For a novel that takes the form of letters to dead celebrities, the best compliment for Ava Dellaira’s “Love Letters to the Dead” came last week from one famous lady who’s still in the land of the living.
— Emma Watson (@EmWatson) March 18, 2014
And it’s no surprise that Emma Watson, one of the most discerning members of the celeb literati, loves this book: a beautiful exploration of grief, love, friendship and healing through the lens of one girl’s heartfelt letters to people like Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger and River Phoenix, it’s one story that we all plan to spend this cold, rainy spring sobbing over.
“Love Letters to the Dead” centers on Laurel, who first begins writing to dead celebrities as part of a school assignment. Her first choice: Kurt Cobain, picked because he was so beloved by her sister, May, who died suddenly and tragically the year before the book takes place.
“When Laurel begins, she doesn’t want to think much about how the people to whom she writes died,” Dellaira told MTV News about the upcoming book. “She idolizes them, just as she idolizes May. But as Laurel begins to heal, she starts to see May as a human being, with human imperfections and struggles.
“Ultimately, Laurel is able to look at all of these lives with empathy– to recognize the amazing contributions that they made, as well as some of the issues they faced and choices they made that may have lead to their deaths.”
At a moment when the deaths of celebrities like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Walker become not only moments of public grief, but catalysts for the discussion of bigger issues like addiction the book is a timely exploration of the way we see ourselves in those stories.
“I think for many of us, but maybe especially for people who have faced trauma or who feel isolated in some way, popular culture can provide a sense of belonging, or a way of understanding oneself and one’s own story through something that feels much bigger,” Dellaira continued. “And letters signal an outward reaching — a wanting to connect with the world, even if you don’t fully know how yet. There is a hope inherent in writing it, a belief that you could be heard.”
And if that’s enough to have you considering a love letter of your own to somebody fabulous, famous, and no longer living, Ava has good suggestions as to where you might start.
For those who need to vent about social drama and frenemies, she recommends Oscar Wilde; and for getting over a breakup, she says, “Amy Winehouse: she certainly has some of the best breakup songs ever. ‘Tears Dry on Their Own’ is a perfect song to put on repeat when you’re ready to walk on.”
Aching for a sneak peek at “Love Letters to the Dead”? The book hits shelves April 1, but you can enjoy an exclusive pre-release excerpt below.
Last night, I got drunk for the first time. When I got to Natalie’s for the sleepover, we walked to the grocery store, which felt too cold in that air conditioner way. We walked half-shivering down the liquor aisle, and Natalie pulled a bottle of cinnamon After Shock off the shelf and into her halfway-on hoodie. Then we took it to the bathroom and peeled off the label so it wouldn’t beep. I ignored my quick-beating heart and tried to act normal, like I’d done this sort of thing before. I didn’t say anything about the woman’s feet with mom sneakers and a little girl in the next stall. Then we just walked right out.
We went back to Natalie’s house where we were alone, because her mom was on a date that night. Natalie said that mean she doesn’t get back till morning. We climbed up onto her flat roof with the bottle. The After Shock had cinnamon flavor crystals in the bottom, and when I first took a sip it burned like someone lit a sweet fire in my mouth. I swallowed fast and didn’t make a face, and I didn’t tell them that it was my first time ever drinking. I thought if May did it, I could, too. How bad could it be? So I let the liquor burn down my throat and into my stomach. It made me laugh and got my body loose, until I forgot to be afraid. We lay down on our backs to watch the planes pass overhead, and made up a song about them. I don’t remember the words, though I keep trying. I do remember that Hannah’s voice sounded like the cinnamon crystals, sweet and full of fire. I think she really could be a singer.
I am not sure what happened next, but then we were down from the roof and Natalie and Hannah had gone into the backyard to jump on her old trampoline. I was in the front yard on a hammock swinging, and the stars were buzzing toward me.
