by Alice Stephens
From the first line of Cameron MacKenzie’s novel, The Beginning of His Excellent & Eventful Career, the reader knows that the narrator is a force to be reckoned with: “It began this way, and those who would say otherwise blacken their own names alone.”
The “it” that follows is, as the title boldly asserts, nothing less than the making of the legend that we know as Pancho Villa, beginning with the murder of his landlord in retribution for the attempted rape of his sister. It is 1894 and he “was not yet sixteen years old.”
Fleeing into the sierra, the young boy takes the name of his paternal grandfather, a landowner who never acknowledged his bastard son, to become the man who so profoundly shaped Mexico’s history. The novel tells of Villa’s bloody exploits of banditry which forge a political awakening that integrates his deep-seated hatred of the landed gentry who rule their ranches like fiefdoms and the lackeys who do their bidding. Soon his banditry blurs into guerrilla action, and he finds himself a captain in the revolutionary army. The book ends where most would begin, with Villa’s triumph at Juarez in 1911. He had 12 more years, and many adventures, left ahead of him.
With muscular prose and brash assurance, MacKenzie creates a vivid, persuasive origin story for an icon of North American history, deftly capturing the emerging political consciousness of the bandit who became a revolutionary.
Alice Stephens: What attracted you, a white Southerner, to Pancho Villa? Why did you feel the need to tell his story?
Cameron MacKenzie: It’s a very complicated question. I think many people hesitate to trust a person with my background to convey anything authentic about Villa. In terms of a literary heritage, I think there are interesting overlaps between the isolationist, tribalistic South that you can find in writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor with the stark and violent landscape of writers like Juan Rulfo—they’re all writing about the survivors of ruined civilizations—but I’m hesitant to push that comparison too far.
I confess that I came to this project with almost complete ignorance of the impact of Villa or the social and political conditions of Mexico that led to his rise. In the beginning I was just looking to tell an exciting story, and the swashbuckling tales of Villa’s adventures in the Sierra Madre felt too exciting to pass up. Of course, the deeper I dug into who Villa was and how he came into history, I began to panic that I could never hope to do any of it justice.
But what really grabbed me and held me from the start was the sense of wonder I had working through the language I found in the research. When I read about Villa or his comrades discussing honor or fate or “the people,” I felt a fascinating urgency—I knew I had to get to the bottom of the mind that would take these words with deadly seriousness, and try to convey the world in which this language held weight. I began to feel a responsibility to that mind and that world that increasingly haunted me throughout the writing of this book.
AS: Were you at all intimidated by the legendary status of your main character and the many, many books that have already been published about him, including a number of novels?
CM: I was of two minds about this. On one hand, Villa’s legendary status was precisely what drew me to him—Pancho Villa comes with a readymade cloak of myth, and the nature of that myth (and myths in general) was something I was eager to explore. On the other hand—yes, I began to think that Villa was too big for me to completely understand, much less convey. We’re talking about a guy who was not only a ruthless warlord, but who also rewrote the charters of Chihuahua’s government in order to redistribute land to the poor.
I wrote half of the book thinking I would eventually make it about some other bandit in northern Mexico, but I realized that this plan was simply a mediating tactic to avoid the truth of the situation, the truth of Villa, or perhaps the truth of Villa as he began to appear to me from the research. I felt challenged by that figure and drawn to it as well, and I began to feel that to avoid Villa was avoiding the precise element of this story that I was supposed to explore.
There’s a tendency in fiction (and certainly in film) to approach these huge personages obliquely—to create an anodyne character to act as the sensible, rational narrator in order to bring the reader gently into the time and place so that when the big character takes the stage, the reader can retain a clear point of reference. You can see it in everything from The Great Gatsby to Goodfellas. I tried using that technique for years, and kept failing. I had no interest in the “rational” viewpoint or the illusion of objectivity such a narrator would provide. The strongest writing I had was the stuff that came from Villa’s perspective. I had to acknowledge that Villa was the engine of the book, and I had to go right at him as well as I could.
AS: What research did you do?
CM: The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, by Friedrich Katz, is a doorstop of a book that remains, I think, the definitive account in English of the revolution and Villa’s role in it. It’s nearly comprehensive.
But books like that don’t tell you anything at all about the essential fabric of everyday life. Nothing in the histories, for instance, told me how a Mexican saddle was different from a Western saddle, or what the kitchen of a hacienda looked like or what food they would’ve been cooking there; they don’t tell what boots a landowner would’ve worn versus a peasant—nor do they tell how a peasant would have described his landowner’s boots.
The history books are essential, but in order to write a world you’ve got to get closer to primary sources. Photographs are indispensable, but you also have to read things written at the time—newspaper articles, popular songs, first and second-hand accounts—and it helps to read those accounts with as little mediation as possible in order to get the raw impressions of the teller of the tale. All that goes into the hopper, along with the poetry of Octavio Paz and the memoirs of Diego Rivera. Everything starts to turn into a story that you get to mesh and blend with your own experience and knowledge and belief.
Sometimes you look for something specific (I spent a few days figuring out how to butcher a hog in the Sonoran desert in 1905—information I eventually cut out of the novel completely), but a lot of the research was simply taking the time to read about the topic of Villa and the revolution. It was necessary to get stories, but it was more important to nail down how those stories were told, and why.
