Kacen Callender on the alchemy of empathy

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Kacen Callender dedicates their first foray into young adult fantasy, Infinity Alchemist, to “the younger me who always wanted to write a YA fantasy.” While this might make one imagine a teenage Callender dreaming of a future as an author, Callender explains it is actually in reference to their early days of their career, when they struggled to write fantasy. “It was very difficult at that time, for whatever reason, to get the story out,” they say. ”Infinity Alchemist had been percolating for a lot of years, so it felt like a massive triumph for me to finally write it.”

What made this book such a challenge in those early days? Callender points to their struggle to pull together all the many necessary threads of this narrative into a cohesive storyline: “I didn’t quite understand plotting yet. Now, hopefully, I do.”

Some readers might view this focus on plot and action as a departure from Callender’s previous books, which are character-driven and move at a slower tempo, titles that might be deemed “quiet” by the publishing industry. In Infinity Alchemist, “there’s a lot of fighting scenes, a lot of explosive battles, a lot of excitement, alongside the emotional depth,” Callender says. Yet with its theme of learning about one’s self-worth, Infinity Alchemist still has a characteristic Callender feeling to it.  “With all of my books, I tend to focus on a theme, some sort of internal healing and a message that I hope will resonate with readers,” they say.

Read our review of ‘Infinity Alchemist.’ 

One of the guiding principles of the fantasy world of Infinity Alchemist is that everyone has equal access to alchemy, but people still experience different degrees of success in learning alchemy, often due to the deliberate manipulation of the system by those in power. Protagonist Ash Woods is unusually gifted, but he has been denied access to the training that would make his power legitimate. Regarding the tension that creates, Callender says, “For me, it was always important that there not be a Chosen One, to include the idea that everyone is powerful and everyone is magical, and everyone is Chosen in the eyes of the Source or the Creator or what have you. I wanted to explain how power is internal; power is realizing that you are worthy without being gaslit by the idea of societal power.” But Callender adds: “You can feel power for yourself and feel that self-worth, but there are still other people who have the power to decide that you aren’t worthy. I wanted those different versions of power to be in conversation.”

“I wanted to explain how power is internal; power is realizing that you are worthy without being gaslit by the idea of societal power.”

Callender has a history of telling the stories of characters whose identities aren’t often represented in media, and Infinity Alchemist continues that work with a diverse cast of queer, trans, and polyamorous characters. Ramsay Thorne, for instance, is genderfluid, and the book seamlessly shifts pronouns throughout the character’s arc. This technique foregrounds Ramsay’s story more than Ramsay’s pronouns. “Ramsay comes to life in that way because it is going to be different for every reader, depending on where they last left the character. For example, I’m writing the sequel now, so for me the last I saw Ramsay, he was using he/him pronouns. But for you, having just read Infinity Alchemist, she was using she/her pronouns.”

Whether through the use of shifting pronouns or depicting a trusting polyamorous relationship, Callender’s work makes more visible the lived realities of countless people, and Infinity Alchemist is flooded with empathy and compassion. “That’s one of the great beauties of being able to write about these identities,” Callender says, as they explain how the imaginative act of reading allows anyone to “become” a character. “Even though you as a reader might not ever understand all the ways an identity can work, you can for a moment become that queer Black trans kid, and you’re understanding all of their wounds and their traumas and their grief and their healing.”

Callender builds on this idea: “Regardless of identity, that’s where a character is built: inside the idea that we all have these wounds that we either inherited or experienced. From my perspective, life is the story arc of healing those wounds.”

“That’s where a character is built: inside the idea that we all have these wounds that we either inherited or experienced.”

That wisdom comes through in every page of Infinity Alchemist. In the book, as Ash and Ramsay are coming to trust each other, Ramsay lists some of Ash’s more frustrating qualities, claiming him to be “selfish . . . and hot-tempered, and irrational, and you act without thinking.” Then Ramsay pivots to Ash’s kindness and curiosity, explaining, “It’s lazy to put a multifaceted human being, created from the alchemy of the universe, into a box of good or bad. No one is only one of the two.” When I ask Callender about the apt specificity of “lazy” here, they laugh and agree that it’s the perfect word. “It’s easy to decide that someone is good or bad instead of wanting to do the work. It’s a lot of work to look at a person and consider their traumas and wounds and all that has built them to be the person who they are today.”

We closed our time by discussing the relationships depicted in Infinity Alchemist and the way “polyamory reflects the concept of healing in the book, where everyone is worthy of love, and the idea that love cannot be limited.” Callender says, “I understand that some readers might ask why polyamory, or might not understand what it is as an identity. But it’s my hope that as there are more books with the topic of polyamory, it will be more accepted.”

Acceptance, self-worth, healing, love. “What’s better than that?” I ask, to which Callender replies, “Exactly.”

Photo of Kacen Callender by Bella Porter.

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