A Conversation with
Historical Fiction author, Marthese Fenech
Please give a warm Coffee Pot welcome to author, Marthese Fenech.
MA: Hi Marthese, welcome back to the blog. Before we begin, could you please tell my readers a little about yourself.
MF: Hello! My name is Marthese Fenech, but friends call me Mar. I am the
author of historical novels set in sixteenth-century Malta and Istanbul. I’m an adventure-seeker who loves to snowboard, surf, paddleboard, rock-climb, and scuba-dive. In quieter moments, I enjoy practicing yoga and going for runs or long walks with my Siberian husky. Photography is another of my hobbies, especially chasing landscapes, seascapes, and sunsets. My husband and I love the outdoors and tackle challenging hikes all over the world. I’m also learning to skateboard to improve my surfing.
MA: I absolutely adored your debut novel, Eight Pointed Cross. Could you tell us about the inspiration behind you new release?
MF: Falcon’s Shadow is the sequel to Eight Pointed Cross and the second book in a trilogy. My parents are Maltese, and frequent visits to the island piqued my interest from a young age in its rich history. Life under the rule of the Knights of St John fascinated me most. But it was while I vacationed there twenty years ago that the idea to write this saga first took root.
A friend suggested we check out the Malta Experience, an audio-visual masterpiece that depicts the island’s incredible seven-thousand-year history. When the Great Siege of 1565 played out on the screen, I knew I simply had to write a novel about this most epic of battles. The valour of the Maltese left an indelible mark on me, and twenty years, many miles, and several thousand cups of tea later, I am completing work on the third book in the trilogy.
MA: It is such a fascinating era of history. How did you come up with the setting for your book?
MF: For the most part, the setting decided itself. Malta and Istanbul are the primary locations where the events unfolded. But my characters set out on journeys—or are captured and transported elsewhere, which takes them to various sites across Europe and Africa, including Italy, France, Rhodos, Zoara, and Djerba.
In order for me to write authentically, I need to do more than read about a place or look at pictures. I need to immerse in it, its smells, sounds, and tastes, its languages, its people, its paces. This allows me to include actual sensory details in my descriptions. Perhaps the way a slant of light touches something catches my attention, and I can incorporate that image into a scene. When I was travelling through Romania I visited a castle in the Brasov region, and there was something magical about the way the sun and clouds created pools of light on the mountains and cast the tall trees that grew densely on the slopes in deeper shades of grey. While my characters never find themselves in Romania, the image is one that resonated with me and still made its way into my book.
Smells have the same effect. I lived temporarily in Singapore and as I was working on Falcon’s Shadow at a local café—and struggling with a terrible bout of writer’s block. The breeze carried the delicate scent of a frangipani flower to my table and inspired a sweet, tender scene between characters Katrina and Robert. That lovely fragrance helped clear the fog, and the words began to flow.
MA: What about the characters — how did you come up with them?
MF: I do my best to observe and notice things—subtle things, easy-to-miss things. A face on a movie screen or a streetcar could give rise to a character as might a person’s walk, tone of voice, or quirk. For me, the most important thing is to always pay attention.
Interactions I’ve had with people at home and abroad have served as wonderful sources of inspiration. My husky is incurably hilarious and I managed to work him into Falcon’s Shadow as Louie, a wolf-dog with mismatched eyes.
Amusing stories my mother shared about my grandfather helped me to create one of my favourite characters. My grandfather had a big heart, an appreciation for solitude, and a pack of loyal stray dogs that followed him wherever he went. Coincidentally, so does my fictional Fr Tabone.
Some of my characters are actual historical figures—but even when writing a character based on a real person, I still 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 that 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. Some I have to make up, but 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 quieter nuances, like Sultan Suleiman and the poems he wrote to his beloved Roxelane.
I explore this topic at length in a blog post about how I come up with my characters. You can read more HERE!
MA: There are some truly fabulous historical novels out there. Can you name three things that set your books apart?
