Free Speech

George Dawes Green: Why the Past—and Storytelling—Is Never Dead

The creator of The Moth talks about why the past is never dead, especially in his new novel The Kingdoms of Savannah.


William Faulkner once famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."  I've been thinking a lot about that quote, which comes from his 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun, in regards to today's guest, George Dawes Green.

George is the creator of the massively popular event series, radio show, and podcast The Moth, which has redefined personal storytelling in the digital age. George is also a novelist, and his new book, the best-selling murder mystery The Kingdoms of Savannah, is set in his native Georgia and features a great contemporary update of Faulkner's themes.

What Faulkner, the great neo-Gothic chronicler of the pre–civil rights movement South, was getting at is the idea that if you don't deal with history honestly and truthfully, it keeps getting in the way of your present and future, like the ghost of the murdered king in Hamlet. Individuals and societies alike can't move forward until some form of acknowledgment and justice for past crimes has taken place. That's at the heart of Gothic literature, which is filled with ruins and ghosts and secrets from the past irrupting into the present. It's why the characters in Faulkner's work are literally and figuratively haunted by race relations that they haven't honestly accounted for. That focus on the unaccounted-for past is the reason that Faulkner, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, is one of the most influential figures not just for American authors like Toni Morrison (herself a Nobelist) but also for writers across the globe—the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez called him "my master" in his Nobel acceptance speech. In too many parts of the world, the past isn't past.

This brings me back to George Dawes Green. The Kingdoms of Savannah is set in the contemporary South and features an old-line aristocratic family whose fortunes and members have dissipated over the years, in part because of hidden secrets and an inability to move on. At the start of the novel, there's a murder that implicates the power structure of Savannah, and the result is a page-turning thriller about race, class, and American history that I simply couldn't put down.

I talked with George at a recent Reason Speakeasy, a live, monthly, unscripted conversation with outspoken defenders of free thinking and heterodoxy in an era of conformity and groupthink. We talk about his experiences on the frontier of creative expression and the ways in which the past doggedly informs the present, whether in his native Georgia or post-COVID New York.

We also talk about how he came to create The Moth, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary and has become nothing less than a global phenomenon. Not surprisingly, George is himself a masterful storyteller, and his own past reads like something out of a novel: He lived in a cemetery for a while, and he created a company that sold clothes made from rare fabrics handwoven in Guatemala. It was only after all that that he became a novelist whose first two books were turned into movies and a cultural entrepreneur whose biggest project is still going strong.