Ava Dellaira is new to the genre of YA but you'd never know it after reading her debut novel, Love Letters to the Dead, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in April. The story follows one high school student named Laurel who's in the process of grieving the unexpected death of her teenage sister, and going through all the other growing pains that go hand in hand with young adulthood. Laurel writes letters to famous figures from pop culture who have already died — it starts out as a class assignment, but it becomes the entire medium in which we learn Laurel's story.
I had the chance to chat with the up and coming author over the phone about Love Letters, which was recently optioned by Fox 2000 to be made into a major motion picture by the same producers who made The Fault in Our Stars.
What inspired you to write Love Letters to the Dead?
Ava Dellaira: I always wanted to be a writer but I never necessarily thought about writing a novel. I went to the Iowa Writer's Workshop and studied poetry there, and then upon graduating I figured I would need to figure out how to make a living. I moved out to Los Angeles thinking that I would try screenwriting, and there I met Stephen Chbosky just as he was starting to work on The Perks of Being a Wallflower movie, and I ended up working on that film with him. It was an amazing, lucky break. We're still really close, and when I finally got up the guts to show him some of my writing he told me, "I think you should try writing a novel." That same night on my way home from work, I remember exactly where I was, having gotten off the freeway sitting at the stoplight staring up at the moon, and I was like, Love Letters to the Dead. That's the title. I'm always struggling for titles at the end of my writing, so it's a sign; the next time that happens to me I'm definitely going to write whatever that is.
I came up with the title and I knew that I wanted it to be letters to famous dead musicians and actors, kind of as a way of dealing with personal grief. I've always been interested in pop culture and the way that can provide a sense of belonging. Especially for people sometimes who might feel isolated otherwise or going through difficult things. I always think about that feeling of listening to an amazing song and feeling like it was written just for you; it makes you feel so connected to the bigger world because you know that there are all of these other people out there listening to that same song at that same time.
And also, I had lost my mom a couple years before I started writing the book. She died suddenly and I was still very much recovering from that while I was working on the book, and I think as Laurel's letters helped her to heal, writing the book did the same for me.
I'm also curious, how did you go about choosing which famous people Laurel would write letters to?
AD: I started out writing the book with Laurel being very close to me and my own childhood memories, so I started out with a lot of people that I really loved growing up. Kurt Cobain was the first letter that I wrote, and Janis Joplin was early on too, and River Phoenix. Then as Laurel's character evolved and the book evolved, the list grew as I got to know the story better. Her character and the people that she was going to write to mutually informed each other; when I started writing the letter to Judy Garland, I could see the moments of Laurel being with her mom, so I knew that was a part of her relationship with her mother. The idea to write a letter to Allan Lane, who played the voice of Mr. Ed on TV, was based on Laurel and her aunt trying to connect because she was this foreign presence in a way; it gives her this kind of window into a different world and a way of kind of thinking about her relationship with her aunt. There were other letters — I had a bunch of letters to Emily Dickinson — I had other people that she wrote to, but as the story became more focused the letters that made it into the final novel became clearer.
Technology and social media play a pretty significant role in teenagers' adolescence and general life experiences nowadays, and I thought it was interesting that the internet wasn't really present in Laurel's grieving process. Did you intentionally leave that out of the novel?
AD: I did think about it and I did make kind of a conscious choice to leave that out of the book somewhat, because I think of the secrecy that Laurel has. I played with the idea of the characters having Facebook and different things like that, and I think that because so much of what Laurel was coping with is these kind of secret things, these secrets surrounding her sister's death and the relationship with her sister, which feels totally private, that it made sense to me that she would cope in a more old fashioned but also very private way as opposed to something online. I think that does makes total sense because when people are grieving, you want to share that with other people, and a Facebook page is a great way to do that, to have some kind of communal feeling.
