Cameron MacKenzie: Historical Fiction and Mythic Revolution


Cameron MacKenzie's work has appeared in Able Muse, The Rumpus, SubStance and The Michigan Quarterly Review, among other journals. 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

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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. 

“…original, poignant, brutal, and beautiful…”  
                                            —Kirkus Reviews

“Cameron MacKenzie’s knowledge of Mexican history is extraordinary. So is his ability to weave that history into a fictional tapestry that reads as a novel should…a remarkable debut by a remarkable writer.”  
                                            —Pablo Medina, author of Cubop City Blues

“…captures the frenzy and ferocity of a time of great turmoil. Cameron MacKenzie expertly reworks the Mexican Revolution into a fast-paced, first person narrative of cinematic vividness.”
                                          —Alexander Pepple, Editor, Able Muse


Mary Crockett Hill speaks with Cameron MacKenzie below. You can read an excerpt of the novel here.

As a work of historical fiction based on the rise of Francisco “Pancho” Villa, this book gives fascinating insights into the genesis of the Mexican revolution during the early part of the 20th century. Tell me about The Beginning of His Excellent & Eventful Career. 

The book follows Villa from a boy up until he becomes the leader of the Northern Army in the Revolution of 1910. According to legend, Villa murdered his family’s landowner at 16 after the don assaulted Villa’s sister. The book begins there and follows Villa’s self-imposed exile in the mountains where he lives as a bandit, his attempt to live a normal life as a butcher in the town of Parral, up through his recruitment by rebels, and finally his battles against government forces. 

The timeline, of course, doesn’t tell the story of the book. This is a book principally about revolution, and about the unique psychology that enables a select few to demand and achieve total societal upheaval. What makes Villa unique—and what really drove me to write the book—is his ability to succeed and thrive in the chaos and uncertainty such an upheaval inevitably brings about.  

The book tries to understand revolution, but what drives the novel is a filtering of revolutionary actions through the context of myth and the role played by storytelling in the creation of those myths. I became fascinated by the myriad depictions of Villa in the historical record, how he was and remains a remarkably contested figure, and how the outlines of that figure have been determined by stories that seem to channel the desires of a culture and a society through a singular man. Pancho Villa is a mythic character, and I try in the book to convey the manner by which that boy became that myth.  

How did you decide on telling this particular story? 

I was reading McCarthy’s Blood Meridian about the same time I was watching HBOs Deadwood, and right there you have two of, to my mind, America’s greatest living writers (Cormac McCarthy and David Milch) delivering top notch work, and I began to see the strength of the western as a genre.  

That combined with a lot of stuff I was reading around the time of Tahrir Square about revolutionary actions, particularly the philosophy of Alain Badiou. These ideas were all percolating when I completely stumbled upon The Memoirs of Pancho Villa by Martín Luis Guzmán. This is a book—a novel, really—that was fashioned by Guzmán out of notes and interviews he had collected about Villa and then retold in the first person. The voice of the narrative fascinated me, and fired my interest in the possibilities of Villa as a character who partook in the fashioning of his own myth. The further I dug into the history of both Villa and the revolution, the more fascinated I became.  

I knew little about Villa or the Mexican Revolution before starting this project. My goal was to explore the necessity and consequences of revolutionary violence, using Villa as a vehicle. What I quickly discovered was that the scope of the Mexican Revolution was epic, and that Pancho Villa is one of the more important of the 20th century in many respects, on par with Lenin and Mao. As I was in the process of discovering this, I was also in the process of discovering my severe limitations as a writer. It’s frightening to realize what needs to be told in a story, and know that your skills aren’t up to the task. It rapidly became clear to me that it was impossible for me to do complete justice to Villa but, nevertheless, I was doing good writing—some of the best I had ever done up to that point. I made the decision to continue regardless, to suspend my own disbelief in a way, and to try to get as close to the truth as I could given my limitations. 

The novel is told in the first person, entirely from Villa’s perspective. I tried to avoid telling the story this way for a long time because, frankly, I was intimidated by the size of Villa’s persona. I decided that a good way around this would be to create a character who would interview Villa and then record his answers. This felt like it gave me some distance from Villa, but I couldn’t settle on a proper personality for the interviewer. I went on to create several of these characters, creating entire complex backstories detailing these characters’ parents, their educations, marriages and children. I wrote letters these characters would send home. I wrote long soliloquies in their voices. I got them drunk, I sobered them up. I tempted them and tortured them and had them experience epiphanies and tried to make them better people and I discarded each and every one of these exercises because, in essence, none of the writing was as strong as Villa’s voice. All these routes to Villa became distractions from the main current of the book, which was Villa himself. I finally made the decision—and this took several years—to simply present my understanding of Pancho Villa as clearly as I could. I had to be ready to say, “This is what the book is. There is no better one that I can write.”    

What advice would you give someone who is considering writing historical fiction? 

I think some people (like me, in the beginning) believe that historical fiction is easy to write, is a shortcut to a novel in a way, because the facts have already been established. Historical fiction, however, demands that you know and recognize those facts—their reality—and move through and past them into something that is more emotionally true than those facts can convey. That movement must be accomplished in a manner that remains consonant with the history—faithful to its spirit—while enriching that history in a manner that is unique to art. 

I think you have to start with the voice. For me that took research into what people wrote at the time and in that place in an effort to understand the grammatical and rhetorical choices they made.  

After the voice came the literal events. I used the events of Villa’s life as guideposts to the writing. I knew that a scene should begin at a certain point, temporally and geographically, move toward and through a particular event, and then end at another set of coordinates. This sort of thing requires research of a much more particular kind. I read the primary sources first—the firsthand accounts—because these are the most vivid and the most unique. Then I read the secondary sources—the journalism of the period, for instance. In the end I tried to absorb as many viewpoints as I could, keeping in mind that my own position had to take a little from each and yet be none of them completely.  

It’s not the novelist’s job to write history. That’s already been done. Nor is it the novelist’s job to directly quibble, necessarily, with the history as it’s written. That is an academic exercise and best left to academics. It is very easy to drown in what Peter Morgan calls the “pornography” of history—the precise details and the details of those details. History is overwhelming. It’s more than can be said. The job of the novelist is to tell a story with the materials provided—to hold the reader’s attention and to reward that attention; to get the reader to turn the page. In that sense, more important than the facts of the history is the story that needs to be told. If you haven’t got a story—and I’m talking about old fashioned plot, the kind that’s simple enough for anyone and everyone to follow—then all the historical detail in the world is dead on the page.  

What’s next for you as a writer? 

I’ve got a book of essays I’m finishing up—that should be out later this year or early next. Other than that I’ve been writing short stories for years and I like to keep up with that discipline, but at the end of the day writing a novel is where I feel the most at home. The space a novel allows to open up a character feels so much more interesting than the hotbox of short fiction—or at least my short fiction. After bringing one novel home, I hope I’ve learned some lessons and the second will come a little easier. But we’ll see.