Kelly Loy Gilbert is the author of two acclaimed YA novels, including Conviction, a finalist for the William C. Morris Award, which honors the first book written by an author for teen readers. When We Were Infinite is the story of a close group of friends, including protagonist Beth and her crush, Jason, whose plans for the future are radically changed when they discover that Jason has been keeping a terrible secret.
Your acknowledgements mention that you’ve been working on When We Were Infinite since 2006. You’ve published two other novels in that time, beginning with your debut in 2015, Conviction. How do you feel now that When We Were Infinite is going to be published?
It’s absolutely surreal to be finally seeing this book enter the world. It has seen me through literally all the major transitions in my life, and I like to think that it’s richer for all the new layers of myself that I’ve woven into it through the years. In retrospect, I’m grateful it got all those extra years to percolate.
This was the book I first signed with my agent many, many years ago, but the timing was just never right. I think one of the biggest stories behind why it’s coming out now is that so many in the book world have laid the groundwork that made it possible for me to publish a story about a group of Asian American friends. When I first started querying this story in 2007, the publishing landscape was just entirely different.
The book’s protagonist, Beth, is a high-achieving high school senior, a talented musician who is deeply invested in her incredibly close group of friends. What did you find most compelling about writing Beth’s character, and what was most challenging? Are there any pieces of yourself inside her?
At an event at Parnassus Books a few years ago, a bookseller asked something that’s stayed with me since: What’s the question at the core of everything you write? For me, it’s always going to be about what we owe one another and how you give it without losing yourself. When I was Beth’s age, that was the driving question of my life. The ways Beth grapples with that question are both deeply compelling and also deeply challenging to me. I remember what it felt like to want to totally lose yourself in another person, but I also know enough to recognize the way that spirals.
Something I think people forget or underestimate about high school life is how incredibly little agency you have over your world, and that’s one of the challenges of writing about it: Whatever happens, chemistry is still third period.
At her core there’s an aloneness to Beth that I haven’t personally faced, but so much of what we write is driven by our deep fears, and I think Beth might be someone I could’ve been if I hadn’t been protected from that loneliness. As I wrote Beth’s story, I always wanted better for her than what she was able to want for herself.
There are occasional hints that Beth’s narration comes from some point in the future. Where did this lens come from, and why did you choose it?
One thing I remember about being in high school was a sense that the world was dismissive of whatever relationships we were forming with each other at the time—like, oh, these are just teenage friendships, this isn’t real life. But I think there’s something shatteringly meaningful about the kind of friends who’ve known you over a long span of time, so it was important to me to validate that and give a sense of that truth in Beth’s future. It was also important to me to give Beth a chance to be more tender toward her younger self and to hold all those mistakes she made and those ways she was broken.
Beth is a classical musician, and music plays a huge role in her life. How much of what Beth knows, thinks and feels about music did you know before you started writing? Do you play an instrument? What kind of work did you do to be able to capture this part of Beth’s life?
I used to play the flute–not particularly well!–so I have, like, a high school band-level musical background. But prestigious orchestras were really big where I grew up, and they were always a source of fascination to me. I immersed myself in classical music on and off as I wrote, especially violin. I watched online performances and read music theory for hours.
Beth has a complicated relationship to music; it alternately haunts and frustrates, fulfills and consumes her. And I would say that’s because in everything I’ve ever written about craft, whether it’s baseball or art or music, the deeper truth is that I’m always writing about writing.
When you’re a teenager, how you spend your time—and with whom you spend it—is determined by classes, schoolwork, teachers and extracurriculars. As we see through Beth’s story, these demands also construct and articulate a person’s identity. What was challenging about capturing this aspect of teenage life? Why was including it important to you?
Something I think people forget or underestimate about high school life is how incredibly little agency you have over your world, and that’s one of the challenges of writing about it: Whatever happens, chemistry is still third period. So much is preordained for you. That’s one reason why I always give my characters a world within a world (like sports or music), because it’s a place they can exert some control.
A lot of my work is about resisting the notion that schools are somehow separate from our wider cultural moment rather than a reflection of it, the pervasive sense that anything happening against a backdrop of recess or gym class or TikTok doesn’t matter all that much. The pressures Beth and her friends face are their inheritance from us—the trickling down of adult pressures and pathologies. That’s one reason I think adults should read YA: It reflects our world back at us from a different dimension.
The final chapter of the novel continues Beth’s story after high school. Do you see this chapter as stretching the concept of what a YA novel can contain, or as stepping outside of that boundary to transform the novel into something else entirely?
I love writing YA, and it feels like a calling in a way that my adult projects never do, but the one constraint I kind of chafe against is the span of time you’re given. For the most part, a story has to wrap up by graduation, but so much of this story is about how what happens to Beth and her friends when they’re 17 reverberates through the rest of their lives. I think ultimately what distinguishes YA, though, is that it contains a sense of firsts, and so to me it still feels like there’s a fidelity to the YA designation there.
What kinds of teenagers do you hope find their way to this book? What kinds of thoughts or questions are inside them?
Teens who feel things deeply and who long for connection. Teens who find this yearning of Beth’s resonating with them: “And I hoped too that you could build something vital and lasting even if all you’d had to offer was the damaged parts of yourself, even if you weren’t yet whole.”
What’s something you’re proud of in this book?
I grew up in a very Asian American community in the San Francisco Bay area, and back then pretty much all the Asian American representation in books was either fish-out-of-water stories, in which it was a single Asian American family in a predominantly white town, or it was about another generation, like The Joy Luck Club—all of which are vital and necessary, but I was always so hungry to read and write stories that felt like they could’ve been about people I knew. I thought our experiences were worthy of literature, too. So I’m really proud of having written a story I needed when I was young. This one is for all the Asian American Bay Area teens who’ve told me they feel seen by my stories.
Author photo courtesy of Dayna Falls.