LITERARY SPOTLIGHT: MARTHESE FENECH – STORYTELLING HISTORY
For this issue I was lucky enough to hook up with Marthese Fenech, who writes historical fiction, a genre I devour and admire! I love all of Mar’s answers below, she answers my questions as a true and natural storyteller and is the polar opposite of the stereotypes relating to historical researchers – there’s not a mote of dry academic dustiness here but instead an endlessly curious, lively and engaging mind. If you’ve ever wondered how historical novelists manage to breathe life into their chosen eras and characters, read on!
Mar, lovely to meet you! You are most well-known for your epic historical novels set in sixteenth century Malta and Turkiye. Both your parents are Maltese, although you grew up in Toronto. Did you have a strong sense of your heritage from very early on or was this interest something that came to you as an adult?
From the time I was three months old until well into my late teens, I spent more summers in Malta than at home in Canada. I grew up with one foot firmly planted in each country. In fact, I spoke fluent Maltese before English. Frequent visits to the island piqued my interest in its opulent history (and its delectable ice cream).
Life under the rule of the Knights of St John fascinated me most. The Maltese Islands lend themselves very well to literary descriptions—gifted with four compass points of natural beauty, the smell of the sea constant no matter how far inland one might venture, ancient temples that predate the pyramids of Egypt. It’s easy to find oneself swept up in its architecture and narrow lanes.
In July 2000, I travelled to Malta for a pre-college vacation. I intended to spend my days at the beach, my nights bar-hopping, and every second belly-laughing with old friends. I checked off every box, every day.
But that particular trip became so much more when my Dutch friend suggested we go to the capital city Valletta to check out the Malta Experience, an audio-visual masterpiece that showcases the island’s incredible seven-thousand-year history. The moment the Great Siege of 1565 played out on the screen, everything changed. Suddenly, the battle I’d heard so much about came to life for me as never before.
The Siege tested the resilience and fortitude of this little island and its people in ways I could hardly comprehend. It’s an underdog story for the ages. And just like that, the idea to write a novel based on this epic battle took root. Only it turned into a trilogy because there was far too much to pack into a single book.
I think that’s a great definition of a trilogy!
What started you on your writing journey? Were you always very sure you wanted to write historical novels or did you/have you tried other genres? Do you think you might try something completely different in the future?
Creating images with words always seemed to be a kind of magic. From the time I could speak, I found joy in storytelling, something as reflexive as breathing. I remember rattling off tales I invented to my teddy bears, which I would arrange around my room like an audience in an amphitheatre.
My second-grade teacher often gave me “lines” to copy as punishment for being too talkative in class. I’d grow bored and write a story instead—usually about a little girl who upset her teacher and was so very sorry. It often won me back into the teacher’s good graces—though not always.
I was incredibly lucky to have older siblings that read to me, introducing me to authors like Tolkien, Dahl, and Adams. I loved the wonder and poetry within their prose. My dad also told me stories he’d make up, usually involving his own take on Hansel and Gretel. My mom surprised me with a book from the Babysitters Club series when I was little, and it hooked me instantly. She bought me a new one every few weeks until I finished the entire series. I have no doubt all that reading fostered my love of the craft.
The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis had the greatest influence on me as a budding writer. Taking my cue from Lewis, I wrote stories cast entirely with talking animals as I always felt a deep connection with wildlife. Even now, in my Siege of Malta series, I tend to treat our four-legged friends more delicately than my human characters. While I no longer write about talking animals, my Siberian husky has a cameo in Falcon’s Shadow as Louie, a stray wolf-dog who saves the life of one of my protagonists.
While in high school, I went to the movie theatre to watch Speed ten or eleven times between daily visits to Canada’s Wonderland. A crush on Keanu Reeves inspired me to write a thriller set in the very theme park my friend and I frequented—my first attempt at a composition involving actual people. Mostly, I wanted to prove to myself that I could start and finish a novel. It took me two years writing part-time while attending school and working at a restaurant, but I managed to complete it.
Soon after that, the film Braveheart drew me more insistently to the historical genre, a love further reinforced by Gladiator, which coincidentally, is filmed in Malta and features several of my friends as extras.
