Author Spotlight: Ava Dellaira Discusses LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD
Today we’re thrilled to have the lovely and talented Ava Dellaira stopping by for an interview to discuss her debut novel, Love Letters to the Dead. We missed meeting Ava at the LA Times Book Festival, but she was kind enough to agree to a phone interview, and we had a blast chatting with her!
I absolutely loved your reading and your panel with Stephen Chbosky at the LA Times Book Festival. Did you have fun at the festival?
Thank you so much. It was wonderful. I had done a few signings and panels before, but it was a good time sharing a panel with Stephen. I always get nervous for these things, but he’s so great at it, and I definitely feel like I learned a lot from him, so it makes it fun do to talks like that together. The questions were great!
Did you get to see any authors that you were looking forward to meeting there?
I barely had time. I returned in town just in time for the Sunday event, and afterwards I thought I would get to go out into the festival, but the signing lasted awhile, and I had another signing that afternoon, so I was pretty much busy all day. But I had been to TLA just before coming back for the LA Times Festival. The last thing I did there was the “Women of YA” panel, and they had a secret guest that was unannounced. It was Laurie Halse Anderson, who I hadn’t met before, who I totally love and admire and look up to. So I got to meet her there, and I was sitting next to her on the panel feeling so nervous—I’m suddenly sitting next to one of my idols on a panel. It was cool!
That is so awesome! So none of the other panelists knew who the guest was until she came out?
No I don’t think so. They kept it a secret, so that was a fun surprise!
Of all the people that Laurel writes letters to in Love Letters to the Dead, who was your favorite to write to from her perspective?
That is a good question, and a really hard one to answer, because I did sort of fall in love with all the people that she writes to. I think it’s probably not a surprising answer, but Kurt Cobain was definitely one of my very favorites for Laurel to write to. I think it was very interesting for me to explore the way that her relationship with him evolves throughout the book. The ways in which she saw him, and her set of feelings towards him changed and evolved as she was beginning to confront some of her own emotions, so that was one I loved. I also really loved writing the River Phoenix letters. I’ve always loved River Phoenix. I learned a lot more about him in doing research for the book. There was something a little bit magical for me in those letters, something special. But I could probably end up saying that about all of the people she writes to. [laughs] I also really love the Amelia Earheart and the Judy Garland ones.
I loved those too! Did you watch Stand By Me when you were younger? Did you have the same kind of experience as Mae and Laurel?
Yeah, I think the first time I watched it I actually was about Laurel’s age, I was a young teenager. It had a big impact on me, but it had faded in my memory, and I saw it again just before I started writing the book. I remembered seeing it as a younger teenager, and sort of re-experienced all of the emotions it brought up.
I think you capture those emotions beautifully in the letter. If you were assigned this same project, what’s one dead famous person you would write to?
There are a lot of authors who I would write to, but I discovered there was only room for so many. Laurel writes to a handful of poets, and those were carefully chosen for their particular works and the ways in which they spoke to her at certain moments. I started out with a few others; she wrote a lot of letters to Emily Dickinson in an earlier draft. I loved writing those letters, but ultimately there wasn’t really room for them in the book, and so I ended up taking them out. But I think I would write to her. There are probably a lot of other authors I would write to. But there was only room for so much of that in the story, so I ended up having to be kind of selective about those choices.
You were working with Stephen on The Perks of Being a Wallflower movie when you started writing this book. Are you still working in film?
It’s been kind of a transition period as the book comes out. I’m still doing some screenwriting stuff, but I’m sort of transitioning now into writing full time. The writing end of things was fine when I was working like I did on The Perks of Being a Wallflower, being an associate producer and kind of doing some development work as a day job. And now I’m sort of moving into the dream, I guess, which is to get to write all the time.
That’s awesome! When you are working on film projects, do you find that to be distracting when you’re writing a book, or inspiring/complementary?
I find it very complementary. Working in film has been very helpful to me in terms of being a novelist. When I started writing Love Letters, it came out as a stream of consciousness. I was discovering who the characters were and what the story was, and it was important to me to remain really open to discovery for awhile. But then it came time for me to edit the book, and I had something that was sort of in the shape of a novel, and I thought, “how am I going to go about creating a satisfying arc?” I found that my experience in film was very helpful, in that I ended up in my mind thinking “ok, if this were a movie, at what moments would I need-the Act 1 break and the midpoint, which would be about page 60 in a screenplay, and the worst case scenario point?” These are all sort of screenwriting fundamentals, but thinking about the novel in those terms helped me to really see the shape of the story in a more bare bones way. So that’s definitely been helpful.
In another sense getting to be in the editing room of Perks was really helpful in terms of seeing situations like “there’s this amazing scene that we shot, and it’s great in and of itself, but it turns out that it doesn’t necessarily serve the larger story.” Or “if we have it here then later on people might be emotionally exhausted, so we have to cut it out.” Seeing things that you have to let go of in a film was also really helpful to me in editing and in cutting out sections of the book that I labored over and loved, but that ultimately didn’t fit or that didn’t make the overall narrative stronger.
And I also just really love movies, and I love seeing stories told onscreen. There are a lot of movies I’ve been inspired by. Seeing stories told in a visual way has been inspiring.
