It’s not everyday that you pick up a book humming with magic. But when you do, well, that might just be the most magical occurrence out there. When I first picked up Leslye Walton’s riveting debut novel, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender I knew I was going to be able to put it down. It’s a novel infused with old-world superstitions and magic (the narrator was born with wings, as in literal wings). But at it’s heart, it’s a novel about what it means to simply be human underneath everything else. It delves into what means to love and be loved – to love and lose and love and gain in equal measure. Walton’s prose is both haunting and melodic, the plot is fast-paced and irresistible, and the cast of characters range from comical to tragic and everything in between. In short, it’s a novel unlike any I’ve ever read, and it’s one of those books that makes you feel like the world will never be okay unless everyone else reads it too. After all, everyone needs a dose of magic in their lives, and this is one novel that’s sure to give you that and more with every word.
Best of all, The Strange and Beauitful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a shining example of Magical Realism, the only genre of literature to rise up out of Latin America. In the timeless tradition of artists like Rudolfo Anaya and Gabriel Garica Marquez, Walton crafts a coming-of-age tale that seamlessly blends the real and the unreal into one inseparable whole. Both readers who are familiar with the genre and those who are new to the party will find themselves engrossed in Ava’s story as the magical elements bring out what’s most real about her and her family – the love that brings people together and tears them apart. Remember, this is the only genre that was invented and perfected in Latin America, so it’s always a treat to see it still being used by a modern author. Fans of One Hundred Years of Solitude or Bless Me Ultima will find that The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender presents a fresh take on this old and classic concept. It’s full of everything that makes magical realism shine, but with twists and turns you couldn’t possibly predict.
It’s easy to see why I was psyched to sit down with Leslye to speak with her about Ava Lavender, her writing process, and what’s coming up next for her. I’m thrilled to be bringing this éxclusive interview to you all, and remember – this is just the beginning – we’ve got so much more coming for you here at Latin é Diverse Books. Get ready to read!
– Caitlin Smith
Editor-in-Chief, Latin é
é: First off, can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender?
Leslye: 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. 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 eleven. To be honest, I’m not even sure if the image itself actually exists, or if it 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.
é: Now, being a big fan of magical realism I recognized it immediately in the story of Ava’s family… You blend fantastical elements into the real world in a way that feels as easy as breathing. Did you know when you started out that you wanted to write a book like that?
Leslye: Not at all. When I started writing The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, I didn’t know I was writing magical realism; I was just writing. But with the discovery of Ava, I realized that I wasn’t writing historical fiction, or fantasy. I was writing something else.
é: What does magical realism mean to you? What appealed to you about the genre?
Leslye: I’m certainly no expert, but I’m told that the secret to magical realism is to write in a way that your reader believes the real as much as the magic; you want the two worlds to weave together seamlessly. I’ve always found it easy to suspend disbelief, perhaps this is why my stories contain bizarre characters that transform themselves into birds, or can detect different emotions from a scent only they can smell. It might also explain the reason I was drawn to this genre.
é: Did you read any other works of magical realism in preparation for telling Ava’s tale? How much research went into the telling?
Leslye: At the beginning, I didn’t know I was writing magical realism, and then I picked up the late Gabriel Garica Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude for the first time. It like listening to someone speak a language I thought only I understood. After that, I immersed myself in the genre and began exploring the works of Alice Hoffman, Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, and Joanne Harris.
It was from these stories that I learned it was important to find a way to ground these peculiar characters of mine, which was why I tried to give them some historical context and a setting that was true to life. I wanted to place these strange creatures in history for Ava to later discover. I liked the thought of her hunched over those lovely unwieldy microfilm readers, searching for her ancestors in the blurred backgrounds of archived photographs. I liked the thought that people as strange as Beauregard, Emilienne, even Pierette, the canary, could be obscure characters in someone else’s story.
I also frequented the local patisseries and boulangies, learning everything I could about the inner workings of a bakery and eating tons of pastries. I was living in Portland, Oregon, and fortunately there were quite a few bakeries—some even French bakeries specifically—within walking distance of my apartment. I ate my way through the city—croissants, pain du chocolat, napoleans, macarons. The funny part is that it turns out I’m gluten intolerant, which explains why I was so sick while I was writing this book. But what’s the saying? Art is pain?
