ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — How do you honor your dreams and still make a living in reality?
Like having your cake and eating it too, one Albuquerque writer has learned both are possible, but not always at the same time.
While Ava Dellaira, 32, was on a South American tour in October for the paperback release of her debut novel, “Love Letters to the Dead,” back in Los Angeles, producers and directors were considering how they will turn the book into a movie.
Dellaira’s been hired to write the screenplay. She’s also just learned that her second novel, “17 Years,” sold and has a publish date of 2018 by the same publishers, Farrah, Strauss Giroux, that published her first book.
Her agent, Richard Florest, a book editor turned agent, says Dellaira’s writing is alive: “As the story unfolded, letter after letter revealed a startling depth of emotion and imagination driven by the heart. Here I realized, was someone with a long literary career ahead of her. The genuine thing.”
“It’s great, but it feels shocking all the same,” Dellaira says in a recent phone interview from Santa Monica, where she lives now. “My dad still lives in Albuquerque, so I go back to visit as often as I can. I still consider myself a Burqueña, as we say.”
The family moved to New Mexico when Dellaira was 3. Dellaira, who attended Montezuma Elementary, Jefferson Middle School and Albuquerque Academy, grew up in a house near Old Town with her mother, father and her younger sister, Laura, now a teacher in Denver.
Unlike Laurel, the heroine of “Love Letters to the Dead, Dellaira’s sister is very much alive and happy.
But in her book set in Albuquerque, Laurel’s slightly older sister, May, dies in a tragic accident. Trying to reconcile her grief, Laurel writes letters to dead people, like Janis Joplin, Judy Garland, Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger and more.
Originally an English assignment for West Mesa High School, the letters help the character come to terms with her sister’s death, while discovering her own truth.
In real life, it was Dellaira’s mother, Mary, who died unexpectedly while she worked for the city in 2006.
“I drew on my memories of growing up in Albuquerque, but it’s definitely not autobiographical. Writing the book helped me heal from the death of my mother. Definitely the experience of losing her is a big part of the story,” Dellaira says. “I started the book a couple of years after she died.”
Although the book is marketed as a young adult novel, Dellaira didn’t have that in mind as she wrote. She just told the story. “It came out that way naturally,” she says.
In the beginning she didn’t really dream of being a writer, she dreamed of being an Olympic gymnast, she says.
But by kindergarten those dreams began to fade and she felt her interest moving to books. “I hung out with books at recess. I found comfort in books. I was a huge reader. I would spend entire weekends, reading.”
By second grade she was copying her favorite books, word for word, to savor the stories again.
She was a young girl with an active imagination and an agility with words and sentences, a family friend recalls.
Molly Murphy, now education director for a nonprofit immigrant and refugee resource in Albuquerque, met Mary and Ava Dellaira when they came to visit the preschool where she worked.
“They were holding hands and skipping and singing a song together, lost in their own wonderful world. They radiated so much love for each other, my heart nearly burst,” says Murphy. “As an educator, I knew immediately Ava had extraordinary talents. I would say she could ‘see with her heart’ at a very young age. It was uncanny. She was always articulate, had a gift with words, had tons of kindness, compassion and empathy.”
Poetry to prose
After Albuquerque Academy, Dellaira went to the University of Chicago, where winters were cold and academics were tough. She jokes and says some people say of the university, “it’s where fun comes to die.”
She then got accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she graduated with a master’s of fine arts in poetry. “My background in poetry informs my prose,” she explains.
After graduation and losing her mother, she moved to Los Angeles, hoping to find work as a screenwriter. After plenty of tutoring and other temporary jobs, she landed a position with Stephen Chbosky, author of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” She became an associate producer as his book became a movie.
“I finally got up the courage to show him my writing,” she says, adding she had been working on “Love Letters” as a screenplay. “He’s the one who said what I was really trying to write was a novel. He says the best way to get a movie, was to write the book first. It’s certainly a longer route, but it seems to be the right process for me.”