Leo in Venice
Annie ignores that the cost of two passports and plane tickets means no snow tires for the Subaru this winter, that the nagging leak in the upstairs hall will drip all through spring. She won’t tell Leo about the credit card she took out just for this, because he’s talked about it since he was five; in fact, it’s the only thing he’s ever really wanted, as wanting things goes. She knows he doesn’t take lightly having asked for it, with two older brothers, college, the medical bills. But he’s eighteen now, her youngest likes to remind her, and after this one trip he’ll ask for nothing else. The burden ends here, “in Piazza San fucking Marco,” he declares, arms stretched to a smile the first time he stands on its sea-washed Istrian expanse in the afternoon light of Venice in near-November, trying to name what painting has ever done it justice like life is doing right now.
Samantha Silva is an author and screenwriter based in Idaho. She has sold film projects to Paramount, Universal, and New Line Cinema. Mr. Dickens and His Carol, her first novel, was published by Flatiron Books/Macmillan (2017). Her short film script The Big Burn won the 1 Potato Short Screenplay Award at the 2017 Sun Valley Film Festival. Silva wrote and directed, her first time at the helm. She was recently named a 2020 Literature Fellow by the Idaho Commission on the Arts.
Karen Friedman on Leo in Venice
In June my eleven-year-old went to sleep-away camp for the first time. As we wound our way through rural Missouri roads in the pouring rain, I kept asking how she felt. Excited. Impatient. Maybe a little nervous. Despite heading to a place where she knew no one, she didn’t hesitate when the moment finally came to leave. She barely waited for good-bye. Not wanting to embarrass her, I scooted back to the car and drove off. But as soon as cell service returned, I called her father (only slightly hysterical) to explain my overwhelming need to go back and hug her one more time, just to make sure.
The funny thing is I’m not normally that kind of mom. I want my kids to be independent, have humble-bragged for years about my daughter entering preschool without turning back, just an arm thrown in the air as she headed to the sand table. Here she was again, confidently facing the unknown without me. This time for a week. I should have felt like I’d earned a parenting gold star. Instead, I listened to bad 80s pop and tried not to cry all the way back to St. Louis. In the Q&A for One Story issue #257, “Leo in Venice,” author Samantha Silva says, “we raise our kids to leave us, but our letting go is another thing.”
Learning what and how to let go is at the center of “Leo in Venice.” In this beautiful and heart-wrenching story, we’re introduced to Annie and her nearly grown son, Leo. Due to a chronic illness theirs is an uncommon relationship—one forged in pain, but also humor and wit and a wide acceptance of who the other person is and what they are capable of enduring. In short, it is a love story. But it is also the story of a breakup. By bringing the reader to the moment of goodbye, we witness Annie’s simultaneous support of and struggle to accept her son’s decision to leave. Set against the often mystical backdrop of Venice, a city that has long lived in their collective imaginations, Annie at last begins to see herself apart from her son.
By the end of the story we are left with the unsettling knowledge that it is our job to let our children go, and yet the impulse to hold on, to go back and ask for one more hug never goes away. It is an honor to introduce you to Samantha Silva, a gifted storyteller whose unflinching eye is tempered with compassion and levity.
Q&A by Karen Friedman
- KF: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- SS: I had a good friend whose son was diagnosed with the chronic illness described in the story. They’re both remarkable, not unlike Annie and Leo, but their challenges were daunting—immediate and existential. When my friend’s son started to come of age, I saw her wrestle profoundly with giving him complete agency in his life. That was the germ of the story, where the fiction began, and the universal thing all parents struggle with: that we raise our kids to leave us, but our letting go is another thing. I think we harbor the idea that we can still advise, influence, cajole, even save them if need be—that it’s not really their life entire. But that’s illusory. A child individuating from a parent is the natural, necessary order of things. This story is the letting go from a parent’s point of view. For Annie, it’s on an almost unimaginable scale.
- KF: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- SS: The hardest thing was not slipping into the maudlin. Annie and Leo’s story has a terrific amount of sadness in it, but I didn’t want that to define them, because they’re also (in my mind) valiant, and capable of the sublime.
- KF: I love the way Annie and her son, Leo, speak with one another — the intimacy, the humor, the shared sensibilities—in many ways it’s how I hope my own son and I will be one day. How much of their relationship do you think is a result of chronic illness and how much would have developed anyway?
- SS: I once spilled an entire glass of red wine across a table at a restaurant in Istanbul, and my three kids looked at me in shock, like, “we didn’t do that, you did.” This, after years of me moving their glasses from the edges of things, and cleaning up spill after spill. But we ended up going around the table, each saying one thing we admired about each person in the family, and one thing we didn’t. My kids nailed me. I think about that experience often. It’s hard to let go of your kids idealizing you as a parent, but just as their individuation is inevitable, so too is them seeing you as you really are. Hard as we try, we can’t hide from them. In the end, they see us at our best and worst, know where most of the bodies are buried, and have a direct line to our Achilles’ heel. It isn’t just the good times that get you to the kind of intimacy and shared sensibility you hope for, it’s what’s hard; it’s not just how you respond to the tough stuff they lay at your door, but the tough stuff you lay at theirs. That’s when they see you as the all-too-human, still-evolving person you are, and the real conversation begins. My sense is that chronic illness breaks you open and makes you vulnerable in extreme ways, and that stuff spills out sooner and with more intensity than it would otherwise. Annie and Leo have seen each other come apart and reassemble more than most mere humans, with nowhere and not much they can hide. But their relationship, I hope, is a testament to that.
