Letters From Max

LETTERS FROM MAX

A Book of Friendship

Max Ritvo & Sarah Ruhl

In 2012, Sarah Ruhl was a distinguished author and playwright, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Max Ritvo, a student in her playwriting class at Yale University, was an exuberant, opinionated, and highly gifted poet. He was also in remission from pediatric cancer.

Over the next four years—in which Ritvo’s illness returned and his health declined, even as his productivity bloomed—the two exchanged letters that spark with urgency, humor, and the desire for connection. Reincarnation, books, the afterlife as an Amtrak quiet car, good soup: in Ruhl and Ritvo’s correspondence, all ideas are fair, nourishing game, shared and debated in a spirit of generosity and love.

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In 2012, Sarah Ruhl was a distinguished author and playwright, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Max Ritvo, a student in her playwriting class at Yale University, was an exuberant, opinionated, and highly gifted poet. He was also in remission from pediatric cancer.

Over the next four years—in which Ritvo’s illness returned and his health declined, even as his productivity bloomed—the two exchanged letters that spark with urgency, humor, and the desire for connection. Reincarnation, books, the afterlife as an Amtrak quiet car, good soup: in Ruhl and Ritvo’s correspondence, all ideas are fair, nourishing game, shared and debated in a spirit of generosity and love. “We’ll always know one another forever, however long ever is,” Ritvo writes. “And that’s all I want—is to know you forever.”

Studded with poems and songs, Letters from Max is a deeply moving portrait of a friendship, and a shimmering exploration of love, art, mortality, and the afterlife.

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  • Milkweed Editions
  • Hardcover
  • September 2018
  • 240 Pages
  • 9781571313690

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$26.00

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About Max Ritvo & Sarah Ruhl

Max RitvoMax Ritvo (1990-2016) wrote Four Reincarnations in New York and Los Angeles over the course of a long battle with cancer. Ritvo’s poetry has appeared in the New YorkerPoetryBoston Review, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org. His prose and interviews have appeared in publications such as Lit Hub, Huffington Post, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah RuhlSarah Ruhl’s plays include In the Next Roomor the vibrator play (Pulitzer Prize finalist, Tony Award nominee), and The Clean House (Pulitzer Prize finalist, winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize), among many others. She is recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant, and of, most recently, the 2016 Steinberg Prize. She is currently on the faculty of the Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her family.

Author Website

Praise

“Deeply moving, often heartbreaking… a captivating celebration of life and love.”Kirkus, starred review

“Revelatory in every way, Letters from Max is an unusual, beautiful book about nothing less than the necessity of art in our lives. Two big-hearted, big-brained writers have allowed us to eavesdrop on their friendship: jokes and heartbreaks, admiration, hard work, tender work.”Elizabeth McCracken

“I expected the letters between these two artists to be profoundly brilliant and profoundly heartbreaking. And they are. But what I didn’t expect, and what makes the experience of reading this conversation a sublime one, is the abiding and generous humor throughout, the element that, as Max Ritvo says, ‘makes our sadness rhyme with joy.’ Resisting any lesson to be found in Ritvo’s impending death, the letters between these two friends instead enact a deep and instructive compassion and pay ardent attention to what it means to continue to live a life, even one that will end tragically and too soon. In giving the world these breathtaking letters, Sarah Ruhl, with humility and humanity, goes far in preserving the legacy of the poet Max Ritvo.”Carrie Foundation

Discussion Questions

1. What about the book’s title indicates how Sarah understood her and Max’s relationship? How is her attitude different than Anna Deavere Smith’s in Letters to a Young Artist?

2. Sarah includes the poems attached to her and Max’s letters. How do they work in relation to each other? Which parts of Max can you understand from his letters alone, his poems alone, and the two together?

3. Though Max talks prolifically, Sarah says Max listens profoundly. How are his words to Sarah like an act of listening?

4. How is this collection of text a meditation itself? How is poetry like an act of mindfulness?

5. Sarah says Max’s poetry “leads one away from confessional solipsism […] so that lyric complicity is between self, dedicatee, reader, and the world. In short, love” (161-2). What about these letters tied together with string make them more than just a personal correspondence between self and dedicatee?

6. Do you believe anything changed when Sarah and Max started writing letters with the intention of publishing their correspondence? Do you believe they had ever written with only the other person in mind as an audience? Can the form of a letter, with its inclinations of intimacy, contribute a feeling of affection to writing that is meant for more than just one reader?

7. Sarah thinks of “the afterlife as a place where metaphors are real. Or where there is a play (I use that word deliberately) between metaphors and reality” (227-8). After reading some of Sarah’s philosophies, can you understand why her genre is the theater? How does the theater—perhaps its dialogue or performativity—find its way into these writings?

8. How does literary art affect both Sarah and Max’s ideas of an afterlife? How does their art affect their respective ideas of belief?
In her afterword, Sarah writes that she can hear Max saying, “Don’t try to draw a lesson from this” (312). Without moralizing Max’s life, how does his story find its way into your ideas of living and love?