A few weeks ago, while in Seattle for the AWP conference, I had the immense pleasure of meeting the very talented Leslye Walton. She was gracious to take time out of her busy schedule to meet with me at Victrola Coffee Roasters, a coffee shop a few blocks from the convention center. I had a great time chatting with her and want to thank her for her kindness. For me, meeting authors is like meeting celebrities, I get nervous and anxious that I’m going to do or say something stupid. But from the moment I recognized Leslye and started to talk to her, I felt at ease. She reminded me a lot of the people I surround myself with—basically she’s not afraid to be herself.
Leslye Walton was born in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps because of this, Leslye has developed a strange kinship with the daffodil—she too can only achieve beauty after a long, cold sulk in the rain. Her debut novel, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender—out March 25th, 2014 from Candlewick Press—was inspired by a particularly long sulk in a particularly cold rainstorm spent pondering the logic, or rather, lack thereof, in love. Leslye has an MA in writing and lives in Seattle, Washington. When she’s not writing, she teaches middle school students how to read and write, and most importantly, how to be kind to each other, even on days when they really don’t feel like it. She is currently working on her next novel.
The Poetics Project: Describe your book in ten words or less.
Leslye Walton: Abstractly I would say “Love makes us such fools.” Normally, “A girl with wings wants to be an ordinary girl.”
TPP: What inspired you to write The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender?
LW: The idea actually came from a song on the Garden State soundtrack. It’s called “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” by Colin Hay. I was driving home—I was doing my student teaching at the time—I was listening to this song and I suddenly had this character, Viviane Lavender, who loves Jack Griffith her entire life. I pulled over, wrote the short story quickly, edited it, revised it, and then submitted it to get into the graduate program at Portland State University. At that point I thought I was done with it.
By the time I actually started school I had all these other characters—Wilhelmina, Gabe, Milan, and some other characters that actually got cut. I had the idea that I was going to write this sort of historical fiction. Around November, I was home for Thanksgiving and was playing with the idea of introducing characters through photographs. I was looking through old photos at my parents’ house. I have a younger sister. When she was about eleven years old, she was tall, all limbs and all teeth. She always ran around with her arms at her side, and it drove my dad crazy because she would be screaming too. There’s a photograph with her wearing one of my dad’s long, white t-shirts running around like that with her mouth open and the shirt billowing out behind her. In that second I wrote “as if she had wings” but I thought to myself “no, this character has wings.”
Then I didn’t know what I was writing anymore because I was writing historical fiction about a girl with wings. After that I didn’t write for a while. I read a lot of magical realism mostly because I was being told that I was writing magical realism and I didn’t really know what that meant. So I read a lot of Isabella Allende, Alice Hoffman—I was a huge fan of hers when I was a teenager—and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
One morning I woke up and immediately Emilienne’s whole family was there waiting for me to tell her story. I sat down and wrote it really fast in about 45 minutes—those chapters haven’t really changed at all. I really love creating characters and had to kill off a couple, I think there were seven siblings in the beginning. But once her whole family was there, I knew where the story was going to go.
TPP: One reviewer compared you to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. What was your reaction to that?
LW: It’s very flattering. Sometimes I think there isn’t a lot of mainstream magical realism out there, so when it comes to who people compare you to they automatically go to the ones people will know. I’m doing a talk about magical realism and was doing research last night and my own book came up. I was like that’s weird. I’m not an expert at all. Isabella Allende, Like Water for Chocolate—I don’t consider my book compared to those at all because those are classics. I feel like a fraud, like I dressed up and snuck in. I’m a magical realist author who isn’t sure what magical realism is really. I wouldn’t call myself an expert. But sure, I’m part of this group.
TPP: Between the whole vampire and dystopian phases, there was a short time when angels were a trend in the Young Adult market. Did your agent have any trouble selling The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender because people would assume it had some angelic theme to it?
LW: I actually didn’t write it with the intention of selling it as Young Adult because there isn’t a lot of strong literary YA out there, not that there isn’t any. Ten years ago there wasn’t much at all.
We tried to sell it as adult fiction first for about a year and a half. Then my agent came to me with the idea that we could really sell it as YA. I was hesitant because it’s dark and very literary, and I don’t know a lot of teenagers that would be like “yes, I’m going to pick this book up, perfect.” But she asked me to let her try, and it went into auction within four days. And I was okay with it because that meant it was supposed to be YA.
Now there’s a lot of talk because it’s controversial—is it YA or is it not. I would say it’s a crossover. Fortunately, we slipped in and didn’t get compared to angels. I tried to really move away from the idea that she was divine when I was writing.
TPP: Personally, I found the title really interesting. How did you come up with it?
LW: Back in grad school—when I was trying to figure out what to call my thesis—I was walking through a bookstore trying to find what titles really grabbed me and what I was attracted to. I realized there were a few words I gravitated towards, “strange” being one and “beautiful” another. And for a while it was “Strange and Beautiful” which was a line that one of Emilienne’s loves says to her.
