Interview With C.M. Mayo, Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

Today is the kickoff for my Cinco de Mayo tour of C.M. Mayo‘s latest historical novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, which is set in the mid-19th century when Maximilian von Habsburg became the Emperor of Mexico, a little boy became a prince, and a struggle ensues over Mexico.

Please welcome C.M. Mayo to Savvy Verse & Wit:

1. Between writing fiction, travel pieces,
translating work, and running Tameme, you are a very busy woman. Which of these “hats” do you find most difficult to wear and why? And do any of these “hats” conflict with one another?

I hope I am a better writer because I also translate, and vice versa, and so and so forth. But of course,
I sometimes have to make (even toe-curling) choices. Would that the day had 30 hours!

2. You’ve written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry throughout your career. Is there a reason why you haven’t published a book of your poems? And how is each genre different or the same when you are crafting your pieces?

It’s all poetry, I say. If not a book per se, I’ve published a book’s worth of poetry, individual pieces in literary journals and anthologies, most recently, Robert Giron’s Poetic Voices Without Borders 2. You can read that poem, here. Is there a reason I haven’t published a book of poetry? Same answer as to question #1.

3. What set you on the path of translation and how would you describe the path you took to get there?

I started translating Mexican poetry in the early 1990s, a few years after I came to live in Mexico City. I was writing my own poetry and short fiction at the time, and so the one informed the other. I was — and remain— quite consternated by how little Mexican writing is translated into English. So I always try to encourage others, poets especially, to translate Mexican works.

I should note that in recent years there have been a few notable translations, including my own anthology of 24 Mexican writers, Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press, 2006) and, most recently, Alvaro Uribe and Olivia Sears’s Best Contemporary Mexican Fiction (Dalkey Archive, 2009), which includes one of my translations, of a story by Alvaro Enrigue. Here’s an interview on National Public Radio, “Editing a Literary Tour of Mexico.”

4. Do you have any obsessions you would like to share?


5. Do you listen to music while you write or is it distracting? If you could create a playlist of songs for The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, what would be the top 5 songs on that list?

For me, drifty, new agey music in a minor key works best for bringing on the Muses. There is a large literature about music and creativity. I offer a couple of blog posts (with links for more information) on this subject here and here.

Playlist of songs for The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire:

1. “La Paloma” and “Adios Mama Carlota”
This is the most famous song associated with the Emperor Maximilian– supposedly it was his favorite. There’s a documentary film about the song, which you can read about here. Here’s the protest song based on La Paloma, here.

2. Tritch-Tratch Polka by Johann Strauss; Popular Viennese dance music. This might have been played at one of the balls in Mexico City’s Imperial Palace. Here’s a link to an article by one of the guests, William Wells, “A Court Ball in the Palace of Mexico.”

3. “Se fueran los los Yankis al Guaridame;” A children’s lullaby, probably from the 1850s and still in use in the 1890s. The text is in Fanny Chambers Gooch’s Face to Face with the Mexicans.

4. “Las Campanitas” (Mazurka), by J.D.R. Sawerthal; Sawerthal was a composer and band-leader who came to Mexico with Maximilian.

5. “Le Boudin,” a military song composed in 1863 for the French Foreign Legion, which fought in Mexico. You can listen to the song, here.

6. You’ve taught at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md., what has that experience done for your writing and what goals did you seek to accomplish through your workshops?

I believe teaching is an important part of being an artist— always, on multiple levels, a learning experience.

7. If writers want to use more than one point of view in a novel, how would you suggest they go about transitioning between the narrators? What tricks have you learned and are willing to share?

You need to cue the reader, give them something focus on, so they have a sense of where they need to put their attention in order to follow the narrative. You might have one character pass the other a cup of coffee, for instance. Sometimes, especially if it’s a whole new scene, just leave a space.

For me learning to transition from one point of view to the other was like learning to ride a bicycle— very difficult but, after a little practice, it becomes natural.

This is, in fact, one of the reasons it took me so long to write this novel. It has a Jamesian “roving central intelligence,” which is a fancy way of saying it dips in and out of a multitude of points of view. In early drafts, I kept trying to get rid of characters– but they did not want to go! And more kept popping up! Certainly it’s easier to sell a novel with one main character. It’s asking a lot of the reader to keep track of such a crowd. But I came to realize that all of these many characters are absolutely necessary for this story because the main protagonist is not a person but an idea: the prince is the symbol of the future of the empire— the idea of Mexico as an empire, Mexicans not as citizens, but as subjects. How does the story of the prince— the story of this idea—live, evolve and ultimately fail? We have to go into the minds of others to find out. There are a few important recurring characters, such as the prince’s parents, his nanny, Maximilian, and Charlotte, but there are also a maid, a cook, a bandit, a visiting Belgian aristocrat, General Almonte and General Bazaine, the U.S. Minister to France, his wife, a bookseller, soldiers, Prince Louis of France, a dentist, the widow of a Mexican politician, Father Fischer, Cardinal Antonelli, the Pope– yes! even Pope Pio Nono (Pius IX) — and so on. You’ll find a list of the whole crew, here.

8. How important do you think independent booksellers and publishers are in this age of digital media and do you see the paper-based book fading into the background in favor of an e-book or other format? If so, how would this change publishing for the better or worse?

Independent booksellers and publishers may confront economic challenges (certainly they are right now) but I believe they will always be necessary. They select and present— perhaps not always ideally what we might like to see or what deserves to be seen— but it is, nonetheless, an important service for readers.
Also, writers may not have the wherewithal to edit, design, distribute, publicize, or sell their books— and that’s exactly what publishers and booksellers do.

What do I think will happen? I think we’ll see more options: in the bookstores themselves we may soon see vending machines that can print on demand, perhaps while you have a cup of coffee. You might have various options of varying cost: for instance, e-book, cheap paper, acid-free paper, or hardcover. I believe there will always be a demand, however reduced, for quality hard-cover books. We still have horses and candles, after all. Right now, with the crisis, there are probably more people going to libraries— and libraries need to have durable books, not cheap things that fall apart after 2 readings.

9. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

Yoga, walking and sleep. It’s also very important to stay away from industrially-produced food and “diet” drinks, which are full of chemicals. What you eat ends up in your brain.

10. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

Here’s a link to a piece I did for ForeWord Magazine on-line column “Publishing Insider”

For the Novelist’s Bookshelf: One Dozen Books on Craft and Creating

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers about your writing space and/or routine?

I’m working on a new novel, but don’t have much to say about it yet. About space and routine, here are
“10 Tools for Organizing a Novel in Progress,” here.

I want to thank C.M. Mayo for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions. Stay tuned for my review of
The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire tomorrow.

Also, C.M. Mayo will be in Bethesda, MD, promoting her book at The Writer’s Center on May 17 at 2PM for those locals interested. This is a free event.

***Giveaway Reminders***

5 Joanna Scott, author of Follow Me, books giveaway, here; Deadline May 4, 11:59 PM EST.

Giveaway for Eleanor Bluestein’s Tea & Other Ayama Na Tales short story collection, here; Deadline is May 6, 2009, 11:59 PM EST.

1 copy of Rubber Side Down Edited by Jose Gouveia, here; Deadline is May 15 at 11:59 PM EST