C.M. Mayo is also the author of Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico (Milkweed Editions, 2007); and Sky Over El Nido (University of Georgia Press, 1995), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. A long-time resident of Mexico City and an avid translator of contemporary Mexican poetry and fiction, she is also editor of Mexico: Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press, 2006), a portrait of Mexico in works by 24 Mexican writers, which leading Mexican poet and critic David Huerta has called “one of the outstanding contemporary works on this country.” Her website is http://www.cmmayo.com
You mention in your notes at the conclusion of this historical novel about the brief 19th-century reign in Mexico of Emperor Maximilian and Empress Charlotte, that one of the early grains of inspiration was a photograph of Agustín de Iturbide y Green, the child who became the childless emperor’s heir presumptive. The novel, however, favors the child’s mother, the American Alice Green de Iturbide, who blossoms into a heroine in the international custody battle that ensued after the emperor’s actions. What was it about Alice Green that allowed you to inhabit her angst and personality so convincingly?
Like Alice, I am an American who married a Mexican and came to live in Mexico City. My starting point for writing about her was the same one as for all the novel’s characters: her humanity. Yearning, ambition, greed, fear, jealousy, love, awe, the searing pain of loss: this is the stuff of human experience, no? As Flannery O’Connor once said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” That said, I had a perfectly fine childhood!
How did you negotiate the limited biographical information about her in order to create such a compelling figure worthy of being Emperor Maximilian’s match?
Alice’s social self confidence revealed itself to me in some of her actions, which are a part of the historical record (her marriage to Angel de Iturbide, her signature on Maximilian’s contract, her bravery to make what was a very audacious and even dangerous protest). Her interview with the U.S. ambassador in France, John Bigelow, is based on the actual transcript, which I found in his archive at the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts Division. And for Alice, as for several other characters, I analyzed her handwriting. Hers shows a beautifully educated, extroverted, headstrong, and perhaps prickly personality.
One of the decisions you made in writing this book was to include a wide range of points of view, from the emperor to the governess. This allows the reader to experience a variety of position- and class-designated spaces. In this way, Mexico City becomes a complex character in the book as well. What were some of the challenges in reconstructing 19th-century Mexico City and it’s surroundings?
I sometimes imagine how stunned the characters would be to see today’s Mexico City, this monster megalopolis with 20 million people, half of them watching TV, it seems, and the rest on facebook. Our modern world is so fast, fast food, helicopters roaring overhead, Blackberries buzzing in the middle of dinner. Life in the 1860s was so much slower—and even with the telegraph, people wouldn’t know what had happened on the other side of the ocean for weeks, even months. Also, Mexico’s class system was more rigid then and, at its upper end, far more formal in its customs and rituals. So, in addition to visiting many sites in the novel (Chapultepec Castle, the palace, and so on), I had to do a lot of reading. Among the most the most enjoyable works were the eyewitness memoirs by Sara Yorke Stevenson (who appears in the novel as Mrs. Yorke’s young daughter), by Maximilian’s secretary, Jose Luis Blasio, and by General Bazaine’s aide-de-camp, Charles Blanchot.
How did you make certain choices about what to include and what would be excessive detail or information?
My intention with the novel was to offer the reader a vivid dream, a way of coming into what is, indeed, a strange story, and finding it, after all, very human. Tragic, but understandable. To the extent that any detail or information added to the vividness of that dream, in it went; if it distracted, out it went. I think of clutter as evidence of a lack of integrity in intention or, to put it another way, lack of integrity in design. So if the writer’s intention is to bring the reader into a ball scene, and from the point of view of a character intensely alert to status and beauty, it makes perfect sense to describe the detail of the gowns and the jewels and the music and the flowers, and so on. It can get quite crowded, yes. You mentioned the many different points of view. The main character of this novel is the prince—but the prince, as heir to the throne, is more than a two year old; he is the living symbol of the future of the Mexican Empire, that is, the very idea of the monarchical form of government. Were Mexicans to be subjects of a crown or citizens of a Republic? The difference is incandescent. The novel—this “dream” for the reader, as vivid as I could make it—is the story of that question and its resounding answer.
Readers unfamiliar with this period of Mexican history will also be receiving an introductory history lesson, though this is not a history book—it’s historical fiction. And though the book clocks in at 418 pages, this is but a taste of the times. Once you completed the project, was it difficult to put down the landscape and its people, or are you pursuing this world in another book?There is a hint of a sequel (or perhaps this is wishful thinking) at the end with the scene between Alice Green and a much-older Agustín.
Oh, I miss my characters and the sleuthing in the archives! Yes, I’m writing a sequel, about the later years of the prince, the 1890s up to the 1920s, when he lived in Washington DC. For a vacation from researching, I’m also writing a more contemporary novel set in a 1980s-era town I think of as San Miguel de Allende crossed with Ajijic and 1960s-era Cuernavaca, plus a touch of Peggy Guggenheim’s Venice. Tentative title: The Museum on the Parque Juarez. That said, I’ll be working this year with my translator, Mexican writer and poet Agustin Cadena, on the Spanish version of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire: El último príncipe del Imperio Mexicano, which will be published by Random House-Mondadori in 2010.
What lessons did you learn that will carry you forward into the next project?
It’s been more than seven years of reading, traveling, researching and just living—if anything, I’ve come away from this project with a keener sense of the richness of the world, the richness of human experience. I hope to keep learning.