Interview With an Author: Kacen Callender

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Kacen Callender and their latest novel, Infinity Alchemist
Author Kacen Callender and their latest novel, Infinity Alchemist. Photo of author: Bella Porter

Kacen Callender is the bestselling and award-winning author of multiple novels for children, teens, and adults, including the Stonewall Honor Book, Felix Ever After and the National Book Award for Young People's Literature winner, King and the Dragonflies. Their adult fantasy, Queen of the Conquered, was a World Fantasy Award 2020 winner for Best Novel, named one of the 100 Best Fantasy Novels of All Time by Time Magazine and one of the 50 Best Fantasy Novels of All Time by Esquire. Their latest novel is Infinity Alchemist and they recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Infinity Alchemist?

I was originally inspired by the idea of writing a book where there is no chosen one; where everyone is magical. I also wanted to write a science-based magic system and (very) loosely based the book’s alchemy on quantum physics.

Are Ash, Ramsay, Callum, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Each of the characters are pieces of myself. I’m a lot like Ramsay, with her regimented personality, except for when it comes to keeping things clean. I’m also, at times, soft and patient like Callum, focusing on healthy communication with those I care about. I’m most similar to Ash, with his spontaneous personality where he doesn’t quite think things through, often getting himself into trouble, along with the wounds around self-worth that he must heal by the end of the novel.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The original story was in reaction to JK Rowling’s transphobia. She and her series meant a lot to me once, so I’d wanted to write a magical college story with a cast of trans characters that felt empowering against her transphobic rhetoric. There were many evolving drafts where I realized I didn’t want my novel to be directly in conversation with someone who caused so many people so much harm, and the idea of the magic school rejecting the trans main character became an important symbol within itself. Infinity Alchemist feels like an entirely different book from its first attempt, way back in 2019.

The world you’ve created is incredibly rich while also seeming somewhat familiar. Is it based on, or influenced by, an existing place in our world?

New Anglia is based in New England, with each of the major cities based on our own world’s locations, such as Manhattan, New Jersey, Boston, and Rhode Island. There’s a dark academia and slightly steampunk aesthetic that sets the worlds apart.

The magic in Infinity Alchemist, both the magic itself and the rules regarding who can use it and how it can be used, is complex. How long did it take you to figure out “the rules” when you were writing the novel?

I did go back and forth a lot since the first draft as I tried to figure out the various tiers and different types of alchemy within each tier. If alchemy is based on the idea that Source is energy, and everything in existence creates Source, then we’re technically all performing alchemy just by living, blinking, and breathing. I needed to create a law structure around what types of alchemy would be illegal and which alchemy would require more energy and skill.

The ending of Infinity Alchemist seems open to more stories with Ash as he begins a new chapter in his life. Is it the beginning of a series?

Yes, there will be a sequel!

Fantasy novels are possibly more popular now than they ever have been! What do you think it is about Fantasy that draws you, as an author and/or reader, to these stories?

I won’t speak for other readers, but I like fantasy novels that create parallels to our real world, acting as metaphors and symbols and allowing us to see our world in a different light.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Just my lamp. Boring, I know. (Inside of my nightstand, though, is a fire extinguisher blanket.)

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I really can’t! It depends on the audience, genre, and, many times, honestly, my mood. At the moment, looking at my bookshelf, I’m feeling a lot of excitement for Gone Girl, The Fifth Season, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Darius the Great Is Not Okay, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Tomorrow, maybe those titles will change.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Animorphs series.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

No, my mom was glad that I was reading, so she didn’t care very much. Ten might’ve been a little young for The Vampire Chronicles, though.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

The Bible? Probably the Bible.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I did end up getting the paperback versions of the A Court of Thorns and Roses series, just because I liked the illustrations. And because my hardcovers were falling apart.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda directly inspired my YA novel Felix Ever After, which has changed my life and my writing career.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse is incredible.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I would answer The Fifth Season here, too, but why would I put myself through so much pain for a first time all over again? My answer is still The Fifth Season.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I just started a rewatch of The Last of Us. Devastating and horrifying.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Could I meet my younger self? I’d love to spend a day with them, just doing everything and anything they would like to do.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Question: Should aspiring authors force themselves to write every single day to be successful?
Answer: Absolutely not.

What are you working on now?

I’m in-between edits for the sequel to Infinity Alchemist and a contemporary YA mystery.

Book cover of Infinity alchemist
Infinity Alchemist
Callender, Kacen