An Indies Introduce New Voices/Indies Next List Q&A With Leslye Walton

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Leslye Walton is the author of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender (Candlewick), a spring 2014 New Voices pick for young adults and the number-one title on the Spring 2014 Kids’ Indie Next List. Walton has an MA in writing and lives in Seattle, Washington, where she works as a middle school language arts teacher.

Walton’s eloquent debut about a girl with speckled wings and a heritage of love, loss, and magic “trying to fit in, and a family trying to understand its fate, has the feel of classics such as Like Water for Chocolate and Chocolat,” said bookseller Melissa Fox of Watermark Books and Café in Wichita, Kansas. “This is a book that’s timeless, beautiful, and perfect for lovers of magical realism.” It is also a novel that will have crossover appeal for adult readers.

What inspired you to write this book ?

Leslye Walton: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender started out as a short story that came to me while listening to the song “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.” I remember listening to the lyrics, “If I lived till I could no longer climb my stairs/I just don’t think I’ll ever get over you” and pondering the logic, or lack thereof, in love — the ways we coax ourselves to love, to continue loving, to leave love behind. And through this thinking arose Viviane Lavender, a girl who loves a boy her whole life. I imagined the burden of this love, the many ways she’d try to free herself from it. I imagined the immense weight of loving someone who didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, love you back and how it would define every step you took from that point on.

Over the course of a few months, more characters began showing themselves to me, revealing their intricate place in this now-evolving story. Henry was based on an autistic boy I taught who had a preoccupation with and remarkable aptitude for mapmaking. Trouver was a neighbor’s dog I walked to earn money while in grad school. But it was Ava who changed everything. At the time, I was playing with the idea of introducing characters through detailed descriptions of photographs. I was looking at a picture of my younger sister, taken when she was perhaps 11. To be honest, I’m not even sure if the image itself actually exists, or if it’s merely an image that I recall when thinking of my sister as a young child — all long limbs and big teeth, wearing oversize white T-shirts, and running, always running, her shirt billowing out behind her as if she had wings. And it was in that description that I came to a stop, my fingers poised over the keyboard, and I thought, No. Not as if she had wings. She has wings. And in that, I also realized I had no idea what I was writing. I didn’t write again for weeks.

Each of the Roux/Lavender women seem to have a “gift.” Which would you want and why?

LW: Hmm. They all seem quite dreadful, don’t they? Emilienne’s “gift” was always my favorite — I find it comforting to consider that coincidences could have meaning, that there’s truth behind old wives’ tales. But to be haunted by loved ones who have died? That would be terrible. You’d have to be on your best behavior all the time. I’d be so mad at them and like, “Listen, sis. It’s a bummer you’re dead and all, but can a girl get some privacy?” Sheesh.

Your debut might be written as magical realism, but it deals with complex, dark, yet very real themes. Why do you think it is important for YA literature to explore these themes?

LW:  I wish I could say I began writing this novel with its undertones and themes and rich symbolism already fully developed, but the truth is Ava Lavender developed much more organically than that. It was the characters that told me the plot, certainly not the other way around. That said, as a teacher, I find that my students struggle to cope with some of the brutal ugliness of our history. I have always believed that YA novels that explore dark themes — books like Speak, Thirteen Reasons Why, Looking for Alaska, and, if I’m bold enough to include my little book in that prolific list, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender — help young people explore some of the horrible sides of humanity within the safety of fiction. It is for this reason that my students and I study the Holocaust using novels like Milkweed and The Book Thief before engaging with Eli Wiesel’s Night.

What advice would you give a young adult interested in writing?

LW: I think if you can do anything else and still feel fulfilled in life, go do that other thing. To say it is extremely difficult to have a job in a creative field is putting it lightly. It takes mounds of internal motivation, determination, and, if I’m honest, a bit of delusion, and that is a lot to try to muster up on a regular basis. Plus, as sad as it is to admit, all that hard work doesn’t always result in happily ever after. I was just one of the lucky ones.

What is your earliest memory related to reading?

LW: I was always a very passionate reader. The idea of not being drawn to a book, or not enjoying reading, is completely foreign to me. My mom was a huge influence in fostering a love of reading in our house. She took us to the public library at least once a week and allowed my sister and me to check out mounds of books. To this day, the library is still a place of refuge for me, and I admit, I’m a bit skeptical of people who don’t own a library card.

Are you working on anything now?

LW:  Yes.  I’m really excited about it. The tricky part — at least, the tricky part for me — is making sure I’m contributing something that hasn’t been said before. I keep asking myself, Am I saying something new? Or at least in a new way? I hope so.

Have you ever bought a book because of its cover?

LW:  I’m not sure if I’ve ever bought a book solely because of its cover, but an attractive cover, or even an unusual title, can definitely catch my attention. I remember being particularly drawn to the novel Half Life by Shelley Jackson, an unusual story about conjoined twins. The cover brings to mind a Rorschach ink blot test, with the mirrored forms of the two women splayed across the front of the book. It’s a mind-blowing story with an equally fitting cover.

If you were a bookseller, is there a book you would say YA readers just have to read?

LW: I started teaching The Giver by Lois Lowry to my seventh- and eighth-graders a few years ago and have continued this tradition each year following. It’s one of those great pieces of YA literature that my students always finish in a state of bewilderment. The writing is so beautiful and the plot so artfully revealed; the students always have such strong reactions, especially to the ending in particular. I am also a big fan of Daniel Handler. His YA novel Why We Broke Up is just perfect from the very beginning when it says,

“It’s a beautiful day, sunny and whatnot. The sort of day when you think everything will be all right, etc. Not the right day for this, not for us, who went out when it rains, from October 5 to November 12. But it’s December now, and the sky is bright, and it’s clear to me. I’m telling you why we broke up, Ed. I’m writing it in this letter, the whole truth of why it happened. And the truth is that I goddamn loved you so much.” 

That part kills me every time. That is exactly what it is like to be in middle school. My students don’t find it as amusing as I do. To them October 5 to November 12 is a lifetime. Perhaps that’s why I goddamn loved this book so much. It describes in perfect detail the awkward pain of being a teenager, trying to mime all these adult emotions and situations when, in reality, you don’t have any idea what you’re doing and you’re terrified that someone is going to find out.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three titles would you want to have with you?

LW: How to Make an American Quilt by Whitney Otto has remained my favorite book since I was 14. It was the first book I truly fell in love with, so I would definitely want that book with me. Then perhaps One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which was the first piece of magical realism that really spoke to me. And for my final book, maybe something that makes me laugh, like Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosch.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton (Candlewick, Hardcover, 9780763665661) Publication Date: March 25, 2014.

Learn more about Leslye Walton at

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