If you were to ask Leslye Walton about her approach to becoming an author, her reply would probably involve the phrase, “Well, we’ll see.” Though she describes herself as a fiercely creative person, choosing writing as a profession was never in the cards, at least not intentionally. In fact, the publication of her debut novel,The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender (Candlewick, Mar.), was—according to Walton—one big whim.
She attributes her delay in getting started as a writer to her practical side, a trait she may have inherited from her parents. “When I was in high school [in Tacoma, Wash.], they would say, ‘If you go to college—and you’re going to college—you will get a degree in something that will get you a job. Like accounting.’ ” When she raised the notion of becoming a writer, “their response was, ‘That’s a great hobby, but what are you going to do to make sure you’re not sleeping on our couch?’ ”
So Walton played it safe. She attended Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma with the goal of getting her teaching certificate. She took secondary education classes and lined up potential job prospects. But the semester before she graduated, inspiration struck—hard. She was driving home from her student-teaching gig, listening to Colin Hay’s “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get over You” from the movie Garden State and thinking about a past love. “Being a teacher is pretty exhausting,” she says. “I was very tired and thinking to myself, ‘This is going to be your life. You’re never going to find love again. You’re going to be a teacher to other people’s kids. Your life is sad.’ ” And suddenly, an idea sprung up: a girl who falls head over heels for her childhood sweetheart, a love that wasn’t—or, perhaps, couldn’t be—returned, and a name: Viviane Lavender.
Walton quickly pulled over and jotted down a brief synopsis. Over the next few months, those seeds would grow into the short story that Walton would use to apply and get accepted to graduate school at Portland State University in Oregon—not in education, but in writing. During the two-year M.F.A. program, Walton honed her craft and cultivated her interest in magical realism by reading Gabriel García Márquez, Isabelle Allende, and Alice Hoffman. Meanwhile Viviane Lavender’s story turned into a multigenerational novel that includes Viviane’s daughter, an otherwise regular girl born with wings. But even then, Walton didn’t think of “author” as a realizable vocation. “It was always like, this is probably not going to turn into anything. I’m surrounded by people who are incredibly talented, and it’s really hard to succeed. Let’s just see.”
After graduating in 2007, Walton again followed the practical path by getting a teaching job to pay the bills. For the next two years, she taught language arts to middle schoolers in Tacoma, then in Seattle. During her off time, she researched ways to get her book published. She sent her manuscript to a professor’s agent, but never heard back. Then in 2009, she sent it to Baker’s Mark, a fledgling agency started by two women who attended Pacific Lutheran’s publishing program when Walton was there.
It took many months to receive a response, and Walton was positive she’d never hear from them, or anyone else. But after a year had gone by, she signed with Bernadette Baker-Baughman, one of Baker’s Mark’s principals who had, in the interim, moved from Portland to New York to join Victoria Sanders & Associates. At first, Baker-Baughman tried to sell the book as adult fiction and didn’t get any takers. But after changing tack and pitching it as YA, the offers started flowing in. In March 2012, Candlewick editor Mary Lee Donovan bought the novel, news Walton received while driving to work one morning.
Since Ava Lavender’s publication, Walton has had to get used to the idea that yes, she’s a writer. On April 12, she appeared on the “Finding Your Character’s Voice in YA Fiction” panel at the Get Lit! Literary Festival in Spokane, Wash. In May, she participated in another panel at Klindt’s Booksellers in The Dalles, Ore., as part of their Young Adult Fiction Festival. Walker Books also flew her to Dublin for a few days to meet booksellers and take part in a debut authors’ panel at the Children’s Books Ireland conference on May 24. And she’s received plenty of reinforcement from fans she’s met along the way. “It’s been amazing to hear from people who care and love the book so much that they want to tell me about it,” she says.
Those readers will be interested to know that Walton is currently at work writing her next YA novel, which she’s fairly confident will contain some form of magical realism. “My goal is to really write this summer,” she says. “I don’t sit still very well, so normally I’d either be in my classroom or doing other things. But this summer, I have locked myself out of my classroom to focus on writing.” Spoken like a true author.