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John Sayles on reading for and during the making of a film

John Sayles has not only been prolific but also unpredictable throughout his 18 films and many works of fiction.Mary Cybulski

Over the course of his long career, John Sayles has not only been prolific but also unpredictable across his 93 acting, writing, and directing credits and many works of fiction. The newest example is his just-published novel, “Jamie MacGillivray: The Renegade’s Journey,” which follows the adventures of a Scotsman sentenced to be an indentured servant and shipped off to colonial America. Sayles divides his time between Connecticut and California. He reads as part of the Earfull series of authors and musicians at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 21 at The Burren in Somerville. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 the day of the show. He will also read at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 22 at Newtonville Books in Newton.


BOOKS: What are you reading?

SAYLES: “Swing Time” by Zadie Smith, which is the only one of her novels I haven’t read. I’m also reading “The Night Manager” by John le Carré. We listened to him read his autobiography, “The Pigeon Tunnel,” on our drive out West this winter. He’s such a great reader. I almost never recommend that someone listen to a book instead of read it, but you get to spend time with this very cool guy who is no longer with us.

BOOKS: What was your last best read?

SAYLES: Arundhati Roy’s second novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.” It’s about a bunch of people from every ethnic group living in a cemetery together. Everyone in India is killing each other, but they get along because they are all outcasts.

BOOKS: Do you make a point of reading classics?

SAYLES: When I was in college, I took a freshman English course, and that was it. I don’t have a big academic background in Russian, French, and English literature. I’m catching up with that. I’ve read some Zola novels, but I haven’t gotten to the Russians. In college I started reading American authors, and by the time I graduated I got up to the letter “m.” Luckily Mark Twain was under Samuel Clemens, so I got to read his stuff.


BOOKS: Are you a fan of historical fiction?

SAYLES: I started reading more of it when I started writing historical fiction, but I don’t read that much of it. I did read all of Patrick O’Brian’s “Aubrey/Maturin” series, over two years. They are just fun. He does a very good job of feathering in nautical stuff without laying a ton of facts on you, so you learn how a ship works.

BOOKS: Do you read biographies?

SAYLES: Every once in a while, when there’s someone I want to know about. I read a biography of Roger Casement by Mario Vargas Llosa in Spanish. It was good practice for my Spanish, but he was a really fascinating guy. He was an Irishman who became a British consul and then went to the Belgian Congo to report on the treatment of natives there. Eventually he was executed by the British because he got involved with the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland.

BOOKS: What are some of the more interesting books you’ve read for your films?

SAYLES: For my film “Amigo,” which is set in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War, I read a lot of historical stuff. José Rizal, who was a Filipino politician and an ophthalmologist, wrote two really good novels in Spanish, “Touch Me Not” and “The Reign of Greed.” It was interesting to read work by a guy who was a polymath and understood firsthand why the Filipinos rose up against the Spanish.


BOOKS: Do you keep something to read on the set when you are filming?

SAYLES: Yes. There’s a certain amount of waiting time on the set. It’s usually totally unrelated to what I’m shooting. It’s like cross training. When you are working on something, you have your antenna out for anything that might be useful. You might be reading Stephen Crane, but you’re working on something contemporary. I read his “Wounds in the Rain” when we filmed “Amigo.” It’s short pieces about the Spanish-American War. He wrote “The Red Badge of Courage” without having been in a war, which I think he felt guilty about so he became a correspondent during the Spanish-American War. People say he would stand up in the middle of bullets flying for a few minutes with a little smile on his face and then duck back in for cover. It’s funny what can inspire you.