Recently, I was lucky enough to get a chance to speak with Ava Dellaira, author of best-selling YA novel, Love Letters to the Dead. This is an epistolary novel comprising a series of letters written by protagonist, Laurel, to various dead pop culture icons as Laurel attempts to process and move on from the death of her sister, which she witnessed, but can’t fully understand. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation…
Ava is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she studied poetry. I asked her where her interest in poetry had come from and she explained that she had always wanted to write, ever since she entered early adolescence. Some of her favorite poets include James Galvin, Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson. An early draft of Love Letters to the Dead actually contained letters written by Laurel to Emily Dickinson, but those hit the cutting room floor during a revision.
Ava got into fiction writing almost by accident. Knowing that there aren’t a lot of jobs out there for poets, and interested in all aspects of pop culture, including movies, she decided to move to L.A. and try to become a screenwriter. She secured a position with Stephen Chbosky, director and author of Perks of Being a Wallflower. He looked at some of her writing and suggested that she try writing a novel.
Ultimately she did just that.
I asked her whether, and how, poetry informed her fiction writing. She said that obviously poetry appears in the book, but also poetry typically informs the way she writes prose including the rhythms of language as well as being relatively heavy in symbolism and imagery.
I was also fascinated (as I know many other readers were) that Ava wrote the book in an epistolary format – as a series of letters. I asked her why she made the choice and what challenges she confronted in tackling this format.
For her, the title of the book came first so she always knew she was going to write the book as a series of letters. She never experimented with other formats.
She liked the idea of letters rather than, say, journal entries, because letters signal a desire to connect with the world outside. Laurel writes in an almost “fantastical” way to people she can never meet, but who are nevertheless a part of the fabric of her world.
The challenges of writing in this format for Ava included the fact that letters are always in the past tense reflecting back on the action and that it was difficult for her to find the right balance of moving the story forward and recounting facts from Laurel’s life as Laurel began to address letters to new recipients for the first time. In the end, she had to write in a way that effectively assumed the letter recipients understood the basics of Laurel’s world, so she didn’t have to repeat facts over and over again. She had to strike a delicate balance between Laurel talking to these people about themselves while she worked through her own issues. Ava noted that Laurel initially idolizes the letter recipients and then as the book progresses she becomes angry with them, and ultimately makes peace with them. This parallels her own personal journey in dealing with her sister’s death.
In the book, the letters originate from a class assignment. When I asked Ava how she came up with the idea of the class assignment as a starting point, she said that she thought it had something to do with a protagonist who felt like she was supposed to be doing something else for school and then it blossoms into a very private, personal project for her.
I asked Ava about what advice she’d give to new writers, particularly in terms of conquering fears about getting that first book done.
She said the best advice she’d ever heard came from Jennifer Egan and it was basically not to be afraid of writing badly. It doesn’t matter if you have to write 50 bad pages to come up with one good sentence. This process can take a long time and you end up revising a lot and throwing a lot out, but it also allows you to write from a place that feels honest.
She emphasized that it’s really important to write something you care about and that you’re prepared to live with. Then you’ll care enough to go through all the revisions over the long haul until it’s truly ready.
She pointed out that the saying “writing is rewriting” is very true!
As to what she’s working on now, Ava has recently completed the script for a movie version of Love Letters to the Dead and will shortly be starting a new novel.