Today we travel to the Toronto area, by way of the Maltese Islands, to chat with Marthese Fenech about how a rabbit, being a teacher, climbing things, practicing yoga, chasing landscapes, magic, a Siberian husky, teddy bears, kickboxing, the Great Siege of 1565, tongue-twisters, and Point Break come together as part of Marthese’s adventurous life.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I live in a town north of Toronto with my husband, Brad, and our Siberian husky. I’m the youngest of five, with a 12 to 16 year gap between my siblings and me. I teach high school English, Social Science, and Special Education.
I’m an avid traveler and adventure-seeker. Brad and I spend a lot of time outdoors and tackle challenging hikes all over the world. When I’m not climbing things or throwing myself out of things, I enjoy practicing yoga and paddle-boarding.
Languages fascinate me. I spoke Maltese before English and studied French in school. I’d love to learn conversational Spanish beyond asking where the bathroom is.
Photography is another of my hobbies. I especially love chasing landscapes, seascapes, and sunsets. I’ve recently taken up skateboarding so I can improve my surfing. I consider myself a lively, fun, energetic risk-taker. I also hope I’m as funny as I think I am.
In which genre do you write?
I write historical fiction. Sixteenth-century Malta and Turkey serve as the settings of my novels.
My parents are Maltese, and frequent visits to the island from the time I was very young piqued my interest in its opulent history. 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.
In high school, history was my favourite subject. I loved to learn about daily life in the Middle Ages, communication and the importance of scribes and town-criers, the development and enforcement of laws, the cause and outcome of battles, the roles of different institutions, the use (and misuse) of medicine, the creation (and banning) of art and literature, and most of all, the perspectives of the people, their motivations, their resilience.
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.
How many published books do you have?
Eight Pointed Cross, originally published in 2011, and Falcon’s Shadow, published in 2020, are the first two novels in my Siege of Malta trilogy. The third instalment is scheduled for a May 2022 release to coincide with the anniversary of the Great Siege of Malta, the event on which the novel is based.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and what ignited your author’s flame?
Creating images with words always seemed to be a kind of magic. From a very young age, I found joy in storytelling, something as reflexive as breathing.
I remember rattling off fairy-tales to my teddy bears, which I would arrange around my room as an audience.
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 and 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 I was instantly hooked. She’d buy me a new one every few weeks until I finished the entire series. I have no doubt all that reading cultivated my love of the craft.
CS Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia had the greatest influence on me as a budding writer. Taking my cue from him, I wrote stories cast entirely with talking animals. Even now, in my Siege of Malta series, I tend to treat our four-legged friends more delicately than humans. 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.
In the summer of 1994, I watched the movie 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 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 high school and working at Red Lobster, 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.
What is an interesting writing quirk you have, that we wouldn’t know by reading your biography?
Sometimes, an idea will come to me, but I don’t jot it down, confident I will remember it. Then, of course, I forget. So, I will pace in a big square as long as it takes until I remember the thing I should have written down.
When I’m trying to describe a facial expression, I make the expression and hold it as I write 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, and when I read aloud, I put on accents to entertain myself.
I like 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. As I wrote Falcon’s Shadow, my workspace swirled with evocative arrangements from Game of Thrones, Inception, Braveheart, the Grey, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
I bite my nails when I’m working on a new scene or editing an existing scene.
What outdoor activity haven’t you tried, but would like to try?
I consider myself a thrill-seeker. A former kickboxing instructor, I surf, snowboard, scuba-dive, rock-climb, skydive, zip-line, and throw axes. I’ve also done the EdgeWalk at the CN Tower in Toronto, the Via Ferrata in Ollantaytambo, Peru, and hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand.
There are several outdoor activities I’d yet love to try. Sand-boarding in the desert looks wild. I took a beginner kite-surfing lesson but would like to take it up more frequently. I’m also keen to try potholing (the subterranean version of tree-top trekking). I recently discovered “high-diving,” which involves throwing oneself down a giant waterslide before diving into a high-altitude lake. Looks kind of awesome. And my husband and I plan to do the trek to Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal when Covid restrictions lift and it is safe to travel.
