By Jhon Sánchez
In my apartment, there are two wooden boxes full of manuscripts. After reading “Rover,” by A.T. Sayre, I keep thinking about those stories, poems, and a novel that lie there. Existing. I dreamed that after my death, someone would come and find them. But more likely, they would be just paper. Hopefully, they would turn into a supermarket paper bag with a seal for recycling.
I went to explore other of Sayre’s short stories, and I read “Missionaries,” available in Kindle,
“Grooming,” available in Literally Stories, and “I’m Not Robert,” available in Bewildering Stories and in the podcast StarShipSofa. They are all excellent, and I wanted to read more, but I found “Whatever Makes You Happy,” a movie that A.T directed, so I watched the film instead of reading more. It’s an impressive career, and I would like to hear from the author himself.
J.S: A.T. Sayre, thank you for granting this interview.
A.T. S: Thank you for reading my work.
JS: Why did you move from filmmaking to writing short stories?
A.T.S: To be accurate, I started by writing short stories. At first a few silly little things back when I was about ten years old, before I had ever thought of making films. It’s what I did creatively first. And even when later in life and I was focused on filmmaking, I still wrote stories from time to time—I first wrote ‘Grooming’ way back in college while studying film, for example. Same with ‘Broken’, another story of mine that was first published this year. So it was never so much of a move to writing stories as a return to it.
But I did return to it, for various reasons. Partly because I was getting frustrated by the lack of progress in getting anywhere in my filmmaking career. Breaking through in the film and TV business is incredibly difficult. It’s a very expensive artistic medium to work in, and while you can sometimes just grab a couple of friends and shoot something on your phone, and it can turn out great, getting attention even for the best of work can feel like screaming into the wind. The industry is just not geared, or honestly, terribly interested in finding new original cinematic voices in this country like it has been at other times.
I don’t want to sound bitter about it, though. I admire anyone who can keep going in it and especially those who succeed, and succeed magnificently, as some do all the time. But I spent many years trying to be one of them and was getting no sense of accomplishment back.
With writing, I get that feeling every time I finish a new story. And then again if or when I get it published. More people have seen what I do now than when I was making films. I have more of a sense of progress, of growth that I never got from film. People read me far more than they ever watched me. And that is probably the biggest reason I went back.
J.S: I enjoyed the movie because I could see some of my Brooklyn friends in those characters. I think your stories have characters that are contemporary and very American. They are just like my friends. Can you comment on that?
A.T.S: Well that’s who I know. And that is always who should populate a story, be it set down at the local bodega or on a Martian colony. Much like people tell you to write what you know, you should only write about people you know too. I don’t mean specifically, like your buddy from college down to the color of their socks but with a changed name. I mean your character, no matter how fantastic the setting, should still at heart be no different than anyone you could pass by on the street. Because if you believe storytelling as an attempt to communicate with others–as I do–how would your audience be able to glean anything from any of it, if they don’t understand anyone in it?
A futuristic setting does not change that at all. The folks who are going to be on that interstellar spaceship five hundred years from now, or running the local clone farm next century, are going to be the people you know. They may dress different, talk different, even look different, but its still going to be people deep down you would recognize.
JS: You’re a director, screenwriter, you can write non-genre-based stories, you’re good with horror if I can dare to say that ‘Grooming’ is a horror story. Why do you write sci-fi now?
It’s the kind of ideas I have right now. I’ve been reading science fiction since even before I was writing. One of my older siblings left behind a giant box of old pulp scifi and fantasy novels when they moved out, and I tore through them as a kid, sometimes reading two or three at a time. They weren’t all classics, and definitely not all things I’d be proud to admit to reading now, but it’d be silly to think it didn’t all have a formative influence on my thinking. Science fiction based ideas come pretty naturally to me, and they always have. But even as you note, not all my stories are science fiction, and I am always open to writing something that isn’t. And definitely have in the past. ‘Grooming’ isn’t, and I’m not sure I see it as horror either. My film ‘Whatever Makes You Happy’ is not science fiction at all—it’s a contemporary adaptation of Anna Karenina. Actually, nothing that I wrote or worked on while pursuing film was science fiction, and not only because the logistics of doing science fiction well on a low to microbudget can be daunting if not utterly impossible—I also for whatever reason had no science fiction ideas at the time. The last couple of short stories I’ve finished (unpublished as of yet) are not science fiction either; one’s a biblical/ historical piece and another is best described as a contemporary ghost story.
