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Susan Earl’s debut novel In the Dark explores a side of the city few see

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YOU WON'T find much of Savannah’s famous moss-draped, midnight-in-the-garden aesthetic in the pages of In the Dark, though much of the novel is set after dusk.

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Instead, author Susan Earl explores parts of the city rarely included in the trolley tours and Top Ten Lists—the public housing neighborhoods, the affordable art studios, the dive bars and other world-weary spots that may be less than glamorous but comprise what life is like here for many.

Eagle-eyed readers will recognize the pinpoint descriptions of hand-painted signs on Waters Avenue and a certain coffee shop crowded on a Saturday morning after the farmers market as well as the characters themselves: The single mother with dreams of a dance career, the daughter trying to escape her strict traditional upbringing, the nurse with her own emergency at home, the businessman making bad choices, the disabled driver struggling to make a living, the artist wanting only peace and quiet. In the Dark turns around stereotypes about Savannah and its inhabitants, revealing a compassion and complexity that could never be distilled down to a guidebook.

With almost four decades of living in Savannah behind her, Earl brings intimate local knowledge to her first novel. A photographer and former caseworker at the historically significant Georgia Infirmary, she is also the co-author of Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community, the revered non-fiction account of how a group of loving folks brought one special man home. When she isn’t writing, she spends time volunteering at the West Broad Y and Deep Center and marveling over the work of her daughter, photographer and Sulfur Studios co-founder Emily Earl.

We caught up with Earl at her longtime hangout The Sentient Bean, where she will be giving a reading on Thursday, Oct. 26 (Half the proceeds from the evening’s book sales benefit Deep.) We chatted about her fellow storytellers, the charm of burlesque and the real-life locals who inspired her tale.

What’s your Savannah story?

Susan Earl: I first came here in '77 from New York. I'd been accepted to be an artist in residence at the Ossabaw Island Project, and I got off a plane with a suitcase full of dark room equipment. I took a taxi to the Desoto Hilton and walked all around Savannah, and I was like, "This place is beautiful, but where is everybody?" It was a Tuesday afternoon in the fall, and there were no people walking around! Not like today at all.

I went to Ossabaw for a week and met another photographer, John Earl. We ended up getting married after we knew each for three weeks [laughs]. I was 31, he was 56. He was from Georgia, a nature photographer. We ended up moving to Atlanta, and I hated it. I said to my husband, “I don’t know about you, I’m moving to Savannah.” That was in 1980. [Note: John Earl, a longtime SCAD professor, passed away in 2008.]

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We got an apartment on Jones Street, and walked over to SCAD in the Armory building, their only building back then. They had a little gallery downstairs, so I took a box of my photographs and they offered me a show.

I would’ve moved here right away, but I couldn’t find a job. I had been working in senior centers teaching arts and crafts, but they weren’t hiring professionals to do that in Georgia. I got a job working at the historic Georgia Infirmary, which was built in 1832 and was the first hospital for African Americans in the United States. I developed an activity program at first, then segued into helping devise a case management strategy to create alternatives for nursing homes.

Is that how you got involved with Waddie Welcome?

The way I got involved with Mr. Welcome was through a combination of Citizens Advocacy, the Infirmary and a group called the Storytellers. Back then there were a lot of younger people with disabilities who were living in nursing homes, because that was the only way they could get the physical services they needed. But these were people who were perfectly capable of living in their own homes if they had a little bit of assistance.

There was no way to do that if they didn’t have family or friends to count on, so about 20 people met over a five-year period and formed circles of support for them. I was in Mr. Welcome’s circle, but about 14 people got out of nursing homes and moved into their own places as a result of the Storytellers.

[Citizens Advocacy Director] Tom Kohler and I wrote about it and took pictures, but we had no idea it was going to become a book.

How did you transition into fiction?

I worked at the Infirmary for 32 years, and when I retired I wasn’t going to sit on the couch eating bonbons! I started volunteering at the West Broad Street Y and at Deep Center. Deep offered writers’ workshops for its fellows, so I joined up. I had never really written fiction at all. I thought, “Oh I could never do that! How do people know what going to happen?”

You’ve captured a Savannah few people would recognize unless they live here. Why did you want to tell stories that don’t necessarily match up with the usual ones told about our city?

Well, because they’re not told. I also wanted to say positive things. The Waddie Welcome book highlighted African American culture in Savannah and tried to say that there’s a rich culture here that people don’t talk about, like the African American advertising art signs that Tom and I also have been documenting for the past 15 or 20 years.

There is value in bringing into the light the part of Savannah that no one knows about or talks about doesn’t think is beautiful. It obviously is beautiful. And it’s vanishing.

How does the orthodox Jewish community fit into your narrative?

I grew up parents who were very Jewish and very anti-religion. I’ve always had an interest in Jewish culture; I learned Yiddish as a kid and took Hebrew in college. Savannah has a very deep Jewish history, and that has fascinated me. Even though we weren’t religious, my daughter went to Rambam Day School here from kindergarten to 8th grade.

And the burlesque aspect? Why include that?

I was actually inspired by an article in Connect—I have a big whole big file of stuff from Connect! There was an article about dancer who was real tough and took the art very seriously. I think it interesting that you can have this idea about what a burlesque dancer is supposed to look like, and then you see they're just regular people. Which means you could do it, too.

Anyone involved even slightly in this community are going to recognize some of these characters. Is it a coincidence that the description of the sculptor, Dylan, reminded me immediately of artist Jerome Meadows?

[laughs] I definitely started with Jerome as an inspiration. Sometimes when I'm thinking about a character, I pull up their physicality in my mind and build on that. I told Jerome he's in my book, sort of, and he just laughed.

Some of them are real people. It was important for me to include Maxine Patterson, the dance teacher who is a hero to Felicia’s character. Maxine started her dance school in Savannah before being inclusive was popular, I’m sure people raised their eyebrows when she first started.

And then there’s Marquice Williams of Spitfire Poetry, who also works with Deep. He’s in the book, and he’ll be at the reading on Thursday.

You flip stereotypes in the story several times. Was that conscious?

It definitely was. My elevator shpiel is the book is about families, expectations and secrets. Everybody in the book has a secret. The joke is that it’s Savannah, so you can’t keep a secret for too long!

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