The Call and Craft of the Catholic Novelist: An Interview with Fiorella De Maria, author of Poor Banished Children: A Novel | Ignatius Insight | June 28, 2011
Novelist Fiorella De Maria, author of Poor Banished Children, was born in Italy of Maltese parents. She grew up in Wiltshire, England, and attended Cambridge, where she received a BA in English Literature and a Masters in Renaissance Literature, specializing in the English verse of Robert Southwell, S.J. She won the National Book Prize of Malta (foreign language fiction category) for her second novel The Cassandra Curse. Fiorella lives in Surrey with her husband and her three children and blogs at "The Singular Anomaly". She recently answered some questions from Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, about her novel and the craft of writing fiction.
Ignatius Insight: How did you end up becoming a novelist? What sort of personal and educational paths brought you to that point?
Fiorella De Maria: I have wanted to be a writer since I was about seven. As a child I always had my nose in a book and spent blissful hours in my room reading absolutely any novel I could lay my hands on. Reading teaches you so much about the art of writing; how to make a character come to life, how to create atmosphere with a few words. I was very fortunate in that I grew up in a rural area where it was safe for a child to go out alone and I could walk for miles through the Wiltshire countryside completely undisturbed, dreaming that I was in Narnia or Wonderland or whatever world I had just read about. It is a stunningly beautiful part of the world; I used to think that Tolkien had been thinking of Wiltshire when he created The Shire. I was very blessed to grow up in such a lovely and evocative place.
I had some very supportive English teachers when I was at secondary school who really encouraged me to write and to have a go at writing all sorts of things so that I could find out what came most naturally – articles, poetry, short stories, I even wrote a couple of plays – and they offered constructive criticism and feedback. Then at Cambridge, I had the chance to study the development of the novel in depth and did courses in modern literature so that I could learn as much as possible about what contemporary novelists were writing about.
Ignatius Insight: Poor Banished Children is your third novel; can you tell us a bit about your first two novels, The Cassandra Curse and Father William's Daughter?
Fiorella De Maria: Cassandra looks at the stories of two Maltese families across three generations against the backdrop of Malta's horrific wartime siege and the end of the colonial era, whereas Father William's Daughter is set during the political unrest in Malta during the seventies and early eighties. It revolves around an eleven-year-old girl, Francesca, who witnesses her father's murder and is then sent to England to live with her uncle, a Catholic priest. Ten years later, they return to Malta to uncover who it was who betrayed her father and the reasons why.
Both novels include a lot of material based on real events and the description of immigrant life in a small Wiltshire town in Father William's Daughter is an affectionate nod to my own childhood.
Ignatius Insight: What inspired the writing of Poor Banished Children? Did your graduate studies of the Jesuit poet and martyr Fr. Robert Southwell play a role?
Fiorella De Maria: Only in so far as it rekindled my interest in history, but the timeframe of the book is some time after Robert Southwell. The elderly priest who hears Warda's confession would have been a young man when Robert Southwell was writing. What really inspired the book was my Maltese heritage. Malta is a tiny island with seven thousand years of history and I grew up on stories about pirates snatching women away on their wedding nights. There are places in Malta which are intimately connected with those terrible times, so it was a natural subject to consider writing a novel about. What finally prompted me was the Wilberforce anniversary that occurred some years ago here in Britain. There was renewed interest in the slave trade and I was very aware that many of my own people were taken into slavery and this has never really been acknowledged, so I started doing some research and I just thought 'I have to write about this'.
Ignatius Insight: Is it your first historical novel? What are some of the challenges of describing and constructing a world that is nearly five hundred years removed from our own?
Fiorella De Maria: Yes, this is my first historical novel - the other two are set in the past, but within living memory. There are a number of challenges, some more obvious than others. It took two years in the writing because of the amount of research that was needed, but what took the most time was researching the tiny details of the way people lived, more than the massive historical events that set the scene. I remember a friend of mine who was also writing a historical novel saying, "I just can't find a way of having them wake up at exactly the right time without an alarm clock! How on earth did anyone ever get up in time for anything in the 1590s?!"
Another, much greater challenge, which I think many modern writers struggle with, is ensuring that characters are true to their own time, not simply modern people in period costume. I have read so many historical novels where every detail of a character's dress has been lovingly described only for them to express a ludicrously anachronistic opinion. It is very easy for a feisty seventeenth century woman to sound like a 1960s feminist or for a man of the same era to refer to concepts that did not even exist at the time.
