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June 18, 2011

Mysteries of Sienna

By Guest Blogger APRIL SMITH

April Smith is my homie--we’re both L.A. residents--so I get to run into her in person, usually in the presence of bad banquet food. She is lovely, chic, well-dressed and eloquent, and although she is petite, you’d no more mess with her than you would with Ana Grey, her protagonist. April’s North of Montana (one of my favorite titles ever) launched her onto the literary crime scene and she’s never left. Also, we both love cleaning out closets, which is just the sort of fact that makes her the perfect guest on The Lipstick Chronicles. A warm welcome, please, and pass the hard rolls. ~Harley

 When I tell readers the new FBI Special Agent Ana Grey thriller, White Shotgun (Knopf, June, 2011), takes place in Siena, their eyes light up.   Nobody asks how an FBI agent based in Los Angeles would end up in Italy – they just want to go there, too!       A strong sense of place is pivotal to fiction, which is why I travel to every location that I write about.  Nothing is fresher than the first sensual impressions of a city, and the spontaneous discoveries that later become plot points -- but Siena was different.  Siena inhabited me.  It was as if the arcane words carved into church walls and the ancient rituals of the Palio were literary connections just waiting to happen, as I worked through the story.  Or maybe a collective unconsciousness does connect us all, and all it takes is some fine Brunello and fresh mozzarella to unlock the symbolism.

            I didn’t just stumble into Siena; I went there a mission.  It began with a call from my son, Benjamin Brayfield, who was then on a college semester abroad program.

            “Mom,” he said, “What if a crime happened during Palio?”

            “That would be a book,” I said.

            His Italian roommates had been filling his head with tales of a crazy horse race called Il Palio, coming up in July.  How crazy?  Jockeys ride bareback and beat each other with whips made of calf phalluses.  Sixty thousands tourists jam into an ancient piazza, and every year horses are injured, riders thrown, and ancient rivalries erupt in violence.   As the setting for a thriller, Siena was a no-brainer.  Besides great atmosphere, there was the potential for a strong story about the current threat of international crime networks, like ‘Ndragheta, which controls the distribution of cocaine in Europe.

            My first encounter with the mysteries of the Siena was a decapitated head.  St. Catherine, along with St. Francis of Assisi, is one of Italy’s two patron saints.  She was born in Siena but died in Rome in 1380 -- and most of her body is buried there.  The Sienese wanted their beloved saint back, but settled for smuggling her head out in a bag.  When they were stopped by Roman guards, they prayed to St. Catherine, and a miracle occurred.  The bag was full of rose petals.  When it was opened in Siena, the head had manifested again.  Today it is preserved in a glass case in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena -- a gruesome relic without a nose in a glass case.  I was spooked, and so is Ana Grey, when she discovers the hand of a saint preserved in her sister’s home.

            If this were historical fiction, I could have spent months following in the bloody footsteps of the many conquerors of Siena -- from the Romans to the penultimate siege by Florence in 1230 when donkeys and dung were catapulted over the walls (see where I’m going with craziness?) – but luckily there was plenty of drama for a crime novelist in the blood rivalries between the seventeen contradas, or city-states, of Siena.  Their fierce territoriality reminded me of gangland Los Angeles, and put me in touch with the primitive forces of love and hate, which become a foil for Ana Grey’s cool analytic thinking, when she is faced with the most primitive act of all -- the brutal kidnap of a family member. 

            One of the most intriguing mysteries is the Sator Square, a palindrome of Latin words that can be read in four directions:

 

 

                                                SATOR

                                                AREPO

                                                TENET

                                                OPERA

                                                ROTAS

 

            Carvings dating from 7 AD have been found all over Europe --  including the wall of the main cathedral in Siena.  Borrowing a little Da Vinci Code magic, I used the Sator Square to imply that almost mystical forces brought Ana and her long-lost sister, Cecilia, together.  “It means, God holds the plough, but you turn the furrows,” Cecilia explains“There are two kinds of fate -- the actions of God and our own responsibility for our lives.  Two kinds of fate have brought us together.”

            And brought me to Siena.

