YA author Adam Silvera has published three solo novels, one collaboration with Becky Albertalli, and has contributed to anthologies, but his latest book is a new endeavor: the launch of a fantasy series. Infinity Son follows twins Emil and Brighton through an alternate, magic-filled New York City where Spell Walkers go up against specters, who violently steal the essence of magical creatures. When Emil develops powers of his own and Brighton does not, their relationship is strained, and Emil finds himself at the center of the fray. Silvera spoke with PW about his first fantasy novel, his worldbuilding process, and how his previous roles in the industry prepared him for publishing his own work.
This new book, Infinity Son, is a bit of a departure from the realistic fiction fans have come to expect from you. What appealed to you about writing fantasy and, furthermore, a series?
Personally, I consider Infinity Son less of a departure and more coming home. I got my start writing fanfiction for Harry Potter and shows like Charmed, Supernatural, and, of course, the X-Men series. I’ve always been interested in all things magical and superpowers and such. I had so much fun referring to some of these influences while crafting my own magical universe.
I have always wanted to write a series and to experience all the highs and lows of that process. It definitely presents some incredible challenges. You’re not just setting the groundwork for a single book, it’s for future installments as well. I’ve long admired the storytelling choices and reveals that happened in books like Harry Potter and my favorite shows. Like discovering something in season one or book two that has a gigantic impact on something that happens in season or book four. I wanted to tell a bigger story.
What inspired the premise of Infinity Son?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by phoenixes, not just because I loved their representation in pop culture, but because I’m sort of a believer in reincarnation. I’d muse about what I’d love most for myself in my next life, or “what did I do in my past life that I’m having such a tough time now?” And then I was also thinking about life sentences in court rulings. So, you have three life sentences, what does that mean when you have a single life? What if the consequences of your actions in a previous life played out multiple lifetimes later? That idea collided with the phoenix business and we see Emil, the infinity son of the novel, taking on the powers of a phoenix and the history of multiple past lives.
And, looking back, I think about a lot of my favorite fantasy series and notice the lack of queer characters. I wanted to tell a story that better represented what I would have wanted to read as a kid. There are just so many fragments of this story that have existed with me since I was 18 years old, when I tried writing a very different version of this novel. Now, as the story is today, more than 10 years later, it’s the version I’m most proud of.
How did you go about creating an alternate NYC? What was the most difficult part?
Creating an alternate New York City was super fun. I was living in New York when I drafted the book for the first time and through many different drafts. I was constantly looking around me and reimagining. What does it look like if you introduce magical powers to New York? Things like a fight on the train change significantly. It’s not just someone throwing fists, it’s someone throwing fire. That’s a big difference! I looked for opportunities like that to better situate the reader in the world, while keeping it grounded. I like to think of it more as being a Marvel show with a smaller budget, like on Netflix, instead of the bigger flashier movies that take place on different planets. I wanted it to feel very familiar.
Do you see your writing and the scenes you are creating through a cinematic lens?
This series is very visual for me and I think it has to be. I’m not just talking about cell phones and cars; I’m talking about wands and people flying on phoenixes. You have to create that understanding for yourself, so if someone is riding a phoenix, you know how big it is. Is it the size of a horse? A dog? A dragon? The series has forced me to become more of a visual writer than I was before.
Themes of prejudice and social justice are central to this story. Why did you decide to incorporate these elements as you did?
Before the 2016 election, I wouldn’t have thought of myself as a political writer, though everything I’ve written so far has been in line with social justice and representation. It took on a completely new meaning after seeing all the damage this administration has done. I wanted to write about those evils, but in a fantasy setting. About what it means to be marginalized. While I’m not necessarily writing about homophobia, there are still very familiar notes that will be recognized by those who have been oppressed.
What were your favorite scenes or powers to write for Infinity Son?
I love the moment when Emil comes into his phoenix fire for the first time, which is very interesting to me because when I was first writing this story years ago, that’s not where it started. It started with the main character already having all the powers and being forced into doing gang work. One day I wondered, what was the moment when they got their powers for the first time? I realized I had to have that moment, like when Hagrid comes to Harry and tells him he’s a wizard. One of my favorite parts of fantasy stories is when an ordinary person discovers they’re extraordinary by some measure, so I went back and completely restructured the book.
You’ve been sharing bits about this book on social media for years. What has it been like to bring the book to life, with fans waiting and watching, and to know it will finally be available to readers?
It’s wild. I feel like I’ve been picturing this moment even longer than I had pictured publishing my first book. [More Happy Than Not] came out a few days shy of my turning 25, and I turn 30 this year. This series is going to have its own rewards and challenges, but I’m excited to meet readers who will connect with it and obsess over the characters and hungrily wait for the next installment.
Did your writing process for this book differ from previous works, given genre fiction’s specific need for worldbuilding?