I find physical exertion gives me perspective and opens up my mind to so many creative possibilities.
Where did the idea for your most recent book come from?
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 sharing laughs with good friends. I checked off every box, every day.
But this trip became so much more when my friend suggested we go to the capital city Valletta to check out the Malta Experience, a film 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.
The idea to write a novel based on this epic battle took root.
It just ended up taking three novels instead of one—the story is simply too big to fit in one book.
What movie can you watch over and over without ever getting tired of?
I mean, come on—surfing bank robbers??
Point Break always brings back waves of wonderful memories, from writing an essay about director Kathryn Bigelow for a film studies class in high school to vacationing in Malta and hanging out at a beach bar which happened to be playing Point Break on a mounted TV set.
This movie inspired me to learn to surf. And to sky-dive. And to rob banks (which I have yet to do). I had the opportunity to surf for the first time in Tarifa, Spain (epic fail), then my husband gifted me with a week at a surf school in Costa Rica, followed by another session in New Zealand. I cannot put into words how much I love it and how badly I wish I lived near the ocean so I could continue improving daily, rather than yearly.
Point Break turns 30 this year, and its energy transcends. It is timeless—stories that capture the human spirit always are. I’m certain this movie contributed to my love for adventure, my need to challenge myself physically, to try new things—even the things I’m afraid to try.
Especially the things I’m afraid to try.
Although I never became the pro-surfer of my imagination, I did follow my literary dreams of becoming a bestselling author of historical fiction—my equivalent of big wave riding.
Also, as a wink at Point Break, I threw the line “Vaya con Dios” into my forthcoming third novel.
Can you play a musical instrument? If not, which instrument would you like to be able to play?
Musicality runs in my family. My dad is an accomplished organist and pianist. My brother Dave plays the trumpet, my brother Steve the guitar.
When I was eight, Dave bought me an acoustic guitar and signed me up for lessons. I loved it and progressed well, but my interest fizzled, and I gave up—something I regret to this day.
Years later, I saved enough money to buy a Fender Stratocaster electric bass and taught myself to play because I wanted to start a rock band. A huge Def Leppard fan, I’d watch recordings of their concerts and try to mimic the bassist’s riffs. I could strum a mean “Hysteria.” I also learned to imitate the basslines of songs by Guns N Roses and Skid Row.
In high school music class, I chose the alto saxophone. I loved wailing on that thing. I drove my parents to the brink by practising “Auld Lang Syne” nonstop in my not-soundproof bedroom.
Giving up on these instruments remains a sore spot. The creation and performance of music is so beautiful, the same kind of magic that exists in storytelling—because really, music is storytelling with sound. Perhaps I will take up an instrument again.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve done or experienced to help create a scene or plot?
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, pool in the dimple of my knee. 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.
I also spent time in Istanbul, 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—yes, that scene made it into Falcon’s Shadow.
In my first novel, Eight Pointed Cross, I introduce Katrina, a 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. Katrina’s instructor would have to demonstrate the proper technique. 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. Amazingly, I passed the final exam and am technically a certified archery instructor. In the years since my certification, I’ve taken archery lessons—but certainly never taught any.
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 guns 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.
You are about to speak publicly to a group and read from your latest book. What song do you listen to before speaking, and what do you do to prepare yourself?
In July 2020, I hosted a virtual book launch via Facebook Live since Covid cancelled my in-person event. Up to that point, I had always been a nervous wreck before appearing on camera.
And so, I needed to get amped before I hit “Go Live.”
My pre-game hype song-list includes:
“All I do is Win” – DJ Khalid featuring Ludacris, Rick Ross, T-Pain and Snoop Dogg
“Live like Legends” – Ruelle
“Revolution” – Ruelle
On the day of a speaking engagement or live reading, I occupy my mind to keep it from playing out disaster scenarios. I practice tongue-twisters and work on dropping my breath (belly-breathing). I fold a bunch of laundry and empty the dishwasher and water the garden. I go a few rounds on the punching bag, go for a jog, or hit the speed-rope. I take the dog for a long walk and recite my script to him. I roll out my yoga mat for a session. Anything to calm my frazzled nerves.