Speaking of movies, you hinted on the panel that there might be the possibility of a Love Letters film adaptation. When I was reading the book, I immediately thought that this would be an amazing movie. It seems like contemporary YA film adaptations are kind of taking off right now with the popularity of Perks and the advance enthusiasm for The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay. Do you have any more news to share on that front? Do you think we might see something down the road?
Yeah! No more news yet, but I’m definitely hopeful that there will be something to share down the road.
Ok, that’s good to hear! If there is a film adaptation in the cards is that something you would want to work on, or would that be too close to home for you?
The thing that’s so cool about the filmmaking process is that it doesn’t belong to any one person. Everybody—from the production designer to the cinematographer, to obviously the producers—everybody who works on the movie has such influence over it, whereas writing a novel is very singular. It’s you and your own world. One of the really exciting things about an adaptation as an artist is that you share the story with so many other people. If it was to become a movie I think I would like to at least take a shot at writing the screenplay.
Very cool! Do you have any actresses in mind for Laurel?
Not really. Laurel was so close to me, that as I was writing the book, she became her own person in my mind. I think there are a number of actresses that would do an amazing job. But there wasn’t a particular person that I imagined while writing.
I think you briefly mentioned that you were open to working on something for the YA audience again. Given your background in poetry, do you think you might ever write a novel in verse, or a collection of poetry for young adult readers?
Yeah! That’s a good question. I hadn’t thought of it, but a handful of people have asked me that and suggested that in the past few weeks, and I do think it’s a great idea and it’s something I’d definitely be open to experimenting with in the future. I don’t have an idea for one right now, but I can certainly imagine doing it. And I do love spreading the poetry love. When I was at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop I taught an undergraduate class in creative writing, and I really loved teaching poetry and communicating my love of it and trying to get people excited about it. I think it would be a really cool thing to write either a collection of poetry or a novel in verse for the young adult audience.
Have you read any books, YA or adult, lately that you would recommend to readers who love your writing?
I have read a few books recently that I’ve loved. I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette, it’s amazing, its a total delight! I read it as I was traveling. It has to be a really good book if it can make long flights go by quickly. That one definitely did it for me. When you’re excited to get on the airplane so you can read, that’s a really good sign!
Also I recently read Laurie Halse Anderson’s new book. I don’t know if you’ve read that, The Impossible Knife of Memory. I think you’ll like it, it’s really good.
Love Letters has been receiving a lot of acclaim and enthusiasm from readers since it came out, and you’ve been speaking on panels and doing signings since the book’s release. I know a lot of authors see fan art on tumblr or have readers come up and quote lines to them, or just talk about how their book affected them. Do you have any favorite experiences with readers since the book came out?
Yeah, definitely. The most amazing thing has been meeting people who have read the book or who the book has been important to. There are a number of experiences that felt really special, or notes that I’ve gotten from people on Facebook, or through my website, or even on Twitter. It’s such a gift as an author, because all you really hope for when you’re writing a book is that someone, somewhere will find it and that it can be meaningful or helpful in some way, that they’ll be able to connect with it. So it’s a real gift.
But a particular instance that comes to mind is when I was traveling in Albuquerque, which is where I grew up, and I visited West Mesa High school, which is where Laurel goes to school in the book. I was visiting the school, and there was a girl there who I met who had read the book, and she ended up sharing with me that she’d lost her mom a couple of years ago. She said that reading the book really helped her and spoke to her in that way, and that was a very special thing. I’ve connected with a few people who have lost somebody close to them in their lives and have felt like the book was true to their own experiences. That’s been really meaningful to me.
I think any teen who has gone through trauma or loss can relate to this story. That kind of leads me into my next question. Teens are always told “it gets better” when they’re facing difficulties in school, whether it’s socially, or overcoming trauma and loss. The assumption is always just get through this, and the other side will be better. I read a story like Laurel’s and I see a girl who is so smart and talented and bright facing such darkness and trying to find her way through it, and I find myself hoping that it does get better for her in that hazy adult future. We leave her in high school. In the spirit of “it gets better”, can you give us a snapshot of where you think Laurel will be in 10-15 years? Is she a poet? Is she living in Albuquerque? Is she happy?
Authors are often reluctant to say what happens to their characters after the end of the book. I think there’s something important about leaving that up to the reader, and keeping that space open for somebody’s own imagination. But I do think that Laurel is ok, and that she continues growing up and feeling, and there is plenty of hope for her. I think she discovers the strength to get through the things that are hard.
In terms of the “it gets better” thing, I think that’s true, it does get better. But one of the things that I wanted to acknowledge in my book is that it gets better, but that doesn’t mean it gets easier. Laurel goes through this journey, and she has a moment at the end of the book where she says, “and I still really miss my sister, and it still really hurts, and it’s still really hard.” I think anybody who has lost somebody close to them will live with thoughts like that their whole life. You learn how to live with it and acknowledge it and talk about it and grow through it. I think that the sign for me that Laurel is going to be ok is that she learned how to talk to people about what she’s feeling, and embrace her own truth, and become her own person. I think that will give her the strength to continue to grow.
That’s a beautiful answer. I think having even that sliver of hope means so much to a reader like me, and to so many other readers. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, Ava!
Of course! Thank you so much.
About Love Letters to the Dead:
About Ava Dellaira: