Few fiction writers understand the ripple effect that big industry can have on a community with as much depth and empathy as John Sayles. That’s been evident throughout his work, from Matewan, his 1987 film about a miners’ strike, to 2002’s Sunshine State, about a Florida island’s mixed response to real estate developers, to his gold rush-era epic novel A Moment in the Sun.
His latest novel, Yellow Earth, might be his most deeply felt work yet. Tracking the boom and bust of a shale oil development in North Dakota, Sayles puts us dead center in the tornado of activity that rips through a small town and a nearby Native American reservation—opening up the minutiae of drilling and fracking through the perspective of dozens of richly drawn characters who he seems to know as intimately as family.
MERCURY: Where did this book begin for you?
SAYLES: It could have been 30 years ago. There was a similar shale oil find in Wyoming near Green River. I always thought a book about the impact of that kind of invasion would be interesting and dramatic. In the case of Wyoming, it was a very short boom and bust because they realized the technology wasn’t really ready yet for fracking, and they were losing money pretty quickly. They got out, but it left a mess behind.
What can you tell me about the research that went into Yellow Earth?
I already knew quite a bit about traditional drilling, but I had to understand fracking and how it was different. It is quite a bit different. It’s more expensive than traditional oil drilling, which is why the bust happened. The height of drilling and exploration was when [gas] was $4 a gallon. The more successful [fracking] got, the more the number at the pump started to go down. At a certain number, it just didn’t make economic sense anymore.
All your writing wonderfully captures the voice of a region or part of the world. Does that come naturally or is it a result of the research?
I’ve hitchhiked across South Dakota and North Dakota several times. So it’s not foreign to me. But one of the advantages of research now is you don’t just go to a library. If you can’t go to the place, you go online. There are people who make short videos about their experiences in the oil fields, or they’re a pole dancer and they have a blog where they give out advice about what you may be facing if you get to North Dakota. So there’s just a lot more available.
You write about a prairie dog colony that’s affected by development, and it’s such a vivid metaphor. Was that something you had in mind from the start?
I wanted to talk about the environment in a way that wasn’t abstract. When it affects your life—when the fish don’t come back, when you can’t grow your crop—that’s when people really notice that the environment has been changed or messed up. [Our friends] in Alaska talk about, “I just went up a river that used to have a glacier on it my whole life, and it’s receded three miles in five years.” That’s pretty dramatic. So I wanted something dramatic. Often, whether it’s a golf course or a shopping mall in the middle of the country, prairie dogs get displaced, or gassed and then buried.
Though you’ve written characters of color in your past work, we’re living in a much different time now. Were you a little more cautious wading into those waters this time around?
No more cautious than I’ve ever been. These are not exotic people. These are just people. So the basic stuff is pretty easy, then you start to add all those layers. Unless it’s a diary, nobody can write a book and not be writing about somebody who’s not them. You just try to do it well.
With previous novels, you had time to concentrate on them because, due to writers’ strikes, you had no other projects pending. Did you have to put other work aside to get this done?
No. Because of the mosaic nature of a book like Yellow Earth, I knew what the arc was. So as far as plot is concerned, I kind of knew what happened. I could stop for three weeks while I did a draft of a screenplay and pick it back up. The difficulty is: Who’s going to tell this big story? Who are the characters to bring the reader into this story from all these different angles?
Writing is such a solitary exercise, and it’s been a while since you’ve made a film. Do you miss the collaboration that comes with directing?
Yeah. My last movie was seven years ago. I do miss that. There’s a flipside to it. When you write a novel, if you want to see 20 oil rigs on the horizon, you don’t have to convince an oil company to let you shoot on their site and then go and make them look bad. I always say, with a book, you can be God. With a movie, at best, you’re an enlightened despot.