What would you do for love, power and success?
Would you accept a job and travel to a distant land?
What would you be willing to give up to secure your place in history?
These are just some of the questions author C.M. Mayo considers in the novel, “The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire,” which will be featured when Mayo launches this season’s Connections Literary Series Oct. 15 at the College of Southern Maryland, Leonardtown Campus.
Mayo’s novel, named one of the best books of 2009 by “Library Journal,” is based on the true story of half-American toddler Agustín de Iturbide y Green, a great-grandson of Maryland's former governor George Plater and grandson of revolutionary war hero General Uriah Forrest. The novel recounts the political tumult and heartbreak surrounding the arrangement in which the child was made Heir Presumptive to the throne of Mexico by the recently installed Emperor Maximilian von Hapsburg, the former Archduke of Austria.
Mayo is the author of “Sky Over El Nido” and the travel memoir, “Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles Through Baja California, the Other Mexico.” She is the founding editor of “Tameme,” a bilingual Spanish/English chapbook and also editor of "Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion." She has received a Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and three Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards and Washington Independent Writers Awards. Currently she divides her time between Mexico City and Washington, D.C., where she
is on the faculty of The Writers Center.
As part of CSM’s Connections Literary Series, Mayo will read from and discuss her historical novel, “The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire,” beginning at 7:30 p.m., October 15, in Leonardtown’s Building A, Auditorium. Tickets are $3 advance sale at the CSM box office and $3 at the door with a student ID, or $5 general admission at the door. Books are available at the CSM College Store.
In preparation for CSM’s Connections program, Mayo discussed the role of emotional truth and the importance of character and place in developing historical fiction.
CSM: You've noted that you sought to tell the "emotional truth,” in that you wanted to explore the emotions and motivations of the characters and their historical acts. How did you discover each character and was it harder to imagine and write certain perspectives over others?
Mayo: The true story, simply told, makes no sense. What was the archduke of Austria doing sitting on the Mexican throne? Why did he take this half-American 2-year-old child and make him his heir presumptive? Why did the child's perfectly healthy parents turn him over to Maximilian? I believe the answers are in the nature of the characters themselves, and that is why, despite having done many years of original research, I wrote the story as fiction.
Each character was a kind of journey, some as easy as a jog to the corner, while others felt like a barefoot slog across the Gobi Desert, just endless, exhausting, and excruciating. (The Emperor Maximilian was probably the toughest; certainly, he was the strangest.) It was not a linear process by any means, but looking back, I see now that there were four basic steps in building each character: (1) reading deeply and broadly about them and their world; (2) imagining their physical presence, gestures, clothing, possessions, environment; (3) thinking
through their hopes and fears, personal, familial, financial, spiritual, etc.; and (4) generating vocabulary that reflects their character and passions, what novelist Douglas Glover calls "language overlay."
One technique I used, and that I recommend to my writing workshop students, is "random questions." For example: what's the name of your character's pet; what does she eat for breakfast; what does she say under her breath when she's seething mad; what's her biggest secret; fondest wish; who does she resent; what does she believe about God; if she inherited some property what would she do with it; what's her favorite flower; and so on. It might seem trivial, but there's always something good to harvest in there. I think we all know more about other people than we realize on a conscious level, but there are these techniques-these "keys" to unlock the door of the mind.
CSM: Likewise, since this is historical fiction and your object was to tell the story of Prince Agustin de Iturbide y Green, did you ever have a hard time letting go of any secondary characters? I am thinking in particular to the story of Lupe which is so beautiful and devastating and yet ultimately unfinished in that we never learn what happens to her.
Mayo: There are so many secondary characters in this novel, they jump in, they float off - Lupe, the kitchen maid-nanny who is abandoned and then runs away, is one of the more important, certainly. In a way, none of the characters' stories is finished, but this is because the main character of this novel is not a person, but an idea.
The prince is the novel's main character - not the prince as a person, however, but as an idea. He is, as is any heir presumptive to throne, the living symbol of the future. An idea this big lives in the minds of many people - therefore, the novel has a crowd of characters, from Lupe the nanny all the way to the Pope himself. So we see the prince from Lupe's eyes, as we need to, and then the story moves on, as the prince is seen from other eyes. Each and every character, each and every scene finds it focus on the prince.
CSM: How do accessibility and timeliness play a role in the language used in a historical novel such as this?
Mayo: The language in the novel was closely modeled on memoirs and newspapers of the time. Yes, though it was only 150 years ago, they did sometimes speak in ways that we in the 21st-century America would find strange. Many of the educated characters had a far more elaborate syntax and vocabulary than we come across today. Americans often used what I think of as a coy negative, e.g., "it was quite the opposite of an ironing board." "Toothsome" was a word I found often, but that is rarely used today, and I think, at least from context, readers can figure out what it means, and it's strangeness gives a touch of historical flavor, no?