There can also be the opposite problem – how to make the attitudes of people from the past make sense to a modern reader. For example, there is one moment quite early in the book, where the priest catches the seven-year-old Warda stealing from him. When he confronts her she lies repeatedly and is then very rude to him. At the time, if a child had behaved like that she would have been severely beaten, but if Fr Antonin had done that it would have alienated readers. I couldn't have him express horror at the idea of doing that either because a man at the time would have been unlikely to feel any squeamishness about beating an insolent child. So I had to find a way to stop him from having to punish her without making him sound anachronistic.
In the end, I think that if you are going to recreate the past convincingly, you have to respect it. We can be incredibly patronising in our view of history. When we studied history at school, there was this underlying sense of "look at these primitive people and weren't they just waiting around for the invention of penicillin?" It amazes me that we can be so arrogant when we are children of a century that saw the deaths of over 100 million people in two of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. When we are tempted to sneer at past ages, we need to ask ourselves: How do we imagine people in the future will judge us?
Ignatius Insight: Two significant themes in Poor Banished Children are dreams and confession. Did they emerge in the course of writing the novel, or did you have them in mind before outlining the story? What is the relationship between the two in the fabric of the story?
Fiorella De Maria: Dreams are very significant in the book because the whole story is told in flashback by a woman on her deathbed and from the start, I wanted to convey some sense of the heroine's mental confusion as she tries to recall precisely what happened and the extent to which she is haunted by her past. The heroine also gives the reader glimpses into her other dreams, her yearning to be free, her yearning to love and be loved.
Confession is almost more significant in the book because of the central themes of redemption and mercy. The gentleness of the confessional sequences are set in stark contrast to the brutality of the judgements Warda faces at the hands of worldly authority figures. I did not initially intend confession and judgement to feature so strongly in the story, but I found that the heroine's search for freedom became intimately bound up with her search for forgiveness as the story unfolded, particularly towards the end when her life completely spirals out of control.
Ignatius Insight: What are some literary influences that you draw upon or have been shaped by? Were there particular historical novels that you had in mind as you researched and wrote your novel?
Fiorella De Maria: It's difficult to know where to start in terms of literary influences! As a teenager I was massively influenced by Tennyson and Graham Greene. Tennyson's doubts, particularly as expressed through the poem In Memoriam, really expressed my own crisis of faith at that age, and Greene's writings somehow struck a chord. By way of contrast, I love Chesterton's mischievous English wit and his terrifying insight into the way western society was moving even in the Thirties. More modern authors who have influenced my writing style would include Salman Rushdie, Sebastian Faulks, Ian McEwan - my tastes are quite eclectic.
I didn't read many novels in preparation for writing Poor Banished Children but of course I read a huge number of non-fiction books, including accounts of slavery and daily life in North Africa by people who had either escaped or been freed.
Ignatius Insight: How does a novelist work to find her own voice while drawing upon the influence of other novelists?
Fiorella De Maria: Well, I think that it is very important to learn from other writers but in the end, it is about having confidence in your own ability to engage the reader and really to believe that you have a story that is worth telling. If you try (and to some extent I think all writers do this a little to begin with) to plagiarise a favourite author's style, it just won't work. The narrative will run out of steam or the plot will not be believable. It takes a huge amount of creative energy to make a complex plot and set of characters come to life, and a borrowed voice cannot provide that energy.
Ignatius Insight: In your estimation, what is the state today of Catholic literature—or literature written by Catholics—in the English-speaking world? Are you encouraged or discouraged by what you see?
Fiorella De Maria: I think it is a very mixed situation. On the one hand, I am discouraged because I think that we have a proud Catholic literary tradition and if you look at the literary flourishing there was in the first half of the twentieth century, we really should be in the middle of another, but it does not seem to have happened. Whatever one thinks of the Catholicism of writers like Waugh and Greene, they brought Catholicism into the public consciousness at a time when Catholics were marginalised by British society. It is very easy to blame aggressive secularism for stifling Catholic culture, but I do not think that is good enough.
