By Breia Brissey
April 01, 2014 at 05:00 PM EDT

Love Letters to the Dead

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I love it when my pop culture and YA worlds collide. So it’s really no surprise that I gobbled up Ava Dellaira’s debut novel, Love Letters to the Dead (out now). In Love Letters, the main character, Laurel, is given an assignment in English class: Write a letter to a dead person. She chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him. May died young, just like Kurt did. But what starts as a simple assignment turns into a notebook full of letters to people such as Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, Amelia Earhart, and more. Laurel’s letters help her process her feelings and grief surrounding May’s death. This book is a sweet, poignant debut that you won’t want to miss. Here, Dellaira talks about the inspiration for the book and her connection to fellow author Stephen Chbosky.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you come up with the idea for Love Letters to the Dead?

AVA DELLAIRA: The idea came to me rather suddenly—the title, along with the concept of a girl who writes to famous dead people as a way of processing her personal grief. I’ve always been fascinated by pop culture and the way that it can provide a sense of belonging or means of understanding oneself, especially for people who have faced trauma or who feel isolated in some way. So, I think this book was a natural extension of that interest.

Had you ever considered writing a book before?

I’ve wanted to be a writer for nearly as long as I can remember, but I’d actually never imagined I would write a novel. I got my MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and had moved to Los Angeles with aspirations of becoming a screenwriter. I had the good fortune to get a job working for Stephen Chbosky, and when I finally got up the courage to show him some of my work, he told me he thought I should write a novel. Although I hadn’t considered it before, when I was driving home that evening the title popped into my head. I started the book that same night, and although it was never easy, it came more naturally to me than any writing had before. Now, I hope to write many more books!

Talk a little more about Stephen Chbosky’s influence on Love Letters to the Dead.

Beyond giving me the initial suggestion to write a novel, Stephen has had a big influence on me as a writer—he’s someone who writes from the heart, and who always stays true to himself and his process. Getting to witness that taught me a lot about finding my own voice. I wrote much of the first draft of Love Letters while I was working as an associate producer on the The Perks of Being a Wallflower movie, in pre-production, on set, and in the editing room. Being a part of making that film was certainly an inspiration for me as I was working on Love Letters.

How did you decide which people Laurel would write to?

I started out with some celebrities that I myself loved, and began researching others who I thought might be a good fit. As I worked on the book and got to know Laurel, I found that her character and the choices of people to whom she would write mutually informed each other. For example, when Laurel began writing to River Phoenix, I saw the evening that she and her sister, May, had first watched Stand By Me together, and the way that his particular innocence spoke to them, as they felt the first danger of their own slipping away.

The collection of people turned out to be rather eclectic, but Laurel has a reason for reaching out to each of them. (For example, she writes to Allen Lane, who voiced the TV character Mr. Ed, about her troubled Aunt Amy who adores him.) The book traces the evolving connections that Laurel makes between her own life and the lives of the people to whom she writes, so as Laurel’s character and journey became clarified, so did the decisions about the people to include in the book.

The book deals with some heavy stuff, particularly Laurel dealing with the grief of her sister’s death. Without getting too personal, have you found that writing helps you deal with certain things in your life?

Yes, definitely. I’d lost my mother to a sudden death a few years before I started the book, and just as Laurel’s letters help her to process her grief over her sister, writing this book did the same for me; as I wrote about Laurel finding her voice, I found that I was also finding my own.

Have you ever written a letter to someone famous (dead or alive)?

Actually, I haven’t. Although, many of the people to whom Laurel writes are also people who have had a big influence on my own life, and I felt a connection to them through Laurel’s letters.

What are you working on now? Or what’s next for you book wise?

I’m usually private about what I’m working on, because I find that it’s important to me to be alone with a story as I’m discovering it. I will say that in the course of writing Love Letters, I quickly realized that I love writing novels. At first, I didn’t necessarily imagine I’d write another YA book. I’d assumed that this was my “coming of age” story, and thought I’d move onto writing adult books afterwards. But the process of working with my editor and with all of the other amazing people at Macmillan Children’s, as well the opportunity to get to know the wonderful YA community—authors, book bloggers, teachers, librarians, and readers—has made me really excited about continuing to write for that audience.

Anything else you want to add about the book?

As Love Letters gets ready to come out, I feel compelled to take every possible opportunity to express my gratitude. When I first started writing, it was just me and a screen alone together late at night. I used to dream that it might one day be able to reach someone to whom it could matter. And now, I can hardly believe that it’s about to be a real book, in the world!

Love Letters to the Dead

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