SCHENECTADY – Whether on film or in print, Schenectady native John Sayles knows how to craft a story.
He’s known as a writer’s director and for the past four decades has been a force in the independent film industry, directing more than a dozen features, including “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” “Lone Star,” “Passion Fish,” “Honeydripper” and others.
On Thursday, March 30, he’ll return to the Capital Region to celebrate his latest story: “Jamie MacGillivray: The Renegade’s Journey.” He’ll give a reading at Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs at 6 p.m.
The sprawling novel starts out in 1746, in the bloody Battle of Culloden in the Scottish highlands. After his comrades are killed, the novel’s titular character escapes execution only to be captured by the enemy and shipped to Marshalsea Prison. While he manages to survive the prison, he’s later put to another test when he’s sentenced to indentured servitude and shipped off to colonial America.
His tortuous journey is paralleled by Jenny Ferguson, a destitute village girl who is brought up on false charges by the English and is sent to America as well. Through their journeys, the two meet one another at key moments. They also encounter familiar historical figures including George Washington and novelist Henry Fielding.
Published last month, the book comes in at more than 700 pages and has been praised by The New York Times, which described it as “a vast, epic and multidimensional tale, a larger and more varied narrative than any film could hope to contain.”
It’s perhaps an especially interesting note considering the novel began as an idea for a film more than 20 years ago.
“I got a call from the Scots actor Robert Carlyle and he had this idea for a movie that was about a highland Scott, who is defeated at the Battle of Culloden trying to kick the English out of Scotland,” Sayles said.
He liked the idea and wrote a screenplay for it. They scouted locations around Scotland and elsewhere.
“We never were able to raise the money to make it. So it just sat there for about 20 years and then just at the beginning of COVID I got interested in well, maybe I should look at that. That’s such a good story. Maybe I can make it into a novel,” Sayles said.
This isn’t entirely unusual for the writer, who has often gone back and forth between working on films and novels.
“When I haven’t been able to raise money for a movie for a while, I’ll often go back to fiction that I’ve been working on,” Sayles said.
Despite its length, Sayles said he wrote the novel relatively quickly.
“I’d done half the research already for writing the screenplay. And I just had to go a little deeper and fill some things in with the research and I always write fast,” Sayles said.
The research required to convincingly write a novel set in a variety of places, capturing not only major battles but also local dialogue, was extensive.
“I had to do research on the ships that would have taken people across and I was able to find very specifically the names of the ships and some of the transcripts of their voyages and got some good ideas from that,” Sayles said. “You have to do research on the weapons, you have to do the research on what did people eat in the different classes, who wore wigs and who didn’t back in England. And then when you get to the New World, you have to do research on what were the politics of the tribes themselves.”
He also read fiction from the time period, including works by Charles Dickens and Henry Fielding, to get a sense of the humor.
In the screenplay, Jenny was a minor character, but Sayles decided to flesh out her story in the novel, detailing how she survives dangerous situations.
“Obviously, it’s a very different thing, even today, to survive in grave times if you’re a woman than if you’re a man, and especially back then there weren’t that many roles where women were accepted,” Sayles said. “Some of her survival is just, who can I find to be a protector? Who can I find who’s going to make life easier for me or even make life possible for me?”
While Jamie and Jenny cross paths a few times throughout the novel, their relationship isn’t a romance.
“The world events around them are just like tidal waves. And they’re just treading water trying to survive,” Sayles said.
“Jamie MacGillivray” is his sixth novel and the first he’s been able to tour with in some time. His previous book, “Yellow Earth” was published in early 2020 and most of the supporting readings and signings were canceled.
“It’s nice to be doing readings where people can actually come back into the stores or wherever you’re doing the reading and see people again,” Sayles said.
While “Jamie MacGillivray” doesn’t take place in the Capital Region, local readers may still appreciate some of the history discussed in it.
“The French and Indian War had a big effect on the Capital District and that’s one of the main settings of ‘Jamie MacGillivray,’ and so people who are interested in that history would be interested in the book,” Sayles said.
“Jamie MacGillivray,” published by Melville House, is available at Northshire and other book retailers. For more information on the event at Northshire, visit northshire.com.
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Categories: Art, Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Schenectady