Was there anything surprising about that period of history you learned about which made it into the book?
I find period pieces tend to romanticize history. We think of a knight in shining armour as noble and flawless. 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. The 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.
As a woman, I was also 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. Again, period pieces often portray damsels in distress that need to be rescued. These women didn’t need any rescuing.
If you could ask your pet three questions, what would they be?
Three questions I would ask my Siberian husky:
1. What is your favourite memory? (Surely the time he got loose and chased seven cows around a farm for fifteen minutes as my brother Steve chased after him)
2. Do you know how deeply you are loved?
3. Why do you take one kibble at a time out of your bowl, eat it outside, then return for another?
What are you currently working on?
I have a few things on the go at the moment. The third novel in my Siege of Malta trilogy is in the editing phase. I have yet to write the epilogue—this has proved challenging as I don’t feel emotionally ready to complete a project that’s been twenty years in the making.
Set for publication in 2022, the third book will feature the culmination of all battles—symbolic and literal—with the Great Siege of 1565.
The novel begins on the eve of one of the bloodiest battles in history. The elite Ottoman army departs Istanbul, the seat of Sunni Islam, with a force 50,000 strong, a great host heading for Malta intent on crushing the Knights of St John once and for all.
In the final book of the trilogy, characters will face hopeless odds and endure terrible losses amid hurtling cannonballs and exploding mines, poisoned wells and crumbling ramparts. But there will be the forging of unlikely allies also, the creation of unexpected bonds. And most of all, there will be the triumph of the human spirit.
Seeing my novels come to life on the screen is my biggest dream. For years, I have wished someone—a director, a producer, an actor—would approach me about adapting my books. It suddenly dawned on me that I am capable. I wrote the novels, after all. Six weeks ago, I enrolled in a screenwriting course and have started to adapt my novels into a script for a series. I’m currently working on the pilot episode that I hope to pitch to streaming services, HBO, and the History Channel. Stay tuned.
Tell us about your most recent book.
Falcon’s Shadow, published in 2020, is the second novel in my Siege of Malta trilogy.
When legendary Ottoman seaman Dragut Raїs attacked the Maltese islands in 1551, his army left 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 betrothed. Armed with only a topaz to serve as ransom, he sets out on a journey that sees him forcibly recruited from the streets of Europe and thrown into the frontline. On Malta, Katrina struggles to find work after the Grand Master has her publicly flogged for speaking out against him. When at last, she stumbles upon a promising position, all is not as it seems. Her job forces her to confront a terrible truth—one that may prove disastrous for Robert, the man she loves.
Hundreds of leagues to the east in Istanbul, Demir, son of a wealthy Turkish bey, works hard to become an imperial Ottoman horseman, despite having to endure the cruelty of his father and half-brother. 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 servants.
Falcon’s Shadow picks up in the immediate aftermath of Eight Pointed Cross and 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. Chance connections are made, secrets revealed, and betrayals exposed against a historical backdrop. Fates will collide at the Battle of Djerba, a momentous clash that unites lost kin, only to tear them apart once more.
Falcon’s Shadow is available as a paperback, ebook, and audiobook (narrated beautifully by voice artist Simon Hester) across all Amazon platforms, ebook and hardcover from Barnes and Noble, ebook from Kobo, and paperback available from bookshops in Canada and Malta.
It was great fun learning more about you, an absolutely pleasure having you be a part of MTA. Wishing you all the best, with loads more adventures and novels! – Camilla
Find the books here:
Eight Pointed Cross – https://marthesefenech.com/books/eight-pointed-cross/
Falcon’s Shadow – https://marthesefenech.com/books/falcons-shadow/
Connect with Marthese:
My most recent blog-post inspired by a debilitating bout of writer’s block:
Instagram – Fenka33
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/EightPointedCross
Twitter – Fenka33
Virtual Book Launch – https://vimeo.com/437672957
Blooper Reel – https://vimeo.com/448640173
*My last name, Fenech, means Rabbit in Maltese. Fenka, is girl-rabbit.
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