Conviction blew me away when I read it. It's not an easy or happy book, but the way Kelly Loy Gilbert utilized the slow reveal kept me hooked, and her characters have stayed with me since the moment I put it down. From the use of the legal system (imagine my surprise when I read the acknowledgments and found that a law school classmate of mine was thanked for his help with her legal research!) to the smothering depiction of the Central Valley, it got beneath my skin. Now it's our May FYA book club pick, and Kelly has stopped by to chat with us about Conviction, her next projects, and of course, all the important slumber party questions!
THE ACTUAL BOOK-RELATED QUESTIONS
Conviction deals with incredibly heavy themes and events: emotional abuse, religion, murder, and a legal trial. Did you initially set out to write this specific book, or did the darker elements evolve over time? What was that process like?
I actually set out to write a completely different book! I’m always interested foremost in the arc of a character’s redemption—whether they find it, whether they even seek it, whether it’s possible for them and where it stops being a possibility at all—and as I was deleting my first draft and starting over, I imagined pushing my characters into spaces they never imagined finding themselves.
Your descriptions of the Central Valley of California were so vivid, and captured the dichotomy of the area: small towns that feel comforting and oppressive, predominant religious communities that offer faith as well as social mores and monitoring. Even the tule fog, which is often a fatal natural phenomenon, plays a huge part in this book. It almost feels like it couldn’t be set anywhere else. Why did you choose this particular area as the backdrop?
I have family in the Central Valley (what up Modesto!) and grew up going several times a year, and the drives—the orchards and fields, the hills rising up and all the isolated homes that made me imagine lives so different from my own—always played so heavily in my imagination. Also, I went to school in Southern California and spent four years driving back and forth across the state, and once coming back home for Thanksgiving my best friend and I got stuck in a terrifying patch of fog. We had to roll the window down and could only see an arm’s length ahead. I think that must have stayed in my subconscious—the idea that this fog could rise up unexpectedly and obscure so much inside it.
(The tule fog is no joke. -j)
What did you read as an actual young adult? Would you have wanted—or needed—to read a book like Conviction, or did your interests lie elsewhere?
I think I would have loved to read a book about characters grappling honestly with faith—but, in high school, I despised baseball, so there’s that. As a teenager I was just starting to learn that I could go into the adult fiction section in the library and bookstore, and I was devouring literary fiction that, for the first time, it felt like I had a right to (in particular I loved Ann Patchett and Tim O’Brien; I still do). And I was also a huge fan of young adult books, which I often got from Scholastic’s bookorders (best ever) and reread dozens of times (I particularly remember Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn, the Janie books and Time Travelers series by Caroline Cooney, and Chris Crutcher’s books).
Those of us who don’t play or watch baseball might be a little surprised at how ritualistic and retaliatory the game can be, and Braden seems to continue his cycle of abuse out on the field. What made you pick the game as the earthly mirror to Braden, Trey, and Mart’s religious convictions?
Braden had been a baseball player even in the earliest drafts—one of the few things that stayed the same all the way to the finished version—and my agent actually suggested developing that part of his character more. I like characters to have a lens and a worldview, and baseball fit well with Braden’s, and I think especially for young characters so much of the world happens to them—I wanted Braden to have a space where he felt like he had agency and could control the outcome. Baseball gave him that.
What are you reading and/or watching now?
Three books I recently read that I thought were phenomenal were Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, M. O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away, and Kate Hattemer’s The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy. PSA: Vigilante Poets would also make a realllllly excellent book club choice. In my heart I’m always rewatching Friday Night Lights, and I watch nowhere near enough TV these days but I am watching Silicon Valley, which is excellent.
What’s next for you? Any writing projects you can share with us?
Yes! My next book, Picture Us In the Light, is coming out next spring. It’s set in Cupertino, California, a high-stakes Bay Area city, and it’s about an Asian American artist who starts to suspect his parents are hiding a lifeshattering secret from them. Also, he’s in love with his best friend. I’m so excited about it, especially the chance to bring my hometown to life.
(I can't wait! -j)
THE YA QUESTIONS
If your real life adolescence was a YA book ... What would you, the main character, be like?
Oh gosh. Probably a lot like Lee Fiora from Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep.
Who is your secret crush?
A brilliant, wry, kind budding scientist.
What is your number one source of angst?
At what point would the reader pump his/her fist in victory?
Maybe when a group of committed high schoolers takes down a bigoted school board member, or something.
And who would play you in the film adaptation?
Constance Wu, not because she looks anything like me but because she’s awesome.
The real Kelly
THE SLUMBER PARTY QUESTIONS
What is your secret power?
Correctly identifying all the Jelly Belly flavors by sight.
What is your #1 favorite food?
A really good loaf of bread.
What is your best karaoke song?
I have small kids, so these days it’s all Moana, every day.
What is your favorite adult beverage?
Sad truth: I’m allergic to alcohol.
(Of all the food allergies to have!)
What book have you read the most number of times?
YA authors are so cool. Who would you give a BFF charm to?
It’s the best community ever. Because I’m the luckiest person in the world, my local YA author crew includes Sabaa Tahir, Parker Peevyhouse, and Stacey Lee, and my critique partners are Lee Kelly and Anna-Marie McLemore.
(Luckiest person, indeed!)
Out of all of the characters you’ve written, which one do you most wish you could be?
Yikes, probably a minor character; most of my main characters have lives that are too dark!
If you were invited to the FYA slumber party (and obvs, you ARE), what is the most crucial snack food and/or movie/or anything you'd bring?
21 Jump Street
And now: MASH!
Kelly made three picks for each category, and I added a fourth. The magic number (chosen by a random number generator) was 8.
M A S H
The Korean bodyguard
Prince Edward Island
# OF KIDS
High school principal
A billion dollars
A trillion dollars
A zillion dollars
The tears of your readers
Volvo station wagon (my first!)
A broom from Hogwarts
A shiny sports car
Not a bad life, Kelly! Congrats on your billion dollar gymnastics career--and it sounds like your broom and unicorn will come in really handy during your honeymoon to Hogwarts!
Thanks for stopping by!