SPECIAL TO THE STAR-TELEGRAM BY DAVID MARTINDALE 10/01/2011
When writing historical fiction, painstaking research alone won't cut it.
John Coe Robbins of Fort Worth discovered this while crafting his debut novel, Maya Lord, which explores the
lives of two extraordinary men during the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century.
Robbins' main characters, Gonzalo Guerrero and Jeronimo Aguilar, were shipwreck survivors of the first known
Spanish landing on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1511.
They were taken captive by the Maya, lived as slaves for a time and then played key roles on opposite sides
of the bloody conflict when Spanish Conquistadors swept through the New World.
Robbins found out everything there was to know about Guerrero and Aguilar. But he ultimately had to rely on
his imagination to tell the rest of the story.
"If you were to 'Google' these two men, you can find two or three pages of interesting facts that are known
about them. That's pretty much it," Robbins says.
"We know they were captured, we know they went in different directions, and then they pop up periodically in
the historical narrative.
"There's enough to write a pretty good article about them. But it would be a very thin book."
Given that Maya Lord ($17.95, Whiskey Creek Press) is a robust 325 pages, it's clear that Robbins wasn't shy
about filling in the blanks.
The result is a work that moves like an epic adventure story, yet simultaneously and subtly asks a deep
question: How much does our culture determine who we are?
"I did a lot of vacationing in Yucatan, and I was always interested in the history," Robbins says. "I stayed in
Akumal, where there's a statue of Gonzalo Guerrero, who earned his freedom and became a Maya warrior and is
considered in Mexico to be the father of the Mestizo people.
"Then I woke up one night from a dream about being a warrior and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to
examine the life of somebody like that, somebody who underwent this radical cultural shift and actually went
Aguilar, meanwhile, was a priest who became a translator and adviser to the brutal Conquistador Hernán
Cortés. "It's fascinating how these two men's lives took such different paths," Robbins says.
Robbins, 65, and his wife, Sarah, moved to Fort Worth 21/2 years ago.
He is semi-retired after a career as a TV journalist and freelance writer of marketing and training documentaries.
He also recently produced a documentary about organ transplants.
"Mayan history and organ transplants," Robbins says. "Two completely different things. No common thread
there at all."
He wrote his original draft of Maya Lord, a much shorter version, more than 20 years ago. When he hooked
up with an agent who also represented John Grisham, he thought he had hit the jackpot. "I thought, 'I'm going to
be rich!'" he says. But the manuscript didn't sell.
Years later, Robbins fleshed out the book and found a small publisher on his own.
The book was published in July, and Robbins is still trying to spread the word.
"The response has been very positive so far," he says. "I've gotten some good reviews, and people seem to
think it's an engaging story. Some people have told me they stayed up half the night reading it, because they
couldn't put it down. So I've been very pleased."