AS: How closely did you hew to the facts of Villa’s life?
CM: About 70% of the events in the book actually occurred, and it’s the most unbelievable stuff: the revolutionary forces really did storm the custom house of Juarez with Apaches in native dress; the employees at Banco Minero really did hide gold coins inside the marble pillars of the bank’s lobby; Rodolfo Fierro really did promise a jail full of prisoners freedom if they could make it over the wall before he shot them, and then proceeded to massacre them all. These events occurred, but I wanted to try to understand what motivated these events, and what universe sanctioned them; what, in other words, is their meaning? These were the questions that really animated my writing.
AS: Why did you choose to tell Pancho’s origin story, as it were, leaving off before his greatest exploits and victories?
CM: I wanted to show how Villa became Villa. There’s a large gap in his biography from about 18-28 where he wanders (like Christ), and I was anxious to speculate on what Villa learned in that time.
But I also wanted to focus on the birth of a revolution. A revolution is, to my mind, an idea that struggles mightily to be expressed and, once it finds that expression, quickly ripens and rots. The revolution in Mexico began with so much promise and excitement, only to become the excuse of horrific abuses spanning decades. I wanted to bring us to the crest of it, where we could see how it was all going to play out in the end, without actually taking the world apart piece by piece.
In order to do that I needed to detail how Villa grafted himself onto the revolution in these crucial first years. For Francisco to step into history as Pancho, he has to become something more than he has been, he has to become a “hero,” and to do that puts his own humanity at risk—he has to become something, in fact, inhuman, something actually monstrous, and the moment Villa chooses monstrosity over humanity is also the true blossoming of his power—it’s when he takes the reins to lead the war that will change Mexico. Once the drama of that decision has occurred, the rest is inevitable.
AS: What is the overarching message of the book? What is the one thing you want readers to take away?
CM: When you’re building something like this, pulling from every poem you can remember or scene from a film or piece of advice you ever heard, you find there are avenues that branch off of avenues; there are a thousand ways through the book.
But what held it together for me, on a conscious and structural level, was that this was a story about what it takes to become great—which is very different from good. This gets a little metaphysical, but I think the world calls forth the people that it needs; the political situation in Mexico in 1900 was untenable and, I believe, violence was the only possible result of the policies the Porfirian government had put in place. What kind of person thrives in that moment? Villa enters that breach, and as such he aspires to greatness, but that greatness demands remarkable sacrifice. In an almost Faustian way, Villa slowly betrays everything he has ever known, everything good and redeemable in his life, to achieve that greatness.
AS: There is a faction of historical fiction writers and readers who insist that historical fiction adhere to the historical facts, such as they have been recorded for posterity. What do you say to that view?
CM: For me, this is a question about the delineation between history and fiction. I have the utmost respect for scholarship, but the responsibilities of that discipline are radically different than the responsibilities of the novelist. Scholarship is the ongoing work of clarifying the historical record. The fiction writer is after emotional truth.
Historical fiction, to my mind, is an effort to use the events of history to bring about this truth as it relates to those events. While a particular novelist might feel strict constraints are helpful for him or her to bring about this truth, all the historical facts in the world lie dead on the page without the emotional resonance that art is uniquely suited to express.
AS: So, we know that you published the novel, your debut, when you were 40. Can you tell us about your writing journey? When and how did you start writing? Is this your first attempt at a novel or do you have a few in the drawer?
CM: I began writing short fiction in grad school and I had some early success, just enough to delude me into thinking that I was ready to start the novel I had always wanted to write. I wasn’t ready, of course, but no one is ever ready. You have to learn how as you’re doing it.
It took more than six years to write the novel, and during that time I wrote almost nothing else. I thought I would never finish it. I put it away and started other novels that went nowhere. I came back to it and rewrote it top to bottom and then threw those drafts away. I thought many times that I was a fool to ever believe that I was, or even could be, a writer, and that I needed to give it up, grow up, and get on with my life.
My wife suffered with me through all of this, as did many of my close friends. Without the constant encouragement of a few other writers who believed in what I was doing more than I did, I would never have gotten through the book, but it’s by far the most important work I’ve ever done.
AS: I see you lived in Japan, as did I. Why did you go? What did you learn? And what is your favorite kind of ramen?
CM: I did! As soon as I graduated college I knew I wanted to immerse myself in something completely foreign. I had studied abroad in college and found that it gave me a new understanding of America, of how I’d been brought up, really of life as I knew it. I reasoned that to go even deeper would be to understand more. Japan, to my reasoning, was as deep as I could go.
I never could have written the book had I not lived in Japan, which, among so many things, taught me that even while we all share the same desires and hopes and fears, there’s a fundamental mystery to identity. Being American in Japan is a profoundly dislocating experience, and it enabled me to think more clearly about how people both use and are used by their identity—it’s a construction that is nevertheless an integral part of us; there’s something parasitic about it, that feeds us as we feed it. The closer you get to really knowing who you are, the more obvious it becomes that you’re chasing a phantom.
And tonkotsu ramen, no question.
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People.