Martha Kennedy was born in Denver, Colorado. She attended Colorado Women’s College and the University of Colorado, Boulder where she earned a BA in English. She then went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Denver, also in English. At the time, her main focus of interest was Godey’s Lady’s Book and her thesis looks at the first few years of the editorship of Sarah Josepha Hale and the role of the magazine in promoting work by American writers. For thirty years, Kennedy lived in the San Diego area and taught writing at the university and community college level. She has recently returned to Colorado and now lives in Monte Vista, a small town in the beautiful San Luis Valley.
In 1997, Kennedy made her second trip to Switzerland. She’d become intrigued by medieval history after reading two books — How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill (she bought the book thinking it was a joke) and A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. Having learned of the evangelical journey of the Irish monk, St. Columbanus with his colleague, St. Gall (who remained in what is now Switzerland and is Switzerland’s patron saint), Kennedy wanted very much to see the places in real life. That journey led her to the Lazariterkirche im Gfenn (the Church of the Knights of St. Lazarus in Gfenn). Though the church has nothing whatever to do with St. Gall, the history of the church inspired Kennedy to learn more about the Knights of St. Lazarus and to write the novel Martin of Gfenn. In the process, she became a Swiss medievalist historian.
Martin of Gfenn was named an Editor’s Choice book in the Indie Novel category by the Historical Novel Society in 2015 and long-listed for the Indie Award. It is also an B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree.
Kennedy has published a second novel, Savior, which tells the story of a young man who goes on Crusade to save his soul which he believes is in the grip of Satan. Kennedy has also written a third novel, The Brothers’ Path, which looks at the effect of the Reformation on a family of brother living in the Canton of Zürich in the early 15th century during the ascendancy of Huldrych Zwingli. The Brothers’ Path has been accepted for publication by Bygone Era Books.
How did you discover indieBRAG?
I was sent a link — possibly through the Historical Novel Society — and I went to the home page of IndieB.R.A.G. I was impressed by its mission and its list of books. At that point, I decided to send my book.
Please tell me about your book, Martin of Gfenn?
Martin of Gfenn is a work of historical fiction, the story of a young artist named Martin living in Zürich in the mid-thirteenth century. When he is nineteen, Martin contracts leprosy. He fights physical deterioration and social stigma to do what he believes he was meant to do – paint fresco. His short journey takes him from the streets of a swiftly growing Zürich to a to a small enclave of the Knights of Saint Lazarus, in the village of Gfenn. The story is inspiring; its philosophical focus is Christ’s teachings from the perspective of Martin whose leprosy, youth, passion for painting and education have conspired to make him an early-day Christian humanist.
You mentioned to me in an email that there are significant historical facts in your story —The Order of the Knights of St. Lazarus, could you give your readers a little information about that?
The Order of St. Lazarus is said to have come into being at the Hospital of St. Lazarus which was once outside the Lazarus Gate of Jerusalem, where it was believed Jesus healed the lepers. Because leprosy takes many months or years to manifest itself or to make anyone really ill, there was many knights living in that hospital — the word “hospital” in medieval times was more like our word “hotel” — who were healthy enough to go into battle. They organized themselves into a military order like the Knights Templar or the Teutonic Knights from which many of them had come. They became legendary for being the first men to engage the enemy in any battle.
When the Crusades ended, and men returned to Europe, some had leprosy. It was a good way for rich people to buy a few points toward Heaven if they endowed a community of the Knights of St. Lazarus and many did. So many, in fact, that until recently it was believed that there had been an epidemic of leprosy in late medieval Europe. Archeology has revealed that though there were large numbers of Lazarite Communities, there were never many lepers living in them. Leprosy more or less vanished from Europe with the deaths of these Crusaders. Lazarite communities made a transition to caring for the very poor and ill. Each community changed in its own way — the Lazarite Community at Gfenn became a charitable institution and hospital under the control of some sisters of charity.
The Knights of St. Lazarus still exist though now combined with other orders; they are still a charitable organization.
For those who do not know, Who and what are the Canons?
Canons are just priests belonging to the Augustinian Order.
Will you tell me a little about the secondary character’s struggles?