As far as exploring other genres as a writer, my favourites to read are dystopian and post-apocalyptic. One of these days, I may attempt to write a novel set in a dystopian world. I have a few ideas swirling around in my head. Although sometimes, I think we get enough exposure to dystopian societies simply by witnessing the events unfolding currently in the world.
How do you go about researching your novels? On your website you say that your great sense of curiosity has taken you to sixty-five countries! Could you imagine writing about a place you haven’t visited, although I guess sixteenth century Malta and Turkiye are, actually, places you can only visit in your mind! How do you ensure that your novels wear your research lightly and that the characters stand out as much as the setting? Any insights into this balancing act would be much appreciated!
The research process is one of the most rewarding aspects of the historical genre. I love to dig into the past to see what I might unearth.
When I set out to write my first novel, Eight Pointed Cross, I built a home library comprised of history and military texts, including the Siege Diary of Francisco Balbi di Correggio, a Knight of St John, who helped defend Malta during the Siege of 1565. Ernie Bradford’s the Great Siege of Malta also proved to be an incredible resource, providing intricate details of the Siege and the factors that led to it.
I consulted with historians in Malta, Turkiye, Canada, and the US, who answered endless streams of questions and pointed me towards useful resources.
Although research, creativity, and imagination are the keystones of world-building, plot construction, and character development, hands-on, immersive experiences add authenticity.
Initially, I had not planned to visit Turkiye when I began to write these novels. But I struggled to write scenes set there because I could not write from an authentic perspective. It’s not enough for me to read about a place or look at pictures. I need to immerse in it, its smells, sounds, and tastes; its languages, people, and paces. These sensory details then make their way into my scenes. The musty smell of a cellar, for example, might invoke a description of a dungeon. The way a slant of light touches the forest floor might inspire a scene in the woodlands just outside Istanbul.
Battles feature prominently in my novels. As such, I thought it important to feel a fraction of what my characters may have felt while defending Malta during a mid-summer siege.
One August day, I took the bus to the seaside village of Birgu, one of my main settings, and spent an afternoon on the wall of Castile—essentially, a stone oven. For three hours, I stood on that battlement and wrote detailed notes describing everything I felt, like the way the sweat would bead and run down my face or arm. I ignored every impulse to find shade or drink water. Though effective, it was hugely reckless and idiotic, and I was rewarded with heatstroke and a day spent in bed, shivering, sweating, cramping, and convinced I contracted the plague.
But it was still nothing compared to what those who fought in the Siege likely experienced. From May until September, defenders boiled tar over open flame and handled incendiary weapons beneath a relentless sun. How the knights endured such heat while clad in fifty pounds of armour is beyond me.
After much consideration, I decided a visit to Turkiye was vital. Istanbul is a living museum, every street-corner a testament to the city’s vivid past. Lively exchanges with locals inspired a cast of Turkish characters, including a very kind and helpful shopkeeper, an equally unpleasant staffer at my hostel, and five or six kittens that worked together to steal a cooked chicken.
In my first novel, I introduce Katrina, a young female protagonist who wants to learn archery. For Kat, finding someone willing to teach a girl the bow in sixteenth-century Malta would prove a challenge. For me, the challenge began once she found that person. I’d need to describe her struggling through lessons and finally mastering the skills—skills I did not possess. As I developed her character, I knew I had to learn archery.
And so, I signed up for a two-day workshop, which I thought was a beginner archery lesson. It ended up being an intensive, archery certification course. The other students knew not only each other but all the technical terms. They frequented archery ranges and competed around the country. I hadn’t so much as picked up a bow since gym class ten years earlier. Despite my mistake, I stayed—might as well learn a few things in case of a zombie apocalypse.
Learning to teach archery proved to be an unexpected gift. Kat’s instructor would have to demonstrate the proper technique. As readers discover in Falcon’s Shadow, Kat becomes the teacher. Although it was important for me to learn how to do the thing, it was as important for me to learn to teach it so I could write believably from an archery instructor’s point of view. I could now write with the confidence that comes from experience.
Many styles of weapons were used throughout the Siege. I took up axe-throwing and went to a gun range, where I shot a variety of firearms and felt the incredible kickback—something I needed to experience because muskets and arquebuses were the matchlocks of choice at the time in which my novels are set.
