John Thomas Sayles was born in Schenectady, New York, on September 28, 1950, and attended Mount Pleasant High School in Schenectady, earning letters in basketball, baseball, track, and football. After being turned down by the U.S. Army, in 1968 Sayles enrolled at Williams College, where he took creative writing classes and acted in dramatic productions. Following his graduation in 1962, he worked in a variety of jobs, including one in a meatpacking plant, and hitchhiked thousands of miles. In 1975 he published his first novel, The Pride of the Bimbos, and won an O. Henry Award for “I-80 Nebraska, m.490-m.205.” In 1977 he published his second novel, Union Dues, and began writing for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), his first feature film, was a critical and financial success; and in the same year he published his collection of short stories, The Anarchists’ Convention. Aside from writing and staging his one-act plays in 1981, the rest of his career has primarily been devoted to working in films as an actor, screenplay writer, editor, and director. Two of his screenplays (Alligator, 1980; Wild Thing, 1987) are based on his short stories. In 1991 he published his third novel, Los Gusanos, but Sayles has become primarily a filmmaker rather than a writer of fiction.
John Thomas Sayles is one of the United States’ best-known independent filmmakers as well as a prolific screenwriter. He also writes novels, plays, teleplays, and short stories. He likes to describe himself as a storyteller. Sayles is the son of Donald John Sayles, a teacher and school administrator, and Mary Rausch Sayles, a schoolteacher. Both of his grandfathers were policemen. Sayles attended Mount Pleasant High School in Schenectady, New York, earning letters in basketball, baseball, track, and football.
In 1968 he was rejected by the U.S. Army because of a missing vertebra and entered Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He graduated in 1972 with a bachelor of science degree in psychology. While in college he did some acting, both at school and in summer stock. In the several years following his graduation, Sayles worked as an orderly in a nursing home, as a day laborer, and as a meat packer. In addition, he hitchhiked hundreds of miles around the United States, talking to people as he went.
His writing career began in earnest in 1975 with the publication of his first novel, Pride of the Bimbos, and a short story titled “I-80 Nebraska, M.490-M.205,” which won Sayles an O. Henry short-story award. Sayles began writing for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, a factory-like production house known for its horror and exploitation films. There he learned to pace stories for the screen. The film Piranha, for which he wrote the screenplay, was released in 1978. While working in the Hollywood film industry, he continued to write fiction successfully. Union Dues, his second novel, was published in 1977 and nominated for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award, the only novel that year to be so honored. Additionally, he won a second O. Henry Award for the short story “Breed.”
The year 1979 was a breakthrough in Sayles’s career. He wrote, directed, and edited his own first feature film, Return of the Secaucus Seven, a story about a reunion of college friends from the 1960’s. Shot in twenty-two days for sixty thousand dollars, the film earned two million dollars and a Los Angeles Film Critics Award for best screenplay for Sayles. Shot in a realistic style with little camera movement (for economy’s sake), the film struck a chord with young people because of its intelligent dialogue. Sayles’s collection of fifteen short stories, The Anarchists’ Convention, was published that same year.
Throughout the 1980’s Sayles continued to be productive as a writer, director, and...
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