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A fronte praecipitium a tergo lupi. (In front of you, a precipice. Behind you, wolves.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mark of the Jaguar Book Review

Today I want to feature the book MARK OF THE JAGUAR by Mark Cheney. I just finished the book.

It's clear that Mark is normally a non-fiction writer. His presentation is flawless and his research exhaustive. The book was engaging and interesting. I learned so much about Mayan culture I'd never known before. It's clear Mark has been to the places he talks about. Now I'd like to go to Teotihuacan and Chichen Itsa and a few of the other places he mentioned.

The book follows a boy (and then man) called Yax Kan on a voyage of discovery for truth. He travels his lands searching for evidences of Kulkucan, the Feathered Serpent, or Christ. Along his journey, he meets dissolute religious men, a gorgeous potter's daughter, a golden jaguar, and various fellow searchers for the truth. Yax is a stone carver and scholar of repute. His knowledge of herbs is a trove he can pull from in various instances.

He and his friends work to free a city from the slavery of crooked priests who use a crystal skull to terrorize the citizens into working in their salt mines.

Though a work of fiction, the book often reads as non-fiction. I felt as if I could open the flap of my tent and walk out into the jungles of the Yucatan peninsula.

Here's my interview with the author:

1)         When was the moment you knew you wanted to be an author?
Answer: Probably after writing Poof, the Wonder Dog in 6th grade. However, later in life I wrote numerous articles in connection with my business dealings, some being published in national trade journals, and a local newspaper column. It was not until traveling to Mesoamerica in 1995 that I considered writing about the ancient Maya. I met the publisher of a magazine called Explore the Maya World in the airport terminal in Belize City, Belize, and after a brief conversation he asked if I would like to write about some of the experiences I had just had touring the Maya ruins, etc. It was a couple of years later that I started writing Mark of the Jaguar.

2)         When did actually you start writing?
Answer: I wrote a whimsical song in about 1985, never published, then started writing non-fiction around 1990, and fiction in 1997. I wrote one poem during that period and won a contest with the local writing group and that helped inspire me to continue.
(I used to write songs while I milked goats. Yeah. None of the songs were about goats.)

3)         When writing a book, do you outline, or let the story take you where it will? How did your story benefit from your writing style?
Answer: Way back in 1967 when I first got home from a mission to Florida & Georgia, I developed an interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was enlarged to include the Nag Hammadi scrolls in Egypt. Once in Egypt, I began to study the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and then the hieroglyphs. Once I learned of the glyphs found in Mesoamerica, I dropped everything else and began looking for correlations with the Reformed Egyptian of the Book of Mormon. I started out writing the first 18 pages of my novel about a Maya shaman while stopped in traffic behind a school bus accident in 1997, then outlined the rest of Part One of the book. Due to size requirements in my first publisher's submission guidelines, I added the sequel as Part Two. Actually, I had a lot to learn, and after sessions with two different editors, and one LDStorytellers' Conference, I made substantial changes in hopes of improving my style and the story in the process. I had to have less narrative, more dialogue, and use more of the five senses in my telling of the story. 

4)         Tell me about the inspiration for this book—the story behind the story.
Answer: After two of seven trips to Mexico and Central America to visit the ruins of the ancient people who had lived there, I began to visualize what it must have been like to live anciently, hundreds of years after the close of the Book of Mormon, and still hundreds of years before the Spanish conquest of these areas. I saw and studied about many things which appeared to me to be evidences that the Book of Mormon people left behind in these ruins: monuments, glyphic writings, structures, and other cultural remains. (See my four articles at BMAF.org in Sept. 2014 describing some of them.)

5)         How was this book therapeutic for you to write?
Answer: It was amazing to have the plot lead me by the nose to places I hadn't expected, meeting characters that revealed themselves as I wrote. I was especially shocked when my protagonist suddenly, but very naturally as a 20 year old, was drawn into a romantic relationship! I was totally unprepared and had lots to learn to even begin to write with the romantic sensitivity it would take to describe his feelings. I was both humbled and helped in my own personal relationships by recognizing all that goes into this kind of writing. The adventure and discovery part was really fun for me, as that is the kind of books that I enjoy reading myself. Writing the book became my R&R after a hard day at work.

6)         What do you hope your readers get from your book?
Answer: Well, because of the book's connection to Book of Mormon archaeology, it has a spiritual element that I want to come across. My MC was on a path of spiritual discovery, and during his quest had many exciting experiences, both dangerous and beautiful, as well. I hope that the readers are drawn into an empathetic relationship with the characters that lets them envision what it might have been like to live anciently around 685 AD, the approximate time frame for the book. 
(I personally developed a real wish to see the places Mark describes.)

7)         What is a writing roadblock you've had to overcome, and how have you overcome it?
Answer: I hate to admit that I really did not enjoy rewriting and revising and even improving what I first wrote, since it really came from my heart, but I believed that I had to, based on my critique groups and one particular editor's advice.