I remembered how May would sneak out at night and I’d wait up in bed until I heard her come back in. Usually I’d just listen to her tiptoe down the hall and close her door, and then I’d know that I could sleep because she was safe. But once in a while, and this is what I loved the best, she’d come to my room instead and whisper, “Are you up?” My eyes would pop open, and I’d whisper that I was, and she’d come to lie on my bed. I remember how her breath would smell sweet and hot, like alcohol, I guess. How a smile would spread slowly across her face and she’d laugh in a whisper and slur her words a little, like every sound led into another. As she’d tell me about her adventures- the boys and the kissing and the fast cats- I pictured it sort of like I did when we were little kids, when I believed that May had fairy wings and I’d imagine her on the flights through the night, swooping under the stars.
When I looked up from where I was on the hammock, all of a sudden the stars started buzzing too loudly, and I didn’t feel right. I wondered if this was what it was really like for May on those nights, if the stars spun around her until she was dizzy and she didn’t know where she was anymore.
I was scared suddenly and I couldn’t keep my head straight. I worried that bad things were coming into my mind, so I went to find Hannah and Natalie. When I walked through the wooden gate into the backyard, I saw them there on the trampoline. They were kissing. Real kissing. And jumping all at the same time. They looked up for an instant and saw me watching, and then they kind of fell. Natalie started screaming. She had chipped her tooth on Hannah’s tooth. She started looking everywhere for the lost piece of tooth. I tried to help find it, but it was nowhere on the smooth black surface of the trampoline and it was nowhere in the dirt. She got worried that she swallowed it. And Hannah got worried I would tell everyone at school what Natalie had been doing when she chipped her tooth, even though I swore I wouldn’t. Hannah started telling me I had to kiss Natalie, too, or else I would tell. I couldn’t be the only one who wasn’t kissing, she said. But I didn’t want to. They weren’t listening. Natalie grabbed me and said she was going to kiss me to seal the secret. Suddenly it was hard for me to breathe. I gasped for air. I ran.
I ended up in the park near school. I sat down on the swing and started swinging as high as I could, higher and higher until it felt like the night was rushing into me, until it felt like I would go all the way over the bar. And then I jumped, and flew, and landed in the sand. I climbed onto a jungle gym like the one that used to be our ship when I would go to the park with Mom and May. We had to sail through a sea full of sea monsters to rescue the mermaids. And I started to cry.
The air smelled like fire smoke and fall leaves. It smelled a way that makes you feel how the world is right up close, rubbing against you. My head was starting to really hurt. It was late, and I didn’t know what to do, so I went back to Natalie’s. She and Hannah were asleep on the trampoline. I crawled underneath and slept on the ground.
The next day when we woke up with dew on our clothes, Natalie’s mom was making pancakes and bacon and called us in for breakfast. It smelled in the kitchen the way you want home to be. She said we were silly girls for sleeping outside. She was being nice, I think, because of her date. Natalie’s mom doesn’t look like other moms. Natalie said she works as a secretary in a law office, but for the weekend morning, she was wearing a shirt knotted above her belly button with cut-offs, and her dark hair was up in a high ponytail. We all ate and were pretty quiet, just answering her mom’s questions, which were too cheerful. When she asked Natalie, “What happened to your tooth?” Natalie looked nervous for a minute. I knew it was my chance to show her I would keep their secret so I said, “We got burgers from McDonald’s, and hers had a bone in it!” Hannah started laughing and said, “Sick, huh?” I think since her mom felt guilty about sleeping over at her date’s house, she didn’t notice that we were guilty, too. Hannah picked a leaf out of my hair and handed it to me. Its veins threaded in tiny patterns through the yellow skin.
We never talked about the kissing, and at school on Monday, we acted normal. I made sure to have enough money for a Nutter Butter at lunch, and I shared it with my friends. I looked at Sky and laughed when Hannah said he was undressing me in his mind. It was like nothing happened. Only I tried not to, but I noticed the tiny piece of one of Natalie’s perfect teeth missing.
Kurt, I have this feeling like you know May, and Hannah and Natalie, and me, too. Like you can see into us. You sung the fear, and the anger, and all of the feelings that people are afraid to admit to. Even me. But I know you didn’t want to be our hero. You didn’t want to be an idol. You just wanted to be yourself. You just wanted us to hear the music,