Kelly Loy Gilbert Talks About Representation, “Picture Us in the Light,” & More

The YALSA Morris finalist shares how her latest YA novel features the kind of Asian American protagonists and community she longed to read about as a teen.

Photo by Dayna Falls

Kelly Loy Gilbert’s sophomore effort, Picture Us in the Light (Disney-Hyperion, April 2018; Gr 9 Up), has already garnered five stars, including one from SLJ, which says: “The author demonstrates exquisite facility with tech-savvy teen-speak in every scenario and balances the authentic dialogue with elegant prose.” The YALSA Morris finalist shares how her latest YA novel features the kind of Asian American protagonists and community she longed to read about as a teen. How long did it take to write Picture Us in the Light—from when you first conceived of the idea until the final revision? It took me about three years (originally the book was slated for 2016, which obviously didn’t happen!). The original conception of the story was totally different, and I went through two major rewrites and then several fairly involved revisions along the way. The narrative style often flows from past to present, as readers learn tidbits from the Cheng family’s past and Danny’s friendship with Harry, Sandra, and Regina. It almost felt like a mystery to decode. How did you keep track of all of the threads? My stories always take their real shape in revision, and usually there’s a point I finally hit in every project where I feel like I’ve found my way into the center of the story at last, and at that point I can throw something into one plot thread and sense the ways it’ll reverberate through all the others. Mostly getting there is writing through countless story lines and then winnowing out the ones that aren’t working, and the ones that feel like they have some heat and energy behind them are the ones I go deeper into. Then usually by that point, I think, I feel immersed enough that I can kind of keep track of what’s happening and what’s tied together—it’s like when you’re cramming for a final and there’s that one night before the test where you’re a (temporary) oracle of knowledge. But even then, while I feel like I can keep a handle on the emotional throughlines, I do stumble a lot over the details and time lines, which always feel like the math of books, and I have a lot of obsessive Word document strategies to try to track everything. Also, Laura Schreiber, my editor at Disney-Hyperion, is a genius in general but is particularly talented with plot threads—I feel like if you did an MRI of her brain it would be, like, one of those bulletin board diagrams with yarn everywhere—and I can’t say enough about her insight into this book. It was refreshing to read about an unlikable male narrator. While there were many times I wanted to shake Danny for the decisions he was making, I couldn’t help but root for him. How did you go about creating such a complex protagonist? That is so funny, because I’ve spent so long with him, I think I love him in an almost parental way, and I didn’t set out to consciously write an unlikable narrator! But, of course, he can be selfish and impulsive and obtuse, and he makes some questionable choices, and there are things he still hasn’t forgiven himself for (and probably shouldn’t, frankly, be forgiven). My two entry points into narrators are always their voice and the lens they use to see the world—I tried to match the pitch of Danny’s voice to how he’d speak as a Silicon Valley teen, and his lenses are 1) art and 2) his core belief (his religion, almost) that the most important things in life are the ways you can be connected to the people in the world around you. I think for all Danny’s faults, he is fiercely, deeply committed to the people in his life, even the peripheral ones—he’s staunchly loyal even to people who shouldn’t matter to him anymore. He wants to know everything about everyone. He genuinely wants to see and understand people as they are. And he also very deeply wants to right his wrongs, and I think for the most part, he’s willing to be honest about who he is and his shortcomings. He’s at a point in his life when he’s trying to grapple with what that means—are you the person you are when you’re your best self, or are you the worst things you’ve ever said and did to someone? And I think that’s part of what makes things feel complex even to himself, that there aren’t necessarily easy answers, that we are so multifaceted and vast and that we are so many things to so many different people in our lives. Cupertino, in the San Francisco Bay Area, is such an important part of this novel. Why did you decide to set this story there? I grew up in Cupertino, which is a majority Asian American city in the Silicon Valley, and in a 100 ways both good and bad, it’s a place that’s always going to have such a profound impact on my imagination and sense of self, and I always felt that it was a place worth telling stories about. But when I was younger, the vast majority of the Asian American stories I could find to read were more fish-out-of-water-type stories—characters who were the only Asian Americans in their Midwestern towns, for instance. Those stories are so important and so true to the experience of many, but I always wished so much I could read stories that felt like they more accurately captured my own experiences. Where were the stories about kids cutting class to get boba? Where were the stories about kids taking studio pics after school