 

April Smith Official Photo Whiteshotgun April Smith is the author of the bestselling FBI Special Agent Ana Grey novels, NORTH OF MONTANA and GOOD MORNING, KILLER (“Critic’s Choice” -- PEOPLE Magazine) as well as BE THE ONE, a thriller about the only female baseball scout in the major leagues, all published by Alfred A. Knopf.  Her third Ana Grey novel, titled JUDAS HORSE, was released on Valentine’s Day, 2008.  April is also a working TV writer/producer and has been nominated for three Emmy Awards and three Writers Guild Awards.  Her recent screen credits include an adaptation of two Stephen King short stories from his collection, NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES, for TNT, and an adaptation of Nora Roberts’ MONTANA SKY, which aired on Lifetime earlier this year.  Please visit www.aprilsmith.net.

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Comments

Whistling and cheering from the stands, April! Welcome to TLC! So fun to hear from you about the genesis of Ana's latest challenges.
Off to reserve my copy of White Shotgun. Congratulations!
(P.S. Yes, this is Laraine from Suite 214--see you soon.)

"There are two kinds of fate -- the actions of God and our own responsibility for our lives."

That just has to rank among the top "lines I wish I'd written." I look forward to reading the rest of this book!

It's difficult to understand many things about Siena: Why Italian men, especially the Sienese, are so wildly competitive (the horse race is among neighborhoods of that small town, for heaven's sake), how Siena has managed to thrive in today's world with those steep and narrow (cobbled) streets, and where in the world they put 60,000 people in that piazza. But that has to add up to quite a spectacle.

In addition to seeing the bulls running in Pamplona, watching the Palio in Siena is on my bucket list of things I want to do someday. But in the meantime, your book sounds fabulous, April, and I am looking forward to adding it to my library!

I have been to Il Palio. It is crazy chaos and the perfect setting for murder. Talk about a diversion! Just from the setting alone, I will order White Shotgun.
I love to travel through my reading and Siena is one of my favorite places to travel to.

Victoria Allman
author of: SEAsoned: A Chef's Journey with Her Captain

www.victoriaallman.com

Welcome, April! At first, I thought you were going to pull a bait and switch and talk about some other Siena -- but this was delicious! I am off to make Ana's acquaintance . . .

Welcome April! And thanks Harley for giving me another series to dig into...I'll order it at the store when I go in later today :o) I've not been to Italy but I can see its charm. My sister visited Florence and Tuscany two years ago and came back totally enamored. And anything with hidden meanings is right up my alley! At this rate, I'll never get through the pile of 'to-reads' I have stacked on my bookcases :O) Have a wonderful weekend all, and April, thanks again for posting!

Oh, April, I've barely even heard of Siena and now I want to go too. At least getting your book will be easier than getting a plane ticket. Welcome to TLC!

I remember a beautifully illustrated book about the Palio. Pride of the Palio? By Marguerite Henry, who was a fave author of any little girl who loved horses. There was no mention of calf phalluses. (Phalli?) Thanks for being our guest, April!

Ah, Siena - that beautiful fountain where my husband ran over my foot with the VW. Another story.

Nancy, I remember LOVING Marguerite Henry's work! Margaret . . . poor foot!

Hi, April! So cool to see you here. Your books sound great - I'll definitely look them up.

I haven't been to Italy, it's on the bucket list. I'm not sure the Palio is on the agenda though. Sons way too... Um, exciting. ;)

Hope to see you around these parts again soon!

What a great son, creative and supportive! This sounds exciting -- I can hardly wait!

I loved this post. Before your post I thought siena was a shade of brown. It sounds like a fascinating city and your book is very intriguing. The sator square finished it off. I am hooked. It is on my TBR list.

Welcome to TLC, April!

Wow, great images of Siena, and I love the story of how the Sienese retrieved St. Catherine's head. It must look really weird, though. I enjoy books filled with cryptic messages, saint relics and mysticism, so I know I'll have to read WHITE SHOTGUN. But since I like to read series in the order written, I'm going to start with the first book.

Thanks for guesting on TLC and for introducing us to your books!

I am intrigued!

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