John Sayles Interview
Posted on May 22, 2011
I interviewed John Sayles for The Rumpus, and like his incredible new novel, A Moment in the Sun, the interview was long and brilliant, an expansive, breathtaking portrait of one of our most fearless and daring storytellers. The entire thing ran to over 15,000 words, although the final produced clocked in at around 3,000–if anyone wants to read the whole thing, please let me know.
John Sayles is a force of nature, a do-it-yourself renaissance man—director, actor, screenwriter, script doctor, novelist. As far as we know, he wasn’t part of the Navy Seal Team 6 that nabbed Bin Laden, but his boundless creative energy and narrative marksmanship, not to mention his longevity, put him squarely in a most elite squad of storytellers. Melville, Whitman, Mark Twain, Robert Altman: like the greatest American originals, Sayles has crossed genres and warped minds for three decades now, unleashing classics such asReturn of the Secaucus Seven, Matewan, Eight Men Out, The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, and Sunshine State on the silver screen, and the National Book Award-nominatedUnion Dues and Los Gusanos, two heavyweight novels that could duke it out with just about any other contemporary work of fiction. (Read the first chapter here.)
Now Sayles has unveiled his most ambitious project to date in any genre, A Moment In the Sun, a bloody, brilliant, nearly 1,000 page globetrotting epic set at the turn of the last century, a time not so different from our own, it turns out.
John recently took time out of his very busy schedule to talk to The Rumpus a block or so from New York’s Port Authority. He had to embark on a cross-country road trip promoting the book, but we still ended up talking for almost two hours, clocking upwards of a meaty 15,000 words by the time he had to go.
The Rumpus: Your new novel, A Moment in the Sun, is written in—I wouldn’t say English, exactly, because you’ve taken and twisted the language to make it your own. It reads like a tornado of voices.
John Sayles: Every character has their own language, voices and styles. There’s a chapter from the point of view of a correspondent, and it’s written like the correspondence of that time. I read a bunch of those guys, Richard Harding Davis, and picked up on their locutions, which aren’t locutions we use anymore.
Rumpus: You were channeling them?
Sayles: You get into it and pretty soon—when actors play a character on a TV show for a long time, they’ll just get the script back to the new writers and say, My guy does not talk like that, because they’ve internalized it. They know the vocabulary and the rhythm of that character, and that’s how I start writing with this—it’s a dialogue, how the character expresses themselves, so I can find out who they are.
Rumpus: Is this something you just turned on? Like it was fluid, when you’d sit down to write you’d be able to tap into that voice and all its idiosyncrasies?
Sayles: Once I developed the characters, the book evolved or the screenplay—it started as a screenplay that only dealt with the Wilmington story and the 24th infantry, so only Royal Scott. And when I decided to expand it, make it into a novel—because I had always felt I was cramming too much—I felt like, who else do I want to hear from? And I felt it’s important to hear what everyone in America is hearing, so I had to have something about the media. That’s the newspapers and the early film stuff. Which was all bullshit, it was—
Rumpus: Bullshit as in propaganda?
Sayles: It was probably as accurate as most of what we’re getting today, unfortunately, but I went back and I looked at all the political cartoons of the time period, and there is this—when the Filipinos are drawn, they look just like Cubans and Mexicans, with sombreros, straw hats and raggedy clothes. Then within weeks of the Philippine–American War, they went for a Japanese look, and by the end of the first year of the war, they’re cold black savages with bones, literally bones in their noses, and grass skirts and wooden spears. So if you’re an American, that’s what you think a Filipino is, and there were these films—what we would call a documentary—and the filmmakers just rounded up some African-American guys over in East Orange and put white clothes on them and said, You’re the Filipinos, and this was like Star Wars but only a minute long, and it was amazing. It was the first time you could see a real battle on screen, even though it was the New Jersey National Guard and a bunch of African-Americans. And I wanted a character who was in one of those films, so that’s Niles Manigault, and then I wanted a white guy, a working stiff who ends up in the Philippines, in one of the volunteer outfits, and that’s Hod, and then Diosdado—I wanted him to have a lot of access to a lot of things and be good with language and start as a spy in the inner circle, then get pushed out when he becomes a guerilla, which is what happened to a lot of those guys. They were kind of peacocks and very proud of their European training but they ended up in this dirty war in the jungle with a bunch of guys who didn’t speak Spanish. And then you say, What is my emotional structure for this character? Where do I want Hod to end up? What’s the odyssey that Royal takes? Is he going to make it home or not? How’s he going to get out?
Read the rest here.