'Letters From Max:' A Special Friendship Between Sarah Ruhl, Max Ritvo

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It began in 2012 as an exchange of letters between Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo, a student in Ruhl’s undergrad playwriting class at Yale who was in remission from pediatric cancer. Over the next four years the cancer returned and Ritko’s health declined, but the friendship deepened as his artistry as a poet blossomed.

The special relationship between two extraordinary writers is reflected in Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship, a new book on which Ruhl collaborated with Ritko before his death in 2016. Meditative, funny, sweet, joyous and sad, it’s a book you’ll want to permanently keep by your bedside table to reflect on the tenderness of life.

Though the relationship began as teacher-student, it soon developed into a profound friendship, one in which Ruhl found herself exchanging writing samples — including some personal unpublished poetry — with Ritko. “There was this quick recognition among many of Max’s teachers where you looked at Max and you looked at his writing and you kind of went, ‘Oh, hello colleague. Let’s swap writing.’ ”

But Ruhl and Ritko also swapped the most intimate musings of life, death, theater, school and Mel Brooks movies. “With most of our friends, we wait and wait and wait for this intimate conversation to happen,” Ruhl says. “Max had this sense of abundance and he wasn’t going to wait to have these conversations. As his teacher I sort of felt that Max was one of those students who becomes a friend, and with any luck, those friendships go on for 20 or 30 years. But I knew I had to pack all those conversations with Max into a four-year period.”

Could this little book — perfect for holiday gift-giving by the way — morph into another work of art, say a play or a film?

“Max was a poet to his core, so a book made the most sense, and because of the personal material I felt safer as a book. You could open it and you could shut it, the way you can’t with a play. But I could imagine it as a play, too.”

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