But in Laurel's case, she's kind of isolated in her grieving. I think that the alternate for her is she is trying to connect with a bigger world and that's why she's writing to famous rock stars, but that's a similar way of trying to find an outside. In her case, she can only do that in a way that feels totally private until she learns to actually open up to the people in her world.
Do you have a favorite character?
AD: Laurel is definitely the character — unsurprisingly, I guess — that I felt closest to, or that was probably closest to me. I think both Hannah and Tristan were two of my favorite characters to write. Hannah is an amalgamation of people that I've known in my life and is inspired by different moments of friendship, so she was fun to write for that reason, and I just kind of had a soft spot for her in particular. Tristan was similarly kind of colorful and fun to write. Of course you kind of love all your characters, I guess.
I'm working on the screenplay now and it's really cool to go back. When you finish a book, you kind of let go; there's a certain kind of sadness in finishing it like, "Oh I'm going to miss these characters, I'm going to miss visiting them." Now this has been a nice gift, to go back and spend more time with them in a different way.
That's so exciting that Love Letters is going to be a movie. How are you feeling about writing the script?
AD: It is very exciting, I feel super lucky. It's great to get to spend time with the characters, and I feel lucky to have the chance to figure out how to tell this story in a different way. I think that the producers at Temple Hill and Fox 2000 are all super awesome and I feel grateful they didn't blink an eye about letting me do the draft of the screenplay. I love, love, loved The Fault in Our Stars; I think they did such a great job with that.
Oh my god, I'm still crying about it.
AD: Yeah, I think I'm in very good hands.
So this is exciting for you too because you're getting to do what you initially sought out to.
AD: Yeah, it's perfect coming back full circle.
I don't know how far along in the process you are, but do you anticipate the film to be very different from the novel? Are you hoping you get to keep most of the details the same?
AD: It's too early in the process to say anything specific. Of course, even though I'm writing the script, it's always collaboration with producers, the studio, and other people's input. But there's every intention to be true to the spirit of the book and to capture that. I think there's always some distillation that has to happen, because you just can't just fit an entire book into an entire movie — there's not as much space — but you can definitely fit the same story and the same essence. As an author who's writing the screenplay, it's important to be careful not to be too precious and have a certain blind spot of like, "Oh, but this has to be in it!" I'm being careful to look at the movie as its own thing, like its own creation.
Do you know when anything will start to happen with the film? Any idea when it'll be done when or when you'll start shooting?
AD: It's a little bit early for that. There's nothing official yet and I'm just writing now, so probably once the script is done there'll be a better sense of the timing on everything else.
Who have some of your biggest influences have been in your writing, from poetry to film scripts and even your novel?
AD: I put some of my poetry love in the book; Elizabeth Bishop was my introduction to poetry in high school and helped me start falling in love with it. I didn't know a lot about YA until finishing the first draft of this book and talking to my agent who said Love Letters fit into the YA category. I read Looking for Alaska by John Green and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson amongst a bunch of others. I had a really long and messy first draft and as I was figuring out how to shape the story, those books were definitely big influences and inspirations. Stephen Chbosky is definitely a great mentor and his work influenced me as well. Recently I've been reading other movie scripts intermittently as I'm writing for inspiration, so I've been reminded of Almost Famous, which was one of my very favorite films.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
AD: I think the best advice I can think about that, at least for me, has been helpful is just to write the thing that you have to write; write something that you love so much you can imagine living with it forever, because for me the difference between Love Letters and other things that I've tried to write is that I cared about it so much that I knew I would keep working on it until it was good. The first draft did not read like anything that one would assume would turn into a novel one day, but I kept rewriting it and I wrote tons of drafts and got feedback from other people, because it was a story that I knew I needed to tell. I wasn't writing it to try to get a book published. Obviously I did dream that would happen, I think anybody who wants to be a writer does, but I think from the inside I guess instead of from the outside; instead of trying to think about what I could write that would validate me or make me a writer to the world, I thought, what do I feel like I need to write right now, or what do I believe? What do I believe in enough?