Gayle Forman, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Emma Watson have one big thing in common: They absolutely adore Ava Dellaira’s debut YA novel, Love Letters to the Dead. Told through a series of letters to icons such as Kurt Cobain and Judy Garland, the young, fearless, and flawed Laurel writes about her struggles to make friends, be herself, and cope with her sister May’s sudden death. In this interview, Dellaira shares with us how she overcame her inner critic and the best advice mentor Stephen Chbosky ever gave her.
Bookish: The Perks of Being a Wallflower author Stephen Chbosky encouraged you to write this novel. What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from him on writing?
Ava Dellaira: Stephen is a truly courageous writer who stays true to himself and his process—he writes things that matter to him, from a place that’s urgent and genuine. When I met him, I was new to Los Angeles, struggling to find my way and my voice. I was eager for recognition, and in a hurry to arrive at the moment when the world would say, “You’re a writer now.” Of course, outside validation is important—we all need it on some level—but Stephen helped me to learn that first and foremost, we have to find faith in ourselves and our own work. He helped me to learn to believe that I was a writer, even when it was just me alone at night working on a novel I didn’t know if anyone else would read. And this belief helped me to write more honestly and to be patient with the process.
Bookish: What’s a life lesson you learned from him?
AD: In addition to being a writing mentor to me, Stephen is also a wonderful friend and teacher. My experiences working with him have given me the opportunity to learn and grow in ways that are hard to quantify. Getting to see Stephen direct the Perks movieis one example of this. He treated everyone involved with such respect and appreciation, and he never took a moment of it for granted. Even at 3:00 a.m. after a tough 16-hour day, even when a generator blew in the middle of shooting an important scene, even when it was maybe 100 degrees in the movie theater where we were shooting the Rocky Horror scene, he never lost sight of the fact that making the movie was a dream come true for him. He met the most difficult challenges head-on, while holding onto his gratitude for the process and the people involved in it. That lesson—about staying present and being grateful for where you are—extends beyond writing and is invaluable for so many circumstances in life.
Bookish: Who is your favorite character from Perks?
AD: I truly love all of the characters in that book, so it’s hard to pick! But, at the risk of being unoriginal, I’d have to say that Charlie is my favorite. When I first read Perks, it’s like Charlie’s voice got stuck in my head. I found myself thinking the way that Charlie talks. (This happens to me when I read writing that I am really taken by.) Charlie’s capacity for empathy is astounding, and I love how he is simultaneously innocent and wise beyond his years.
Bookish: One of my favorite quotes from Love Letters is when Laurel says talented people are afraid of their untapped potential—not because they’ll let themselves down, but because they’ll let down those who think they’ll do great things. What fears did you have to overcome on the road to becoming a published author?
AD: That’s a great question—I had to overcome many fears! I think that anytime we do something that means a lot to us or that we put a lot of ourselves into, there’s always the terrifying possibility of “failure.” Even after I sold Love Letters, which I was utterly elated about, there was still a voice in my head that said, “But they could always decide not to publish it after all if you don’t do a good job rewriting…” Part of me was still afraid I wouldn’t be able to live up to this amazing thing that had just happened. But I kept showing up and trying to write as honestly as I could. For me, at least, doing the work is the only real way to combat the fear.
When something doesn’t yet exist, except in our imaginations, it can still be the perfect version of itself. In reality, almost nothing is ever perfect. Love Letters certainly isn’t, and I know that a lot of people will have criticisms of it, and that many people may not like it. But other people may respond to it in spite of its imperfections. It’s a very vulnerable thing to share something that I’ve put so much of myself into. But it’s always better, I think, to have done something imperfectly than not to have done it. This is part of Laurel’s realization in the book, too. She comes to understand that she doesn’t have to be the perfect version of herself in order to be seen or responded to or loved; she can be messy and human and find the courage to let herself be known.
Bookish: Laurel writes to many people, but Kurt Cobain is the first and most repeated. What made you pick Kurt?
