He wants to tell you a story

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Ravens, the new thriller from George Dawes Green (The Caveman’s Valentine, The Juror) is the gripping tale of two con men who arrive in a small town in America's deep south and attempt to blackmail a local woman who has scooped $318 million in the lottery. We caught up with the author on a recent visit to London to talk about the corrosive power of instant wealth and an Edinburgh Festival debut for The Moth, his cult story telling collective.  

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Your last novel, the Juror, sold 3.5 million copies, yet its taken 14 years for you to publish a follow-up. What have you been doing in the meantime?

I’ve been doing other things. I had a dream one night, and it was the inspiration for Ravens. I woke up next day and said, "I’m going to write this." My dream was about going back to Brunswick, Georgia, my hometown. I was at the house of people I don’t know and they had just won the lottery. I decided it was my mission to persuade them to give all their money away. I was worried all this money was only going to screw up their lives. It was one of the strangest dreams I’ve ever had. But then from that I began thinking I could make a novel out of this. It only took me a year and a half once I started.

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So you clearly believe that a sudden cash windfall should come with a health warning?

You have the example with that woman Susan Boyle. She’s huge all over the world. Isn’t that just another example of how dangerous sudden fortune and fame is? I don’t think these things ever do anybody any good. Look at all these lottery winners. One by one it destroys their lives. You can almost predict it: half a billion dollars and you are going to be miserable. The first thing that happens is that everything you have done before in your life suddenly seems worthless. You quickly lose the structure in your life that brings about a daily contentment. You become surrounded by ravens and scavengers who want to take your money. You cannot trust anybody, you don’t trust anybody’s love and you become lonely. I think it’s a prescription for disaster. We had this great story of this guy in West Virginia who won $300-plus million, and he left his wife within a few months and was consorting with prostitutes and was drinking too much. Then his granddaughter died of a drug overdose, and everybody around him went bad. Eventually he filed for bankruptcy. The thing about him is that he was a successful man before he won the lottery. He was doing well so you think he would be able to handle it, but he wasn’t at all.

Tell us a bit about The Moth. We understand you’re going to be doing an event at the Edinburgh Festival…

We are and it will be the first UK Moth. The Moth is a club for raconteurs that I started about 12 years ago. We stage nights that are gathered around themes and that feature a mix of famous storytellers and people you’ve never heard of. The stories are supposed to be true. We don’t want celebrities talking about how they went into weird and wonderful and wacky situations but they prevailed. We want to hear about people being fools. When I was a young man I used to go over to my friend Wanda’s house in Georgia and we used to tell stories all night while sitting on her porch and drinking. It was after I published The Juror and was living in New York that I felt we needed more evenings like that, so I started The Moth from my living room. It was a big success. People who tell stories at The Moth say that in many ways it is one of the most profound experiences of their lives. An actor, who seems very confident to you and me when he makes appearances on TV, will not seem confident at all when he has to stand up without notes and without any guidance. That is where the true raconteur shows and over the years an amazing number of true raconteurs have emerged. Now, we have touring companies that go around the world and we have Moths in Boston and LA and so on. It has become a huge thing. 

Is story telling a tradition in the deep south?

Absolutely. Story telling is a huge thing in the south. It’s suffered a bit in the last 30 years because people have stopped building porches. Down in Georgia people used to wander through the neighbourhood and find a porch and tell each other stories. What killed porches was first of all air conditioning, then television, and now the internet. There is still a lot of story telling and it is this amazing art form that has never really been brought into the public. In part, I think people are tired of big, brassy Hollywood movies filled with manipulative lines. The beauty of The Moth is you always know who is trying to pull your strings because that person is right up there in front of you.

 It sounds like there’s something quite gladiatorial about the whole process…

The audience is very aware that you’re up there risking a lot. We usually have five or six stories a night and generally one of them is pretty bad. We don’t want to get to a point where all six stories are successful and polished. The worst thing you can do is bring too much pride to the stage. The ones who fall on their faces are the ones who are usually trying to tell a story about their unique superiority.

When is the first UK Moth?

August 22 at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Ravens by George Dawes Green (Little, Brown) is published on 6 August