So I tend to go where the wind takes me, as it were. Which is why I prefer ‘speculative fiction’ over science fiction. It more encompassing. But with that said, right now most often I do things that general consensus would agree is science fiction, as do I, but not always. I’m free to write whatever I want.
J.S: It seems to me sci-fi and cinematography were born at the same time. There is a brotherhood between them that doesn’t exist with other genres, don’t you think?
A.T.S: Well, the advent of science fiction and film as a medium did happen right around the same time, depending on how you see Kepler’s Somnium among other early writings–and zoetropes, for that matter. But I can see a connection, now that you’ve asked, based in the progress of technology. One exists due to it, and the other is based on it. It’s not something I have thought about specifically before you said it, but I suppose I will be now.
J.S: I think William Gibson, Octavia Butler, H.G Wells, to name a few, write in response to their own historical moments. Do you see your writing in response to the current historical moments? Are there common themes that you try to address? If so, Why?
A.T. S: Of course. But that’s not so much intentional as inevitable. All creative exploits are in reaction to the world around the person who is creating it. It does not have to be a specific or direct response, but it would be impossible to create anything worthwhile in a vacuum. I write for my time as I see it. Even if what I’m doing isn’t a direct comment on anything specific going on at the moment, the world still effects or informs it. I think everyone else who’s expressing something sincere is the same.
J.S: I recently read Babel and Ludimia Petrushevskaya, who have stories that use biblical narratives like your story “Missionaries.” What’s the purpose to re-invent stories like that?
A.T.S: That’s difficult to answer. It borders very close to the ‘Where do your ideas come from’ type of question, which I see as insoluble. There were certain ideas I wanted to express with that story, particularly surrounding the kind of arrogance of the benevolent savior complex I get from the overly religious, saving the poor unwashed and ignorant masses, getting them on the divine path and all that garbage. Why did I choose to illustrate those ideas with that scenario? Or why did those ideas create that scenario in my head? I couldn’t say. That’s just how it came out. I guess because the ideas were very much based in religion, they naturally demanded that motif. But ultimately the reason to re-invent, or riff on something, be it religion or anything else, is because that is how you deem it is best brought out, how your idea has the best chance of being understood. At least that’s the hope.
J.S: I think of “Rover” as a story full of humanity but without humans. What do you think about that?
A.T.S: I like that. ‘Rover’ is for me very much a story about the human condition, as portrayed by something definitely not human. Here is this solitary being, a construct on another planet that may or may not have gained sentience, endlessly struggling on the inhospitable surface of a desolate planet, following the directive of a creator that has long since stopped communicating with it. Sounds rather Sisyphean, doesn’t it? At the risk of sounding incredibly pretentious I was leaning very heavily on my own personal takeways from Camus’ essay when I was writing it. And through this little robot I hope I managed to express an existential outlook much like his.
This is what I love about speculative fiction, both science fiction and fantasy. When done well it has the ability to get at aspects of our mortal plight from an angle that normally couldn’t be done through ‘normal’ fiction.
J.S: After reading “Rover,” I thought of an article I read in the New Yorker about the dangers of the new aerospace garbage. Was aerospace debris the source of inspiration for the story?
A.T.S: I’d have to say no. When I write something I tend to look at it from various different angles all through the process, but I have to say that connection did not come to me at all. Again, for me, the story is all about purpose or meaning. That’s not to say that connection is invalid, just not something that I had seen in any way myself.
J.S: Do you have any plan or project that you would like to share with us?
I’m always working on something. Or more accurately, thinking of working on something. Or planning to work on something. Never idle, certainly, but not always busy. I have a few stories I’ve written that have not been published anywhere that I’m looking for a home for, as I assume all writers have. The most recent thing I have finished is a novel—my very first, which is how I’ve spent my quarantine. It was supposed to only be a novella, but for some reason it turned out well over twice as long as I had intended. So that might be out in the zeitgeist eventually.
As of right now only a handful of people have read it–friends, family, an agent or two. And as far as I know they are all still talking to me. Which I always take as a good sign.
Thank you very much for granting this interview, and I hope to see not only the book of your stories but, in your case, the movie.
A.T. Sayre has been telling stories in some form or other for over three-quarters of his life, ever since he was ten years old. From plays to poems, teleplays to comic books, he has tried his hand at pretty much every medium imaginable. His work has previously appeared in Andromeda Spaceways, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and StarShipSofa. A more detailed list of his publications can be found at www.atsayre.com/fiction
Born in Kansas City, raised in New Hampshire, he lives in Brooklyn and likes to read in coffeehouses.