AD: Kurt Cobain’s music has meant a lot to me at important moments in my own life, and he was the first person who came to mind when I got the idea for Love Letters. In the book, Laurel first turns to Kurt because she has a strong association between him and her sister, May. While I was writing, I discovered that May was the first person to play Nirvana for Laurel, and, as we later learn, that this took place at a time when Laurel was both striving to be a part of her sister’s world, and burying her own traumatic experiences. Laurel keeps returning to Kurt in her letters, almost as if she believes he holds a key that could unlock something within her.
Kurt is such an important figure for Laurel, in part, because he so brilliantly and explosively expresses many of the emotions that she is still unable to. At one point Laurel says to him, “You sung the fear and anger and all of the feelings that people are afraid to admit to. Even me.” Ultimately Laurel’s connection to Kurt and his music does help her to access her own feelings of anger, and acknowledging those difficult emotions allows her to move forward and begin to heal.
Bookish: Who would you write to if given the same assignment?
AD: I have to say I’d write to the same people Laurel writes to! They are all people to whom I already felt a connection or whom I grew to love over the course of writing and researching the book.
Bookish: Laurel went to a new school for a fresh start. Have you ever started over from scratch?
AD: I started high school at a private school that many of the other kids had been attending since 6th grade. Ultimately, the school ended up being great for me, but at the time it was lonely and scary to enter a new place where I didn’t know anyone. The circumstances were not nearly as dramatic as Laurel’s, but I think that for a lot of kids, the beginning of high school (whether they know anyone there or not) can feel like starting from scratch in a lot of ways—it’s a whole new world, with a new set of rules, risks and emotions to navigate.
Bookish: If you had to start over tomorrow, where would you go?
AD: I’ve always wanted to visit Sicily (where my Grandfather was born). That seems like a great place to begin anew!
Bookish: What’s your favorite song and movie that you reference in the book?
Bookish: May’s first memory is of holding Laurel. What’s yours?
AD: I also have a very early memory of holding my younger sister right after she was born, and it’s one that I treasure! But my first memory (I was maybe around two) is of following my mom down the path in our courtyard where she’d gone to greet someone at the gate. I was walking behind her, and I saw a dead bee lying on the cement. I remember thinking, “I wonder if bees can still sting you when they are dead?” So, with a child’s curiosity, I stepped on it to find out. Turns out that they can! Crying ensued, but my mom took good care of me.
Bookish: Laurel goes through some very dark, emotional, and scarring experiences—what was the writing process like for you? What helped you tap into such deep-rooted emotions?
AD: Writing the first draft of the book was very much a process of discovery. After I got the idea forLove Letters, Laurel introduced herself to me. And, as I got to know her, I found we had a lot in common. We shared some of the same childhood memories, and her friends and family resembled some of the people who mean a lot to me. But Laurel’s story was her own, and as I learned to listen to her—over the course of many nights at my computer screen—I found that a lot of what she said was a surprise to me.
Much of that early, stream-of-consciousness writing eventually got cut from the book, but it allowed me to access some important (and sometimes tough) feelings, and it formed some pivotal moments in the narrative. Ultimately shaping Laurel’s emotional journey took time, space, and help—from friends, from other readers, and from my editor, Joy, who asked great questions about Laurel’s character that forced me to go back and look at some important parts of Laurel’s emotional process that I’d been avoiding.
In some ways, this book came more naturally than any writing had before, but it was also the most difficult thing that I’d ever written, because, like you said, a lot of Laurel’s experiences are painful, and they were hard to write about and feel through. One thing that helped me during the process was taking long walks, which I’d often do in the mornings before work. I would dream that someday Love Letters could become a book that might mean something to someone who needed a story like Laurel’s.
Bookish: Your mother’s sudden death helped to inspired this book. What do you think she would’ve liked most about it?
AD: I think she would have liked the message of the book—that despite the pain or trauma or sadness we may experience, life is also full of beauty and possibility and value. There are certain things that we are powerless to change: We can’t, for example, bring someone back from the dead, no matter how much we miss him or her. But we can heal. We have the power to make choices, and to carve out our own paths. In Laurel’s words, our lives matter.
Ava Dellaira is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. She grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and received her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago. Love Letters to the Dead is her debut novel. She currently lives in Santa Monica, where she is at work on her second book.