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Author Paul Salsini (right) continues his Tuscan saga with the fifth book of the series, "A Piazza for Sant'Antonio: Five Novellas of 1980s Tuscany."

Salsini's saga traces generations across modern Tuscan history

In 2006, retired Milwaukee journalist and professor Paul Salsini wrote a novel of his family in Tuscany. That project unexpectedly blossomed into an award-winning trilogy and a book of short stories. The ongoing saga continues in his latest, "A Piazza for San'Antonio," a collection of five novellas.

The latest book brings the stories of Salsini's characters into the 1980s. In one of them, he interweaves the true-life story of the "Monster of Florence," a serial killer that was never captured.

In others, a familiar character is offered a chance to host a TV cooking show, while the eponymous village finally gets a piazza and Dino -- much like Salsini -- develops an interest in his roots.

Salsini -- who is part of the team that organizes the annual Milwaukee Italian Film Festival at UWM each spring -- will read from and sign copies of his books at Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave., on Tuesday, July 15 at 7 p.m.

We caught up with him ahead of that appearance to ask him about "A Piazza for Sant'Antonio" and the other books in his Tuscan series. You've now written five books around a group of characters you introduced in your first book. Did you ever expect to do that?

Paul Salsini: Never. The first book, "The Cielo: A Novel of Wartime Tuscany," was sort of a fluke. I originally intended to write the story of people trapped in a farmhouse during World War II as nonfiction. But because I don't speak or write Italian, I couldn't do interviews or read documents. Also, because many witnesses would no longer be with us, and because I didn't have the time or money to spend in Italy, I decided to, well, make the story up.

It was fun plotting the story and creating the characters. "Rosa" and "Marco" are inspired by my cousin Fosca and her husband Renato, but all the other characters are entirely fictional.

After it was published, I thought, swell, I wrote a novel. Then it won first-place awards from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and the Midwest Independent Publishers Association. Imagine!

But more important, I couldn't get these people out of my head. And there was an obvious reason to write a sequel: Ezio, the partisan called Sparrow, had watched helplessly as his lover died in the massacre of Sant'Anna di Stazzema. Wouldn't he feel anger and guilt? So that was the story of "Sparrow's Revenge: A Novel of Postwar Tuscany."

So that was two. I thought "A Tuscan Trilogy" had a nice ring to it, so I decided to write a coming-of-age story for Dino, who had just been born in the first book and was 10 years old in the second. That's "Dino's Story: A Novel of 1960s Tuscany."

Then I wondered what these people were doing in the next decade, so they told me in "The Temptation of Father Lorenzo: Ten Stories of 1970s Tuscany." And now we're in the following decade with "A Piazza for Sant'Antonio: Five Novellas of 1980s Tuscany."

OMC: It's interesting that the first three were novels but you've approached the 1970s and '80s years in stories and novellas. Does that reflect a change in Italy during those years, maybe a fragmentation? Or is that reading too much into it?

PS: Yes, probably. Now, with hindsight, I realize I shouldn't have called the first three a trilogy because how could I write a fourth novel in a trilogy? I had to have another format if I was going to continue the stories. So I decided with "Father Lorenzo" to write short stories, and continued that with "Piazza." This also gave me a chance to devote particular attention to one character at a time, and that was fun. So now it's called A Tuscan Series.

OMC: Other than from the characters themselves, from where did you draw inspiration for the novellas?

PS: When I started to do research about what was happening in Tuscany in the 1980s, I happened upon "The Monster of Florence." Really. There was such a guy, a serial killer who preyed on young couples in lovers' lanes. He killed eight couples over a span of years, ending in 1985. He was never caught. What intrigued me was the hysteria that pervaded Florence for years. Wild rumors and conspiracy theories abounded and the police were flooded with tips, all wrong.

So the middle story in this collection is about just that, with Father Lorenzo facing questions from frantic mothers like "If I keep my daughter and her boyfriend home on Saturday nights, am I guilty of the sins they commit in their bedroom?"

As for the other stories, Donna had been established as a good cook in the previous collection, so I thought she should write a cookbook. But then that threatened her marriage to Ezio. The story about little Pasquale is a weeper; I hate to admit it, but I tear up in a couple of sections every time I read it, and I'm the one who wrote it. Dino told me he should look for his roots since he knew nothing about his father, who was killed in the first book, so that's another story. And the village of Sant'Antonio, frequently described as nondescript, should at least have a piazza, and that became the title story.

OMC: Will you continue to bring these characters forward into the future?

PS: I hate to say this, but I've just started on a story about how a big supermarket nearby threatens the little shops in Sant'Antonio. I have a few ideas for other stories. Whether this results in another book is still a question.

OMC: Maybe it's time to consider cross-marketing. When can folks sign up for the Salsini-led tours of the places of interest from the books?

PS: Interesting idea! We could stay at the real Cielo, which is now a B&B in the hills above San Martino in Freddana, the real "Sant'Antonio." We could see the watermarks from the flood of Florence. We could go to the massacre site at Sant'Anna di Stazzema. We could cross the Devil's Bridge at Borgo a Mozzano. We could go to Vagli Sotto, the underwater village said to be inhabited by ghosts. All real places. And more.

Now wouldn't that be fun?


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