Kelly Loy Gilbert's debut novel, Conviction, explores questions of faith and family through the nuanced story of Braden, a star pitcher whose world is turned upside down when his father is accused of murder. Gilbert shares her own relationship with religion and belief, her attempts to "flatten the world" and the complexities of her powerful novel.
I’ve heard it said that the opposite of faith is certainty, not doubt. My debut novel, Conviction, grew from the many questions I wrestled with as I came to terms with a world that couldn’t be neatly defined in the way I once thought I believed.
I grew up in the era of youth convention altar calls to prove you were willing to take a stand for God and (hideous) Bible-y T-shirts you were supposed to bravely wear to show you weren’t ashamed of Christ. I’ve always been naturally inclined towards anxiety, and the fear of being rejected by God haunted me. And so back then it felt very easy to winnow people, myself included, into tidy, black-and-white categories: who was good and right and true, who was—and wasn’t—on the side of God. It was a coping mechanism, really—there was a seduction and a comfort in hoping that if I always aligned myself to the right side, I could flatten the world, with all its ragged complexities, into a safe, knowable thing. I could be secure.
I found myself recalling that old longing later, in my adult life, when I watched the country sharply divide itself after several high-profile killings that amplified deep ideological tensions. After Oscar Grant, after Trayvon Martin, I watched people cling violently to worldviews in which they and those like them were unimpeachably right; I watched them work to justify the unjustifiable and I watched them strip away the victims’ humanity piece by piece. And I thought about where I might’ve ended up if I’d never let myself question, where that leads. I started to work with the complicated, difficult characters of Conviction, for whom belief is a matter of survival, and I thought—maybe that leads you to a foggy stretch of highway where there’s no one to witness what happened but you. Maybe it leads you, finally, to an impossible, unthinkable choice.
In Conviction, 16-year-old Braden Raynor must confront everything he held true when his father, an evangelical radio personality, is accused of murder in the hit-and-run death of a Hispanic police officer. I wrote Conviction to explore the ways people endure their own transgressions, how they hide from themselves or look for redemption, and whether they find it. I wrote it to explore the intersection of darkness and grace.
And I wanted to write about other things close to my heart, too, so Conviction is also about fractured families, adoption, rural California; it’s about a terrifyingly flawed and human justice system and cultural and racial schisms in the United States. It’s about baseball, which is Braden’s moral compass and the place he goes to find himself when everything else around him goes to hell.
But at its core Conviction is about a struggle that, to me, still feels complicated and difficult and utterly necessary: how to live in a world where sometimes there’s no right answer, and who you are when nothing is what you’ve always believed.