John Sayles at UAlbany
Independent filmmaker and author John Sayles, who delivered the 16th annual Burian Lecture Monday night at the University of Albany, describes his new novel as “a big mosaic of a book ... not a page-turner.”
It was a long time coming and weighed in at 955 pages.
Hosted by the New York Writers Institute, Sayles read from "A Moment in the Sun," his sweeping historical novel, at times summoning a fine brogue as he re-created a scene in which two Irish immigrants discuss the guerrilla war in the Philippines. Their frequently politically incorrect language is an accurate reflection of their times and social position, the author says.
“A Moment in the Sun” is set in the late 1800s, a period in America marked by jingoism, war-mongering yellow journalism and racial violence.
Sayles researched not only events of the period but dialogue -- how people talked, what they thought about current events. He relied on primary sources whenever possible, some of them being newspapers, not just the big city papers which frequently had political agendas but the African American papers of the big cities whose war correspondents provided him with rich fodder. He pored over the regimental histories of military companies of the period and read numerous editorial cartoons of the era, including those in the New York papers of Hearst and Pulitzer.
Mark Twain and Damon Runyon, among other real people, make appearances in his novel. The fictional people, he said, are composites of characters he encountered in his research.
The author, who is a Schenectady native and best known as America’s foremost independent filmmaker, actually works mostly at writing screenplays or repairing those of others in his role as “script doctor.”
He was introduced by author William Kennedy, founder of the Writers Institute, as “a genuinely imaginative artist of substance.”
Standing at 6’4”, the rangy Sayles is an imposing figure, even in his casual dress — sneakers, cargo pants, and short-sleeved jersey open at the throat. He seemed a little stiff at the outset, but warmed up as the evening progressed, and later agreeably answered questions from the audience.
He says he began writing “A Moment in the Sun” as a screenplay many years ago. He did the bulk of the work during a long strike by the Writers Guild of America. Most recently he made the movie “Amigo,” based on the same story and due for release later this year.
Asked for whom he writes, he said he never thinks about his audience. “I write a book about every 15 years. I’ve never gotten a letter from a reader saying they read my book. You just figure somebody published it and it’s in the library so somebody must have read it.”
He regularly pitches movies and screenplays.
“I have six or possibly seven jobs that might happen in which I’d be screenwriter.”
One of them is based on Sheila Weller's book, “Girls Like Us,” about Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carol King and their music.
Another is on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Jewish-American Communists who were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage in 1953, and another is about Alexander Litvinenko, a former colonel in the Russian secret service and a critic of the Putin regime who was poisoned while living in London.
PHOTO: John Sayles speaks at UAlbany's Performing Arts Center. Beverly M. Elander for The Daily Gazette