PHILADELPHIA — John Sayles, moviemaker and novelist, has embarked on a do-it-yourself book tour in a rented Prius, in support of his brand-new novel, “A Moment in the Sun.
The tour befits Sayles, a DIY kind of filmmaker.
With longtime partner Maggie Renzi, Sayles is driving across America. From his home in what’s apparently the creative capital of the United States at the moment, Brooklyn, he says: “I’m looking forward to it. A reading is like theater, an immediate connection with people. And I love the idea of doing only libraries and independent bookstores. Maggie and I like to take long road trips. We’ll have five to eight hours of driving a day, more in Texas.”
Sayles, 60, has made a DIY indie career for three decades now, feeding the filmmaking habit by writing scripts for others. He started off writing for low-budget god Roger Corman, and wrote screenplays for deathless outings such as “Piranha” (Corman-produced) and “Alligator.” Sayles used savings from those gigs to make his first DIY movie, “Return of the Secaucus 7,” a 1980 film that spurred a genre of history-conscious, retrospective flicks. A MacArthur grant financed “The Brother From Another Planet” (1984), one of his best-known movies.
The rest of his career is studded with honored films such as “Matewan” (1987) “Eight Men Out” (1988), and “Passion Fish” (1992). Sayles is still very much at it, having finished his 17th film, “Amigo,” last year, and doing the script for the Spielberg project “Jurassic Park IV.”
But “A Moment in the Sun’s” moment is now, a strapping 935 pages, a sprawling U.S.A.-style novel that, something like the John Dos Passos classic, follows a group of characters in parallel tracks as they traverse the America of 1897, taking in the Yukon gold rush, the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, and the advent of movies. Like all Sayles films and novels, it’s drenched in a detailed, loving awareness of time and place.
“What can I say?” Sayles says. “I’m a bookstore junkie.” To research the novel, he “haunted used bookstores” for obscure diaries, accounts of the era, letters, life stories. He also haunted Amazon.com and other websites, “a godsend for writers like me,” where long-buried books were easily accessible.
“Moment” is his first full-length novel since 1991’s “Los Gusanos.” “The book started as a screenplay, but then kept growing,” Sayles says, “until we finally said, ‘No, we’ll never get the funding for something this ambitious.’ But in scouting locations in the Philippines, I got an idea for another separate story of the war — and when we learned we could make a movie in the Philippines for only $2 million, I said, ‘Hey, if I write a few screenplays, maybe we could do that.’”
As ever with Sayles, “Moment” has much to say about this country and its history, the promise, the cruelty, the waste, in an era of imperialism, racism and eugenics enthusiasts. “My characters are lost in the flood of history,” he says. “When I write a novel, I don’t do a lot of explicit editorializing, but I feel like I’m the attorney, and I choose whom to call to the stand and show the jury the stuff that makes your case. The readers can connect the dots — although, true, I’m putting the dots down there.”
A good example is Hod Brackenridge, a major character who is “just a farmer who became a miner and wants a square deal for the working guy — but he isn’t getting it. He’s no Marxist, he has no theory, but he sees the hideous things he sees.”
So how to get a massive novel published?
“We went to the usual suspects, Harper, Atlantic,” says Sayles, “but when you write a book every 15 years, everybody you used to know is either gone or retired. Some didn’t like it, some weren’t interested, some crunched the numbers and said, ‘His last book didn’t track well enough for us.’ At a couple of places, they loved it, but ‘I just have to check upstairs,’ and we never heard back.”
So Sayles went off to shoot “Amigo,” and his agent, Anthony Arnove, showed it to the folks at McSweeney’s, the crusading, differently thinking indie publisher — “and they loved it,” says Sayles.
It makes sense that DIYer Sayles would end up with McSweeney’s: “They’re kind of doing in literature what we’ve been trying to do in films. They’re sort of a throwback. They stay fairly small, and make really nice books, take care with covers, print, binding — that’s nice, too. They’re saying, ‘We know everyone’s saying, “Literature is dead, nobody wants to read a book,” but we think there are people out there who want to read, and we want to grow that audience.’”
So do books get in the way of movies, or what? “I do movies and books simultaneously,” Sayles says. “The problem with movies for low-budget filmmakers like us is, you have to strike while you have the funding. With this book and ‘Gusanos,’ I’d get started, then get involved in making a movie, or writing movies for other people, to make enough money to make a movie.” The Writers Guild of America strike of 2007-08, however, left him with enough time to finish “Moment.”
Which he did himself — the way he’s doing the tour.
So is he a better novelist or a better director? “Making movies, you’re always directing the talents of others, and compromising with the hard realities of funding and so on,” Sayles says. “But in a book, you don’t need to compromise. It costs you only the ink and the time to type it. I think anyone who does both will think they’re a better fiction writer than a director.”