I put in "natch" but, for some reason, which I still don't understand, my editor objected to that. You might have noticed that in chapter one, Alice's little brother calls her boyfriend, the Mexican Mr. Iturbide, "a greaser." Several readers have objected that this sounds too modern, but in fact, at that time, the 1850s, the wake of the US-Mexican War, the word "greaser" as a slur was in use and it strikes me as exactly the kind of thing a naughty little brother would say.
All I can say is, a novelist does need to do a lot of research, take a lot of care with the language, but it has been my experience that no matter what you do, someone will say, ah, but they wouldn't have said that, when, in fact, they did. It convinces some readers, but not others. Also, much of this is translated. Maximilian, for example, probably thought to himself in German, while he spoke French to Bazaine and Spanish to the Mexicans, yet I needed to render all of this in English. But that issue of the translations is an essay unto itself.
CSM: Phrases of French, German and Spanish are incorporated liberally throughout the novel. Could you talk a little bit about why you chose to do this and what it offered you as a writer?
Mayo: The novel is about what was a truly transnational episode in Mexico's history: the French, with aid of the Belgians, the acquiescence of Great Britain, Austria and Spain, and with the blessings of Rome, invade Mexico and then install upon the throne the ex-Archduke of Austria, Maximilian von Habsburg, many of whose personal guard, by the way, were Hungarian. They were not all speaking Spanish, I can tell you that. Maximilian and Carlota spoke in German to each other and in German to their German-speaking staff, but they used French for diplomatic correspondence and Spanish for anything official in Mexico. To have kept everything in English throughout the novel would have killed the flavor, flattened the cultural differences, which, really, were like the Himalayas.
CSM: On your website you talk about building this virtual reality for the characters to interact in, how did you go about creating the framework for 1860s Mexico?
Mayo: Reading, reading, and more reading--- biographies, histories, memoirs, newspapers, archives, you name it. I should also mention Torcuato Luca de Tena's "Ciudad de México en tiempos de Maximiliano" (Mexico City in the Time of Maximilian), and of course, extensive note-taking. In some ways, the fact that I have lived in Mexico City for more than 20 years was a hindrance. It was such a different place then, a compact city with crystalline skies. What we have today, in the spreading amoeba-like megalopolis of more than 20 million people, I think of as a motley combination of Los Angeles, Miami, Paris and Lagos. Nonetheless, traveling to the various sites in the novel, in Mexico City, Cuernavaca, as well as Washington, D.C. and many cities in Europe was crucial. I took a lot of photographs and notes, especially in Trieste, where I visited Maximilian's castle.
CSM: Could you talk about the role of food throughout the book?
Mayo: What you eat tells us who you are. What you serve your guests is equally revealing. It's a clue to a character's mood, relationship, social class, culture, and of course, it's fun to read about food.
One of my favorite scenes is when Princess Iturbide, very proud of her Mexican heritage, convinces Frau von Kuhacsevich to try the Aztec delicacy known as "huitlacoche," or corn smut (a black fungus that grows on the ears of the corn), which Frau von Kuhacsevich considered disgusting, "on a par with roasted maguey worms, mosquito paste, tacos of ant eggs and the like," until Princess Iturbide compared it to truffles. Truffles. Ah, with the right metaphor, suddenly huitlacoche became quite chic.
You probably noticed that apple pie plays a recurring role in the novel. This is the quintessential Yankee dish, of course. There's also a lot about whipped cream, a favorite of the wily German Jesuit, Father Fischer. Later in the book, as the Empire begins to fail, we see the price of lard and meat go up, and there are increasing shortages. In the penultimate chapter, Mrs. York, the well-to-do- wife of a banker, has to serve very weak tea to her guests. I don't go into it in the novel, but in the final months of the Empire, many people did starve.
CSM: Throughout the novel, you pose the question of the strength of the female characters in comparison to how the men view them. Was it always your intention to make this argument or was it more of an organic byproduct of your research and writing?
Mayo: I didn't have any intention here, it came out of the story itself. The Empress Carlota of the novel is very closely based on research. She really seemed to be a kind of Joan of Arc, unflinchingly courageous and with almost super human reserves of energy. The problem, of course, is that she was very young, only in her early 20s, and increasingly isolated and unstable. Similarly, Alice, the prince's mother, also took a proactive role; she fought desperately hard to get her son back. Both Carlota and Alice (the American mother of the prince) had in common a great sense of social self-confidence. As for the men's terribly condescending views of the female characters, these were, alas, typical attitudes of the time. If anything, I toned them down for modern readers.