I get a very strong feeling that the Catholic community in Britain has suffered a massive crisis of confidence and is in danger of turning in on itself, but you cannot influence a culture that way and we need to pull ourselves together. Catholics have always been marginalised. In many ways, things are getting worse but there has never been a good time to be a Catholic in Britain (there are elderly people in my parish who remember the priest being pelted with stones and eggs in the street) but that has not stopped Catholics making a strong contribution to the literary and cultural scene and there is no reason why that should not be the case now. Catholic publishers and journals need to take the lead and support promising writers.
Having said that, it is not all doom and gloom. I think there are many gifted Catholic writers out there and it is wonderful to see literary magazines like Dappled Things providing a platform for new Catholic literature. We could be on the cusp of another rich period in our literary heritage – who knows?
The Opening Chapters of Poor Banished Children: A Novel | Fiorella De Maria
Website for Poor Banished Children | Ignatius Press
Poor Banished Children: A Novel
by Fiorella De Maria
Poor Banished Children: A Novel -- Electronic Book Download
An explosion is heard off the coast of seventeenth-century England, and a woman washes up on the shore. She is barely alive and does not speak English, but she asks for a priest . . . in Latin.
She has a confession to make and a story to tell, but who is she and from where has she come?
Cast out of her superstitious, Maltese family, Warda turns to begging and stealing until she is fostered by an understanding Catholic priest who teaches her the art of healing. Her willful nature and hard-earned independence make her unfit for marriage, and so the good priest sends Warda to serve an anchorite, in the hope that his protégé will discern a religious vocation.
Such a calling Warda never has the opportunity to hear. Barbary pirates raid her village, capture her and sell her into slavery in Muslim North Africa. In the merciless land of Warda's captivity, her wits, nerve, and self-respect are tested daily, as she struggles to survive without submitting to total and permanent enslavement. As she is slowly worn down by the brutality of her circumstances, she comes to believe that God has abandoned her and falls into despair, hatred, and a pattern of behavior which, ironically, mirrors that of her masters.
Poor Banished Children is the tale of one woman's relentless search for freedom and redemption. The historical novel raises challenging questions about the nature of courage, free will, and ultimately salvation.
An award-winning European novelist presents a powerful story of mystery, adventure, peril, suffering, faith, and courage
A thrilling historical novel that explores the life and cultures of 17th century England, Malta and Africa
A challenging work that tells the story of one woman's relentless search for freedom and redemption amidst great suffering, loneliness and despair
"De Maria (The Cassandra Curse) writes an absorbing tale replete with Barbary pirates and concubines. In 1640, a badly injured woman washes ashore on the coast of England following an explosion at sea. Warda, the woman, has come a long way from the island of Malta where she was born, and her sickbed confession to a priest is a story of adventure, enslavement, and piracy. Disowned by her family, young Warda is raised by a Catholic priest who teaches her Latin and the healing arts and prepares her to live as an anchorite. But the landing of a pirate ship dashes that, and Warda is captured and sold into slavery in North Africa. Through changing circumstances and locales, she remains fiercely stubborn, balancing a refusal to concede to her circumstances with a ferocious desire to live at any moral cost. The author creates a memorable heroine and renders scenes set in unfamiliar places and times with only a few details and swift dialog. Varying viewpoints provide a fuller portrait of Warda, her aching soul, and her momentous choices. Catholic writer De Maria deserves a wide audience." (March, 2011)
"A soulful, beautifully written, and haunting novel."
- Ron Hansen, NY Times Best-selling Author, Mariette in Ecstasy
"The hypnotic tale of an unforgettable girl who loses everything in the world but her courage -- and the unshakeable knowledge that with every new trial, her soul remains at stake. Set in the terrifying days of Barbary piracy, peopled by both savages and saints, this novel will rivet any reader ever to have felt the forces of evil and redemption. It is a meditation on guilt, innocence, and transcendence that will haunt the reader long after the book is done."
- Mary Eberstadt, Author, The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism
"This is serious fiction with prose that is clean, strong, and worthy. We are drawn into a first-rate story-Corsairs, Barbary pirates, cruelty, slavery, shipwreck, suffering, and heroic sanctity. It has skillful character presentation and true craftsmanship in the narrative: dreams, memory, straight reporting, and confession. Above all, here is the Catholic Faith in all of its depth, radiance, and plenitude."
- Thomas Howard, Author, Narnia and Beyond
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