There are three main secondary characters, Urs, Frau Brun and the Commander. Urs is Martin’s friend while Martin is building his career as a painter in Zürich. Urs’ struggles are the normal ones’ people face in life — finding a livelihood and a life partner. He is a loyal friend to Martin who never knows about Martin’s leprosy.
Frau Brun is the second important secondary character. She is Martin’s landlady in Zürich and Martin defends her against her abusive husband. Through his interactions with her the reader sees something about ordinary life in the 13th century. Frau Brun also contracts leprosy. It could have happened in a thousand different ways, but when she appears at the Lazarite Community at Gfenn, Martin naturally blames himself and faces a crisis of conscience.
The Commander is the most important secondary character in the novel. He has a past that is mysterious to the reader but which would have been completely normal for a man in command of a military order. The reader learns only a little about it through comments made by other characters, but the Commander was a crusading knight who, apparently, was involved in a horrific battle. He is a fervent follower of St. Augustine; under whose code the Knights of St. Lazarus is organized. He is also a true medieval Christian and, as such, is a foil for Martin whose disillusionment with the Church as a result of his leprosy and his treatment while painting in the Zürich Cathedral has led him to pursue his own spiritual direction — but always within the boundaries of the world he knows. The Commander personifies compassion, not the sappy sentimental compassion but the hard, true compassion which seeks to see things as they really are while looking at life to find God’s will. He and Martin have many debates, but both men listen to each other. Between the two grow sympathy and respect. The Commander is a complex man who has had to come to terms with much in life long before his arrival at Gfenn. Martin learns life’s most important lesson from the Commander — that without compassion, life is empty with no point.
Why did you choose to include leprosy in your story and what is the importance of it?
I didn’t really choose to include leprosy in my story. I was inspired to write a story after visiting the Lazarite Church in Gfenn, Switzerland. It was a leper community. I guess you could say leprosy was a pre-existing condition!
Tell me about Martin’s strengths.
Martin’s greatest strength is his willingness to learn. It might seem that his greatest strength is his will to fulfill his artistic talent, but that is only an aspect of his personality. Throughout the novel, Martin confronts reality coming at him and finds a way to learn from it and to allow himself to be transformed by his experience. The thread to which he holds fast through this labyrinth of experience is his artistic abilities and his love of painting.
Your premise sounds really thrilling. For those who do not read in this genre, what can you say further to encourage them?
This is not what many people consider typical historical fiction. There are no great love scenes, it’s not a “bodice ripper,” though Martin does fall in love. I’ve known many readers who believe that’s what historical fiction is, so I mention it. Martin of Gfenn is a book that tells about how frescoes were painted in the 13th century in Switzerland; it talks about how paint was made and how walls were prepared. The protagonist is someone who must confront the hopeless reality of his life as a leper — and because of who he is — he must make a meaningful life. It’s also a novel that looks at medieval Christianity from inside that world. It does not seek to make broad judgments about the medieval church, but rather to show how people lived within the prevailing philosophical and religious doctrine. The thirteenth century was the height of the middle ages, before the great plague, before the power of the Holy Inquisition gained full force, before a lot of the superstition that many people equate with medieval times. I believe that could make the book interesting to readers. The protagonist is sympathetic — he’s a young man confronting a major adversity who finds a way to live in fierce dignity, remaining true to the person he knows himself to be.
Who designed your book cover?
I designed my book cover. The initial letters on the front are my own work. True, the cover is not very flashy, but the letters are scenes from the life of the protagonist and they convey the medieval world. The back cover, also, has the kind of information anyone expects to find on a back cover and a photo of me the last time I was in Switzerland visiting Gfenn, in 2005.
How did you come up with the title for your book?
The protagonist is raised in the Augustinian Order of St. Martin and this is where he has gotten his name, probably given by his father who, in Martin’s unwritten backstory, never wanted him. Like most young people — with or without leprosy — Martin searches for his identity and the place to fulfill his destiny. This place is ultimately the one place he did not want to go, the leper community of the Knights of St. Lazarus in the village of Gfenn, so he is, truly, Martin of Gfenn. The title contains two important moments in Martin’s life as an artist.
A message from indieBRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Martha Kennedy who is the author of, Martin of Gfenn, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion ®, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Martin of Gfenn, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money