Fiorella De Maria is an award-winning author who was born in Italy of Maltese parents and grew up in Wiltshire, England. She received a BA in English Literature and a Masters in Renaissance Literature from Cambridge. She now lives in Surrey with her husband and children. A winner of the National Book Prize of Malta, she has published four novels with Ignatius Press: Poor Banished Children, Do No Harm, We’ll Never Tell Them, and most recently, The Sleeping Witness: A Father Gabriel Mystery.
She recently spoke with Catholic World Report about the craft of writing, working on novels, research, influences, and advice for budding authors.
CWR: You are principally known as a writer of fiction, but write in other genres. Do you have a preference?
Fiorella De Maria: My favorite genre is historical fiction. I love the challenge of journeying deep into the past and exploring the way people lived long ago, then trying to bring it to life for a modern reader. I am thoroughly enjoying writing crime fiction, which is a new departure for me and hope there might be a few more Fr Gabriel mysteries in me yet. I have also just started writing screenplays which scared me to death at first, but I am enjoying the experience of working in a completely different medium.
CWR: How long is it from conception through to publication when it comes to a novel?
Fiorella De Maria: Varies completely from one novel to the next. I am working on a story at the moment that first came to me in the middle of a conference five years ago, but I was busy on other projects at the time and didn’t have time to start putting it together. Once I have committed to writing a book, I try to get the whole thing written and on the publisher’s desk within a year, but there will then be at least a three-month gap whilst the publisher decides whether or not to go ahead, followed by around a year between the signing of the contract and launch. This is not a career for the impatient – which is tricky for me!
CWR: Given the scale of any novel as a sustained piece of writing do you ever feel overwhelmed?
Fiorella De Maria: All the time! Someone once posted this comment on my Facebook page: ‘teach a child to read, you educate them for life. Teach a child to write, you condemn them to a lifetime of paralysing self-doubt.’ Welcome to my world, that is my experience as a writer every single day. Fortunately, it appears to be a common problem among authors. The most overwhelmed I think I have ever been when writing a novel was with Poor Banished Children, partly because it was a much bigger project than the others but also because I was genuinely shocked by how brutal the experiences of slaves actually were. That may sound naïve but very little has been written about that particular chapter of European history and I had no idea before I started working on the book just how harrowing it would be. At one point I got so depressed I actually dropped the whole thing. I just found the horror too much to handle. Eventually, a friend just said, ‘if you don’t tell the story of your own people, no one else will.’ I’m glad I wrote it but I would never want to write about anything so dark again.
CWR: In general, how much time is spent on research compared to the actual writing of a book?
Fiorella De Maria: It depends completely on the project. The most research time I needed for a novel was for Poor Banished Children, which is set in the seventeenth century. It took a year of research followed by a year of writing and the finished story was completely different to the original idea. I am very pedantic about research, I have a personal horror of novels set in the past that consist of entirely modern characters dealing with modern problems while dressed in quaint period costume. If the past is to come alive, it has to be accurately portrayed, even if readers do not always like the way the characters behave. Having said that, novels set in the present take a lot more research than a lot of aspiring writers appreciate. I spent hours during the preparation for Do No Harm, talking to a barrister and Senior Consultant to get the courtroom and hospital scenes right. If you think about it, most of us (mercifully) have never been put on trial before and have little understanding of what courtrooms are actually like, and if you’re being rushed into Accident & Emergency in agony, you’re probably not taking in very much about the atmosphere. It takes a lot of research to make these settings believable.
CWR: When and where do you write? Is there a set routine?
Fiorella De Maria: I have four young children, so a set routine is a luxury I can only dream of that at the moment! On an average weekday, I get up soon after five to take one of my children to the local ice rink. While she’s training, I huddle up in a blanket with a flask of coffee and usually get an hour/hour-and-a-half writing or reading done. That way, if the rest of the day disappears in a blur, I at least know I have got something on paper. After the mayhem of the school run, I will then work until I literally can’t keep my eyes open any more, have a power nap, then work again until it’s time to start picking children up from school. If I am very busy, I will sometimes work again once the family are in bed. One of my aims is to try and avoid wasting time. I take my laptop or tablet with me everywhere in case I get a moment to set down a few ideas.