Though my books are fiction, they feature actual historical figures—but even when writing a character based on a real person, I need to fill in his or her thoughts and body language. And, in many cases, dialogue and actions. I conduct thorough research on every historical individual so I can develop a clear picture in my mind of his or her physicality, body language, facial expressions, demeanour, and personality.
History helps out by supplying some of the person’s actual dialogue. Of the lines I make up, I try to stay true to what he or she would likely have said. For instance, I wouldn’t have Grand Master Valette, a man of iron discipline and unshakeable faith, suggest a night of carousing and gambling at the local tavern. I might find inspiration in great feats, like Chevalier Romegas and his wild, reckless courage against an Ottoman fleet, or Dr Giuseppe Callus, a Maltese patriot who attempted to negotiate more say for the people in their governance, or I might find inspiration in quiet, sweet moments, like when Sultan Suleiman wrote poems to his beloved Roxelane.
While historical facts should hold, the details should not overshadow the story. The challenge for the writer is getting it as accurate as possible while still keeping the story compelling—a veritable balancing act. Indeed, history supplies the framework, but I weave the plot—connecting my fictional characters to the actual history.
Despite the passage of time, people want and need many of the same things today as they did in the past. Beyond necessities for survival, people crave human connection, acceptance, recreation, fellowship, justice, knowledge, a sharing of ideas, progress.
This realization gave me the confidence to tackle historical fiction—I didn’t have to create characters I could never relate to simply because they lived five hundred years ago. And while living in the sixteenth-century undoubtedly presented its own set of challenges and struggles, the human condition remains the same. The story needs to revolve around the characters and their experiences—the setting becomes virtually incidental.
Also, I find period pieces tend to romanticize history. We think of a knight in shining armour as noble and without flaws. But reality objects to that image. Were the knights brave? Absolutely. Were they flawed? Beyond doubt. To be accepted into the Order of the Knight of St. John, one had to prove noble ancestry in all four lines. Knighthood was something for which these young men were pre-destined. Unlike the Ottoman system, the European system did not operate based on merit. Someone who embodies the qualities you expect a knight to have wouldn’t be worthy if their lineage did not measure up.
I was very proud to learn that during the Great Siege of 1565, women played a pivotal role in Malta’s defence. They stood on the battlements alongside the men, shooting flaming arrows, gathering cannonballs, and repairing walls. Period pieces often tend to portray damsels in distress that need to be rescued. These women didn’t need any rescuing. I hope my female characters capture this fighting spirit.
Historical fiction allows the reader to not only understand what took place but to be touched by it, to gain empathy, to connect with those who lived it. This genre brings history to life in a way textbooks can’t always manage. It makes the past personal, provides the human side of history, allowing readers to acquaint themselves with historical figures by illuminating their personalities, perspectives, motivations, and emotions. The reader comes to see the characters, know them, care about them, as happens with all genres. Historical fiction is not the mere recounting of facts and details; it is the telling of a story through character. The time in which that story is set becomes secondary.
You seem to be incredibly active, from kick-boxing, snow-boarding and axe-throwing to yoga! Do you see physical activity as a break from writing or is it the place where you begin to write and problem-solve? I find walking and swimming help me untangle a poem, is it the same for you? Do you find the physicality of these forms of exercise help you to get into the heads of the Knights of St John and their warrior lifestyle?
Physical exertion gives me perspective and opens up my mind to so many creative possibilities. Sometimes when I’m paddle boarding in a cove, a scene may unfold in my mind. Hiking also provides great opportunity to work out the details of a setting as I take notice of the sensory details around me—the way the light falls, the way the wind rustles tree branches, the smell of the air just after the rain, the sensation of salt dancing on my hand, the taste of heavy mist.
Before Covid-19 grounded us, my husband and I spent five weeks in New Zealand, and if there was a peak that could be summited, we went for it. Pushing past my edge is invigorating and very rewarding from a creative perspective—whether it’s a tough race, a 20km hike over volcanic alpine terrain, catching a wave, or snowboarding an advanced run, the ideas flow because the emotion and exertion these activities elicit can be applied to any scene. Going for a run also helps me break through these blocks. Some of my favourite scenes have developed during a jog. The key is not forgetting my ideas before I make it home—inspiration to run faster, I suppose.
And sometimes physical exertion serves simply as a perfect reset, a way to step away from the screen, shut out all thought, and focus on myself and my breath.
