January 16, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Debut: Leslye Walton on ‘The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender’

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The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava LavenderOkay, the gold lamé bag that shrouded my review copy of Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender (Candlewick, 2014) did catch my eye, but the cover quotation completely sucked me in. “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—was born with the wings of a bird.” Magical realism is a tricky thing for me; I have to be “all in” from the beginning. By the time I finished the prologue, written retrospectively by the now adult Ava, I was all in. The beautiful Roux family tree, courtesy of Pier Gustafson, is a delightful addition. School Library Journal says in its starred review, “Walton’s novel is both strange and beautiful in the best of ways.” I couldn’t agree more. SLJTeen got in touch with the debut author to talk about her novel. 

The Roux family’s passage to America aboard the SS France gives a lovely historical perspective to the story.  How did you decide that this was the ocean liner to deliver them to ‘Manhatine’?

SS France in 1912

SS France in 1912

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.

There are several avian tips of the hat early in the book—Mrs. Barnaby Callahoo, nicknamed Notre Petit Poulet (Our Little Chicken), and Pierette’s infatuation with an ornithologist and eventual transformation into a canary—but it didn’t feel forced or obvious. Was it hard to hold back on the bird connections?

Thank you. 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.

I loved the time spent in Emilienne’s bakery, smelling the bread, observing the customers, hearing the staff banter—did that require a lot of time hanging around in cafés?

Yes. I often frequented the local patisseries and boulangeries, 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?

Ava and Henry have an auspicious arrival. When you were writing the story, did you know right away which twin would be born first?

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. To be completely honest, I didn’t know they were twins at the beginning! But then I began considering all the other ways this novel pays homage to the strange—those that are both mystically strange and those who represent people who have been considered strange, historically speaking. And twins certainly fit the bill. As far as who was born first, it seemed fitting for Henry to follow Ava. Henry was always an afterthought. And there’s the irony. Henry had the ability to connect to both worlds, as Emilienne did. That was his purpose. But of course the one who knew how it would all turn out would also be the one who couldn’t communicate it to the others.

Nathaniel Sorrows is creepy, but Ava is drawn to him, almost out of vanity. Or loneliness.

It could have been flattery, but deep down, I think it was simply naivety. All Ava wanted to be was a normal girl, and what was a normal girl? Her only point of reference was Cardigan, so to be a normal girl was to be desired. Perhaps Ava always knew that she was never going to be a normal girl, perhaps she always knew she was meant to be more because she was more. And that is a very scary thing to face at any age, so instead, she chooses to pretend with someone who, deep down, she believed was unattainable. He was her inaccessible celebrity crush. The only problem? Nathaniel wasn’t pretending.  Nathaniel desired her, and in a very disturbing, very terrible way. And Ava was too naïve to realize this.

Like all teenagers, sheltered Ava wants a taste of real life. Her only friend Cardigan makes it her job to immerse Ava in the outside world.  Which one were you most like as a teen?

Leslye WaltonOh, I was absolutely Ava—incredibly naïve of the ways of the world, most especially those things it seemed came easily to everyone else. It often felt like I had been skipped over when they were passing out the guidebook with all the rules of adolescence. This was never more obvious than the first day of fourth grade when we were tasked to play a game where we needed to reveal a list of our favorite things—favorite music, favorite store at the mall, favorite type of candy. I remember this ball of panic creeping into my throat as I came to the horrible realization that I was supposed to have a favorite candy. No one told me this! I ended up cheating off my best friend for the answers.

It’s so hard to be strange. But then again, we’re all strange. That’s the funny thing. All the while I was trying so hard to figure out how to even marginally fit in, everyone else was doing the same thing. Of course, it took me a while to figure that out too.

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Dodie Ownes About Dodie Ownes

Dodie Ownes left the glamorous world of retrospective conversion and disco to jump on the library vendor train. Since then, she has been learning at the feet of the masters about all things library. Dodie lives in Golden, Colorado, where even the sign which arches the main street says "Howdy."

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