Marthese Fenech, better known as Mar by her friends, is an author of historical novels set in sixteenth-century Malta and Istanbul. A thrill-seeker, she loves to snowboard, surf, paddleboard, rock-climb, and scuba-dive. She has travelled to sixty-five countries across six continents (so far!) She inherited her sense of adventure and wild curiosity from her Maltese parents and four older siblings.
In quieter moments, she enjoys practising yoga and going for runs or long walks with her Siberian husky. Photography is another of her hobbies, especially chasing landscapes, seascapes, and sunsets. Her husband and herself love the outdoors and tackle challenging hikes all over the world. She is currently learning to skateboard to improve her surfing. In addition to English, she speaks fluent Maltese and French and is learning Spanish.
Besides write, she teaches secondary school English and history. She loves working with teenagers. They make her laugh every day, which makes her job seem less like work and more of a fun thing she gets to do. Her goal as an educator is to appreciate, value, and support individuality in an environment that fosters creativity, critical thinking, and growth. She strives to create a classroom that is a place of safety, a place of curiosity, a place of discussion, a place of tolerance—a place of learning.
Ramona: Tell me more about your latest book
Mar Fenech: I’ve recently finished work on the second book in my Siege of Malta trilogy.
The events of the first novel in the saga, Eight Pointed Cross, take place twenty-three years before the Great Siege of 1565. This book culminates with the lesser-known 1551 Siege of Gozo. My goal was to depict the incidents that led to the Siege of 1565, to show the storm had been brewing for quite some time. The ongoing hostility between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St John causes two great empires to collide, intertwining the fates of the protagonists. Beyond military conflict, the characters must confront not only perceived enemies but corruption and oppression, deceit and betrayal, disease and disaster.
A number one bestseller, Eight Pointed Cross was released in 2011 and re-released as a second edition this year in preparation for the sequel, Falcon’s Shadow, due to launch in summer 2020.
Falcon’s Shadow picks up in the immediate aftermath of Siege of Gozo. When legendary Ottoman seaman Dragut Raїs attacked the Maltese islands in 1551, his army rendered Gozo a smoking ruin emptied of its entire population. Those left behind must rebuild—both literally and figuratively. Characters set out on quests against impossible odds, abandoning those they love, end up forced into battles not of their choosing (also literally and metaphorically). Unexpected connections are made, secrets revealed, deeper betrayals exposed.
Falcon’s Shadow sweeps from quarry pits to sprawling estates, tumultuous seas to creaking gallows, the dungeons beneath the bishop’s palace to the open decks of warships. The 1560 Battle of Djerba proves a fateful clash which unites lost kin, only to tear them apart once more.
The yet-to-be-titled third and final book, due out in 2021, will feature the Great Siege of 1565.
Now, more than ever, I realize how the perceptions of the past continue to reverberate today. According to historical texts, the knights often disregarded the Maltese, saw them as inferior. Yet it was on the Maltese whom the knights relied during the invasions and the Maltese who delivered the islands from the formidable Ottoman army. This echoes the way modern society overlooks custodians, grocery store clerks, and delivery-people. Yet right now, in the face of COVID-19, our survival hinges on these brave men and women showing up for work every day despite the risks they face. To these essential service providers and the incredible front-line healthcare workers, my gratitude is bottomless.
Ramona: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
Mar Fenech: Shortly after the release of Eight Pointed Cross, I began work on its sequel, Falcon’s Shadow. I thought the words would come easy—it was, after all, a continuation of the first novel, and as such, the plot was established. My husband and I had relocated temporarily to Singapore, where I would be able to spend my days writing. And that’s when it struck: a debilitating bout of writer’s block. I had all this time and freedom, yet finding the words proved impossible.
Then, one afternoon, as I sat at an outdoor café, a delectable scent drifted on the breeze from nearby frangipani trees. The sweet, floral fragrance inspired a scene. Which inspired lines of dialogue. Which inspired a plot. And just like that, the words began to flow. And though writer’s block can be very frustrating, it can provide some wonderful opportunities. When I’m stuck, I go back to earlier scenes and revise them, a process that exercises the literary muscles and gives rise to new ideas.
Another challenge in writing this book was that Eight Pointed Cross left my characters in precarious situations. I now had to figure out how to get them out of those situations—or not. Conducting research is one of my favourite aspects of writing historical fiction. I love to dig into the past, see what I might unearth. The challenge is getting it as close to accurate as possible while still keeping the story entertaining, cross-referencing sources, and infusing the book with enough fact but not so much that it reads like a textbook. Moreover, history is not consigned strictly to the past—history surrounds us, interacts with the present and future constantly. My job is to pull history from the past and show how it has shaped us and continues to shape us, that it is relevant and informs much of our decision-making, whether or not we realize it.
In addition to striking the right balance of historical detail, providing as unbiased a view as possible is also important to me. I strive to portray both sides of the battlefield fairly, with heroes and villains operating within each sphere. I hope 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.
