Interview With an Author: Samantha Silva

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
graphic on leftside is the book cover of Mr. Dickens and His Carol and right side is a photograph of Samantha Silva

Samantha Silva is an author and screenwriter based in Idaho. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, where she studied in Bologna, Italy and Washington, D.C. Over her career she's sold film projects to Paramount, Universal, New Line Cinema and TNT. She's lived in London three times, briefly in Rome, is an avid Italophile, and a forever Dickens devotee. Mr. Dickens and His Carol is her debut novel and she recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the Los Angeles Public Library.

Beyond Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, what was your inspiration for Mr. Dickens and His Carol?

Years ago, a friend suggested we write an anthology movie about Dickens and his circle of friends telling ghost stories at Christmas, because she’d heard that’s how he came up with A Christmas Carol. Victorians did love sharing ghost stories, but it wasn’t how the book came to be. When I read about the real circumstances that gave birth to the book, it was even better: Martin Chuzzlewit was an utter flop, Dickens’ first, after a stunning literary ascendance. Publishers, Chapman and Hall, to whom he was already in debt, threatened to “deduct from his monthly pay,” which would have been ruinous for Dickens’ overextended life. And in my imagination, a perfect conflict was born.  

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Ironically, because Mr. Dickens began life as a screenplay, I had to whittle it to its essence. I sold it four times (with a few heartbreaking near misses with the big screen), but I remember James McAvoy and his producing partner, who flirted seriously with it, saying there was maybe too much incident. Couldn’t I, for instance, take out Maria Beadnell (Dickens’ first real love, who spurned him)? But I couldn’t let her go. Writing the novel was a liberating experience, a chance to mine all the incident, and the incidental characters, and let them shine with their own light. I may have had the opposite experience of many novelists. I knew the plot had drive; I just had to find the layers, the texture, the interior life of the characters – things verboten in screenwriting. What a joy to get to do that.    

Are Eleanor and/or Timothy Lovejoy inspired or based on specific individuals?

I was a bit worried when Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman came out about Dickens’ relationship with Ellen Ternan late in life – that my entirely fictional Eleanor (who figures in the novel as Dickens’ newfound muse) might be confused with her. But Eleanor is one of my favorite names, and so noble. I carry a tiny picture in my wallet of my grandmother with Eleanor Roosevelt in Hyde Park; my youngest daughter (now a teenager) still has a stuffed elephant named after her. And Lovejoy, while not as good as what Dickens would have come up with, says it all.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol has a wonderful sense of Victorian London and it covers a lot of ground regarding Charles Dickens, his family (both immediate and extended) as well as his contemporaries and colleagues in the literary world.  How familiar were you with the Victorian era and Dickens’ life prior to writing the novel? What is the most interesting thing you learned in the research you did?

I’ve lived in London three times in my adult life, so it holds a particular place in my heart and psyche. Before Mr. Dickens was a twinkle in my eye, I didn’t know a great deal about him or Victorian London, except what one absorbs by being surrounded by it. But every story, for me, is a chance to travel deep into another world, a free pass to obsess. Dickens, the man, was my entrée and guide. I wanted to understand London the way he saw it, the way it smelled and sounded to him – what his famed nightwalks of twenty miles around the city felt like; wanted to understand his pain, his fears, his grandiosity, his compassion. All to get close to him, in the service of making him alive on the page. I’m sure, along the way, my kids wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d dropped by for dinner one night. (I’m famous for talking out loud when I write, though unaware of it; I’m sure they thought Charles Dickens was my invisible friend.)

Do you have a favorite A Christmas Carol pastiche? Film/television or stage version?

I love George C. Scott as Dickens, but I love George C. Scott in everything. My favorite pastiche is, honestly, It’s a Wonderful Life -- Frank Capra’s marvelous version of a man being visited (okay, Clarence Oddbody is an angel, not the Ghost of Christmas Past) so that he can see how life might have been different, and be reawakened to his own humanity, joy, and gratitude for his blessings. I’ve always thought it owed a lot to Dickens’ Carol. (And there’s a wink to it, in Mr. Dickens, that I couldn’t resist.)     

