Letters from Max

A Poet, A Teacher, A Friendship
“This is a gorgeous book exploring life and death, art and friendship; its power lingers.” —THE NEW YORK JEWISH WEEK
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A Kirkus Best Book of the Year

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.

Publish Date
8.5 × 5.5 × 1 in
15.1 oz

Max Ritvo

Max Ritvo (1990-2016) wrote Four Reincarnations in New York and Los Angeles over the course of a long battle with cancer. He was also the author of The Final Voicemails, edited and introduced by Louise Glück, and co-authored Letters from Max with Sarah Ruhl; both books were published posthumously. Ritvo’s poetry has appeared in the New Yorker and Poetry, among many other publications.


Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl’s plays include In the Next Room, or 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.

Praise and Prizes

  • “Tender … A strange and beautiful volume made up of Sarah Ruhl’s correspondence with Max Ritvo.”

    New Yorker
  • “A revelation, as honest and eloquent an expression of what it is like to be sick … a resonant and profound contribution from two fully formed artists to the literature of illness.”

  • “I will read more books in my life but I will not love another book more than this one. I suspect this book has the power to reassure the weary and to instill faith in anyone who needs it. If they let you bring books when you die, I will 100 percent put this one in the tiny stack that goes with me.”

    Mary-Louise Parker
    author of Dear Mr. You
  • “Immediate comparisons will be made to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Artist … This book is a nuanced look at the evolution of an incredible talent facing mortality and the mentor, never condescending, who recognizes his gift. Their infectious letters shine with a love of words and beauty.”

    The Observer
  • Letters from Max is a sublime journey shared by two brilliant minds… . It is stunning to see that these letters offer so much peace. They read like guided meditations, lived hymns, the good voices we seek within our own heads.”

  • “Deeply moving, often heartbreaking … A captivating celebration of life and love.”

    *starred review*
  • “With the depth and intelligence displayed, one feels in the presence of literary titans.”

    Publishers Weekly
  • “I expected the letters between these two artists to be profoundly brilliant and profoundly heartbreaking. And they are. But what I didn’t expect … 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 Fountain
    author of I’m Not Missing
  • Letters from Max is a story of two brilliant beings unfolding each other’s hearts and minds until even death is a gift and listening never ends. I read it once without stopping and read it again and again. Every page is a revelation about the unflinching mysteries of life.”

    Beth Henley
    winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama
  • “Ruhl and Ritvo take the reader deep into some of the most challenging questions we face as human beings… . They both express, in numerous ways, that neither of them knows anything for sure but love. The sanguinity of this shared understanding is beautifully tempered by undisguised honesty, necessary humor, and an urgent spiritual playfulness.”

    World Literature Today
  • “This is a gorgeous book exploring life and death, art and friendship; its power lingers.”

    The New York Jewish Week