Ramona: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Mar Fenech: I come up with my best ideas while being physically active. Much of my first novel came to me during my daily jog. Remembering the ideas presented a challenge. I’d recite them to myself like a mantra until I returned home. Now I just jot them down quickly into my phone.
Physical exertion gives me perspective and opens up my mind to so many creative possibilities. Sometimes when I’m paddle boarding in a cove, inspiration will strike. Hiking is also a great opportunity for plot weaving. I love to challenge myself physically. Last winter, 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. It’s 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 always flow.
When I sit down to write, I love to have instrumental music on. Depending on the scene I’m crafting, I may choose a sweeping score, like the Game of Thrones or Braveheart soundtrack, or something less intense, like a gentle acoustic guitar or even the sound of ocean waves. Music heightens my emotions, allowing me to produce work that reflects deeply felt, nuanced sentiments. The result is often more authentic prose.
I find reading my work out loud hugely beneficial to catch errors I would otherwise skim over. Nothing particularly quirky about that except that I put on accents when I read aloud. It sounds more pleasing to my ear (but I never do so if someone is within earshot!) I like my writing space to be tidy and clutter-free. And I need a cup of tea at my writing desk. Often, I get so caught up in the writing that I end up having to drink it cold or reheat it. I’m very obsessive about the way words work together and I’ll sometimes spend three or four hours paining a single sentence or word until I’m satisfied.
Ramona: Did you intend to become an author, or do you have a specific reason/s for writing a book?
Mar Fenech: From the moment I scribbled my first story in a notebook, I dreamed about the day I’d become a published author. Growing up, I experimented with different genres—fables, young adult thrillers, fantasy, crime, drama, at last finding my niche in historical fiction.
Frequent visits to Malta piqued my interest from a young age in its rich history. Life under the rule of the Knights of St John fascinated me most. I’ll never forget the moment the idea to write these books took root. I was vacationing in Malta in 2000, and a friend suggested we go check out the Malta Experience. The moment scenes from the Great Siege of 1565 played on the screen, I knew it was the novel I had to write. The Great Siege of Malta is the most epic of all underdog stories. And right now, all of humanity is battling an invisible enemy in COVID-19. We are the underdogs in this battle. But now, as during the Siege, we look to the power of the human spirit and its ability to pull us through adversity. Having grown up in a Maltese household, I can certainly attest for the fiery spirit of the Maltese. We share a proud and noble history, one that has resonated with me since I was small. Exploring the Order of St John’s rule over Malta has confirmed something which I already held to be true—the Maltese are resilient beyond measure.
My answer then is yes to both questions—I always wanted to become an author and I had specific reasons for writing this book.
Ramona: What is your normal procedure to get your book published?
Mar Fenech: Unfortunately, there is no normal procedure. Getting a book traditionally published is extraordinarily difficult. So much so, even well-known and established authors are opting for the indie route.
Landing my first contract took me many years and many tears. On several occasions, my manuscript made it through all the rounds of approval and came close to offers from four of the “Big Five” names in publishing. But each time, someone high-up would decide my book presented too great a marketing challenge, given its size and subject matter. I learned quickly to stop celebrating or sharing news whenever I thought I might be getting a publishing contract.
Still, I’m not sorry. With every rejection, I went back to my draft and revised it, made it stronger, more concise, trimmed unnecessary words. In 2011, I approached BDL Books in Malta. Owner and Director Tony Gatt loved the synopsis. But I’d been through this many times before—a publisher is enthusiastic about the summary and asks for the first fifty pages. Impressed, they then request the complete manuscript. Their professional reader loves it, has very few mark-ups. The book goes to the editorial team. …And one person on that team is not convinced my novel would be a good fit. A crushing process with which I had become all too familiar.
But not this time.
At last, Eight Pointed Cross found a home—and what better place than in Malta, the land in which it is set.
In signing a publishing contract, I felt a tremendous sense of relief and validation. At the same time, indie publishing offers many benefits, especially as the author’s rights remain his or her own.
In my case, I have the best of both worlds. BDL Books allowed me to retain the rights to my work, so I’ve had the opportunity to re-release Eight Pointed Cross as a second edition, produce an audiobook, and release it on Kindle, which, in less than a month, has garnered me ten times the readership. This past weekend, Eight Pointed Cross claimed the top spot on Amazon’s Bestseller list.
Even so, being traditionally published has advantages such as local distribution in Malta, hugely beneficial for a writer who lives in Canada. My novel occupies shelves in brick and mortar bookstores and gift-shops the island-over. However, by re-releasing it, I can reach a much wider global audience. Previously, anyone outside Malta would have to order my novel from BDL Books, pay in Euros, and fork out a considerable amount to cover international shipping. Releasing the second edition independently has eliminated those issues as the book is now available in all formats across all Amazon marketplaces (USA, Canada, UK, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Australia, and Japan)
Ramona: What motivated you to become an author?
Mar Fenech: A need to express myself through written word is weaved into the fabric of my being. I’ve been writing stories since kindergarten, and sometimes, when I’d get in trouble at school for being too chatty, I’d write a story about a little girl who felt bad for upsetting her teacher. Then, I’d give it to my teacher as an apology. It usually won me back into her good graces. But not always.