CWR: Where and when do ideas for the next project come to you?
Fiorella De Maria: Sometimes I will have a very vague idea of an era in which I would like to set a story, but the details emerge much later. For example, I had always wanted to write a book about the Maltese experience of the slave trade but didn’t have the confidence until I had published a couple of other books. Most of the time, the stories develop out of a single idea. For example, Fr William’s Daughter tells the tale of a priest who discovers after his brother’s sudden death that he is the named guardian of his young niece, Francesca. The whole idea for that came when I discovered that my parents had named my uncle (a priest) as my guardian if anything happened to them and I just thought, ‘but what would actually happen? How could a priest take on the role of a parent out of the blue like that?’ The idea for We’ll Never Tell Them started with a photograph I saw of my husband’s grandfather as a tiny baby in his mother’s arms. I just looked at the mother’s face and thought, ‘what a tragic generation you were! You saw your husbands and sweethearts march away to the trenches and your sons were sent away to fight in the Second World War. What was it like?’
CWR: Have you ever suffered writer’s block?
Fiorella De Maria: A fellow writer told me years ago that there is no such thing as writer’s block, we go blank when writing something we’re not enjoying or that’s troubling us in some way. His advice was to move on and write something different, a later chapter of the story or a different story altogether, anything as long as it involves writing. My rule when writing is never to finish at the end of a chapter as far as possible. It is much easier to resume writing in the middle of the action than to have to start a new scene.
CWR: How much does other media—music, film, art—feed your creative process?
Fiorella De Maria: When I am writing about the past, I try to immerse myself in the era as much as possible and that means looking at the art work of the time and listening to the music, particularly the popular songs (I started wearing headphones during my preparation for We’ll Never Tell Them when I overheard my six-year-old marching up the stairs singing ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag…’ It was getting too weird.) I quite often listen to music before or during writing to help evoke an atmosphere or emotion.
CWR: Who are your favorite authors?
Fiorella De Maria: My tastes are quite eclectic. I went through a lengthy Graham Greene phase as a teenager. Solzhenitsyn is my literary and humanitarian hero, I have never forgotten reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich for the first time. It was so vividly written I cried at the end because I didn’t want to leave Ivan to face all those long years of imprisonment alone. I’m not into magical realism but I loved the style of some of Salman Rushdie’s early books. Hardy, George Eliot…and I have an embarrassing obsession with crime fiction.
CWR: What books would you recommend to writers?
Fiorella De Maria: There is not a single guide to writing a novel that I would recommend (apart possibly from my A-Level Creative Writing textbook, but I’m not sure that counts.) The best way to learn the craft of writing is to read fiction from different periods. Jonathan Swift, Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Wolf, right the way through the twentieth century greats. I think it is quite important to have a sense of the way the novel has developed when thinking about crafting your own work.
CWR: What do you understand as a writer’s vocation?
Fiorella De Maria: To write! To write wonderful stories that take the reader on journeys and adventures into unknown territory. If a writer focuses on the art of storytelling whilst commending everything he writes to the Glory of God, the vocation of the writer – to embrace the paradox of upholding the Truth through fiction – should fulfill itself. There is no greater way to explore the complexity of what it means to be a human being, divinely created, than through fiction.
CWR: If writing has taught you anything, what is it?
Fiorella De Maria: So much, it’s difficult to know where to start. On a practical level: patience, perseverance, self-discipline, the willingness to take a risk and put pen to paper. Gratitude – there are so many writers struggling to get published, it is easy to forget how frustrating those early years can be. Being a writer is such a privileged vocation in so many ways, I can’t imagine what life would be like without it and I feel blessed every single day to have the chance to write and create.