For the past 30 years, Schenectady native John Sayles has been one of our country’s leading independent filmmakers. Since 1979 he has directed 17 features, including “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” “Lone Star,” “Matewan” and “Eight Men Out.”
On Tuesday, Sayles will return home to read and sign copies of his new novel, “A Moment in the Sun” (McSweeney’s Books, 968 pages, $29), at the Schenectady Light Opera on 427 Franklin Street. The free reading begins at 7 p.m.
Sayles is known as a “writer’s director,” and many of the characters in his films are fully developed with equal numbers of flaws and admirable qualities. Perhaps one reason for this is that he began his professional career as a writer for print and not as a screenwriter.
After graduating from Mont Pleasant High School in 1968 and Williams College in 1972, he began writing short stories. His first novel, “Pride of the Bimbos,” was published in 1975, and it was followed by “Union Dues” in 1977, which was a National Critics’ Circle and National Book Award nominee.
John Sayles’ “A Moment in the Sun”
WHAT: Reading and book signing
WHERE: The Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin Street
WHEN: Tuesday at 7 p.m.
HOW MUCH: Free
“The film work sort of happened without any real plan,” said Sayles in a recent phone interview, “but I’ve always thought of myself as a writer.”
This is his first novel since the 1991 publication of “Los Gusanos,” and he discovered how different the publishing industry has become in the last 20 years.
“I had a hard time finding a publisher,” he said. “The book is almost 1,000 pages and most of the mainstream publishers were scared away by that.” He and his agent shopped the book around for two years.
“I had heard from some writer friends how much more difficult it was today to publish a book,” he said, “and they were right. Some publishers were interested but then they’d check upstairs with the people who crunch the numbers and I’d never hear from them again.”
“A Moment in the Sun” is an epic novel that takes place at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The story follows four characters: Royal Scott, a black man from Wilmington, N.C., Hod Brackenridge, a white laborer and drifter, Harry Manigault, a white Southerner who moves to New York City, and Diosdado Concepcion, a Filipino revolutionary.
“It really was a remarkable time period,” said Sayles. “I stumbled upon much of this research writing my last book and I wanted to return to this time period to figure out why our country went from an attitude of anti-imperialism to a very imperialistic country involved in two wars at the same time, the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War.”
What he discovered were some extraordinary events happening then that are rarely taught in our schools.
“I have some Filipino friends who knew nothing about the Philippine-American War,” said Sayles, “and how many schools are teaching what happened in Wilmington when a group of white supremacists staged a coup and killed many black citizens of the town?”
As E.L. Doctorow did in his book “Ragtime,” Sayles brings this time period to life. There are also cameos by some of the most influential people of that day, such as Mark Twain, President William McKinley and McKinley’s assassin.
Begun as screenplay
“This started out as a screenplay focusing on Royal Scott, who joins the 25th Colored Infantry to attract a woman and prove that he’s worthwhile,” said Sayles, “but I soon gave that up when I realized all the other stories and events I wanted to include.”
He also knew he would never be able to raise enough money to make the movie. “This was going to be a period piece, and they’re always too expensive, so I decided to write it as a novel.”
He enjoyed expanding the screenplay into a longer work. “I could put so much into this book. As a screenwriter I always have to shorten everything, but as a novelist I can develop themes and characters much more.”
Sayles has a new movie, “Amigo,” set for release in August. “I’ve enjoyed my book tour,” he said. “I’ve been traveling around the country to some great independent bookstores. Many of them seem to be doing quite well, and I find that very encouraging.”
He also enjoys the public readings. “Because it’s such a long book, I can read something different every night,” he said. “It also gives me the opportunity to perform a bit.”
McSweeney’s Publishing House has been enjoyable to work with. “When I’m doing the film work, I’m doing everything from the writing to the directing and the publicity. It’s exhausting. With this book I just had to show up, read and sign books. It’s been fun.”
His new movie also takes place during the Philippine-American War. “Digital technology has made it much easier to make films today,” he said, “but financing and distributing movies are as difficult as ever.”
He’s looking forward to his reading in Schenectady. “This is my first opportunity to perform in an opera house,” he laughed. “I also hope to see some old friends.”
Sayles would be interested in filming a movie one day in Schenectady if the right project came along.
“There’s certainly no shortage of locations, especially if I wanted to show some old industrial buildings. It would also be much cheaper to film there than in a place like New York City.”
He’s not sure what his next project will be.
“Maybe I’ll write another novel. I always seem to have ideas for movies; usually short stories make perfect movie ideas, but what stops me from jumping into another movie is the thought of financing the film.”
Sayles financed his last three films from his hired work as a screenwriter to the major Hollywood studios.
“For now I’m going to have fun promoting the book and the film, and I know after all this is done some good idea will come along and excite me.”