In Historical Fiction, the Rebels of a Scots Saga
In his new novel “Jamie MacGillivray: The Renegade’s Journey,” Academy Award-nominated screenwriter John Sayles (“Passion Fish,” “Lone Star”) takes fans of historical fiction on a bloody, decade-spanning romantic odyssey from the blockbuster-style Jacobite battle scenes of the Scottish Highlands to the 18th century colonies of The New World. Sayles spoke with me on the phone from California ahead of a talk he’ll give with WAMC’s Joe Donahue at The White Hart Inn in Salisbury, Conn., on Wednesday, March 15.
Alexander Wilburn: As someone who has written across all mediums, books, film, and television, what brings you back to the novel?
John Sayles: You don’t have to raise money to write a book. Certainly, as a filmmaker, I probably have 10 movies I’ve written that I’ve never been able to raise money for. As a matter of fact, “Jamie MacGillivray” started a screenplay over 20 years ago, at the suggestion of Robert Carlyle, a Scottish actor. I just felt like it was such a good story, I took it up and started thinking about it as a novel. Of course, things always grow when you turn something into a novel. Secondary characters get much bigger and you can do deeper research. When you’re writing for a movie you have to be so aware of time — are we 10 minutes or half an hour into the movie? Very few people sit down and read a novel straight through, so it has a very different rhythm.
AW: How much of the scope of the story changed then compared to the original script?
JS: It always began at The Battle of Culloden and ended with The Battle of Quebec, so it was an ambitious feature. But for instance, Jenny was a pretty minor character who showed up a few times in the screenplay, but when I was doing the research for the story as a book I came across ship logs that did take Jacobite prisoners over to various slave jobs. One of the ships that carried women was taken over by a French privateer before it was able to reach Jamaica, so the prisoners were liberated on the island of Martinique. I thought, first of all, that’s a great way to get Jenny overseas and I eventually wanted to get her to Canada. So if she’s on a French island she can hook up with a French officer and he can get transferred to Canada. As it turns out the research helped me make all of those moves. It’s a little bit like a board game.
AW: This novel is an epic, romantic, often violent saga. I’m always really curious about the prep work that goes into crafting a big novel like this. As an American writer what kind of research did you do to write a convincing narrative about characters from the Scottish Highlands?
JS: The good thing is that the time period is not so old that there’s nothing written about it. In fact, in the first part of the novel, some scenes are verbatim. The minutes of the trial of Lord Lovat were published. Everything that the various barristers said in front of the judge is recreated in the novel. There were records kept by the military of who was killed at Culloden and what clans they were from. There are shipping records of the prisoners who were sent to the New World, and those involved in slave trafficking, so you can look up a certain ship and see how long the voyage took, how much cargo was on it, and how much money they made. In the New World, the colonists were keeping documents — they weren’t necessarily living up to the letter when it came to Native tribes, but a lot of that is documented as well. I can read in French so for a lot of the stuff that happens in Martinique I was able to find books written at the time. I also did a certain amount of reading of the novelists of the time, Dickens and Henry Fielding who wrote “Tom Jones,” and artists like Hogarth who did these series like “The Rake's Progress,” which are full of details. My one rule when I’m working on a book is that I can do research for a week, but then I have to sit and write fiction for a week. Because you can get sucked down the rabbit hole.
AW: Is the pressure to be constantly period accurate to the 18th century something you strive for or do you take creative license for the sake of storytelling?
JS: I find I get much better ideas if I follow what actually happened. So I have a calendar of when things happened and I fit my characters into that calendar. I also get ideas from the technical research — what weapons were they using? How did they operate them? What was the penal code at the time? How did law work? There’s a chapter where there’s a guy who’s afraid of heights, and he gets the job of putting two beheaded prisoner’s heads up on the spikes on the gate and they’re going to sit there for years and years and years — somebody had to do that. So that kind of detail from research gives me ideas. It’s great to not have to make up a plot, the history is pretty rich in itself.
AW: I want to circle back to William Hogarth who appears in the novel. He’s one of the great painters who captured the frenzy and life and emotion of the 18th century. Were his works a source of visual inspiration?
JS: One of the things that he does in his series like “The Rake’s Progress” or “The Harlot’s Progress,” they’re like stories. Every detail, every background person — even if you look at the paintings on the wall they’re commenting on what’s going on. So they’re really rich and novel-like just looking at his pictures. Then there’s the fact that he met Lord Lovat, who had just been captured, to be tried. Eventually Lord Lovat was the last lord ever beheaded by the British, and Hogarth did this beautiful picture of him — he’s as wide as he is tall, and his head looks like a wicked Jack-o'-lantern. He was a notorious character in his day. That was important for my research, knowing there was satiric humor at the time.
AW: You’ll be having a live stream conversation with “Outlander” author Diana Gabaldon, who has become the modern archetypal author of Scottish fiction. This is sort of a “Tale of Jamie's.”
JS: It will be very interesting because I assume we’ve held a lot of the same research in our hands. She started as a researcher before becoming a novelist, so she’s very deft at that. I’m always interested when you start with the same core material what sends you off in these little directions, what strikes you. Years ago I adapted the first novel of “The Clan of The Cave Bear” by Jean M. Auel and I know a little about the research that she did. This was before people knew the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons had interbred. She was right about five or six things that hadn’t been proven yet. She said things came to her in a dream. That’s another way of getting your material.