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‘Letters’ explores ABQ girl’s grief

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Love Letters to the Dead” by Ava Dellaira Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, $17.99, 336 pp.

Ava Dellaira’s writing had centered on poetry for a long time.

As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, Dellaira studied English and worked on poetry in her creative writing classes.

Poetry was still her focus when she attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a Truman Capote Fellow. But that view changed.

“I was thinking that there’s not much money in poetry and I didn’t want to be in academia forever,” Dellaira said in a phone interview from her home in Santa Monica, Calif.

After graduating from the Writers’ Workshop, she started writing the manuscript that became her debut novel, “Love Letters to the Dead.” It’s a book for young adults and is just out.

The coming-of-age novel is about a young girl named Laurel who is grieving over the death of her older sister May, is trying to fit in at high school and is trying to make sense of her fragmented family.

The story is told through Laurel’s letters to dead people; the letters are expository, not romantic.

Laurel’s first letter is to the late rocker Kurt Cobain because she knew May loved him. Laurel also writes letters to other famous dead people, among them Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, River Phoenix, Judy Garland and Amelia Earhart.

“I wanted a letter format rather than a journal,” Dellaira said.

“Letters have a sense of reaching out with the hope of someone responding. That’s an important part of Laurel’s character. She is reaching out.”

The novel is set in Albuquerque where the author grew up.

“For me, writing the book and Laurel’s journey were very connected to my childhood in Albuquerque, and it helped me to process the grief over the sudden loss of my own mother as Laurel was doing with her letters,” Dellaira said.

“Laurel starts out feeling very isolated in her grief. I think that’s often for people who have been through loss or trauma or struggling with daily realities, that popular culture can provide a real sense of belonging or a sense of being connected to something bigger than we are.”

Ava Dellaira, author of "Love Letters to the Dead." (Courtesy photo)

Ava Dellaira, author of “Love Letters to the Dead.” (Courtesy photo)

Laurel attends West Mesa High School. May had gone to Sandia High School. Dellaira graduated from Albuquerque Academy.

The author will discuses the novel at Bookworks on Saturday, April 5, and she’ll give a talk at Academy on Sunday, April 6. Dellaira will also meet with students and teachers at West Mesa.

“The spirit of Albuquerque is real but it’s fictionalized in different places,” she said. “There were certain things that were invented for the story but I hope the spirit of Albuquerque is present and feels real.”

After Iowa, Dellaira moved to Southern California because she also wanted to try her hand at screenwriting. She landed a job as the assistant to film director Stephen Chbosky and became the associate producer of his 2012 film, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Chbosky wrote the novel on which the film is based.

Dellaira said Chbosky read some of her writing and thought she had promise as a novelist.

The same day he told her that, she said, the title for the novel popped into her head along with the concept of writing letters to famous dead people.

Dellaira is working on a second book. It’s not a sequel, but is aimed at young adults.

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