It did, especially because of the worldbuilding. I had to make intentional choices, like do I want to tell the reader everything I know? Because I know plenty. Or do I want to withhold some details and instead plant seeds for future installments? There are so many details that didn’t make their way into the book. My editor Andrew Eliopulos and I had so many conversations about this. Everything is new to the reader, so if I tell them a detail, they’ll expect that it’s important to the bigger plot. So, most of the details are essential to the grander plot. I could tell more and more, but I didn’t want it to be a distraction.
What brought you to writing and the world of YA literature?
I was a young adult book reviewer for a few years and a children’s bookseller; my interest has always been in young adult novels. It really felt automatic for me. I didn’t have to intentionally sit down and decide that; it was just what I was writing. Interestingly, Infinity Son started off as a middle grade novel. Back in 2012, it was a dark fairy tale I was calling The Girl with Monster Blood. It was a very, very different book. There’s a ritual from that version that ended up making its way into the final book and some names, but I realized I wanted to go darker in a way that I wasn’t sure was okay in middle grade. I’m glad it ended up in the space it did; it’s a novel I think is best geared towards teens and adults anyway.
Are you still interested in writing middle grade?
Absolutely! I have one idea that I considered making YA, but it’s firmly middle grade. I’m looking forward to having time in a few years when this series and a few other YA commitments are finished. It’s a book that I think needs a few years to brew in my head.
Did you always know that you wanted to write and publish a book?
I’ve been writing since I was 11. It almost feels like I should have more books published, but I’ve known since I was in high school that I wanted to publish a book. I had a goal to be a published author by 25 and my first book came out five days before my 25th birthday. It’s almost arrogant. I never doubted that I’d publish a book, but I own that now: it was pure early 20s ego that got me through. I think you need some ego as a writer—or at least I did. So, I always knew that I’d publish a book and what has surprised me the most has been the success I’ve found. I am so eternally grateful for that.
In addition to your solo novels and collaboration with Becky Albertalli, you also contributed a story to the Color Outside the Lines anthology last year. What did that anthology and story mean to you?
I had so much fun writing that story because it’s a fun bookstore meet-cute, but it also has weight to it. The character is a white-passing Puerto Rican like I am. My white passing was a privilege that I came to understand after the 2016 election; I was previously ignorant to the fact that I have a lot of benefits that a white man does. It wasn’t until a friend brought it up to me after the election, and asked me, “How are you feeling as someone who is white and straight-presenting?” And I thought, “That’s not how I would have described myself.” I thought everyone knew that I was gay and Puerto Rican. It was a big moment for me. I’ve come to realize that while I may not have always seen gay representation in the books and movies I love so much, I have seen white representation and have always been able to connect with that. I wanted to write a moment when a kid comes to understand that for himself.
You’ve been a children’s bookseller, a community manager for a content development company, and a book reviewer. How have those experiences informed your approach publishing?
I think without those experiences, publishing would have been very different because it was book reviewing that taught me how to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a novel, which is something that I put into practice for myself when working on my early books. I would write a book review for my own books to figure out what was and wasn’t working. Being a bookseller taught me how to succinctly pitch a book and figure out what book covers are successful. I had insider information and could see what books customers were drawn to. I didn’t go to college, but working in the publishing industry and in bookstores was my crash course in all the things I needed as a writer.
Did you have input on the cover design for Infinity Son?
The cover designer, Erin Fitzsimmons, and my editor asked me what ideas I had for the cover because they knew that, having spent so much time with this book, I’d have ideas. And yes, I did. We hired an artist and created a sketch, but it wasn’t what this book needed. It was the first time I’d been asked what I wanted for my cover and I got it and I realized—I don’t think I want this. Erin came up with the idea of a phoenix in an infinity loop and provided three different sketches of phoenixes. I knew which was right, 100%. Then she brought on Kevin Tong who did the artwork. He completely crushed it; I love it so much. When I saw the first sketch, I had tears in my eyes and when I saw the full-color cover it was like, “This is it.” I could never have come up with it on my own, so props to cover designers. Sometimes the writer might have a cool idea, but I would have never seen this incredible cover if I had only had room for my vision.
Do you find yourself writing stories with a specific reader in mind? Is there something that drives you to tell stories?
I write for myself first. For me, it’s impossible to write with even two people in mind. We all have different preferences—how do you cater to that? You can’t. With Infinity Son, I was trying to write with other fantasy novels in mind and wanting to emulate them. That worked against my voice; I was trying to write for everyone instead of myself. So I wrote the book I couldn’t find for myself as a kid. I have it on good authority that younger Adam would have been obsessed with this book! It has a magical setting and powers and the bonus of the main character being gay and falling for a cute bisexual shapeshifter. I write for myself, but I publish for all the readers who have supported me.
What do you have planned for this upcoming year?
I have a lot of writing to do. I think this will be my most ambitious year! I’m also going to travel more because I realized that I am very privileged that writing is my full-time job and I can do that from anywhere. It doesn’t make sense to me that I’m only writing in my apartment. I want to write more and live more. I need to figure out that balance because I do believe that it exists.
Infinity Son by Adam Silvera. HarperCollins, $18.99 Jan. 14 ISBN 978-0-06-245782-0