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Interview with Carmela Martino

A Sign to Continue
Author Carmela Martino couldn’t believe what she saw when she entered her assigned room at a writer’s retreat sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Hanging on the wall was a copy of the Annunciation of Cortona, a 15th Century painting by Friar Beato Angelico that depicts the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. The art was a confirmation that God wanted her to finish her novel. She had planned to use that very painting in her book if it were published.

Knowing she was on the right track, Martino continued to work on her young adult novel, Playing by Heart. She conducted extensive research and consulted with experts. She was rewarded in September, 2017 when the book was released by Vinspire Publishing.

Based on Real Life
The two main characters in the book, sisters Emilia and Maria Salvini, were inspired by the real-life stories of Maria Teresa Agnesi and Maria Gaetana Agnesi who lived in Milan, Italy in the 1700s. The Agnesi sisters were remarkably talented. Maria Teresa was a gifted musician and one of the first Italian women to compose an opera. Maria Gaetana, considered by many to be a forgotten woman of history, was a mathematician who compiled a comprehensive math text book and dedicated her life to working with the poor.

Martino based her character Emilia on the musician, Maria Teresa. While Martino doesn’t consider herself a musician, she played clarinet in high school and sang in the church choir. As a child, she picked out tunes on an old upright piano in the basement of her home and loved to make up little songs. She was excited to create Emilia as a protégé, but was concerned about the historical accuracy of the musical elements in her story. Since Emilia played the harpsichord, Martino checked out music CDs from the library.

“I modeled Emilia’s pieces from the CDs. I learned details such as an instrumental trio might consist of a harpsichord, a violin, and a viola.”

The character of Maria, the older sister, was based on the life of Maria Gaetana, who was very devout. She went to Mass frequently and ministered to the young people in the community. She nursed the sick and brought poor women into her house, which was unheard of at the time for a woman of her class.

“At that time in the culture, religion was a big part of daily life. You had prayers every day, and there were many holy days.”

Martino creates conflicts between the two sisters, but also explores the deep familial relationship they shared.

“I wanted Emilia to be relatable to young people today, so I gave her some flaws. But at the same time, I wanted family to be very important. In the Italian culture, family is very important.”

Research Fiend
“When I decided to write historical, I was set on getting the information right. I didn't want to have anything that wasn't accurate. I researched like a fiend.”

To create a realistic story set in Milan, Martino drew from her own Italian background as well as her research. “I am Italian. My parents were both born in Italy. They were immigrants when they were young. They spoke a dialect of Italian at home. I can read modern Italian if I work really hard. I can understand it quite well. I have to read it out loud because, if I hear it, then I can understand it.”

That ability served her well when she found that some documents she needed were written in Italian. For example, she included a scene in the book about an archduchess who visits Milan. She searched for tidbits of accuracy that would add depth to her story.

“In the scene where the archduchess visits Milan, I wrote about the town moving the welcoming ceremony indoors because of the pouring rain. I actually found a first-person account of that in the Yale University rare books collection online. It was written in an older version of Italian. There were different words that we don't use anymore. And it was an old typeface which was difficult to read. I got a lot of details straight out of that pamphlet. I love that sort of research.”

Martino’s research comes to life as she creates scenes in which readers feel like they are actually listening to Emilia’s harpsichord music for themselves. She gives credit for the authenticity to the help she received from knowledgeable sources who provided her with specifics to weave into her story. One source was a music professor at the University of Chicago who is considered foremost in his field concerning the music of the 18th Century. “He was very generous with his time. He found an article that he had written about the opera Maria Teresa Gaetana composed.” Martino’s character Emilia writes an opera, also.

Martino was later introduced to a composer who agreed to read her manuscript for accuracy. Then, she discovered that a woman in her prayer group not only played the harpsichord, but had actually built one with her father.

“They both gave me some extra insights. For example, I didn't know harpsichords need to be tuned constantly. I added that into my story.”

Personal Journey
Martino is a modern-day Renaissance woman. Although she has an undergraduate degree in computer science and mathematics, she had a desire to become an author, too. Her first novel, Rosa, Sola, started as a short story when she was in graduate school. When the book was published by Candlewick, a highly respected children's publisher, she was gratified to be asked to delve even deeper into the main character's relationship with God.

While Martino does not feel the need to write solely to a Christian audience, her faith comes through in her storytelling. “My themes end up being that way because of who I am. God will turn bad things to good. That's how my life has evolved, and it affects my writing. I don't overtly think about it, it just comes out that storytelling.”

Martino reflects that it’s rare to read about the faith life of children or young adults in much of the literature of today. Youth groups or Bible school are rarely mentioned in stories for young readers. She thinks it’s important to talk about the faith journeys of young people.

“If you want to fully flush out your character, you have to ask how your character sees God. Do they have faith, or not? Is their faith evolving, and how does that form who they are?

Martino said she’s had some tragedies in life, but God turned them for good in mysterious ways. She wanted to portray that truth in her books. Her character Emilia has her own such experiences in Playing by Heart.

“I have an MFA in writing. One thing I was taught is that the ending to your story shouldn't be contrived. It should be brought about through the characters’ own efforts. As a Christian, I also believe that God plays a role. It's not just by our own efforts. I had a hard time with the ending. It was tricky. Emilia is true to her beliefs. She wants to be sacrificial. I wanted to see how God would reward her.”

Martino felt like giving up several times before Playing by Heart was published. “When I was ready to give up, I prayed, ‘God, it's up to you. I'll do whatever you want. If you want me to quit, I'll quit.’ Every single time God would give me something to keep me going.”

She was also stressed because she is such a stickler for accurate research. “I struggled with that particular book a lot, partly because I was so worried about the research. I was afraid people would be upset with me because I didn't portray something accurately. The research was time-consuming and I would get bogged down.”

Martino’s challenges in finding time to write included helping her husband care for his father, who has dementia. She spends much of her day as a non-fiction freelance writer and teaches at

“If I were not an author, I would be a teacher. Well, I am a teacher. I love to nurture other writers and share with them what I have learned and my process.” Like many authors, she struggles to find a balance between her personal writing time and the need to promote her books and connect with readers on social media.

Her Bookshelf
One of Martino’s favorite ways to spend her free time is to read. She hopes to reread Madeleine L’engle’s, A Wrinkle In Time before the movie comes out in the spring. She would also like to revisit L’engle’s, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

“If I could talk to L’engle as a fellow author, I would ask her how she discerns what project she wants to work on. That’s because I do have lots of ideas, but I’m not always sure what to choose. Even though I want my writing to entertain, I also want to inspire and I want to write what God wants me to write.”

Martino is currently reading The Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace by Jennifer Chiaverini. Lovelace was an early computer programmer. She is also reading two books by Lisa Cron. Once is entitled Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).The second is Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.

Advice to New Writers
Martino enjoys teaching new writers her techniques, but she also has some practical spiritual advice.

“Every time I sit down to write, I pray. I offer my writing as a prayer, and I pray for guidance to write what God would have me write. It’s a really good habit that helps to ground me. If you feel like writing is your calling, just stick with it. It’s hard. Persevere."


Teresa Haugh, a graduate of the University of Montevallo, is a recently retired public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. She and her husband enjoy life in Alaska, the Last Frontier. She takes pleasure in talking with other authors about their writing journeys, and is completing her first full-length novel.

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