Do you believe in ghosts? If you thought it would have a beneficial effect, would you want to be visited by one (or three)?

I do believe in trapped energy; that makes rational sense to me. But I notice that I lean way in when someone talks about a house or ranch or building that’s haunted. I want to know everything down to the smallest detail. Maybe that fascinates us because it whispers of something true that’s just outside our grasp. I also believe in that – that we’re born with a sense of wonder and curiosity because it furthers our evolution… As for whether I’d like a visitation myself, I lost both my stepmom and my mom during the final edits of Mr. Dickens, within a month of each other. If I could have some sort of sign that they were at peace, I’d take it.  

What’s currently on your nightstand?

My nightstand is a giant guilt trip. The height of the pile says nothing about my diligence in getting through it, and is often… aspirational. (I tend to read for what I’m writing at any given time.) But right now, there’s a Raymond Carver story collection, Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder, The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being; Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (because I desperately want to write a play), and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, because I can’t bear to take it off my nightstand. 

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I recently remembered my obsession with Marjorie Flack’s Walter the Lazy Mouse, about a mouse whose family forgets he exists, moves away, and leaves him behind. As a journalism “brat” whose family moved every two or three years (and a notorious lie-about myself), the book played to my deepest fears, but also maybe foreshadowed my fascination with Jung’s idea of individuation. Walter ends up making his own way in the world, his own friends, finds his own passion. And it all turns out okay.      

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

It’s easier to name my top five favorite experiences of authors – who I was when I found them – how those books live in my DNA: the way Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting took my breath away when I read it on an Idaho lake while falling in love with my future husband; the delights of Italo Calvino’s Difficult Loves discovered on a train in Italy; struggling through Robert Pinsky’s bilingual translation of The Inferno of Dante when I was living in Rome, in my own dark forest (the right way obscured); reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird aloud to my young kids (in a barely passable Southern accent), and most recently, having my partner read Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose aloud to me, night after wonderful night.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit. I haven’t straight out lied about it, but people might assume I’d read it, given that my novel pivots on its utter failure. 

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Every book. Sometimes I’ll buy a book twice if I see a cover I like better than the first. I consider it money well spent.

Is there a book that changed your life?

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, because as a kid I used to lie in the grass and stare into the night sky, trying to grasp infinity, until I had to stop or throw up. Everyone, I imagine, at some point, gets a flash that their existence might be meaningless, that we are small in the face of endless time and space. And if so (thought I doubt it), the question remains:  Can we still be happy? 

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Robert Richardson’s Emerson: A Mind on Fire – also a book that changed my life. Being raised by agnostics who were skeptical of organized religion, this page-turner of a biography felt like finding my spiritual home. If the answer to all the great mysteries of the universe – including the mystery of God – are contained in a single leaf, then all those same things exist in each of us. Story, for me, is a way of puzzling that out.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

John Irving’s The World According to Garp would be high on my list. When I finished it, years ago, I immediately devoured everything he’d written. I think I was trying to understand how a writer can do that magic, ineffable, profoundly affecting thing. When I finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, I wanted to just start again at page one. I am bereft when I finish a book I love. It’s why I start many more than I finish. I hate finishing.   

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I’ve already had so many perfect days in my life, it would have to be a collage of those: The man I love brings me coffee in bed so I can read a New Yorker cover to cover (Oh, Heaven!); and when I open the window, I’m in Rome, where the magical Denver Beattie waits on her Vespa in the narrow street below to take me on a spin around the places I love most; we visit a Caravaggio or two, take an hour to ride rickety bikes on the Via Appia, which seems to contain even our history, then meet for a long Sunday lunch in a trattoria she knows on the outskirts of town. (I order cacio e pepe.) All my best people are there – past, present, and future – and my children, too, chattering away about what they’re thinking, reading, worrying, imagining. Great stories are told, embellished. Some will be forgotten by morning; others will stay with us forever. Still laughing, we stroll for a gelato, (I have pistacchio e limone.) And when I crawl into bed, exhausted but happy, the man I love asks me if I want him to read me a story…    

What are you working on now?

I’m superstitious about declaring it publicly. I’ll just say there’s a clue buried in this interview. And stop there.