After that it changed to a lot of things but still played with the notion of “strange and beautiful” while adding the word sorrow a lot. Then I played around with adding “of Ava Lavender” to it. There are a lot of titles that have that format, like The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I really like the format, but I wanted to make sure it was its own thing.
Then one morning, I woke up and decided that “sorrows” had to be in there. It was as much a part of the story as “strange and beautiful,” not only because of Nathaniel, but because the whole story is about the beauty of sorrow and pain.
TPP: Did you have any input when choosing the cover for your book?
LW: I didn’t but I could have. Matt Roeser, the art designer, is incredibly talented. He took the book home, read it that night, and came back the next morning with a sketch. He came up with the whole concept and the colors. Then he sent it to me and asked what I thought. I thought it was beautiful. When we were setting up my website he even offered to help. He is such a sweetheart.
TPP: What has been the best part of getting The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender published?
LW: All of it has just been really positive and really amazing. Meeting people who care about the characters has been a great experience. It’s always weird to meet people who talk about them with the same familiarity that I do or people who it really speaks to. I’ve talked to a lot of adults and not many kids. I can’t wait to meet the kids who really connect with the story.
I think more kids than not experience pretty awful things in their teenage years in one way or another. They grasp on to things—like fiction—that lets them deal with things without dealing with the truth. For example, I’m teaching my kids about the Holocaust. They don’t know what it is. We read Milkweed and Terrible Things before we read Nights and The Diary of Anne Frank. It allows them to deal with whatever horrible thing through fiction before they have to deal with the fact that this really happened to somebody.
I think more kids are suffering than we realize. I hope this will give them an outlet. If this can speak to kids and give them a voice, I’m really looking forward to that the most.
TPP: Name three songs that would be on a soundtrack to your novel.
LW: “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” by Colin Hay. Aqualung has this song called “Strange and Beautiful” which is very eerie and strange, and I listened to it a lot. And “Gabriel and the Vagabond” by Foy Vance. It’s about this angel Gabriel who disappears when everyone starts paying attention to the people who need support.
TPP: If The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender was made into a film, who could you see playing Ava?
LW: This always changes. The first time I thought of this I was flipping through Teen Vogue and I saw Emily Browning. She’s a little older now but she has that very cherub face. Chloe Grace Moretz would be great as either Ava or Cardigan. Or Elle Fanning, I could see her as Ava or even Cardigan as well.
TPP: What do you get out of writing?
LW: I’m an unusually imaginative adult. As soon as I’m not talking to someone, as soon as I’m out that door walking home, I’m in a completely different world. I’m not thinking about what’s happening next or what my day is going to be like. I’m always in this other world. It doesn’t have to be about whatever I’m writing. I just have all these little worlds and little characters in my head. It’s completely common to walk in on me having a total conversation with no one. My sister has tons of stories from when we were kids, and I’m just chatting away. And I still do this. I just always live in this other world. It didn’t take me long to start putting it on the page. If I didn’t write I wouldn’t have an outlet for these other worlds.
TPP: What advice can you give aspiring authors? Or what advice do you wish you would’ve been given?
LW: I always tell people in any kind of creative field, if you can do anything else and still feel really satisfied with life, then go do that other thing. It’s incredibly hard to have that sort of determination and self-motivation to allow yourself to be completely delusional for such a long period of time. I had no idea where I was going with this when I started writing. Realistically, I knew there is very little chance that I would be able to do this for a living and that anyone was going to care about this at all. So I became a teacher and I teach, but writing is what I really want to do and it’s what I do anyway.
Everyone was telling me writing’s a great hobby. But I wish someone would have said, if this is what you really want to do, it’s going to be hard. You’re going to be in grad school living on $700 a month, you’re going to be sad writing this book in your apartment with your cat, and that’s all you’re going to for two years. It’s going to be a struggle and really had. And it’s going to be another nine years before the book will actually come out.
I wish someone would have said “if this is what you really want to do, then do it.” If you don’t want that life, then go do something else. You have to be really passionate about it and be okay with life not looking ordinary, not being able to have the nice house and the nice cars because you’re a poor writer and that’s your life.
TPP:What’s the most recent thing you’ve read?
LW: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer. Strangely we went to the same undergraduate school. I went back and one of my professors asked if I met her. I didn’t remember if I did because she was younger than I was. Then one day my mom brought up the fact that her brother used to walk me to school. And I was shocked because she lived three houses away from me growing up. I didn’t realize that that Marissa Meyer was the author Marissa Meyer. I remember her when she was in the second grade. Anyway, I really liked Cinder and just started Scarlet but I’m really liking it a lot. I try to read a lot of YA and magical realism because whatever I’m reading or watching tends to seep into what I’m writing so I have to be really careful.
To learn more about Leslye Walton and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, visit her website.