I carried a notebook with me everywhere and filled every page with stories about talking animals or made-up furry creatures. In my teens, I explored writing young adult thrillers and fantasy. Having always loved history, especially Maltese history, and being a fan of epic films and books, my favourite things melded together into the inspiration to write this trilogy.
Moreover, I had the good fortune of being born into an imaginative and creative family with parents and siblings who excel in all artistic disciplines—especially visual, written, musical, and performance. In 2006, my father received an award from the Knights of St John for his five decades of service to the Maltese-Canadian community as the producer and host of a local television program that promotes Maltese news and talent. My musically-inclined dad has served for as many decades as the organist at St Paul the Apostle parish.
One of the many benefits of being the youngest by more than a decade was that my siblings seemed to enjoy reading to me. My brother Dave read aloud from the nineteenth-century novel Heidi as well as various Little Golden Books. My sister Carm read me the Hobbit, which made Tolkien’s intricate fantasy world accessible to an eight-year-old.My brother Steve often invented elaborate ghost stories—which I loved, until the lights went out. And my brother Lou shaped his university studies about Guru Nanak into bedtime stories. My parents also took turns with this duty. Mom favoured Biblical stories and Dad preferred fables.
Growing up in a space where creativity and imagination flowed freely motivated me to pursue my dream of becoming an author.
Ramona: How many book have you written so far?
Mar Fenech: Eight Pointed Cross, 2011 first edition, 2020 second edition.
Falcon’s Shadow, set to launch summer 2020.
Untitled third and final instalment, set for release in 2021.
Ramona: Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotion strongly?
Mar Fenech: As someone who feels emotion deeply, it’s hard for me to say. I suppose it depends on the kind of writing one would like to do. I imagine a non-fiction piece or a technical textbook would not necessarily require a great depth of emotion to produce.
As an author of fiction, I find my connection to my emotions is an advantage. Creativity and imagination are the keystones of world-building, plot construction, and character development. But drawing on emotion adds authenticity to a scene. Knowing and feeling loss, anger, jealousy, joy, longing, and love colours writing with relatable, vivid descriptions. It would be challenging for me to write about something I have not experienced or felt. To write effectively, I need to empathise at least on some level with my characters.
Of course, someone else may write beautifully without the need to feel strong emotion.
Ramona: How hard or easy is it to establish and maintain a career in writing?
Mar Fenech: Few authors can rely solely on their books for income, and I am no exception. Going at it without a publicist can be difficult. It’s a daily grind, as anyone trying to make it in the arts can attest.
Establishing and sustaining a writing career is so much more than writing. While the craft itself requires constant practice and revision, it is different from the business side, which I find intimidating and difficult to navigate. Every time I learn one thing, there are a thousand more things I need to absorb and apply. I have spent countless hours researching promotion and marketing strategies. There is so much information to sift through, so many webinars to watch and blogs to read, that it can easily overwhelm someone new to all of it. I am fortunate to have friends in the industry who have provided me with helpful guidance and amazing resources.
I’ve learned more in the past six months of consulting with media experts, web developers, and marketing specialists than my brain can contain. Thanks to this newly acquired knowledge, I’ll be better positioned when the time comes to release the sequel. I work hard to maintain my website, provide (hopefully) good content, write articles for my blog, grow my email list, and network on various social platforms. I reach out frequently to popular Maltese tourist sites to request they stock my books in their gift shops.
Despite the time and effort that goes into it, I am thrilled to have learned so much and made such valuable connections. A few months ago, I didn’t even know what SEO meant. Now, I’m able to write a blog relevant to writers and travellers and historians, manage my mailing list, and add content with ease.
Ramona: What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Mar Fenech: Author Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is hard writing,” and with good reason. Having natural talent and a love of the craft helps, but writing requires discipline and commitment, like training for a marathon. You must practice every day—even when you’re not in the mood. Write something, anything, every day.
Inspiration can strike at any time, so if an idea comes to you, write it down immediately—if you don’t, you will forget it. Many years ago, I had an idea I was certain I’d remember, so I didn’t bother to jot it down. Not only was I unable to remember the specifics, I couldn’t even recall to which character it pertained. So I wandered around my backyard for hours, walking along the fence, until at last, I remembered. I would have saved myself a lot of headache and steps had I just written the idea down in the first place.
Feedback from someone other than a person who loves you is important. Family and friends will love everything you do because they love you. Having an editor or fellow writer critique your work is most valuable. Developing a thick skin helps. Never write for an imaginary audience. Never write to impress people with thousand-dollar words. Write for the love of it. Write with abandon. Stay curious. Lead with wonder. And have so much fun.
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PS. When I was little, my parents owned a life-sized knight armed with a battle-axe. It stood in a corner of the house near the fireplace. It was much taller than me, and I would look at that knight with awe and admiration. Until, one day, my older brother pranked me by sneaking up behind me while brandishing the fake battle-axe. I never screamed so loud or ran so fast. After that, I was wary of the knight. Until I grew taller than him.
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