John Sayles on Historical Fiction, Playing Telephone With Reality, and Books vs. Films
This week, Sayles is giving the Magic City a mighty stone -- that is, two separate appearances in as many days - with which he encourages them to kill, that's right, two birds. Wednesday, Sayles will be presenting on his ambitious, epically postmodern historical novel, A Moment in the Sun at the Miami Book Fair. And the next night, he'll be at O Cinema hosting a discussion following the Miami debut of his 2010 film Amigo.
With so much Sayles in the horizon, We shot the modern renaissance man some questions to better understand his rigorous approach to postcolonial storytelling in the 21st century.
New Times: How did you construct A Moment in the Sun? It seems like there would be a lot to keep track of.
John Sayles: I made a historical timeline of several things. The thing about historical novels is that If you follow the history, some of your structure is given to you. I had the regimental history of the 25th Infantry, of the Colorado Volunteers, a couple of the Spanish units that were both in Cuba and the Philippines.
I had a 4-5 year period where I could tell what happened before what and what led to what. Once I decided on my characters -- who would be where and what they might see -- [the story] starts to suggest scenes to you. "Where are my four main characters going to start crossing paths?" You can plot it out graphically.
Is A Moment in the Sun about current (or recent) events in international affairs, or is your primary interest the swath of history you've chosen as your backdrop?
I was interested in transition specifically as it happened in that time. One of the things that attracts me to period movies is that effort to figure out what can possibly be going through people's heads. If you're going to write a period piece you need to ask before or after Freud, or after Capitalism, after women's movement. Because that affects how people see themselves.
How do you negotiate the research and supposed objectivity of history with the embellishment, rhetorical flourishes, and entertainment value of fiction?
If you look on Google, there'll be six or seven places that [incorrectly] say that I wrote The Fugitive. Somebody originally wrote that, and it got repeated over and over. That happens with traditional history, too. When I read the history I would look at their bibliography and see where they got their info, especially if they weren't [at the historical event], and then you have to look at their biases. You start with history that isn't something chiseled in stone, and you try to go to the earliest source you can.
A lot of it came out of personal diaries, letters, narratives and official records the second thing you look at is what do people think happened, you read the newspapers and magazines of the time, it can be very different than what happened. William Randolph Hearst was trying to sell papers and keep the war going. I mixed real historical characters, come up with composites, and then said, "Here's a human being and what do human beings do in these situations?" One of the reasons the book is so big is that if in the book, I'm gonna represent the Philippines, I need more than one Philippine. Same for more than one white person, more than one African American. Because there was such a range of reactions to the events at the time you can't honestly portray with just one character.
Your film Amigo also concerns the Phillipine-American war. Where does your interest in this conflict stem from?
I was doing research for my previous novel, Los Gusanos, which is about the long strange dance between the U.S. and Cuba. I went all the way back to the Spanish-American war. And I kept running into the Phillipine Insurrection. I'd never heard of it. I started asking my Filipino friends, and they said they knew about it now as an adults, but it was not taught in schools. I got very suspicious. It's rare to win a war and not celebrate with lots of moments. Why was this a sore subject?
We shifted from people who thought of ourselves as the champions of liberty who were helping the Cuban people free themselves, to imperialists just like the British, French and Japanese. I looked into why that could happen. So many things came back to race, and suppositions of racial superiority. And thats kind of how war is sold.
Which kind of stories do you prefer to tell in movies and which in fiction?
It's not which kind. It's the scale that you can tell. Even though movies have one heroic star, in a novel you can use a much more mosaic style of storytelling. In a movie, people can handle one or two protagonists, maybe three. In a book you can have a half dozen. A book you're much more comfortable putting it down and then picking it up a week later. A 2-hour movie, most people watch it in one sitting. It helps for storytelling purposes to have a unity of point of view that I don't need when I write a novel. A novel is a chance to expand. Movies you're often focusing down and find "the one incident."
An Evening With John Sayles. Wednesday, Nov. 16, 8:00 p.m. at the MDC Chapman Conference Center (Building 3, 2nd Floor, Room 3210). Visit miamibookfair.com.
Meet John Sayles, Nov. 17, after the 8:00 p.m. showing of his feature film Amigo at O Cinema. 90 NW 29 ST, Wynwood. Tickets cost $12.07 after fees through eventbrite. You must purchase tickets to the screening to attend the talk.