John Sayles doesn’t take vacations. In 1989, after bringing two long-cherished projects — Matewan, his epic about a West Virginia miners’ strike, and Eight Men Out, the saga of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal — to the screen, he went to work on a story about Cuban expatriates. While he was ”relaxing” he was also working as the creator and occasional scriptwriter for the acclaimed (and recently canceled) TV series Shannon’s Deal, acting in Japanese and Italian movies, and taking time off to write the screenplay for his next film, City of Hope. The day after he finished his novel Los Gusanos, he was off to Cincinnati to start production on the new film, due out in August.
Shuttling between print and celluloid is nothing new for the 1982 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation ”genius award.” The 40-year-old’s career as a promising novelist began in 1975 with Pride of the Bimbos, which was followed in 1977 by the award-winning Union Dues. Soon after he got caught up writing tongue-in-cheek shockers like Piranha, The Howling, and Alligator. The money he earned went to his own films, starting with 1980’s Return of the Secaucus Seven (the movie from which The Big Chill stole its plot) and running through low-budget, high-quality winners such as Baby, It’s You and The Brother From Another Planet. Because he makes his films for roughly the price of a Hollywood brunch, and because he still lives outside the L.A. power loop, in Hoboken, N.J., Sayles can do what he wants. What he wants to do is fuse his left-liberal politics and sharp story sense into thought-provoking entertainments.
So how come the new novel isn’t a movie? To Sayles, it’s a matter of scale. ”The scope of Los Gusanos goes from about the 1930s in Cuba up to about 1981,” he says. ”That’s very difficult to do in a movie without being reductive. And part of the point was not to be reductive but to be expansive — to include as many people and their experiences, so you can see the diversity, rather than say, ‘Oh, we know all about those immigrant Cubans, this is the way they are.”’