Today I’m wrapping up this fabulous week of Morris Award finalist interviews by sharing a conversation I had with the lovely Kelly Loy Gilbert, author of CONVICTION. Truth be told, I’ve had been a huge fan of this book ever since I read it last spring and I am so very happy to see it being recognized by this year’s Morris Committee. CONVICTION is the story of Braden, a high school pitching star whose life is thrown into chaos when his evangelical radio-host father is indicted in the murder of a police officer. Braden’s estranged brother Trey comes back to town, and what follows next is a complex, layered exploration of love and cruelty, faith and betrayal, ethics, loyalty, and, more than anything, the truth about how much it can hurt when the people we love fail us despite–or sometimes because of–their very best intentions.
1. Can you share a little about how you came to write CONVICTION and what the process was like for you?
I wrote the first draft of CONVICTION in a feverish three-month period, and the book it was then is completely different than it is now. Originally it was about a high school kid (a very early, extremely different iteration of the narrator Braden) who committed a racially-motivated hate crime. And then I very slowly extracted the themes and questions I wanted to deal with and rebuilt the story from the ground up into what it is now, which is a story about a boy whose world is crumbling around him who’s forced to make an impossible choice. I did some revisions for my agent, Adriann Ranta, who has a fantastic editorial eye and asked great questions, and then the book changed again as I worked with my brilliant editor, Laura Schreiber at Hyperion–Laura managed to see inside the story and get to the very core of it, and pushed me to make changes that helped me more fully understand the characters and their choices.
As a child, I grew up believing in a very black and white version of the world, and as an adult I feel much more drawn to all the gray areas of life, and so I wanted to write something that felt messy and complicated and didn’t have easy answers–those are the situations I’m most interested in seeing characters navigate. (I wrote more in-depth about the inspiration behind the book for Bookpage here.)
2. I love how different characters in the book have different passions. What do baseball, music, and cooking all have in common?
I suppose they’re all things I like, and things that are fun to research (and by research I of course mean watch Giants games/Top Chef. Research is, naturally, one of my very favorite parts of the writing process). But I think also they’re the sort of activity that you can bury yourself in a while, which was something I think Braden, Maddie and Trey were all seeking in different ways–a way to escape from the rest of the world into a quieter, safer sphere where everything made more sense. Also, when you’re young, your life is so structured in many ways that I think sometimes having agency can mean seeking out a new world–i.e. baseball, music–where you can have any kind of control over what’s going on around you because there are so many things (your family, how you have to see the same people at school day after day) that you can’t really change.
3. Braden’s relationship with God evolves over the course of the story. Can you speak a bit to this relationship and its meaning to Braden? What are his core convictions?
Braden’s worldview has always been shaped by his faith, which all his life has mostly mirrored his father Mart’s–a very sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God brand of belief in which being right, and aligning yourself to the right political side, is paramount, and in which doing God’s will is a demanding and often terrifying prospect. But underneath that Braden also believes strongly in God as someone who’s invested in his life and who’s maybe someone more complicated than he’s always been taught, who can’t necessarily be reduced to easy answers and whose love doesn’t look like his dad’s. And–both comfortingly and terrifyingly–as someone who sees Braden always completely, exactly as he is.
I grew up in the church, and even though we talked a lot about concepts like grace, and mercy, and love enough that they felt familiar, those things often felt somewhat abstract to me and also difficult to really wrap my mind around–what does unconditional love actually mean? How you can you really, truly believe you’re forgiven? I think it’s easy to believe things on a surface level without actually confronting them and what they mean in your own life, which Braden ends up having to do throughout the course of the story.
4. In addition to physical skill, the position of pitcher requires certain mental skills, not the least of which is the ability to throw the next pitch directly after making a mistake. How did you conceive of this quality in both Braden and his father? How did it inform their character development?
Control is a huge thing for both Mart and Braden, as is the idea that if you do everything right, you get what you most want. That was important to me–that Braden would be very cerebral and also very disciplined, someone who was used to being able to control the action around him. That was an important quality to his character because I also wanted to explore what it looked like when he no longer could successfully exert that control, when the lessons he thought he’d learned all his life stopped holding up. And I think that’s something a lot of young people have to grapple with, when you realize that something you always clung to might not be true in the way you thought.
5. Trey was a catcher, while Braden and his father are/were both pitchers. Is there a significance to Trey playing that position and the role he has in the family’s dynamic?
I actually think catching is the most interesting position in baseball–you call pitches and, out of the spotlight, control so much of the game, and Trey, who spends most of his time now behind the scenes in his kitchen, has never been one for the spotlight. But it also meant another way Trey couldn’t quite be molded into the son Mart always wanted–a different perspective, a different path, and ultimately one he chose to walk away from.
6. There was a lovely oped in the NYT a while back in which a woman reflected on how, as a mother, when her kids were young, she had control via social media on the ways in which her family was presented. Now that her kids were growing older, they had their own social media presence and control of the narrative was shifting to them. I’ve always thought of that as a wonderful analogy of adolescence, as well as the focus of a lot of YA literature: it’s the time when your story starts to become your own. What struck me about Braden is how much he (at the start of the book) doesn’t want control over his narrative. He looks for direction in numerous places: from God, his catcher, his father, his brother. I really loved this, the way it subverts the expectation of the quest for agency and what that tells the reader about Braden’s experience. I wonder if you could talk about how you balanced this aspect of Braden’s personality with the more developmentally normative assertiveness/rebellion of late adolescence?
Survival can be so fragile, and I think lots of times when it is you believe what you need to, and you push down any questions that might form because you recognize, deep down, that if you start asking them everything could come crashing down around you. And I think particularly for people who are trapped in situations they know are unhealthy, clinging to a specific narrative, whatever the cost, can be a survival mechanism, painful though it may be.
But, like you said, Braden’s also a seventeen-year-old, and so in my mind he got really good at compartmentalizing. All the feelings that he wouldn’t let himself feel in their natural context, he took elsewhere–to baseball, or to moments where his anger would slip out onto whoever happened to be around at the time or onto himself. And all along, I think, he rationalized and justified everything to himself and kept everything very tightly in line with the narrative he most wanted to believe–until eventually he didn’t.
7. What do you do when you’re not writing?
I’m a mom, and I teach creative writing in various capacities. I try to read a lot, but often when I’m actively writing I read fewer books and more articles and magazine pieces, always looking for inspiration. Also (see: mom), I now have a chance to read tons of board books and picture books, which is delightful (send me all your recommendations!).
8. What are you working on now?
My next book with Hyperion is about an Asian American teen whose parents are undocumented immigrants, and who begins to suspect his parents are hiding something much bigger. The main character, Danny, also attends a highly competitive Bay Area school based on the one I went to growing up, which has been fun and kind of strange to write.
Thank you so much, Kelly!
Kelly Loy Gilbert is the author of CONVICTION (Disney-Hyperion, 2015) and NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY (forthcoming). She serves on the NaNoWriMo Associate Board, is a fan of diverse books, and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.