Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Guest Post: The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career by Cameron MacKenzie

Please join me in welcoming Cameron MacKenzie to Let Them Read Books! Cameron is here today with a guest post about finding narrative voice as he wrote his debut historical novel about the early life of Pancho Villa. Read on, and enter to win a paperback copy of The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career!

“I am not the revolution...I am the instrument of another hand.” So does Francisco “Pancho” Villa begin the tale of his rise from thief to warlord to the revolutionary leader of northern Mexico. By turns a confession and an act of seduction, The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career chronicles a country remaking itself through blood and violence, giving shape to the boy who would dare to step from anonymity into power through the inexorable force of his will.

An exile at 16 after the murder of his family’s landowner, Villa begins a journey through dusty desert villages and barren mountaintop camps where his principles are formed and tested by endemic injustice. Building a group of outlaws around him, Villa begins to wage a war on the landowning dons that control the state, but as the savagery increases and the betrayals multiply, the ascension within Villa’s command of the mysterious and sadistic Rodolfo Fierro puts Villa’s ideals, and his vision of the future of Mexico, to the test.

Luminous, disturbing and powerful, The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career weaves history and drama into a driving tale of ambition and brutality, insisting that those who would remake the world must first set fire to the old.

Narrative Voice
by Cameron MacKenzie

I think perhaps the most important (as well as the most difficult), element of the writing process is finding and controlling the narrative voice. If you can hit on the proper voice for the book, the book seems to come together around it. If you can’t find the right voice—and by voice here I’m talking about tone, about point of view, about vocabulary and length of line and rhythm—if you can’t find all that, the book can feel sunk before it starts.

A lot of historical fiction is told from the first person because it plants the reader concretely in the historical time and place. But in order to believably pull off a first person narrator in historical fiction, the writer needs to have a firm grasp on not only how people expressed themselves in that time and place, but how that particular character would understand him or herself from within a sociological, economic and cultural situation that is oftentimes quite foreign to us from where we sit today. The writer has got to do a ton of research to get this right.

I struggled for a long time with what perspective to use when writing my book on Pancho Villa, The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career. I had good writing from Villa’s perspective in the first person, but the more I learned about Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the more intimidated I became. This was an epic figure, one of the more important leaders of the 20th century—a man who pulled himself up from poverty and through lawlessness in a perilous landscape to eventually lead a country to freedom. What could I believably say about him?

Through my research I came to understand that several Americans rode south to join Villa’s ranks and fight in the revolution. Tom Mix was there. Ambrose Bierce was there. As memorably played by Warren Beatty in the film Reds, John Reed was there. I decided I could inhabit one of these Americans and relate Villa through them.

And so I created one of these mediating characters. In fact, I created a series of them. I provided them with backstories; I wrote the letters they would’ve sent home; I researched what colleges they would’ve attended, what skills they would have had, what they would’ve brought with them to Mexico in their bags. I got them drunk and sobered them up and tempted them and broke them and built them back up and gave them epiphanies and resolutions and threw all of this writing in the trash because none of it was as good as the writing I’d done in the voice of Pancho Villa.  All of the other stuff was a distraction from Villa—from what he did, what he believed, and from his own unique and compelling arc. Crucially, I had to ignore the voice in my head that repeatedly questioned whether it was proper, or suitable, for someone like me to speak for someone like him. I simply had to go with the best book I could write.

And once I committed to that voice, the book coalesced around it. I wasn’t completely sure where the voice was coming from as I wrote it, but looking back I see so much of the writing I love: I see as much Gabriel García Márquez as Flannery O’Conner, as much Beowulf as Juan Rulfo. I see French philosophy and Mexican corridos and snatches of books on Robin Hood I read as a child; in short, all that writing got filtered down into what ended up on the page. First person from the vantage point of my protagonist was, for me, the first instinct, and it turned out to be the best one.

About the Author:

Cameron MacKenzie's work has appeared in Able Muse, The Rumpus, SubStance and The Michigan Quarterly Review, among other journals. His short fiction was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize, and his essays have been collected in The Waste Land at 90: A Retrospective and Edward P. Jones: New Essays. His novel The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career is just out from Madhat Press. He teaches English at Ferrum College and reviews books for Roanoke Review. He lives in Roanoke, VA.


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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this fascinating historical which interests me greatly.


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