8)         Describe your typical writing day.
Answer: Most of my writing is done in the afternoon now, when my wife is well entrenched in her own activities. Mornings and evenings are reserved for our activities together. Once I actually determine what I need to write, the first drafts come pretty easily. As I am an indie writer, I am fortunate not to have deadlines, so I can be pretty relaxed about how much I accomplish each week, and may not write 5-6 days a week, like many authors must.

9)         Traditional publishing vs. self publishing—how did you choose which route to go? What benefits have you seen from your choice?
Answer: Since it is a book with a connection to a particular book of scripture, I first went to an LDS publisher, one of the most well known. The process took over two years and as I indicated, included lengthening the manuscript to a page count that was not indicated in the online submission guidelines, but given verbally when I first sent in a shorter mss. Then I received a form rejection letter, which kind of shocked me after they had requested a number of changes that I made along with the lengthening of the book. Then I went to smaller LDS publisher and was able to actually have some face time with the editor who gave me further advice and asked me to resubmit the mss. This took almost two years before I received another rejection, but this time with the explanation that although the editor recommended publication, her boss gave it to the marketing people for approval and they nixed it as too much of a "niche" story that would not be marketable. After only two rejections, but with this "niche" problem in mind, I decided to self-publish rather than wait any longer. Now my family and friends have copies, and I am in almost the same marketing mode that I would have been with a publisher. The big exception is without a publisher, I am not in any brick and mortar bookstores yet. This could change if I get the award for which I have been nominated. Main benefits are that I chose my own cover and illustrations, no more rewrites, and I have more control than with a traditional LDS publisher. Also, my publisher, AuthorHouse.com does not let me have much input in pricing. I am allowed one price change ONLY, and that is only on the EBook. Something positive, since this was an historical novel set around 685 AD, I was able to include a glossary of terms, historical notes, list of characters and some illustrations of real things and people, like King Kan Balam of Palenque with my protagonist, Yax Kan. Some of the simpler line drawings I did myself, but my daughter did three main illustrations including the cover art, and I was able to get permission from V. Garth Norman, PhD, to use his drawing of the Izapa Stela 5 "Tree of Life" stone.

10)       This is your first published book. Are there others to come?
Answer: Probably. I am seriously considering writing a compilation of the non-fiction articles I have written, and also have been thinking about a book which will cover some of the cases I worked on as a missing persons private investigator. I once gave a presentation to Northern Arizona Romance Writers Association (NARWA) on how to go about creating a false identity for a character in a novel, from the real life experiences I had in tracing people.
(I once fought next to a guy who catches people lying for a career and has written 7 books on lying. He also works for the military interrogating people. I wish I could remember his name.)

Of course, if my first novel, Mark of the Jaguar, takes off I will finish the sequel I have outlined, but that remains to be seen, based on the Whitney awards outcome for 2014. I have been nominated, so am in a holding pattern right now.
(Don't wait for the Whitneys. Just write.)

11)       Why are you a writer?
Answer: Mostly to share my experiences with others, but it is also a creative outlet when it comes to poetry and fiction. There just about has to be some ego involved, I think, to want to continue writing. It gives me lots of "juice" when I get read and receive good comments.

12)        Did anything from your childhood play a role in helping you decide to be a writer? What was it? And how did that person/event influence you? 
Answer: I had excellent writing teachers from grade school up into undergraduate studies. I even took a Creative Writing evening class with my daughter, Tasha, while I was writing the novel. She had started one as well, so it was lots of fun.
(I have a Natassia too!)

13)        Is writing your day job?
Answer: Writing is my main avocation for enjoyment in my retirement. It keeps my brain actively engaged and opens me up to many new experiences. For instance, in 2013 I edited a book that a Facebook friend of mine had written in Portuguese, and then translated to English. It was really interesting to see how her translation included idioms not understandable in English, at least in America. The Portuguese language is very poetic and flowery compared to English, with lots of colloquialisms that we wouldn't normally understand, so the editing included lots of rephrasing. She is still working on the final drafts.
(It's my day job...along with ferrying the last few of my 6 kids to every place of their dreams, lion-taming (okay small nippy puppy), Boy Scout wrangling, wedding planning, and a trillion other details.)

14)       (Some might say this question is the most important of all...) What is your absolute must-have writing snack?
Answer: Until a few months ago, it was chocolate of one kind or another, now it has changed . . . to sugarless Russell Stover chocolates! Dry roasted peanuts are a close second. One of my nf articles is on the history of cacao, not coincidentally.
(For me it's plantain chips. I LOVE those almost more than chocolate.)

Links to my FB page and blogs, as well as Amazon, BN, etc. https://www.facebook.com/MarkoftheJaguarbook?ref=hl ; 

http://indiebookoftheday.com/past-winners/ (Scroll down to Sept. 11, 2014 to my novel.)

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