One of the most challenging aspects of being a writer nowadays seems to be marketing. Often writers are asked to be very active in the marketing process. How do you deal with that aspect of the writing life?
Marketing is my least favourite aspect of being an author. I don’t enjoy self-promotion, and I’m a terrible salesperson. In my late teens, I had a commissions-based retail job, and my manager would harangue me for not engaging with customers. As someone who cringed whenever salespeople approached me, I never wanted to inflict that same discomfort on others. But because my job was on the line, I came up with a strategy. I would approach customers and quietly say, “Listen, I know you don’t want me to bother you with information you can easily read on the signs, but my manager—the dude standing over there—keeps giving me shit for not pestering customers, so just humour me and make it seem like I’m telling you the most interesting information you ever heard.” And they would laugh and sympathise, and I’d get a sale. …Perhaps I’m not as bad a salesperson as I style myself. But still.
Signing with an international publisher in 2011 was thrilling because not only had I realized my lifelong dream of becoming a traditionally-published author but I now had a team to do the heavy lifting as far as promotion.
….Or so I thought.
For years, my first novel, Eight Pointed Cross, seemed to languish on shelves and sold only as a result of word-of-mouth or my own meagre attempts at marketing. My publisher did not take an active role in promoting my work, something that now seems to be the trend, unless the author is already a household name.
I committed to learning how to market my work myself. Ahead of the launch of Falcon’s Shadow, I released Eight Pointed Cross as a second edition with an updated, more vibrant cover. I took online courses and participated in too many webinars to count. I listened to marketing podcasts, reached out to experts, and followed authors who had a knack for self-promotion. I joined author-centric Facebook groups, curated my posts on social media, and even joined TikTok against all impulses. I cultivated a mailing list to send information directly to subscribers. Had my website torn down and rebuilt from scratch by a professional—though I maintain it. I write blog posts (though not as often as I should). I stepped way outside of my comfort zone and did live presentations, talks, and readings online. I networked at every opportunity and made contacts in the media. I joined organizations like the Maltese-Canadian Business Network Association (MCBNA) and attended their events, where I interacted with incredible people who share my heritage. Becoming active in the Maltese-Canadian community gave rise to interviews with Maltese media (usually via Skype or Zoom), print articles, and appearances at international book club events and most recently, a very successful book launch at the Maltese-Canadian Museum in Toronto, which over 200 people attended. I reached out to my alma mater to share news about my endeavours. They responded favourably and kindly and often ran features about my work in their newsletters and on their websites. Best of all, I developed deep, lasting friendships with fellow authors who are so generous with their ideas and support.
All this learning-put-in-action set the stage for the release of my third novel, Ash Fall, which came out in September 2022.
The result? Three number one bestsellers on Amazon. And an entirely new and unexpected skillset for which I am so grateful and able to apply to current and future projects.
That’s such an impressive attitude to marketing, Mar.
Where do you like to write? Do you have a special place and a fixed process or can you write anywhere and everywhere? How do you look after your wellbeing as a writer?
Ultimately, writing can happen anywhere. I’m not in control of when an idea might come to me, so I can make a writing space out of any environment— a local café, a park bench, a balcony, on an airplane, in the backyard, or during a long commute (provided I’m not driving!).
One drawback for me is that I am very sound sensitive, so whenever I find myself in a place where I cannot control the volume, I am forever grateful to the inventors of noise-cancelling headphones.
If I’m writing at home, I find a comfy spot flooded with natural light and my dog curled up at my feet. Then, I just lose myself in whatever I’m working on.
I was once asked about my writing quirks, of which I seem to have many. Figuring out the time of day that serves best for creative endeavours has also proven beneficial. For me, writing new scenes comes easier in the early morning, while I find the afternoon or late evening optimal for editing.
Sometimes an idea will blossom just as I’m about to fall asleep and past experiences have taught me to always write it down.
When I’m trying to describe a facial expression, I make the expression and hold it as I jot down everything my face is doing. My brow is sure to end up permanently furrowed.
I find reading aloud a very helpful practice when editing because it forces me to read every single word rather than skim, and when I read aloud, I put on accents to entertain myself.