or going to Chinese school on Saturdays or flipping out about getting B's on tests? I was desperate for those stories—but protective of them, too, in the way I think we always are when we want so desperately to see ourselves on the page but also don’t want to see ourselves flattened or stereotyped or scorned. Around the time I was in college, I started to harbor a quiet dream of someday being able to write a book about Cupertino myself. Danny is the son of Chinese immigrants, and Cupertino felt like a very natural place for them to have ended up, and I think there’s so much about Danny was shaped by where he’s from. The teens in this book have lots of pressure to succeed—from school, their family, and their friends. Why do you think this theme will resonate with young people today? The high school I went to (also where Danny goes in the novel) was one of the top-ranked public high schools in the nation, and the amount of academic pressure we were under was tremendous. I still live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which continues to be a very success-driven place, and even today as a thirtysomething I still feel the effects of coming-of-age in such a pressure cooker and all the ways it toys with my self-esteem and warps my sense of identity and worth. And I think, honestly, that it’s even tougher for teens today. I spent several years as an SAT tutor/college essay coach while I was working on my previous book, and I think (at least in the Bay Area) there’s just a totally overwhelming sense that you should always be achieving more than whatever you already are, that it’s this moral imperative to be “The Best.” On top of that there’s also now the constant pressure of social media to be telling a narrative of your life—you are constantly feeling as if you’re held up for inspection and waiting to be judged by the social media sphere, by your teachers, by nameless college admissions officers. I think adults forget, a lot of times, that being a teenager can actually be incredibly demanding and stressful and that you don’t have the same agency you sometimes do when you’re older if life starts to feel like it’s swallowing you. I think teenagers naturally connect with stories about pressure, because that’s what they’re living all the time. Picture Us in the Light addresses multiple facets of identity: class, immigration status, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, languages spoken, mental health, religion. Why did you think it was so important to approach this story with an intersectional lens? When I was younger there was a long period when reading books about Asian American characters meant the whole story was about being Asian American, and what I really wanted, I think, was to read more stories where the characters’ race shaped and informed but didn’t define them. I wanted stories that explored the diversity within diversity, stories with characters who were as complicated and contradictory and interesting as the communities they were reflecting. And that’s always been important to me and always something I wanted to strive for whenever I got to write my book about the world I grew up in, but at the same time I don’t think I consciously set out to write this as an intersectional book as some kind of statement or issue. I think as I developed the characters their identities were intersectional as an honest reflection of who we are and the way we live. Because I don’t have “My Asian American Year,” where all I have to deal with is what race means, and then I solve that and move on to “My Mental Health Year,” and so on—we are so many things, all the time, and each of those things informs the others, and I think telling the truth in fiction reflects that reality. So, I will not give away the bittersweet conclusion, but I’d love to know: Was this always the ending you envisioned? By the second draft—probably a year and a half into writing—I had a pretty good idea of the ending, but everything else in the story was so incredibly different that it took another year and a half to work out how the story would get there. That gorgeous cover! What were your first impressions when you saw it? I am so, so wildly in love with the cover, which is designed by Maria Elias and illustrated by Adams Carvalho. My first impression was a bit embarrassing—my editor, Laura, sent over extremely rough mock-ups of the concept using stock art, and I’d been so excited to see an email with “cover” in the subject, I skimmed the text and somehow missed that it was stock art, and so my first impression was something like “Wow, I love the idea but it feels a little…unfinished?” I also (despite teaching paper arts classes in another life and also working briefly as a graphic designer) have very little artistic imagination, and so even though I saw some of the evolution of the cover in process, seeing the finished version was as if I were seeing it for the first time—it just surpassed anything I could’ve imagined, even though I imagined it a million times. I love everything about it and all the little ways it ties into the story. What are you working on next? If the past is any indication, what I think I’m working on will go through so many revisions it’ll be unrecognizable by the time it’s done—but at the moment, I’m writing about a girl who’s the daughter of a pastor in a conservative Chinese American church who learns she’s pregnant her senior year of high school.
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