Local author and screenwriter Samantha Silva is having a moment … or two.
After dabbling with Hollywood — she’s sold film projects to Paramount, Universal, and New Line Cinema, to name a few — she spread her talents around. Her debut novel published in 2017, “Mr. Dickens and His Carol,” was widely acclaimed, and she is currently adapting it for the Seattle Repertory Theatre stage. “The Big Burn,” a short film she wrote and directed, premiered at the Sun Valley Film Festival in 2018. She’s written short fiction and essays that have appeared in One Story and LitHub. In 2020, she was named an Idaho Commission on the Arts Literary Fellow.
And on Tuesday, May 25, Silva’s second book is being released: “Love and Fury.” The novel shines a light on legendary feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.
Reviews have been glowing: “Magical … A love letter to life itself,” said Ms. Magazine. “Beautifully human,” wrote the Historical Novel Society. And from Publishers Weekly: “Gripping … Silva’s heartbreaking but inspiring work captures the despair and joy, convictions and contradictions of an extraordinary woman.” Natalie Jenner, bestselling author of “The Jane Austen Society,” calls Silva’s new work “astonishing and groundbreaking. … A provocative, inspiring and timely novel, ‘Love and Fury’ chronicles not only a great historical figure but, just as movingly, a woman, wife and mother who learns to find love and home within herself.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Silva about life and her new book via email.
Jeanne Huff: Samantha Silva, congratulations on writing and publishing your second book. In your first book, you took on the character of Charles Dickens, breathing life into his character in “Mr. Dickens and His Carol.” The Chicago Tribune praised it, calling it “poignant … impeccably delivered in a sprightly prose that wants to be read out loud.” Now, with “Love and Fury: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft” you have turned your sights and insights to one of the founding feminists. What drew you to her story, to flesh it out and reveal more of her as a woman, a person?
Samantha Silva: When I was casting around for what to write after Mr. Dickens, Mary Shelley, who gave us Frankenstein, exploded back onto the scene with the book’s 200th anniversary. But so many people don’t know much about her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who gave us feminism — who in so many ways invented the life. Wollstonecraft is a hugely important 18th century writer and philosopher who makes it her life’s work to fight tyranny of all kinds: kings, marriage, men. She’s part of a circle of radical “dissenters” in London around the time of the French Revolution, and when the great English conservative, Edmund Burke, argues for the monarchy, she takes him head on, firing off her Vindication of the Rights of Man, soon followed by her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she argues for equality between the sexes!
She struggled to live as she wanted to, as an independent woman, a writer, which is extraordinary for the period. And though she was famous across two continents in her lifetime — John and Abigail Adams were among her fans — her legacy was driven underground for a century when her widower, the radical philosopher William Godwin, published a tell-all memoir that left nothing to the imagination. News of her love affairs, an out-of-wedlock child, severe bouts of depression, her suicide attempts, scandalized everyone.
She was resurrected by Virginia Woolf a century after her death, and again by feminists of the 1970s, but she belongs in the pantheon, and she belongs with us now. Her story is messy and unruly, just as women’s lives are today. I want readers to feel that. I want them to know that her fight for gender equality is still our fight (as demonstrated vividly in the Idaho legislature this term), and that Wollstonecraft’s voice is as critical as ever.
JH: The title includes the words “love and fury.” Without giving it away, what do those words reference in Wollstonecraft’s life and how are they entwined in who she became?
SS: Wollstonecraft is very much a creature of the late 18th century, but there’s a kind of rage against injustice, against a world whose rules are made by men, that drives everything she does, and makes her feel quite modern to me. She detests fashion, doesn’t frizz and powder her hair or adorn herself, rejects consumerism and raw ambition, is largely vegetarian, refuses sugar because of the slave trade, and rails against marriage and sex that oppresses women. As a teenage girl she would lie across the threshold of her mother’s bedroom to protest her father’s nightly abuse.
Her life is a reminder to me that #MeToo is the culmination of centuries — how little, for women, things have really changed. Wollstonecraft thought that civilization, run by men, had utterly failed us. She wasn’t wrong. Here we are, still struggling for what’s possible if women truly had power over themselves. But Wollstonecraft was also driven by her deep humanity and a desire to feel love (in a way she never had in her own family). I’m struck by how fierce and brilliant she is, how witty and cutting, but people also thought of her as incredibly kind. I find her enthralling.
JH: Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary (Wollstonecraft) Shelley was famous in her own right, as the author of “Frankenstein.” How big a role does she play in your book, or rather, how much of her story is part of her mother’s story?
SS: The very first chapter I wrote never made it into the book. I was stuck for a long time on the idea that Wollstonecraft’s story would be told or “discovered” by the daughter, Mary Shelley, in the same way that “Angle of Repose” works — a grandson discovers his grandmother through a series of old letters. I thought it should start on the night she begins to write “Frankenstein,” since her book is really about a child who’s abandoned by its creator. Shelley was obsessed with her absent mother, who died 11 days after giving birth to her, and that connection felt like a gateway to me. But as my editor very gently reminded me, everyone knows Shelley. I needed to let Shelley go to find Wollstonecraft in her own right. This is why we have editors.
JH: You live in Boise — did you grow up here? If so, what high school did you attend? What was your growing up like?
SS: I moved to Boise when I was 14, dragged here kicking and screaming. I think I barely spoke to my parents for a year. My dad had been a journalist up ‘til then. We moved every two or three years, and I resented having to leave the last place, since the last place was always the best place. I went to Boise High, but I resisted everything about the experience, which I now regret. I was a very good student, so I could fly under the radar. I thought reading Nietzsche and Rilke and writing dark poetry and wearing our mother’s vintage clothes and smoking Kool cigarettes and singing backup in a very non-high school band, made me superior. But really it just made me stupid.
