Penning a tale of patriotism
timesofmalta.com – December 2012

Passionate about her Maltese descent, Canadian writer Marthese Fenech has celebrated Malta’s heritage in her historical book Eight-Pointed Cross. Jo Caruana interviews her about the international hit celebrated by critics and readers alike.

Wherever they may be in the world, the Maltese are often known for their fierce patriotism – even if they weren’t born or raised here.

Writer Marthese Fenech, who was born in Canada to Maltese parents, is one such person and she has always been fervently proud of her island roots.

So much so that she was inspired to write an epic novel that puts Malta’s and Gozo’s exciting history firmly in the spotlight.

“Having grown up on my parents’ stories of Maltese valour and the occupation of the islands by the Knights of St John, I developed a keen fascination for tales from the past, particularly Maltese history of the 16th century,” she says, explaining her initial inspiration for the project.

“Then, in 2000, while on one of my many vacations to the island, I visited the Malta Experience and was so moved by the scenes that featured the Great Siege. I believe it is a story that should be told – after all, everyone loves an underdog story, and what an underdog story this was! Elite Ottoman soldiers laying siege on the Maltese islands with only a few knights and Maltese villagers to defend its shores… and yet they triumphed! I thought it was all absolutely amazing, and decided to go for it.”

Initially, there was much research to be done, and Fenech (a former kickboxing instructor) consulted books, maps and professors to figure out a creative angle.

“I wanted to make it entertaining as well as historically accurate,” she says. “I became so immersed in the research that I nearly lost my job, although I ended up leaving to pursue the book seriously anyway.”

When she felt she had a fairly strong basis of historical knowledge, Fenech started scribbling down plot ideas, developing her thoughts on her characters, their journey, the battlefield and where to start and end.

“At first I planned to write a novel focusing purely on the happenings of 1565, but I started writing the first scenes of the novel based in 1542. By the time I reached Dragut’s invasion in 1551, I already had 1,220 pages. So, I decided the Great Siege would have to occur in the sequel, and focused solely on Dragut’s invasion of Gozo.”

Fenech also believed she needed to visit the places she planned on writing about in her novel, so as to be sure she knew all about them.

“Although I’d been to Malta many times I was now back to study its historical past in details,” she explains, adding that shealso travelled to Italy, France, Germany, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Austria on research adventures.

“I wrote it all, and then spent time on about a thousand re-writes – chopping, changing and making it cleaner and more concise. Even now I flick through it and think of things I could edit!”

In total, it took seven years to take the project from inception to publication, and the result is a beguiling tale of love and loss with Malta as its backdrop.

“It will easily appeal to anyone with an interest in battles, history, knights, pirates, romance, betrayal, scandals, revenge and, of course, Malta,” Fenech says of her vibrant story.

“Essentially, and amid bloody land and sea battles, the novel’s protagonists, Domenicus and Katrina Montesa, are struggling to survive in a world of poverty, intrigue, slavery, corruption, and religious oppression. It’s full of twists and turns, and very exciting.”

Fenech explains that her Maltese heritage means everything to her, so she tried hard to capture the tenacious spirit of the Maltese in her writing.

“I am so proud to share such a noble and rich culture with the people here. It is a country of four compass points of beauty and a living museum that never closes. We’re definitely a tough, strong bunch, with fierce passion and a flair for yelling!” she smiles.

So, did she do much yelling while working on the book?

“Yes, there were plenty of challenges!” she grins. “Any scene where emotions are running high can be difficult to master because one treads the line between being evocative and cheesy. It can be hard to find that perfect place. At least, it’s hard for me. Getting published in Canada was also hard work and I was very fortunate to get in contact with BDL locally; they took the project forward.”

Speaking about the upside of writing, Fenech explains her reward comes from being able to express her creativity.

“I love sitting at my computer – usually late in the evening – and pouring it all out. That’s not to say that first drafts are gold-dust, but bringing scenes and characters to life – or putting them to death – is indescribable. When I feel I’ve got it right, I smile and am in heaven. I definitely feel at my most free when I am writing.”

Reviews

“Crystal-clear descriptive language … Ms. Fenech has recreated the compelling world of the Montesa family of Malta and the Knights of St. John as though she time-travelled back to the sixteenth century to do her research. An impressive debut!”

— Karen Connelly, author of The
Lizard Cage


"I believed every minute of it."

— Carol Rasmussen, former book review editor at Library Journal


"Eight Pointed Cross has all the ingredients that I consider importan in a novel: a gripping plot, engaging, believable characters, stunning description, violence, love, sex, remarkable psychological insight, historical detail… The first English literary critic, Sir Phillip Sidney, wrote that the purpose of literature was to teach and to delight. I learned much from Eight Pointed Cross. And the internal struggles of characters such as Augustine and Franco lend depth and substance to the characterization. A more recent literary giant, William Faulkner, in his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950, opined that the only thing worth writing about is the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself. You, Ms. Fenech, have passed both of these tests with flying colours."

— John Heighton, reader for the Porcupine's Quill