I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Ignatius Press’ latest fiction: the award-winning Fiorella de Maria’s “We’ll Never Tell Them.” A novel about a twenty first century nurse from Britain (Kristjana) who runs away to Jerusalem and encounters the story of a Maltese-British woman (Liljana) sounded like an intriguing premise. And it was.
With exquisite prose, Ms. De Maria seamlessly weaves her reader in and out on an emotional journey to colonial Malta, Edwardian England, World War 1, to present day Jerusalem. “We’ll Never Tell Them” is a like a two-for-one travel ticket to little known exotic destinations.
The historical story was mesmerizing; the indomitable character of Liljana a memorable one. The flashbacks could stand on its own as a compelling novella with a powerful pro-life message. But I craved tighter action and snappier dialogue on the contemporary plot and more in depth development of Kristjana’s character.
Other than the poetic writing (which in itself is a work of art for all you British literature fans), what I appreciated about “We’ll Never Tell Them” was how Ms. De Maria treated the sticky subject of sin. Like a masterful realistic writer, she presented it unflinchingly and didn’t hesitate to call it what it is. I’ve always thought Catholic fiction writers are secret weapons to evangelization in the culture wars. Fortunately for avid fiction readers, Ignatius Press has talented writers like Ms. De Maria on their roster.
Below is a privileged interview with Ms. De Maria. You will especially want to read her answer to question six.
1. How did you first get the inspiration to write “Well Never Tell Them”?
I have always wanted to write a story set during the First World War and Malta’s experience of the war is not very well-known (unlike Malta’s Second World War experience which is much more famous). The idea of Liljana came from a photograph I was shown of my husband’s grandfather as a baby. His mother was standing in a garden holding him and I just thought, ‘what a tragic generation you were! You witnessed your husbands and sweethearts march away to war and then you had to watch your sons march away to fight in the Second World War.” It was the quiet tragedy of that generation of women that I wanted to explore in my book.
2. Are Catholics common among those with Maltese-English ethnicity? How much influence does Catholic Church have in Malta? Does the Church face the same cultural war and challenge the American Catholic Church does?
Malta has always been an overwhelmingly Catholic country and for me, growing up in a Maltese family in England, Catholicism was part of the fabric of everyday life. The situation is better than in much of western Europe, but sadly Malta faces the same struggles and temptations faced by Catholics everywhere these days, Malta’s Archbishop talked about a ‘tidal wave of secularism’ sweeping over the country. I always pray that Our Lady will protect the Maltese people and that there will be a renewal within the Church there.
3. The character of Liljana had much to teach Kristiana. Is their a particular story of faith from your life that you want to share with your readers?
When I was a student, I went to work in a hospital in the Holy Land and I became friendly with one of the patients. He was an elderly priest going through major surgery. I can honestly say that he was one of the most saintly people I have ever had the privilege to meet. He was seriously ill and in terrible pain but no matter how bad things got, he just kept praying and offering it up. Then as he recovered from the surgery, he praised God for his growing strength. My last memory of him is of his smile as he said good-bye and left the hospital. Only afterwards did someone tell me that he was going home to die. I couldn’t get over the man’s quiet fortitude when facing suffering and imminent death, the childlike serenity and trust in providence with which he seemed to have lived out his life. I’m afraid I am neither quiet nor serene and trust can be quite a struggle too, but during difficult times I always try to remember what he taught me back then.
4. Who are your favorite authors who have had lasting impact in your writing?
I have quite eclectic tastes when it comes to writing. I was very influenced as a teenager by Graham Greene’s novels and I enjoyed Salman Rushdie’s colloquial style and use of the story-within-a-story, which I use quite a lot in my own writing. George Eliot was my favorite nineteenth century author, I loved her female characters, especially the heroine of Mill on the Floss. Some readers say that parts of my novels read like prose poems and that is probably because I have always loved the work of the great English poets, Tennyson’s In Memoriam is still a favourite. It will certainly have had an impact, even though poets use language quite differently to novelists.
5. What other contemporary ethical issues have you explored in your other novels?
Pregnancy and childbirth feature quite highly in my books though this may reflect the stage of my life I am at 🙂 The heroine of The Cassandra Curse is described as a ‘mistake’ by her grandfather but she never doubts her right to exist. In Poor Banished Children, the heroine goes through enforced miscarriage, from which she never entirely recovers. Do No Harm explores the issue of suicide and advance directives, whereas Fr William’s Daughter touches upon the value of an individual life at a time of political unrest. All my novels look at the value of human life and human relationships, but in some ways, I think all novels are trying to do that.
6. What makes a novel a Catholic novel? Is it characters, plot, author or theme?
That’s a very interesting question and one I find quite difficult to answer!
I never set out to write a Catholic novel, the Catholicism permeates the story because it permeates my existence, so I suppose you could say that it is the author who makes a novel Catholic. I would put themes in second place because I think an author’s faith has more influence on their ideas than on the characters they produce as part of the creative process.