Behind the Typewriter: Kelly Loy Gilbert

The smallest details have been points of fascination for countless authors, as writers craft masterpieces from a summer’s day or a red rose, taking the minute aspects of existence and building them into something much larger. But for Kelly Loy Gilbert, UC San Diego alumna and author of “Conviction” and the upcoming novel “Picture Us in the Light, the soul of her work lies in the looming emotional realities that affect people on a broader, more immediate scale.

“I tend to think really hard and be struck by current events — the political landscape of things — and want to shine light on certain stories and things that really catch me, particularly in areas where there are injustices. Those tend to be things that I feel really drawn to and want to work out through fiction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert credits her ability to navigate the publishing industry to her time as an undergraduate literature and writing major at UCSD, but her authorial roots stretch further back.

“Even as a very small child, I was always connected to the idea of storytelling,” Gilbert recalled. “It was something I always wanted to do with my life; I was always reading and always writing. From a very young age, that was my dream.”

But even with a vision in mind, making a career out of an art form is a challenging process, particularly in reconciling oneself to the commodification of personal creative endeavors. “It’s one thing when you’re writing for yourself and for the art,” she reflected on the publishing industry, “but once you’re turning it into a career there are so many new voices that enter your head: your publisher, your editor, all of the reviews that you’re getting. It’s the idea that something you’re creating isn’t just going to be for you.”

In addition to writing, Gilbert is also a former member of the National Novel Writing Month Associate Board. NaNoWriMo is an annual event where authors of all levels and backgrounds attempt to write a 50,000-word novel over the course of November. “I love the idea of a culture of storytelling, the idea that every voice matters and every story matters and even if people don’t necessarily think of themselves as writers or professional writers, their stories are still so important and it’s great to have them in the world,” she said of the event.

Calling for new voices in fiction and in publishing has remained an important part of Gilbert’s own goals and desires for the publishing industry at large, as well as a key influence on her work. When asked what she dislikes most about the publishing industry, she scarcely hesitated before speaking adamantly about the need for greater diversity.

“There are a lot of voices that have been traditionally marginalized and if you’re looking at the statistics of people in publishing based on sexuality or race or neurotypicality, there hasn’t traditionally been a lot of room for stories outside of what people think of as the norm,” she said. “I think there’s been change happening there, so that’s exciting.”

Writing beyond what audiences are used to is something she’s already done in her upcoming book, “Picture Us in the Light,” by drawing on her childhood experiences in a majority-Asian area of Cupertino. “That’s not an experience I see reflected much in books, so I’m really excited about that aspect of it. It deals with the idea of generational trauma and sacrifice and secrets and art and how we respond to the things we care about so much that we can’t talk about them to anybody.”

This latest book in particular was a laborious process. “Writing it was hell,” Gilbert recalled, laughing. “It was really horrible. It took me three years. Everyone says that your second book is your hardest book and I really believe it. The election of 2016 threw me off. The book deals with a family that is having some immigration issues and everything that was happening in the world was affecting what would happen in the scape of the story.” The novel, set to come out April 10, 2018, tells the story of Danny Cheng, the artistic son of Chinese-American immigrants whose search for his family’s past reveals unexpected secrets that have the potential to change everything he’s ever known.

Despite the attendant trials and tribulations, Gilbert believes that having already written and published “Conviction” helped her with the creation of “Picture Us in the Light.” She was able to draw from the advice of her publisher, agent, readers, and even other writers to create a stronger sense of what allows people to really connect with text. It’s this communication and diversity of experience and interpretation that makes writing the ultimately rewarding process that it is for Gilbert. “It’s out of your control,” she mused. “You can write the best book possible, but how people are going to read it is totally up to them. I think that’s part of what’s amazing about writing.”