The arbitrary origins of a story

Piquant as basil. Light as an aria. Pithy as a fig. Dennis Smith's novel "The Miracles of Santo Fico" has inspired many such descriptions, all of them glowing. Set in Tuscany, this tale of community, family and romance is not exactly lightning in a bottle —more like sunshine — but the effect is the same.

MJ: Santo Fico was named for a barren fig tree that bore fruit for Saint Francis. The tree, preserved along with the town's old loves and old hates, stands in the church yard and is memorialized by a fresco inside the church. Where did you get the idea for the legend and the town?

DS: As a professor in the theatre arts department at SOU, I teach a class in playwriting. One particular project I always enjoy assigning has to do with discovering the often arbitrary origins of a story. Students are told to bring into class the shortest and yet most interesting newspaper story they can find. The best ones are always those little filler articles that usually run no more than an inch or two in length and contain very few specific facts, because as a tool to stimulate creative storytelling the more specific facts an article contains, the more limited is its power to inspire.

Some years ago, a student brought in an article about the problem authorities were having after a catastrophic earthquake had rocked central Italy. In Assisi peasants were stealing fragments of broken frescos from the Basilica of St. Francis and selling the pieces on the black market. That was it-short and to the point. The class weighed in with some thoughts, but soon all discussion stopped when they noticed the instructor had gone slack-jawed and was staring silently off into space. This lasted probably for 10 or 12 seconds. That was about how long it took for the framework of a story to fall into place. It was all there. Character. Place. Plot. And the hardest of all: structure. From there it took about a year to write down what had taken ten seconds to realize.

MJ: Con artist and fresco thief, Leo Pizzola still makes a good leading man. How did you manage such a blend of venality and attractiveness?

DS: My study of theater has helped me realize that as storytellers it's important that we recognize and admit to man's dual nature. We are, all of us, very flawed, filled with human weaknesses, vanities, and selfishness. The ancient Greeks knew this, Shakespeare certainly knew this, and even Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller knew this. Often for a character to ultimately do what is right, he will first have to face down his own demons. It's part of our worthier nature, to overcome selfishness and fear so that we might hear the voices of our better angels.

MJ: Your writing connects with readers through lively storytelling and gentle humor. How did you discover your narrative voice?

DS: That is a really tough question, and perhaps a bit of a chicken and egg situation. It implies that I have control or make conscious choices about the cadences and vocabularies, the tone and embellishments that come out in the telling of the story. In my experience it is the nature of the story that demands a particular way it wants to be told. Although I'm of the opinion that structurally the story should be pretty much complete in the mind of the storyteller, in the actual telling, the voice is often a discovered thing.

MJ: Have film makers expressed an interest in your book?

DS: Yes, it is currently under option to an established film producer who has created a screenplay. We have our fingers crossed.

MJ: You currently have a novel in the works. What is it about?

DS: The story takes place in a small town in Oklahoma during the depression and concerns itself with mistaken identities and people who have trouble reconciling what they should do with what they have done and what they want to do.

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