2015 Morris Award: An Interview with Finalist Leslye Walton

Each year, YALSA’s Morris Award honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature. The award morris_seal_finwinner will be announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media (YMA) Awards on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Join us for a live webcast of the YMA Awards press conference or follow I Love Libraries on Twitter or Facebook to be among the first to know the 2015 winners. The official hashtag for the 2015 Youth Media Awards is  #ALAyma.

Tava lavenderoday’s interview is with finalist Leslye Walton, author of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. I was so excited to ask Leslye some questions about magic realism…and baked goods, thanks to one of my students!

If you haven’t read the book already, here is the publisher blurb:

Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird.

In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naïve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration.

That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo.

Congratulations on your Morris nomination! I absolutely loved your book. It was just beautiful! I (and my colleagues and students) were struck by the multigenerational story and how adult the voice seemed. It felt more mature and reflective than your average YA protagonist narrating from a more immediate and younger perspective. Did you always think you were writing YA? Or did you just write and see which publishers were interested?

Originally, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender wasn’t intended for the YA market. I felt the writing was too lyrical, too chalked full of metaphors for the typical teenaged reader. But after a long, tough road of going-nowhere, my agent, the luminous Bernadette Baker-Baughman, reminded me of all the beautiful, highly literary YA novels out there. After I stopped resisting, I think we sold the novel in a week. Ava Lavender certainly covers some dark and tragic themes—as do so many other great YA novels out there—but it’s also very much a young adult book, and looking back, I wish I had recognized that a bit earlier than I had.

Did you have a favorite generation of the Lavender family or a part you most enjoyed writing?

I’m not sure I had a favorite per say, but I knew 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 honestly just stumbled upon the SS France while researching the port of Le Havre in the early 1900s. 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.

Magic realism is a genre I love, but it tends to be more common in books from Latin American, West African, or American Southern writers. You and Sarah McCarry (All Our Pretty Songs, Dirty Wings) seem to be starting up a new tradition coming from the Pacific Northwest. How do you think your form of magical realism is different from these other traditions, or do you think it’s still a part of the same overall genre?

Whitney Otto’s novel, How to Make an American Quilt, was the first book that really truly moved me. I was always a voracious reader, but I hadn’t experienced masterful storytelling—or the power of beautiful phrasing—until I picked up this book. I was also a huge fan of Alice Hoffman and devoured her novels as a teenager, and then later on, began exploring the works of Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Joanne Harris and Gabriel García Márquez.

I have to say that when it comes to the genre magical realism, I am certainly no expert. When I started writing The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, I had no idea what I was writing. I knew it wasn’t historical fiction. I knew it wasn’t fantasy. It was something else. Reading One Hundred Years of Solitude for the first time was like listening to someone speak a language I thought only I understood.

What are you working on next?

I like to keep pretty quiet about my upcoming projects, but I will tell you that I’m very excited about it.

One of my juniors loved your book and has a question for you as well: There were so many great descriptions of food in your book. If your book were a baked good, which one would it be?

Hmm. Great question. I think it would be something sweet and it would definitely dissolve in your mouth. Maybe a macaron? A lavender macaron.

Thanks, Leslye!

–Hannah Gómez, currently reading Screenplay by Syd Field

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Hannah Gómez

Hannah Gómez is a former independent school librarian and now works remotely as a librarian consultant/teacher. She also teaches fitness and writes things. She is on Twitter @shgmclicious