MF: Writing historical fiction presents many challenges, and I have the utmost respect for fellow authors who tackle this wonderful genre.
i) I tried very hard to depict heroes and villains on both sides of the battlefield. I hope that readers will root for Maltese and Turkish characters alike, cheer for their successes, lament their losses, and wish for them to prevail—despite that they cannot all prevail.
ii) Rather than focus on the big players exclusively, I tell the story from the perspective of regular people—ones not bound by oaths or position or politics but average people flung into situations beyond their control, determined by geography and religion, and choices made by the governing powers. Likewise, instead of concentrating on one specific culture or history, I tried to intersperse a variety of histories from several locations to help readers better understand the different, sometimes clashing cultures and perspectives of the day. My books offer glimpses into not only Malta and Turkey’s past but also Italy’s, France’s, Spain’s, and North Africa’s.
iii) I strive to give a balanced view of institutions while staying true to the reality of the era. The Church, for example, is often vilified in novels and films, and sometimes rightly so. However, I attempted to juxtapose the evil of the Inquisition with compassionate, progressive-minded Fr Anton Tabone.
MA: One last question before you go. Can you tell us what you are currently working on?
MF: At the moment, I am working on the epilogue for the yet-untitled third instalment of the trilogy, which culminates in the Great Siege of 1565. I’m also trying to master those skateboarding skills.
MA: I wish you all the best with mastering those skateboarding skills!!
If you would like to learn more about Marthese’s and her fabulous books, then you know what to do — SCROLL DOWN!!
By Marthese Fenech
The ghosts of war leave no footprints. When legendary Ottoman seaman Dragut Raїs attacks the Maltese islands in 1551, his army renders Gozo a smoking ruin emptied of its entire population. Among the five thousand carried into slavery is Augustine Montesa, father of Domenicus and Katrina.
Wounded and broken, Domenicus vows to find his father, even if it means abandoning Angelica, his true love. Armed with only a topaz to serve as ransom, he sets out on a journey that sees him press-ganged from the streets of mainland Europe and thrown into the frontline of battle. On Malta, Katrina strives to keep her family home from falling apart. After the Grand Master of the knights has her publicly flogged for speaking out against him, she struggles to find work. When at last she stumbles upon a promising position, all is not as it seems. Her new job forces her to confront a terrifying truth—one that could prove disastrous for Robert, the man she loves.
Hundreds of leagues to the east in Istanbul, Demir works hard to become an imperial Ottoman horseman, despite having to endure the cruelty of his half-brother and father. Life takes an unexpected turn the moment Demir encounters a young woman, stolen from Malta, brought into the household as another of his father’s concubines.
Falcon’s Shadow sweeps from quarry pits to sprawling estates, tumultuous seas to drought-ravaged lands, the dungeons beneath the bishop’s palace to the open decks of warships, creaking gallows to sun-drenched courtyards. Two empires collide at the Battle of Djerba, a fateful clash which unites lost kin, only to tear them apart once more.
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Marthese Fenech is the author of historical novels set in sixteenth-century Europe. Research has taken her to the ancient streets her characters roamed, the fortresses they defended, the seas they sailed, and the dungeons they escaped. Obstinate curiosity has led her to sixty-five countries across six continents. She does her best plot-weaving while hiking mountain trails, wandering local markets, paddle boarding cliff-sheltered bays, and sitting at home with her Siberian husky curled at her feet.
The youngest of five, Marthese was born in Toronto to Maltese parents. At twelve, she moved to Malta for six months and was enrolled in an all-girls private school run by nuns; she lasted three days before getting kicked out for talking too much. Back in Toronto, she started her own business recording, editing, and selling bootleg heavy metal concerts. She later worked with special needs children and adults, witnessing small miracles daily.
Marthese has a Master’s degree in Education and teaches high school English and Social Science. She speaks fluent Maltese and French and knows how to ask where the bathroom is in Spanish and Italian. A former kickboxing instructor, she surfs, snowboards, scuba-dives, climbs, skydives, throws axes, and practices yoga—which may sometimes include goats. She lives north of Toronto with her brilliant, mathematically-inclined husband and brilliant, musically-inclined dog, known to lead family howl sessions on occasion.
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