Kelly Loy Gilbert is a finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award.
Conviction is the story of Braden, a teen baseball phenom who has to contend with not just his father’s expectations for sports stardom, but his estranged brother, and his looming testimony in his father’s trial for the murder of a police officer.
Kelly, congratulations on your Morris nomination for Conviction! When did you start writing or know you wanted to be a writer?
Thank you! It’s such an honor, especially to be in the company of Anna-Marie McLemore, Becky Albertalli, Leah Thomas and Stephanie Oakes, extremely talented women (and lovely people) who’ve written truly incredible books that are all must-reads. I got to read both Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and The Weight of Feathers before they came out, and I remember thinking to myself, oh man, 2015 is going to be a banner year for YA if there ever was one. (And I really think it was!)
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I’ve been able to read, and the first ‘novel’ I ever wrote was in third grade–I wrote it in my favorite fine-tipped turquoise Crayola marker, and it was concerned primarily with the bedroom of my main character–thinly-disguised wish fulfillment, of course (a canopy bed! A fish tank! An art corner with tons of supplies!). And then I wrote all through my school years, mostly novels (well, “novels”) but occasionally short stories, too.
As someone who is familiar with conservative/evangelical Christianity, I thought you portrayed the nuances of that sub-culture very well. Can you tell us a little bit about writing either from a similar background or research that you did?
I definitely think ‘conservative/evangelical Christianity’ has its own culture and speaks its own language, and it’s one I’ve always felt fluent in–I grew up going mostly to a very pentecostal church in the late 90s/early 2000s, the heyday of Christian phenomena like True Love Waits and Christian boy bands and, like, shirts like this “His Way” shirt. I think the landscape of American Christianity is changing a lot and is much more varied and diverse now, and I know personally faith (which is still a huge part of my life) looks different to me now than it used to. There are many wonderful things from my church growing up that I hope I always hold onto, but at the same time I don’t necessarily believe a lot of the things I did then, and sometimes now I feel like the longer I believe the more questions I have. My current pastor said once that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, but certainty, and that really resonated with me in a way I think I would’ve dismissed entirely when I was younger.
But for Conviction I wanted to return to that particular sort of faith where everything feels black and white and certain, because I also remember what it felt like to believe that rightness mattered so much, that your highest duty to God was to fall always on the correct side of things. It was important to me to write a story that dealt with faith in a way that felt honest and complicated and nuanced, and so I wanted Braden to have to grapple with what it was like to experience a true crisis of faith–to find that nothing in the world was what he’d always taken for granted, and to have to figure out where that left him. I love reading about people’s journeys and experiences with their respective beliefs, and I’ve read a lot of honest, raw stories about people who left their faith, but (at least when I thought about books I’d read about young people) I didn’t feel like I’d read as many about people whose faith in its current form became untenable and yet they still found shards to cling to and rebuild into something else. And Braden’s faith is really real and defining to him, even if it’s built on certain questionable foundations, and so I didn’t think that ultimately it would be something he’d walk away from entirely; I felt it would be something he’d always have to come to terms with.
Another of the things that I found Conviction does really well is show the truth behind the carefully constructed facade of many families. Braden’s family has many dysfunctions – violence, abuse, lies, bigotry – and Braden struggles to see and understand all of them. What promoted you to write about such heavy topics?
You know, it’s funny, I didn’t actually set out to write many of those from the beginning, but as I was getting deeper and deeper into the characters and asking why each one was the way they were, thinking about their backgrounds and their world views, a lot of those things came up (and then I think a lot of them are inextricably tied together–abuse and a cycle of violence, et cetera). And many things, particularly many of the family’s secrets, were discoveries along the way.
But I think also, because I was writing about a young person, I was interested in that shift when you start to see your parents as people rather than just your parents, and I wanted to explore that in a character who has everything riding on telling himself the same narrative he always has.
Slight spoiler warning for readers: do you hope that eventually Braden can accept his brother for who he is?
I hope so, and I think so. I really think he’s most of the way there–I think the biggest hurdle was his reflexive refusal to consider ever having been wrong, and now that he’s questioning a lot of things he used to take for granted, I think he’ll be a lot more open–more accepting of gray areas, less rigid. Also, Trey is the only person in the world who’s ever going to understand so much about him and where he’s come from, and I think that’ll carry them through a lot of what lies ahead.
Obviously, this book also is about baseball which is a sport that has a lot in common with religion: there are fanatics, rituals, and sacrifices, bunts or otherwise. Did you plan to pair these two themes together?
That’s really interesting that you’d say that; I actually never thought about it in those terms! But I guess they both appeal to really core parts of Braden’s father Mart–the structure, the idea that you can give yourself completely to both, that they’re both pursuits that demand a certain degree of devotion and discipline. And, also, Braden and Mart both use both faith and baseball as a lens to understand the world and themselves, a way to measure their own morality.
What is next for you? Any new writing projects you can speak about?
I’m working on my next book for Hyperion, about an Asian American teen whose parents are undocumented and who begins to suspect his parents are hiding something much bigger than he ever suspected. Danny, the main character, goes to a super-competitive high school much like the one I attended, and it’s its own world–the pressure makes for really interesting social dynamics and ways people cope. Also, I’m really excited to be writing a book with entirely Asian American main characters!
-Anna Tschetter, currently reading Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living by Jes Baker