I love writing to music, but the songs can’t have lyrics because they distract me. Epic scores guide my scenes, stir up intricate, emotional passages. The right soundtrack helps me to pace battle scenes and take the quieter scenes slow. My workspace often swirls with evocative arrangements from Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon, Inception, the Grey, Braveheart, Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean, and lately, the Stranger Things season four instrumental soundtrack.
The only time I bite my nails is when I’m working on a new scene or editing an existing one.
As far as wellbeing is concerned, eating healthy, being highly active, and engaging in actual human interaction helps me maintain a balance. Exercise, whether something vigorous or low impact, is a wonderful stress reliever and a great way to generate ideas. Also, humans are not designed to sit all day, hunched at a desk, so getting up frequently is good practice for me. I’ll often put my laptop up on a half wall and stand for a few hours, which became a habit as I healed from surgery this year and had no choice but to stand for most of the day. I also step away from the screen entirely to get outside and walk my dog, which is always the perfect way to recharge.
What kind of writers do you read? Who inspires you and influences you in the writing world?
I mainly read authors who write in my genre to keep that same flow and rhythm pulsing. I love Iain Pears, Khaled Hosseini, and David W Ball. And while high-fantasy cannot be confused with historical fiction, many literary and stylistic elements bleed into both, and as such, I gravitate towards George RR Martin, JRR Tolkien, and CS Lewis.
In recent years, I’ve become a big fan of graphic novels as well, in particular, The Pride of Baghdad by Brian K Vaughan and Niko Henrichon and Maus I and Maus II by Art Spiegelman. As an educator, I love graphic novels as a teaching tool. In the case of these titles, they raise important questions about clashing viewpoints, loyalty, sectarian violence, survival, extremism, the true price of war, and who, ultimately, pays it.
I’ve made professional and personal connections to some outstanding Canadian authors, whose work in many different genres occupies space on my bookshelves as well, including Darcie Friesen Hossack, Karen Connelly, Tina S Beier, and Marsha Skrypuch. One of the most beautiful things I’ve learned as a female author in Canada is that we want to help each other, to lift each other up, like the winds generated by the collective beating of butterfly wings.
As mentioned, I love the dystopian genre and enjoy Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, and John Wyndham. I love the countless what-if discussions that arise from dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. For example, which faction would you choose? Why? At the moment, I have a pretty long to-read list filled with dystopian titles.
I also read non-fiction that centres on human experiences in oppressive states and have found memoirs by Marina Nemat and Malala Yousafzai gut-wrenching, tragic, vital, and inspiring. Their titles should be required reading in our English curriculums.
What’s next for you Mar? Any exciting forthcoming projects?
Malta has cultivated quite the film industry over the past two decades, serving as the shooting location for many blockbuster movies and successful television shows. For years, I’d wish a director or producer or actor would stroll into a Maltese bookshop, beeline for my novel, and approach me about adapting it for the screen. That never happened.
But then, about a year and a half ago, it dawned on me that I am capable. I wrote the novels, after all.
I enrolled in an excellent screenwriting course specifically designed for authors looking to adapt their novels. I have since completed the pilot episode of a potential seven-season series, which is currently in development and has a wonderful executive producer attached, backing of the Malta Film Commission, as well as interest from some renowned directors. Stay tuned!
I’m also mapping out a prequel to my Siege trilogy, which will explore the 1522 Battle of Rhodes that led to the Knights of St John relocating on Malta. And on the horizon is another novel that follows the events of Ash Fall and would culminate in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto. But for now, after working on the Siege of Malta trilogy for over two decades, I’m taking a little break from novel writing. Or maybe I can book “research trips” to Corfu and Rhodes.
Finally, my editorial service has gained quite a bit of traction over the past year, so when I’m not working on my own projects, I’m serving my clients and hopefully offering the same quality guidance I was fortunate enough to receive as a fledgling writer when I first started out.
Thank you so much for this richly inspiring interview Mar, and good luck with these amazing future projects!
Marthese Fenech is the bestselling author of historical novels set in sixteenth-century Malta and Turkiye. She has also written the award-winning pilot episode of a television series based on her books.
The youngest of five, Mar was born in Toronto to Maltese parents, with whom she travelled to Malta frequently while growing up.
A former kickboxing instructor, she snowboards, surfs, scuba-dives, climbs, skydives, throws axes, and practices yoga. She lives north of Toronto with her brilliant husband and their equally brilliant Siberian husky. https://marthesefenech.com/