Meet the Author - Samantha Silva

We are very lucky to have such a rich writing community in the Treasure Valley and we are so privileged to share some of our local authors and their insights with you.  Thank you, Samantha Silva, for sharing some of your insights and book recommendations with us!

How would you describe what you do?

Samantha:  I try very, very hard to spin straw into gold. It’s mostly aspirational, but it keeps me going back to the page every day. 

What do you like best about what you do?

Samantha:  I’ve always lived largely in my head. As a kid, I was a daydreamer, introvert, lots of lying in the summer grass staring up at the night sky trying to imagine other worlds, infinity, pondering the meaning of it all. I didn’t have the words for my feelings, but I loved the wonder of it. Making up stories and characters made me feel less alone with all that, and enriched my aloneness. Being a writer just gives me permission to try to make a living at it.

What is the hardest thing about what you do?

Samantha: The hardest thing is feeling that my reach exceeds my grasp (that maybe I can’t spin straw into gold). The second hardest is not knowing what’s next. I love the work, and hate the in-between. I’m not good at trusting that the well needs refilling now and then, and that I’m writing even when I’m not. But I try.  

Are you a “plotter” or a “pantser”?

Samantha: I credit my years as a screenwriter for my unwavering devotion to plot. I can’t put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) until I know how it begins and ends and what engine drives it from one to the other. But the magic is when the work starts to talk back, tells me what it wants to be, makes its own demands. That’s what propels me from beginning to end.  

What does your writing process look like? Do you write with regularity or when the inspiration strikes?

Samantha: When I’m in it, when I know what I’m writing and why, the work is irresistible. I go to sleep and wake up thinking about it, can’t wait to get back to the keys. (I wrote lots of Mr. Dickens in the dark morning hours before my kids were awake.) But those moments are pretty rare. Lots of the time I doom-scroll, read three newspapers, play word games, and then, maybe then, I read a poem or take a walk. Reading other people’s books helps immensely. And I always keep some kind of record of what I’m taking in, even if it’s just stupid notes on my phone. But mornings, that’s the short answer. I try to write something, anything, in the mornings.      

Do your characters come to you fully formed or do they evolve as you write?  Do they ever surprise you?

Samantha: My characters surprise me all the time. They may start as an idea, an aspect of a theme, but then they spring to life, not fully formed, but sentient, evolving, and I start to feel a strange intimacy with them. For Love and Fury, I needed a midwife to experience what was happening in the room for each of the days between Wollstonecraft giving birth to Mary Shelley and her own death from puerperal fever. But I didn’t want Mrs. Blenkinsop to be a device. Devices are boring. She needed her own arc, something that changes because she encounters Wollstonecraft, who is her opposite in every way. In the beginning, Mrs. B has no access to her interior life, her emotional heft. As she comes to know Mary, things ripen within her. I gave her room on the page, and she told me what she wanted to say. Their goodbye scene at the end of the novel was really just me taking dictation, and still makes me sad.

When you write dialogue for your characters, do you hear your voice or theirs?

Samantha: My children always used to tease me about talking when I write, even though I’m not aware of it. I have to hear dialogue out loud to make it work, the inflection, intonation, accent, quirks of speech. So yes, I hear them, all of them. It’s not my voice at all. 

What is the best piece of advice about writing that you ever received?

Samantha: My dad, who was a newspaper and LIFE Magazine reporter when I was young, told me once that there comes a point when you have to put all your notes away, your research, the interviews, the jotted-down ideas…. and just write. I always have the feeling that if I read one more book, article, one more fact, anything – then I’ll be ready. But the story isn’t outside; it’s inside. And we know more of it than we let on to ourselves. I know writers who find finishing the hardest, and of course it is, but for me, the real act of bravery as a writer is just to start.

What is the biggest change that you have made in a piece that you were writing?

Samantha: I spent months on a first chapter of Love and Fury that I was absolutely, positively sure was the way into the novel, told from Mary Shelley’s perspective beginning on the famous night at Villa Diodati in Geneva with Percy, Lord Byron, and Polidori, when she starts her Frankenstein (which is really a book about a parent who abandons a child). I thought she would discover her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, through a tranche of old letters she receives that fateful night. And I thought it was pretty damn good – me writing out at the edge of my capability. But my editor told me to scrap the whole thing and start over. Everyone knows Mary Shelley, she told me. You need to find your Wollstonecraft. Of course she was absolutely, positively right. (But I still love that chapter.) 

What authors most influenced your decision to become a writer?

Samantha: Gawd, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I wrote bad poetry in second grade, a few novels starts and a play in fifth grade – then got sidetracked for a couple decades while I did other things. I was a big reader as a kid, but it wasn’t the authors so much as having a writer in the house, and others around the dinner table, that showed me a way of being, of living – that you could engage with the world, be curious, tackle difficult things, have a big life, report your experience as a human being… by being a writer! I think I turned away from it because I put my dad on a pedestal and didn’t think I could live up to that, or didn’t want to supersede him. But in the early years (my 30s) returning to writing, he told me I was the twice the writer he ever was. It’s hard to overstate what a gift that was.

What book do you recommend that everyone read?

Samantha: The book I’ve recommended most is Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. I read it in my early 20s, which is a good time to discover existentialism. Having been raised by atheists, I found my religion in it, the fundamental questions I still wrestle with:  What is it to be human and have free will in a world without God? Can Sisyphus ever be happy? (I actually find the book to be quite optimistic.) Those questions have left so much room for the evolution of my own consciousness, my sense of purpose and goodness. We’re all meaning-makers. I just do it for a living. Writing lets me keep pulling at threads to try to understand the fabric and mystery of our experience.     

What is a project that you haven’t done yet, but have always wanted to do?

That’s a tough one. I rather famously left my marriage a decade ago in the most scandalous way possible. People chose sides, I lost friends, made enemies. There are still people who avert their gaze in the grocery store. My best friend said I was like a “pimped-up, postmodern Hester Prynn,” which was pretty close to my experience. I’ve documented it privately, I suppose because it’s the hardest, bravest, best, worst thing I’ve ever done, which feels compelling to write about. But I’ve worried about a memoir that would hurt people I love, dredge up old pain, draw more judgement from the community. Then my kids (who were writing short stories and an album about the divorce!) told me I’d always encouraged them to write about it – it’s their story too. And that I should do the same. You’re a writer, mom. That’s what you do. But it’s terrifying.  

What is currently on your bedside table?

Samantha: Four Treasures of the Sky (Jenny Zhang) is epic, important, and gorgeous. (And most of it takes place in Idaho.) My man is reading me Lorenzo in Taos, by Mabel Dodge Luhan, about D.H. Lawrence in New Mexico—the inspiration for Rachel Cusk’s Second Place. (We are big Cusk fans.) But here’s the wild one: Of Men and Marshes by Paul Errington (1957). My dad’s dying (as I write this), and I found this book in his shelves. It’s a plea to pay attention to the natural world that we’re losing. But my father wrote an inscription, fifty years ago: This book was given to me by a man I spent a few days with in his most beloved habitat, a prairie marsh. He was in the process of acutely dying when we knew each other and he is the only man I ever knew who spoke of his own death as calmly and as reasonably as he spoke of the life and death processes going on around him in the marsh. I have never forgotten him and don’t think I ever will.

This is why I write.