- KF: Throughout there are echoes of Death in Venice. I’m wondering what, if anything, about Mann’s story influenced you here.
- SS: I like stories with books in them, like they’re echoes of the original work, the way it stays with us, and resonates in our lives. But it’s been years since I read Death in Venice, probably in Venice, one of the first times I was there. (I also like reading books in the cities where they’re set.) I only have a vague, impressionistic memory of the novel, like Annie does in the story, which suited my purpose fine. Love, suffering, death, ideal beauty—those were important to me, plus I like the feel of the 19th century hanging about, the way it does in Venice, suggesting things like low light, winter invalids, Caffé Florian with its red velvet banquettes, and the grand Piazza, just as it’s been for so long. (And no cellphones!)
- KF: Venice is almost mythical for Annie and Leo, a space that exists outside the boundaries of “real life.” In fact, at one point Annie says that the city saved her. Talk to me a little bit about the importance of place and why you chose Venice for this story.
- SS: Italy in general long ago passed from being a place I love to go to a place that took up lodgings in my psyche. I’ve lived there, speak passable Italian, have dear friends, but I’ve also spent unforgettable moments of my life there, moments of extreme beauty and happiness all the way to flat-out despair. Venice is one of its aspects: ethereal, other-worldly, majestic, and yet sinking, dying, all that gravity and history. I like it best in the cold months, when the tourists thin, and the narrow, fog-filled streets give up some of its mysteries. (I’ve had my own dizzying experience of its mazes.) It feels intimate then, in moments claustrophobic (like Annie and Leo’s relationship), which is just the right setting for their story to play out. I’m often place-minded in my writing, not just for the metaphor. If we come to know characters by putting them under pressure and seeing what they do, place is like pressure: it disrupts, makes demands, offers change. How do characters react to that, interact, how are they different, what choices do they make? A place like Venice, for me, and for Annie and Leo, can’t help but exaggerate and deepen the marvelous experience of being human.
- KF: At one point Annie says that “motherhood had slain her,” but as Leo’s illness takes hold, she becomes his primary caregiver, his teacher, his confidant. In the end, is there anything in particular that you’d like the reader to take away about the nature of motherhood?
- SS: The cruelest irony of motherhood is that we spend so many years, all that time and energy, changing diapers, tying laces, and buttering toast, but then our kids, whom we’ve loved so fiercely, have the audacity to go off and live their own lives! (See answer 1.) In all seriousness, I wasn’t prepared for how bittersweet that would be. Like Annie, I regret that I can’t do it all again, over and over, even if I couldn’t get it right. I’d be a little better each time, and more present, which is hard when the days are so long you can’t see how short the years are. Of course we see their separation as a success, and can enjoy their triumphs from a respectable distance, but I’m not sure we ever stop feeling their pain.
- KF: There are moments in this story that feel very cinematic to me (like the end, where I can picture the frame widening and pulling away as Annie crosses the piazza). I know that in addition to being a novelist and short story writer, you are also a screenwriter and director. How to do you determine in which genre a story belongs, and how does your fluidity in different genres impact your writing?
- SS: When my kids were growing up, our dinner table was full of people who told great stories. We started calling “dibs” on them for fun, but you had to name a genre. Was it a talky, two-hander? Dibs on the play. Lots of incident, interiority? Dibs on the novel. This story, because of its intense intimacy and interiority always suggested a short story to me, even though it has cinematic moments. Because I cut my teeth as a screenwriter, I’m a dedicated structuralist, even as a novelist. I draw arcs, think in three acts, know all the plot points before I put pen to paper. The difference between screen and novel writing is that the first is pure economy, nothing on the page you can’t see on the screen, and if it gets to the screen, you’ll have an army of people—costumers, production designers, set dressers among them—to make it come alive. In novel writing you have all those jobs, even down to the color of a cummerbund, if it matters (see answer 9). But I plot them just the same. The short form is the most freeing for me. When an idea takes hold, the writing feels like a fever dream, driven more by intuition than logic. And short stories don’t have to wrap up neatly like novels and movies, but give us small shifts in experience, awareness, feeling—like life really is.
- KF: What are you working on now?
- SS: I’m superstitious, so I won’t say much. A novel, historical fiction, about a woman of towering importance who is undersung. But it’s also a mother-daughter story about what we can and can’t know of each other, what we carry forward, and what we leave behind. Plus a collection of short stories (maybe with books in them). Italy will make a few more appearances as well.
- KF: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- SS: I’m a master of avoidance behavior. Sometimes it takes the form of obsessive research, as in I’ve never met a rabbit hole I didn’t like. I can while away an entire afternoon on the origins of the cummerbund, even it gets half a sentence in whatever I’m working on. And then there’s that feeling: If I just had one more fact, one more detail, then I’d be unstoppable. Which leads, of course, to no writing at all. But my father, who was a journalist for many years, told me a long time ago that at some point you have to put away all your notes and write what you know. That’s the hardest thing for me. To trust that it’s in here, not out there. That I know it, if I have the stillness and presence of mind to just write it down.