Late on a weekday afternoon, we called John Sayles, the independent's independent, the pragmatist's pragmatist. He was on the outskirts of Boise, in the passenger's seat of a rented Prius, beside Maggie Renzi, his longtime partner and producer. He's tall, serious, with thin hair, white in places, dark in others; he has the lean, handsome face of an actor (which he was), and the wary, exhausted air of a factory worker (which he also was). He's 60, and though it's been more than 30 years since he directed his first film ("Return of the Secaucus 7") and almost 40 since he published his first book ("Pride of the Bimbos"), it's a familiar sight.
John Sayles, schlepping across the country, selling his wares.
In this case, he's driving across country, performing 29 readings in 40 days, promoting his first novel in 20 years, the historical epic, "A Moment in the Sun" (McSweeney's), which is 935 pages and captures the moment at the end of 19th century when Reconstruction was fading and America was at war with Spain; it unfolds in Cuba and North Carolina, Coney Island and the Philippines; it's told from the point of view of soldiers and insurgents, gold miners and writers; Mark Twain makes an appearance, as does Damon Runyun and Joseph Pulitzer.
It's a lot like Sayles himself — it sprawls.
As a filmmaker, he's been the definition of independent, the director behind "Eight Men Out," "Passion Fish," "Lone Star," "Matewan." As a screenwriter (financially, his meat and potatoes), he's worked on everything from genre classics ("The Howling"), to Oscar bait ("Apollo 13") to kid's flicks ("The Spiderwick Chronicles"). But as a writer of literary fiction, he's been more acclaimed than best-selling, the winner of O. Henry Awards for short-story writing and a 1977 nominee for the National Book Award ("Union Dues").
He appears Saturday at Printers Row Lit Fest. The following is an edited version of a longer phone conversation:
Q: Your fiction has the same tattered, lived-in feel of your movies. The characters in your short story "The Anarchist's Convention," for example, are aging activists. Everything always feels so dug in and rooted.
A: Yes, but I think what you mean is that I'm interested in how people deal with change — are they going to have to really change their lives, or just be put out to pasture? Like, in (his 2007 movie) "Honeydripper," Danny Glover is this rhythm-and-blues player and we find him right at the beginning of rock and roll.
Q: "Brother from Another Planet," "Lone Star," "Return of the Secaucus 7" — all about upended worlds.
A: Right. "Secaucus 7" is very much about people for whom the world has not changed the way they wanted it to change. But unlike the characters in "The Big Chill," they have not given up their ideals.
Q: And "A Moment in the Sun" takes place at the turn of the century.
A: And the change there is the change in how America saw itself. We had done things that were imperialist before — like wiping out Indian nations and taking part of Mexico. But we never described ourselves proudly as imperialist, and in about a three-month period we went from being the wonderful big brothers who were going to help the Cubans get rid of the Spaniards to the people who were saying, "Oh, the Philippines? We're going to stay. We're going to take it over. These people don't know what they're doing. They need us to run their country — even if we have to kill a half a million of them." A lot of the novel is how that plays out.
Q: With a book this sprawling, with so many characters, do you let it go on tangents, then scale back or …
A: I don't go on big tangents. But there were a lot of little ones I cut. Generally it's like sending a scouting party out — if there's something about this era that I want to get into, who is the perfect character to find for this? If I want someone to get into the movie business, who could I find in Wilmington who can go north and would also be tied to the other characters? It's something I do in my movies as well — have a little bit of glue.
Q: How often do you work on a book?
A: Well, the last couple came 15 years apart or so. I had a short story collection out about five years ago called "Dillinger in Hollywood," but that collected stories from the past 15 or 20 years. Basically if I have a great idea I want to approach as fiction, I do. "A Moment in the Sun," I started writing five years ago then was interrupted by writing screenplays for other people, working on movies. About two and a half years ago there was a big Writers Guild of America strike and I couldn't write for anybody else, so I had six or eight months with nothing to do but write for myself. Then it was another two years just looking for a publisher.
Q: Did you write it at all with a movie in mind?
A: Way before, I had written a screenplay called "Some Time in the Sun," which followed one of the characters in the book, Royal Scott, this guy in the 25th Infantry (the black regiment known as the "buffalo soldiers"), following him from Wilmington to Cuba to the Philippines. I even scouted (locations). But it was one of those times when we realized that no one was ever going to give us the money to do it well.
Q: What about as a miniseries? The book looks HBO ready.
Sayles stays rooted in change
The writer-director-novelist returns to familiar theme in new book
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