John Sayles on his new novel, wars, history and research
John Sayles is best known as a cult-director and script doctor, but apparently all that time spent writing and directing his own movies isn't enough for him, as he's also an accomplished novelist. Sayles will be hanging out at the Tattered Cover on Colfax this weekend to answer all your questions about his new book, Moment in the Sun. We had a few questions of our own, considering the book is over 900 pages long, has dozens of characters tossed around and is entwined with enough turn-of-the-century history we needed an encyclopedia open the whole time (which is why we also annotated the interview for you). You can check out a preview of the book for yourself here if it suits your fancy.
Westword: Let's start with just the premise of the book and how you came to the ideas behind it.
John Sayles: You know, it evolved from a movie script I had written for myself to direct that really only dealt with the 24th Infantry and the racial coup in Wilmington, North Carolina and then followed some of the African American guys to Cuba and then off into the Philippines.
After I scouted it and looked at what it might cost, I realized there was just no way we'd get the money to make this thing and I put it aside for quite a while. It was a good five or six years before I felt like I could make it into a novel and it could expand a little. When you open something up like that you realize sometimes there are characters that can get in somewhere better than others, so I ended up with four major characters rather than just one.
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WW: It's interesting that the four characters you chose aren't necessarily big players in the overall arch of the story though.
JS: I often use the metaphor of a flood: Each of the characters is just lost in it trying to keep their head above water and keep themselves floating. If you ask them what happened in the flood, it's going to be pretty impressionistic and it's not going to have a great deal of perspective and analysis to it. But I hope the reader, because there are 30-40 characters in the book that all have their own link, can put together the bigger story. The story of an era and the story of a real turnaround in the American consciousness and how we thought of ourselves.
WW: That's interesting, because the Philippine-American War is a pretty overlooked part of American history. How much did you know before you started researching it?
JS: I ran across it while I was doing previous research for my previous novel, Los Gusanos, which had to do with Cuba and the United States. I really got kind of fascinated that I hadn't heard about it and that we didn't celebrate it even though we won the war. Usually that means there are dozens of novels and movies about it. So far, other than Amigo, the movie we've made, I've only run across two very small, very obscure American movies that ever dealt with the war. I think some of those reasons are in the book: It was a controversial war at the time, it's really not anything to wave the flag about and I think Americans were and still are uncomfortable with being imperialist. We tried it on for size and we didn't much care for it. So I think the imperialism we have isn't the kind where we stay there and run the government; we get in and install corporations and have a kind of puppet government.
WW: It seems likes imperialism is the ongoing thread throughout the book, but most people don't want to call America an imperialist country at any point in our history.
JS: Yeah, what was interesting and what you see in the book with various media in the book -- this was something new. American's were not only admitting they were imperialist, they were also proud of it. Certainly the McKinley regime celebrated it. A lot of the yellow press went very quickly from "we're just here to help to Cubans out" to celebrating the new powers of Uncle Sam around the globe in China and the Philippines. That celebration didn't last long, but the idea that we should be involved in other parts of the globe never quite went away. By the time of the rise of Nazism there was a strong isolationism trend in the American thought, and it took World War II to get us out into the world and get us thinking that maybe we shouldn't exploit these countries any more but we should certainly control their politics.
WW: So with the headlines and blurbs throughout the novel, were those actual articles or did you make them up?
JS: Some of them are, some of them are just amended for my purposes. It's pretty much a sample of what the headlines were like then. Many of the speeches you hear in the book are verbatim from U.S. Senators -- I might put them in someone else's mouth. So, the "March of the Flag," which you hear Sophie Smith say up in Alaska, is pretty much verbatim a speech of Senator Albert Beveridge. I think that to understand what goes on, you don't have to only look at what happened, but what people were told was happening. What their media was sprouting back at them, which was often inaccurate, but was what people had at the moment.
John Sayles can also drive a car.
WW: Do you consider this a historical novel?
JS: You know, it's a novel with a lot of history in it. What I always want is for the audience to hook into a couple of the characters and want to know what happens next to them. But certainly, who they are and whether they survive or don't is tied into the larger history of the period.
WW: That's actually one of the more interesting things about the book too -- even though it's huge and bit daunting at first, it flows quickly. You can tell it's written by a director with an eye for the audience -- do you feel like you have different "spaces" when you write for a book than a script?
JS: Certainly, when you're writing a book you don't have to worry about the rhythm of a two-hour movie which has a very specific form the commercial aspects of it dictate. When you do a novel it's a little more free-form. You can get people with one character in one chapter and in the next be with a different character. As long as those chapters are interesting and as long as the characters are interesting the audience stays interested and you can take a lot more time and go to a lot more places.
On the other hand, the book is written all in the present tense and has a very immediate feeling about it.
WW: Is the process itself different between the two?
JS: Yeah. When I'm writing a screenplay my outline is more tied to time. I'll literally say, pages 1-20, pages 20-40, and try to make sure I can get a certain amount of business done by each page in the story. When you're writing a novel, especially a big novel like this, you might have a list of chapters or characters arcs, but you really don't have to cram it in to such a fine time scheme.
WW: Was it kind of hard to keep track of all the characters?
JS: Not really. Once they started I realized that eventually these people were going to cross paths. They may not know it, because they're not the reader, they may not take much note of it when they cross -- or they may because they may directly affect each others life -- but that's what I was more aware of: not losing track of them, but where are they're going.
WW: So did Amigo come from the research in the book?
JS: Yeah, Amigo is set in 1900, right when the regular army was chasing General Aguinaldo north. It kind of came out of the book. I had finished the first draft and went back to the Philippines to do some more research and while I was there got to talking to Joel Torre the lead in Amigo, about the Philippine movie industry and what was possible and what things cost. I wrote this script as a very doable, low-budget, micro-history sort of a village level as opposed to an epic about a five year period.
WW: Do you feel like they tie-in to each other?
JS: In that they're unusual and that we don't know much about the Philippine-American War. But very often the movies I make are more like a chapter out of a novel. None of the characters are the same and the dynamic in Amigo is a very specific one, more about the civilians caught between warring forces. I've often said it could be set in Nazi occupied France or French occupied Algeria -- it's a situation that occurs again and again in human history.
WW: Did you feel the need to give broader exposure to the war?
JS: That was some of my interest, I really didn't know much about this era militarily or historically. It's before World War I, and if that was the first modern war, this was a modern war but they were still using horses. The technology of this war was still very much the technology of the Indian Wars or the Civil War, but the politics are much more international rather than a civil war.
One of the things that fascinated me about the period is that same psychological thing that was happening in the States -- just as we were giving up on Reconstruction, we were going on this foreign adventure that we had never really done before. We were really trying to sit at the table with the big boys.
WW: And that's a connection to what was happening around the world as Europe was sending people out on adventures to the Arctic and the Antarctic just because they could.
JS: Yeah, the Boer War was happening, which was an Imperialist war the British were waging in Africa. The Boxer Rebellion was happening with a half dozen counties in China. So many of the political cartoons of the day were of Uncle Sam with his sleeves rolled up and big muscles kind of joining into the poker game with the other world powers.
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