Interview with Kelly Loy Gilbert – author of When We Were Infinite

Today, co-hosts Shenwei and Wendy are so excited to be bringing you an interview with YA author Kelly Loy Gilbert! Her latest book, When We Were Infinite, just released today, and you can find out more below.

About When We Were Infinite

From award-winning author Kelly Loy Gilbert comes a powerful, achingly romantic drama about the secrets we keep, from each other and from ourselves, perfect for fans of Permanent Record and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.

All Beth wants is for her tight-knit circle of friends—Grace Nakamura, Brandon Lin, Sunny Chen, and Jason Tsou—to stay together. With her family splintered and her future a question mark, these friends are all she has—even if she sometimes wonders if she truly fits in with them. Besides, she’s certain she’ll never be able to tell Jason how she really feels about him, so friendship will have to be enough.

Then Beth witnesses a private act of violence in Jason’s home, and the whole group is shaken. Beth and her friends make a pact to do whatever it takes to protect Jason, no matter the sacrifice. But when even their fierce loyalty isn’t enough to stop Jason from making a life-altering choice, Beth must decide how far she’s willing to go for him—and how much of herself she’s willing to give up.

About the Author

Kelly Loy Gilbert is the author of Conviction, a William C. Morris Award finalist, and Picture Us in the Light, a Stonewall Honor Book and the winner of the California Book Award. She lives in San Francisco Bay Area.

Interview

Welcome, Kelly! Thank you so much for joining us.

Q: Beth bases so much of her identity on her friendships, fears people drifting away from her, and cares deeply about and wants to be enough for others – all of which I really identified with. Why was it important to you to tell this story of friendship, self-worth and longing? – Wendy

I think friendship is so so central to the high school experience, and I feel like it often goes so unexamined how you spend years building up this whole world, this whole universe, and then four years later it’s just over. Also, when I was a teenager, there were never books that felt like they could have been about me or the people I grew up with, and I always wanted to tell those stories—the quiet ones about the small tragedies and heroics that happen between people, about people doing their best for each other, and those chasms that can exist despite our best intentions.

Q: Despite the progress made in publishing more diverse YA, it’s still unusual to find contemporary books like yours where everyone among the primary characters is a POC. The idea that whiteness needs to be centered or included in order for a book to be marketable or relatable to a white audience can create a pressure for authors of color to “write white.” That is, writing an all-POC cast can be seen by some as a limitation or liability. However, as a writer myself, I don’t find it limiting at all, but rather full of possibilities. How did the all-Asian cast inform your approach to writing the story and developing the themes you wanted to explore? – Shenwei

It’s interesting because I tried to publish this book years ago, and couldn’t—I don’t know how much race played into it, but isn’t that how it goes sometimes, that you have to wonder? I didn’t have these stories growing up and I longed for them, and I feel a deep debt of gratitude to writers like Ellen Oh, Cindy Pon, and Malinda Lo, whose early work I genuinely believe paved a path for a lot of us writing today. I think one thing that’s often critical to the Asian American experience is the centrality of family, and that dimension in stories about young people is always fascinating to me. I think it’s interesting being from the Bay Area, too, because there’s a huge diversity within the Asian American community.

Q: Another part of Beth’s character which is brought up throughout the book is her underlying anger. Similarly, I appreciated how she made messy choices at times in a way that’s seen as less acceptable for POC in fiction, yet portrayed with so much empathy as she looked back on her younger self and her growth. Was there anything you particularly meant to say or were motivated by in developing these aspects of her character? – Wendy

Her anger was dormant in a lot of drafts and finally came through in the end—I think even as a thirty-something I had a lot of internalized blocks against writing angry teen girls, and especially Asian American ones. But how can you not be angry? I felt it was important, too, to get Beth to a place where she stopped feeling like she didn’t have permission for anger on her own behalf. I think claiming your anger is part of claiming what you’re worth.

Q: This book explores sensitive and difficult topics such as abuse and mental illness that are usually considered taboo within various Asian cultures, a stigma aggravated by the conditions of immigration and racism in the U.S. What do you hope this book will contribute to the ongoing dialogues about trauma and mental illness in Asian American families and communities? – Shenwei

I hope it can be in conversation with books like Ilene Wong’s THIS IS MY BRAIN IN LOVE, Emily x. R. Pan’s THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, Randy Ribay’s PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING, and other works that explore Asian American mental health and generational trauma. 

This is a spoiler alert and also a content warning- I also felt like I’d not read a lot of stories about characters who nearly died from suicide but then survived.
And I really wanted to write about people who truly faced very real despair and then were able to build a life again after that. I wanted to write a story about hope and resilience and community threaded through the grief and trauma the characters were facing.

Q: Beth’s perspective of her Asian friends and community, and how she sometimes feels a “lack of concrete belonging” with them, is shaped by her mixed-race identity — including her alienation from her grandparents and from Chinese languages. Could you speak to this and how much of yourself was in this aspect of her character? – Wendy

So much! Everyone in the story has a very different family background than mine, but as someone who’s mixed race I have always felt a sense of otherness in nearly every space I’m in—the one frequent exception being my brother, the only person in the word who shares my exact background, ha. Beth’s alienation extends deeper than mine ever has because it’s in so many areas of her life, but I do think there’s a way in which I always feel that possibility of that alienation, the shape of it, if not the thing itself. 

Q: What is your process for naming your characters? The names you chose for the characters in this book felt extremely true to life in representing common naming patterns among East Asians in the English-speaking diaspora, so I was wondering if they were borrowed from real people you know, or chosen from pools of common East Asian American names, or curated based on intangible feelings that they’re the “correct” names for their respective characters based on their vibes, or a combination of any of the above. – Shenwei

My process for naming characters is always the same—I imagine the characters’ parents and delve into their lives enough that I could imagine what they would name a child, either as a baby or later picking an American name, etc. I’m so glad you felt they were representational—I sometimes get scornful questions about names from people who are like, “really, Asian kids named Harry and Regina???” and I’m always like … yes??  ???

Q: Classical music is such an important part of When We Were Infinite. Why did you choose violin as Beth’s particular passion, and what was your research like for this aspect of the book? – Wendy

I watched sooo much violin! It was great—research is always one of my favorite parts of writing. I used to play the flute, but not well, so I had a lot to learn. I chose music because I wanted something that Beth could experience both communally and individually, and also because playing in these prestigious youth symphonies is such a thing in the Asian American communities where I’m from. 

Q: Finally, this is your third published YA novel, and you’ve mentioned that you’ve worked on this book through several years and iterations. What are some aspects of writing craft and publishing which you’ve found challenging, and lessons you’ve learnt, along the way?

I’m always challenged by plot. It took, honestly, years for anything to *happen* in this book. One piece of advice I got craft-wise that was super useful is that every action has to lead to another action, rather than a string of interconnected events. As for publishing—it’s honestly such a strange industry with no apparent analogues I’ve found in other industries. I’m still learning a lot. It’s still a challenge for me to navigate the intersection between story and commerce, I guess. 

Thank you so much for your time and insights, Kelly!

You can find When We Were Infinite at the outlets below:

Barnes & Noble

Bookshop

Books-A-Million

Indiebound

Find Kelly on:

Twitter: @KellyLoyGilbert

Instagram: @KellyLoyGilbert

Website: KellyLoyGilbert.com

More about Kelly’s previous YA novels:

Conviction

Picture Us in the Light

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