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Q&A with george dawes green about...

the juror

the caveman's valentine

    small photo gdg

Q. Author Robert Campbell called Romulus Ledbetter an “outrageously original protagonist.” What inspired you to create such a character?

A. A story in the New York Times about an extraordinary man, a schizophrenic who lived in a cave in Inwood Park, who had been found murdered. I’d been wanting to write a mystery, and had been scouting for a challenging protagonist. The idea of a schizophrenic detective suited me.

Q. How much research did you do about mental illness and clinical paranoia in order to write this novel?

A. First I searched my own addled brain. Then there were friends who had become paranoid schizophrenics— one who was cleaning cages at the Bronx Zoo while an outpatient, but who had once been a brilliant pianist himself. I consulted a few psychiatrists. I recall Dr. Jeffrey Newton telling me that Romulus seemed to have a subtler wit than most paranoids— but, he added, what of that?— paranoids are people, and come in all forms.

Q. Romulus considers himself neither homeless nor crazy. What do you think?

A. Not homeless. Absolutely crazy.

Q. While each of your books contain moments of humor, all of them, including your newest book, Ravens, tend to be very dark. Why are you drawn to characters who are often on the fringes of society?

A. Our borders, our edges, give us our shape.

Q. Romulus takes a trip to North Carolina in the novel, where he was raised. Yet, the novel is essentially an urban tale. Is there a reason you decided to set a part of this novel in the South?

A. The trip south, into warmth and sunlight, gave Rom breathing room, a chance to rejuvenate and draw up his powers before the final battle.

Q. In this novel, Romulus is a talented pianist and in your second novel, The Juror, the protagonist is a visual artist. Why do both of these novels have artists at their center?

A. I’m drawn to various kinds of fermentation— including creative. Though in my new novel, Ravens, there are no working artists— just one dementedly creative criminal.

Q. In The Caveman’s Valentine, Leppenraub’s dog is named Lao Tse and in The Juror the villain is associated with Taoism. Why do you include these somewhat oblique references to Taoism in both books?

A. A lovely question. Both Leppenraub and the Teacher in The Juror are manipulative monsters, and Lao Tse is the philosopher of choice for such folk. The obscurity, the ever-shifting murkiness and multiplicity of meaning, these are useful to them, to their elaborate self-justifications. But they don’t really fathom Lao Tse. They didn’t comprehend his sweetness.

Q. The Caveman’s Valentine was published in 1994 and was your first novel. Prior to the book’s publication, you were a successful businessman and poet. Why did you decide to become a novelist?

A. The exigencies of cash flow and accounts receivable had worn me down. It was time, I felt.

Q. The book won an Edgar Award and received much critical acclaim. Were you prepared for such widespread recognition? How did it change your life?

A. I was in a rough place when The Caveman’s Valentine came out. Having burned through the money I’d made selling my company, I found myself driving a car with no heater and with a gaping hole in the floorboards— through which howled the winter cold. With my newfound wealth, I was able to get the heater fixed and the floorboards patched. I was able to go south and get warm. These were immensely important things.

Q. You are the founder of the not-for-profit storytelling organization The Moth. Why did you decide to start this organization and to what do you attribute The Moth’s incredible popularity?

A. When I was a young man living off the coast of Georgia, my friends and I would go over to Wanda’s and drink bourbon on her porch and tell lies to one another all night, as moths came whirling in through the broken screen. Years later I ventured to recreate that atmosphere in NYC. It worked out well. I’ve had incredible partners all along— most recently Lea Thau, our executive director, and Catherine Burns, our creative director, who have been instrumental in growing The Moth into this strange and powerful and global and incandescent thing. There are Moths all over the world now. Everyone should go to one.

Q. Do you have any favorite authors? Have you read any books recently that you would recommend?

A. Bellow, Roethke, Cheever, Flannery O’Conner, de Quincey. The immortal Updike. One living writer I revere is Alice Munro. A favorite living American writer would be Mary Gaitskill— on account of her exuberance, her adventurousness. Of recent novels, I found Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees breathtaking, particularly in its last fifty pages, and its last line is still ringing in my skull.

Q. The Caveman’s Valentine was made into a feature film starring Samuel L. Jackson. Can you describe what it is like to have your book made into a movie? What was your reaction to and involvement in each?

A. I love the film’s director, Kasi Lemmons. But it’s tough to make a great film. Everything must be boiled down: great simplicity of purpose is required, whereas a good novel asks for complexity and breadth. The skills needed for movies and books are completely at odds, I think. There was one intriguing moment though, when I came to the set on a winter night, near the pedestrian bridge at Ward’s Island. Powerful lights were pouring down from the Manhattan side of the river. A playground had been constructed at one end of the bridge— just where I had imagined it. An army of folks was standing there in the cold, watching Samuel Jackson re-enact my nightmare. And I stood off in the shadows and watched, feeling authorial and distant. Very peculiar.

Q. Your third novel, Ravens, is being published in July 2009, fourteen years after the publication of The Juror. Why such a long hiatus?

A. It’s just a trick of this particular cruel universe, where fourteen years fly by in a heartbeat.

Q. What is the most challenging part about being a writer? What is the most rewarding?

A. I don’t like being cooped up in a room all day— I’d rather be walking through Romania or playing capture the flag. There are, however, certain passages that seem to tumble from one’s fingertips: Romulus at the Gaybo Club, for example, or Romulus on that journey south— and when I’m writing those and the novel seems to be drifting gently downriver, and I can just, as it were, lean back and enjoy the ride, well...

Q. What’s next?

A. Hmm. Now you’ve got me thinking of that walk through Romania.