By Timothy Gillis
Frank O Smith has come full circle. The Maine writer and ghostwriter has been crafting stories (his own and other people’s) for nearly 30 years, and one of the stories that started it all is finally out in book form. “Dream Singer,” Smith’s first novel, tells the story of Elijah McCloud, a Modoc Indian with the one-time gift of “dream singing,” or seeing the future through dreams, and Jackie Logan, a young runaway from Seattle. When the book was in manuscript form in 2000, it was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, an award inspired and financed by Barbara Kingsolver that goes to socially responsible literature.
“I didn’t win, but it’s been this constant sustaining wind behind me, saying you do know how to write, something I had been unable to embrace,” Smith said. He appears at Longfellow Book on Thursday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m. to read from the book and discuss its long creation.
It began back in 1982, when Smith was writing a magazine story about riding freight trains, called “In Search of the American Hobo.” Smith hopped the freight cars along with the tramps, hobos, and bums (not synonymous). While on his train travels, he met Lonesome Walt, a Modoc Indian, and the inspiration for Elijah McCloud.
“I’ve been everywhere in this book, multiple times,” Smith said of his real-life travels, including a solo retreat to Glacier National Park in Montana where he camped for five days before Red Crow Mountain. During this trip, he confronted one of his fears by making him a character in the story.
“I was terrified of grizzlies, so he became this natural character,” Smith said of Ol’ Icy Eye, a portentous bear that McCloud encounters early on in the novel.
Smith moved to Maine in 1986, just after he started focusing on his fiction. “I had a couple of other books with agents, then I went back to ‘Dream Singer.’ I did a total rewrite for Thomas Dunne books (an imprint of Macmillan). The editor was disappointed with the rewrites. He wanted me to steer more towards the romance.” Unwilling to make the changes, Smith took his book and looked elsewhere.
“I wasn’t getting any response from publishers when I was trying to pitch the book two years ago,” he said. “Some friends came to me, saying ‘you need a break: what book do you want to publish?’ I said I wanted to start a small press for other writers who also needed a break.”
With their help, Smith founded Artisan Island Press, and “Dream Singer” is its first imprint. Smith’s son, Gaelen, who has had art gallery shows in San Francisco, New York, and Berlin, Germany, designed the cover of the book.
The author decided Frank Smith, as a writer’s name, was too plain. So he added the middle initial O, which stands for Orrin, although he doesn’t use a period. “People don’t know if I’m Irish or Hispanic,” he said, “if it’s Frank O’Smith or Franco Smith.”
Either way, the book speaks its own powers with a quest narrative similar in mood and imagery to Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony.” One follows the chase as McCloud and Logan try to find a killer before he finds them. It’s a novel that reads like a fine wine, the fuller the flavor for having been written, edited, and rewritten over so many years. He credits his wife, Dale Stephenson, for her unending support through all that time.
“She has blossomed into this absolute life companion that has backed me,” he said. “I couldn’t have done this without her. My writing craft grew out of this book, my love of language. I’m very pleased.”