é: I read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima in school, but your novel is very modern, and it feels like a refreshed take on the classic genre. Did you find yourself incorporating a lot of your own experiences into the story?
Leslye: You know, I find that real life doesn’t lend itself very well to fiction. That said, I do find myself inspired by moments—the intensity of a child at playtime, the quiet devotion of a long married couple, the beauty of a rainstorm—and those moments will often bleed onto the page. Most of my muses come in human form. Henry is based on an autistic boy I taught who had a preoccupation with and remarkable aptitude for mapmaking. Cardigan is a blend between my two best friends, and Trouver is a neighbor’s dog I walked to earn money while in grad school.
é: Though the novel is rife with symbolism, the motif that seems to repeat itself the most is that of birds/flying. Both Ava and her Great Aunt have a deep connection to birds. What was it that led you to that idea/point?
Leslye: I wanted to pull away from this idea that Ava herself, or even her family might consider her divine. In this thinking, I wondered, With whom—or even perhaps what—might Ava relate? When I discovered Ava had wings, I wasn’t sure what I was writing until I woke up one morning and found the Roux family waiting for me to tell their story, including Pierette, Emilienne’s sister who transforms herself into a canary. And that was when all the bird connections, most of them not entirely deliberate, started to fall in my lap. I was careful not to flood the pages with them though—I’ve read medical reports of people growing feathers instead of hair, but alas! That one got left on the cutting room floor.
é: The descriptions in your story are lush and vibrant – I felt like I was there with Ava and her family. Have you always lived in the pacific northwest? Why did you choose to base your story there?
Leslye: Yes, I am a Pacific Northwest girl, that’s very true. The reason I based Ava Lavender in Seattle is quite a simple one. They say write what you know, and I know the Pacific Northwest. Like I said earlier, I wanted to give these bizarre creatures a solid ground to stand on and I felt I could do that for them if I wrote about a place where I’ve stood most of my life.
é: Can you talk a little about your writing process? Maybe walk us through a typical writing day?
Leslye: This is probably quite unprofessional of me to admit, but I have horrible writing habits. There’s something about sitting down at a desk and forcing myself to write for a predetermined amount of time that makes being on task incredibly difficult for me. I tried renting an office space for a summer once and I think the most I wrote was a couple of pages. That isn’t to say I haven’t had to force myself to write from time to time. I’ve learned that I’m most productive when I have something else going on around me, like a chatty classroom or a busy coffee shop. But I can’t listen to music. Even Debussy’s Clair De Lune can inspire an instant dance party.
é: I have to geek-out for a minute and tell you that The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender has been my favorite book this year, and I’ve read some incredible novels in 2014. So I’m dying to ask, what’s next for you? Can you give us any teasers about forthcoming projects?
Leslye: Wow! I’m honored! Well, I’m typically quite secretive about my upcoming projects, but I can say I’m working on a couple pieces right now and I’m really excited about them. 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.
é: And last, but certainly not least, do you have any messages for your fans? Or for those about to pick up Ava’s tale?
Leslye: When I was just a teenager—a naïve and idyllic teenager, much like Ava—I suffered the kind of tragic event that a young person should never have to face. I felt so alone in this grief. I hid away from the world and surrounded myself with the only other people I could find who were grieving as I was. I escaped into fiction. I devoured books, all tragedies, one sad story after the other. I lost myself in the safe realms of fiction, allowing my conscious mind a reprieve as my subconscious worked on healing the rest of me. It was during this time that I learned there is beauty in sorrow. Some of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read deal with issues of grief and pain. I hope this little book of mine will help someone in the way that those books helped me. I hope it makes someone feel less alone, or more alive. I hope it gives someone strength. I hope it helps them see there is beauty in sorrow, and more than that, there is life beyond that sorrow as well.
Grab your copy of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender here, and check out Leslye’s website for more information on her goings-on! And don’t forget to stay tuned for more great book news right here at Latin é Diverse Books.