An interview with Catholic author Carmela A. Martino about her novels for young readers
By Lori Ann Watson
Carmela A. Martino is the author of the Catholic Press Association Book Award winners Rosa, Sola and Playing by Heart.
You were first published before you graduated from high school. Can you tell us a little bit about that piece?
That piece was a seven-line free verse poem published in a 332-page anthology called Crystals in the Dark. I wasn’t paid anything for my poem, but its publication was a priceless affirmation that I was indeed a writer. After all these years, I still have the book, and I show it to students at school visits.
What advice would you give students who want to become professional authors?
I have two bits of advice for young writers. First, read, read, read! Read the kind of things you’d like to write, whether it’s poetry, short stories, novels, nonfiction, and so on. Then reread your favorites and try to identify what, specifically, you enjoyed. Was it the relatable characters, sensory details, lyrical writing, unusual metaphors, chapter-ending cliffhangers, or something else?
My second bit of advice is to write, write, write! Writers, like athletes and musicians, must practice regularly to develop and hone their skills. I began writing poetry in junior high at my Catholic school. I still have some of those early poems. Looking at them now, I see their weaknesses, but I also see a tiny seed of talent beginning to sprout. I have some of my early journals too. Journals are another way to practice the craft of writing. Any type of writing helps. And I recommend saving all your creative writing and your journals. Later, as an adult, they’ll help you reconnect with your voice as a young writer, something that’s especially important if you eventually write stories featuring young characters. I wish I’d kept more of my early writing.
Your first book, Rosa, Sola, weaves pro-life themes into the storyline. Can you tell us how your own pro-life views solidified? Were there small moments in life that shaped the depth of your pro-life values?
Rosa, Sola is based on events that happened to me as a child. My mother was expecting a baby that was due right around my tenth birthday. Unlike my character Rosa, I wasn’t an only child. I already had a younger sister and brother. But I was still very excited about having another sibling. When that baby ended up being stillborn, I was devastated. I never got to see him, and I wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral, but he was already real to me. I think that loss instilled me with the sense that the lives of unborn children are precious. Years later, when I was the mother of a toddler, I met another mom who had a daughter about my son’s age and the two became playmates. I eventually learned that the little girl had been born premature at around 28 weeks, weighing less than three pounds. She faced many medical challenges and spent weeks in an incubator, but there she was as a toddler, playing and laughing beside my son. I never would have guessed what she’d been through. Getting to know her definitely deepened my pro-life values.
The book’s main character, Rosa, who is only ten years old, suffers tragedy, but the story later turns to hope. How do you hope her story will help today’s tweens and teens?
One of the themes in Rosa, Sola is that sometimes bad things happen, but in those times we can turn to God for the grace we need to heal and move on. In the novel, Rosa actually loses her faith for a while because she feels hurt and angry at God. I wanted to show tweens and teens that such feelings are normal, and that God not only forgives us for them, but helps us work through them if we open ourselves to His grace. One of my hopes is that readers will be encouraged by Rosa’s story and trust that God is always ready and willing to help us, just as He helps Rosa and her family.
Your newest young adult novel, Playing by Heart, tells the story of two sisters who were modeled after two real-life Italian sisters who lived in Italy during the Enlightenment. What is it about the Agnesi sisters that captured your interest and made you want to weave elements of their real stories into your writing?
Playing by Heart grew out of my research for a nonfiction biography about the elder of the two Agnesi sisters, Maria Gaetana, who was a linguist and mathematician. My undergraduate degree is in math and computer science, yet I’d never heard of Maria Gaetana Agnesi until I came across her name in an article about little-known women of history.
I started writing the biography because I want to encourage more girls to pursue math. But Maria Gaetana was much more than a mathematician. She had a true heart for the poor. After her father died, she devoted her life to helping the sick and homeless of Milan. In researching her life, I learned about her younger sister, Maria Teresa, a talented musician and composer believed to be one of the first Italian women to compose a serious opera. I was intrigued by how two sisters could become so accomplished at a time when women were typically deprived of the most basic education. I found out that their father had been motivated to educate them as a way to improve his own social status.
The more I learned about the Agnesi sisters, the more I wanted to share their story with others. Unfortunately, there’s a lot we don’t know about them, so when I decided to write a novel based on their lives, I changed the girls’ names to Maria and Emilia Salvini. But I did include an author’s note with information about some of the real people and events that inspired the novel.
What’s the most important thing we’ll learn from the sisters in Playing by Heart?
Maria Gaetana Agnesi was a very devout Catholic — she asked her father’s permission to become a nun, but he refused. That inspired me to have my novel’s Salvini sisters be girls of faith. One of the themes of Playing by Heart is the idea of discerning our God-given calling and then following it. For the sisters in the novel, being true to their callings conflicted not only with their father’s goals, but with societal expectations of the time. Perhaps the most important thing the sisters show us is that if we put our trust in God, “all things will work for good,” as it says in Romans 8:28.
But many readers have commented on something else we can learn from the Salvini sisters: even though life in eighteenth-century Milan was quite different from modern life, the characters experience some of the same challenges as today’s teens. As one reviewer put it, Playing by Heart portrays “timeless dilemmas to which the modern reader can relate — the pressure of familial expectations and obligations, living in the shadow of a sibling, the desire to direct one’s own destiny, and love tested by time, distance, parental resistance, and class.”
You speak on a wide variety of topics. Which one is your favorite?
I especially enjoy discussing how authors transform real life into fiction. Every piece of fiction I’ve ever had published, from my short stories to my novels, has been inspired at least in part by events in my own life or the lives of others. I love using real life as a foundation because I think it adds to a story’s authenticity. However, translating actual people, places, and events into compelling fiction has its challenges. When I teach this topic, I use examples from my own work and share my experiences overcoming those challenges.
I’ve put together a workshop specifically for young writers on how they can transform their life experiences into fiction. I’ve presented this program to students in grades 3-12 with good results. The program can be particularly helpful for students who struggle with finding creative writing ideas. Transforming Life into Fiction and my other workshop topics are listed on the “Speaking” page of my website. Teachers may contact me through the site for more information.
Connect with Carmela A. Martino online:
Learn more about Playing by Heart (and see a list of places where it’s available)
Lori Ann Watson teaches, homeschools, blogs about Catholicism, and almost never gets caught up on laundry. She writes from North Central Florida.
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