregation of little kingdoms.
I've never been to another city in the world that has as many odd little kingdoms as Savannah does that's so small.
- Because it's so small, so compact.
- Right, and so we just think of it as, oh, this is just a little town.
And it has some little town politics, but then it's got all these worlds.
(jazzy music) - [Jeremy] I think it's important to talk about the Moth.
What is it and why do you do it?
- Well, as you know, the Moth is a storytelling platform that I started 25 years ago.
And we just bring together great stories.
People tell personal true stories.
People said, we gotta keep doing this, let's just do it, and then we started going out to bars and doing it.
And then we started a podcast and we started to start to do other Moths in other cities all around the country and it grew and grew.
And now the Moth is all over the world.
And really in every major capital of the world, there's either a Moth or a Moth clone of folks telling stories.
We're on 600 radio stations in the United States and we're all over England and India and Africa.
And also the podcast looks like it's gonna hit 200 million downloads this year.
So it's become this kind of big institution.
- What would you say its purpose is?
- And its purpose is really just to foster the art of the raconteur.
I just remember when I was a kid when my dad's friends would come by and they'd stay up all night telling stories and they just told these great stories.
And I don't know when it came.
I remember a couple of TV shows that I saw.
Dick Cavett used to have some great raconteurs that would come in.
And it's kind of a long story of how it occurred to me that it would be fabulous to have a night of just people telling stories in that sort of casual way, not scripted, just the sort of stories that you might tell around a campfire.
And it's interesting, when we tried it, it immediately took off.
Like everybody thought, "Oh, this is something that we should have.
"The art of the raconteur is a genuine art."
And then it spread around the globe.
And it's always been really fascinating to me that that had really never been done before.
- In other words, people would tell stories.
There are lots of great, there are storytelling conventions, but that's a different kind of story.
That's not just the sort of personal stories and why nobody had ever thought of putting those on a stage.
- Oh, it's perfect for radio.
- The first first time we went to radio was in 1998 and we said, "Hey, we think our show would be "a perfect radio show."
And all the radio people said, "No, it just doesn't work.
"It's just not gonna work because radio is very cool, "and this you're doing from an audience "and it's just not gonna have "that whatever, that radio feel."
And that went on year after year.
We kept going back to the radio stations and saying, "Hey sure you don't wanna try it?
"You don't wanna try it."
And then finally, Jay Allison, a great producer, came to us and said, "We're gonna go with this."
And of course, now it's this huge phenomenon.
- Now with podcast, it's now like, this is the way it is.
One of my favorite questions to ask an author is what's the book that changed your life?
- Good lord, there are so many, of course.
We all have them, but if I had to choose one right now, I might choose a book by Sylvia Townsend Warner called "Kingdoms of Elfin."
And and it's interesting because people say, "Oh, is that where you get 'The Kingdoms of Savannah?'"
And in some way, I'm sure.
My love for Sylvia Townsend Warner, she was a British author in the 20th Century, the most prolific New Yorker writer of short stories.
She wrote over a hundred New Yorker short stories.
When she was in her twenties she wrote a book about a witch and it became a big hit called "Lolly Willows."
And then she became this incredibly fabulous writer.
Also, back in the 1930s, she was completely open about being in a lesbian relationship, which just wasn't done in the '30s.
In her eighties, she wrote another book that was sort of fantastical.
It's a book about elves, but they act just like human beings and the richness of these little kingdoms, I've never read a book that had a more powerful effect on me, just in terms of her style and her nuanced view of human power and politics.
So I would say to everybody, just read Sylvia Townsend Warner.
She has been somewhat undiscovered.
She's kind of fell into obscurity for a little while, but now I think she's beginning to roar back.
I think people are beginning to realize that there has never been a greater writer.
- This is why I asked that question because then I can steal that and I can read it and I can enjoy it myself.
I could interview you for all day.
- I love this interview and sure, let's do it.
Let's do it for another eight or 10 hours.
- Let's just do it for another half hour to go.
But thank you so much for doing this.
- Thank you for having me.
- And thank you for watching "A Word on Words."
I'm Jeremy Finley.
Remember, keep reading.
(typewriter dinging) (jazzy music)