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John Sayles on novels, movies and US history

A good Amigo
By JOHN J. KELLY  |  June 24, 2011

Sayles mugshot
It is high noon and writer and director John Sayles is doing what he does best: telling stories and giving directions. But I'm not on a movie set. Instead, I'm in a car, driving Sayles and his longtime partner Maggie Renzi to the second-to-last stop, this one in Chicago, of what he calls his "Odyssean book tour." Sayles has been crisscrossing America by automobile — some 30 stops in 45 days — promoting his latest novel, A Moment in the Sun (McSweeney's Books), a sprawling 955-page epic about everything from racism at home to American imperialism abroad. Before jumping in the car, we take a few minutes to get some things on the record.

A MOMENT IN THE SUN BEGINS IN 1897 AND SEEMS TO MARK THE BEGINNING OF A MAJOR SHIFT IN ATTITUDE — THAT CONTINUES TO THIS DAY — ABOUT HOW WE AMERICANS THINK OF OUR ROLE IN THE WORLD.
It was the start of Americans accepting and being proud of being imperialists. Certainly we had done imperialist things before, but, as a nation, we still believed we were for liberty. Then came the Spanish-American War, and even though we had to leave Cuba, there were other countries we invaded — like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines — and rather than leaving, we said "We're stayin'." It became the "White Christian duty" to keep moving throughout the globe, and "So what about these little brown buggers? Even if we have to kill a couple million of them, they'll be better off for it." So, for the first time, Americans were thinking, "We should have a say in world affairs like other empires. We should be there at the table with the big boys, in China, in the Philippines, everywhere."

IS IT FAIR, THEN, TO CHARACTERIZE YOU AS A POLITICAL WRITER AND FILMMAKER?
What I would say is that the stuff that I do is politically conscious, rather than politically unconscious. So I don't avoid politics when they are such a big part of the story. What I found in researching this book was there is an awful lot of disinformation or misinformation in the records. Even the texts were incredibly racially pointed and carried such an agenda. I mean, Hearst and Pulitzer were no better than Fox News. They were just making shit up half the time. So then I had to go back to [military] regimental histories, to letters home, to original source material.

THIS BOOK IS ENORMOUS IN ITS SCOPE AND SHEER VOLUME. DID YOU INTEND FOR IT TO BE SO LONG?
No. I understood the arc of the history, and I knew I wanted to get at least to the point where the US declared "mission accomplished," and the Spanish-American war officially ended. Of course, then it continued for another 12 to 14 years. But I didn't quite know just how many different characters I would write about or just how it would swell out.

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  Topics: Features , Politics, Cuba, History,  More more >
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