JH: You are an author and also a screenwriter — have you always been in the writing game?
SS: Because my dad was a journalist when I was growing up, writing as a way of life was always there as a model. And ours was a family where words mattered, language mattered, the ability to tell a good story was highly valued. I turned my hand to poetry in third grade (“My Mother is a Magnet” gives you the flavor of it), wrote a play in fifth, started a couple novels by sixth, and then got sidetracked for quite a while.
Strangely, I came back to it when I fell in love with Mike Hoffman and started being his informal script reader. After you read four or five awful scripts, it’s normal to think you can do better than that. Well, as it turns out, screenwriting is quite a tricky discipline. I still consider myself a student of the form. But it has a huge influence on me as a novelist. I am structure-driven, plot-driven, stakes-driven. I have to know how it ends before I start writing. I know not everyone works that way, but for me, it’s been an enormous advantage.
JH: How do you approach the act of writing — do you create an outline or do you begin with an idea and just let the story flow?
SS: I outline feverishly. I draw lots of arcs, character arcs, narrative arcs, three-act arcs, do mind mapping, write in my journal about what it all means, break a story down scene by scene, write stacks of index cards, use colored pens, slap multi-colored post-it notes on butcher paper strung across my wall — you get the picture. I marvel at people who just start writing, and trust that the work will reveal itself. I think there’s plenty of magic and mystery in the writing process, but I’m more likely to stumble on it if my invitation is specific. Not having an idea, not knowing what to write next, that’s a scary place for me. But the only way I can judge an idea is if it generates the kind of fever above. If I can’t stop thinking about it. Can’t stop the train coming. Imagination is a powerful locomotive.
JH: As a writer, have you learned any secrets, had any revelations about yourself or others?
SS: I write to know what I think. My dad calls it “staircase oratory,” meaning you think of the perfect thing to say as you’re going up the stairs after a party. Only I do it on the page. It’s where I work out everything, tell my secrets, pick apart complex emotions. I often tell aspiring writers that you have to know why you’re writing the thing you’re writing. I think most writers pick a project because it’s a way of working out a problem. Sometimes it’s an intellectual problem, a story problem, but often it’s something that’s going to reveal to us our own development as a human being.
My very long relationship with Charles Dickens is a case in point. The story of my first novel came to me almost like a dream, and there were times it felt like I was channeling Dickens, just taking dictation. But over time I understood that I was working out my attraction to larger-than-life, charismatic, complicated men (and women), which is also about my own power, my own agency in my life. Writing can do that.
JH: Name your three favorite authors. What question would you ask them if you could?
SS: My favorite writer is the one I’m obsessing about at the moment. Like when I discovered Rachel Cusk, I had to read every book she’d written.
But I’m a serial monogamist. When a book compels me, I feel close to the writer somehow, and have a hard time letting them go. When I finished Alexander Chee’s “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” recently, I just wanted to stay in his head, and his world, for a while. I have a hard time moving on. And then there are old favorites like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, who are something else altogether. If you’re writing in their milieu, the most you can hope for is a gentle nod to their greatness.
But I would ask any of them about their creative process. I don’t think my way is the way. I’m fascinated by how other people do it.
JH: What do you like to do for fun? How do you relax? Favorite movies?
SS: The true answer is that I play a lot of Words With Friends with my sister, who humbles me most of the time. It’s a great time waster. I also walk, mountain bike, consume a whole bunch of news (not relaxing), enjoy good food, talk with close friends, travel, and yes, movies and TV shows. My son is named after Atticus Finch, so that’s an obvious favorite. (When Gregory Peck died, and I heard the theme song from the movie on NPR, I just sat in my car in the parking lot at the mall and wept. God, maybe that’s why I never go to the mall anymore.) “Local Hero” is my sensibility in a nutshell, including my unwavering optimism. “The Royal Tenenbaums” is a perfect movie (and the Gene Hackman character makes me think of my dad.) I could go on and on, because I tend to be devoted to whatever I last loved. Everyone who knows me knows they should watch “Call My Agent,” just because it’s… su-pear!
JH: What’s next — any projects in the works?
SS: I’m having the time of my life working with Braden Abraham at Seattle Repertory Theatre to adapt my first novel, “Mr. Dickens and His Carol,” for the stage. The project started as a screenplay, which I optioned four times to four different production companies. So it was a wild turn of events that after so many near misses as a film, it finally found life as a novel. I’m thrilled be imagining it as a play, something that’s stretching my writing chops in wonderful ways. Just the experience of workshopping it with eight actors over Zoom for three days, well, I think every novelist would learn a lot about the flaws in their logic by doing that. An actor who has to say the lines will not stand for anything that doesn’t make perfect sense. I highly recommend it.
JH: Anything else you’d like to say?
SS: Yes. I want to say that Wollstonecraft was passionate about education, for boys and girls alike — and believed that virtue, and the development of the soul, could only be achieved through rigorous and deep understanding of philosophical precepts. She was not afraid of people having knowledge, reading books, engaging in debate — she was afraid of the tyranny that would keep people down, keep them from being free, by limiting their access to knowledge. I look at the assault on education by the Idaho legislature this year as an assault on freedom and knowledge and debate, that has as its goal tyranny. I fervently hope we’ll overcome their ignorance, a tyranny of little minds, because there’s no way forward unless we do.