CSM: You've noted that the story is in part the "idea of Mexico." How do you see this "idea" continuing to play out in terms of U.S./Mexican relations, immigration, etc.?
Mayo: I like to say the novel is the story of the end of an idea about what it might have meant to be Mexican. The conservative Mexican monarchists, the French and the Pope all thought Mexicans should be subjects of a crown. On the other hand, the Mexican Republicans believed that Mexicans should be citizens of a Republic. A subject obeys; a citizen participates - an enormous difference. Today Mexicans are citizens, but they did not become citizens in an historical process identical to ours.
We had George Washington, who headed a Republic that respected the separation of Church and State; Mexicans had Agustín de Iturbide, a general who set himself up as emperor and defender of the Catholic Church and who ended up before a firing squad. Then, after decades of strife, including the U.S. invasion at the end of the 1840s, the French invade and install Maximilian as Emperor - a second doomed attempt at a Catholic monarchy.
Mexico's struggles, both internally and against invaders, have been bitter, far more so than most of us realize. The image that we have of Mexico today is, in part, a construction of the 20th-century Mexican State, the tourism industry and the media. The longer I live in Mexico, and the more I read about its history, the more peculiar I find some of the popular images of Mexico that we have here in the U.S. Mexico is quite different, and socially and politically far more complex, than what most Americans imagine.
CSM: Lastly, could you talk about why you choose to tell the epilogue from John Bigelow's perspective instead of say Alicia Iturbide and why it is so meandering and brief?
Mayo: That is the "what does it all mean" chapter and I don't know, but I never got the impression that Alice thought deeply about things. It seems to me that she lived life very much on the material surface, and that her main purpose by this time - the early 1880s - was to establish her son in the life she wanted for him.
Bigelow, on the other hand, was not only a diplomat, but a philosopher and a journalist, someone who had an unusually broad perspective and the habit - as I found in reading his diaries - of reflecting deeply on his experiences. I think we can see Alice more clearly through his eyes than through her own. He did visit her in Mexico City, by the way-- this chapter is largely drawn from his diaries. His visit took place at the height of what is today called the Porfiriato, the rule (whether directly or behind the scenes) of Porfirio Diaz, one of the generals who had defeated Maximilian's forces and who much later, in 1910, was overthrown in the Revolution. And here, too, about Mexico's prospects, Bigelow was far more perceptive than Alice.
I can see why you would describe it as meandering, though I would call it an exploration in flashbacks. The chapter opens with the end of Bigelow's journey to Mexico--- his train is leaving Orizaba, on the way to the coast at Veracruz, where he will board the steamer to return to New York. The whole chapter, his visit to Mexico City and with Alice, is rendered as a flashback as he attempts to come to terms with Alice and her son, and times past, in his own mind.
Finally, one of the things that most impressed me about Bigelow was his consistent effort to find compassion for others. He disapproved of Alice, but, judging from his other writings, I feel confident that he would not have judged her harshly any more than he would judged anyone harshly--- for I do think he took to heart "judge not that ye not be judged." And this is precisely what I am asking of the reader for all the characters - whether Alice, Angelo, Pepa, Maximilian or Carlota or, for that matter, the bandit.
I don't try to excuse anyone but rather to show that they were human, they had their reasons - good reasons, if only in their own minds - to do and say what they did. Jumping to judgment is very boring, really. We can't see the complexity, humanity in a character when we do that. As Susan Sontag said, "The novel is an education of the heart." Can we see ourselves in the other? That's what it's all about.
Excerpt from “The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire” by C.M. Mayo
“And at night, everyone knows, the open country is the territory of La Llorona, the weeping ghost-woman. The nuns warned the orphans, ‘Stay in your beds at night or else…’ La Llorona’s filthy, rancid shroud and long, tangled, wet hair drags behind her on the ground, though her ghost-feet do not touch it. She flies, eyes like black roses, wailing for her murdered children, searching for them, and with her long cold fingers La Llorona takes whomever she finds.
Now, hurtling through the rain-drenched night in the back of this jolting, fish-tailing wagon, Lupe’s heart is beating like a hummingbird’s, and her knees are jelly. She had been so proud. It this why God is punishing her? Her one consolation - thanks to Holy Mary! - is that the driver of this wagon is a priest.”
Since 1990, the Connections Literary Series has held readings featuring national award-winning contemporary writers, poets and artists who share their work and time with residents of Southern Maryland. All readings begin at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $5, general admission. Tickets are available through the CSM Box Office, 301-934-7828. For information call, 301-934-7864 or 301-870-2309, 240-725-5499 or 443-550-6199, Ext. or visit www.csmd.edu/Connections.