Debut Author Spotlight: R.O. Kwon

Posted by Goodreads on July 2, 2018
R.O. Kwon
A young Korean American college student grieving the death of her mother is drawn deep into a dangerous cult in the debut novel The Incendiaries. The book is narrated in turn by the woman, Phoebe Lin; the cult leader, John Leal; and Will Kendall, who loves Phoebe and hates the cult and what it represents. R.O. Kwon talked to Goodreads about being inspired by her own religious upbringing and loss of faith, why she spent a decade completing the book, and how pain can lead a person to commit the most desperate acts.



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Goodreads: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a writer.

R.O. Kwon: I grew up so deeply religious that, like my character Will, I believed I'd devote the rest of my life to God, that I'd become a preacher or missionary. I lost my faith when I was in high school, and I can't overstate how difficult it was to—I used to think I'd have rather lost my family than God, since God, in my idea of Him, promised He'd restore all that I lost. I felt so lonely. At the time, I couldn't see my experience anywhere, not even in the books I loved. In writing The Incendiaries, I wanted to write for that lonely high school girl, to tell her I'm here, too.

GR: What sparked the idea for The Incendiaries?

ROK: A lot of people exist on just one side of the belief spectrum: They know what it is to believe in a higher being, or they have no idea at all. With The Incendiaries, I hoped to traverse that divide. I wished to write a book that could convey what it's like to lose and gain faith, how world-changing both can be. Losing God was devastating. I miss Him all the time. I'm starting to understand that this will never end, that I'll keep grieving as long as I live. I wanted to put words to this absence, but I also wanted to give witness to the joy I felt back when I loved Him.

GR: Tell us about your research and writing process for The Incendiaries.

ROK: I worked on this book for ten years! I keep feeling astonished by that number—I really hope the next novel requires less time. It partly took so long because of my ongoing obsession with sentences. I so badly need each line of my fiction to attain—or, at least, to aspire to—what Susan Sontag calls lexical inevitability. I'm trying to get each sentence to read as though there's no other way it could have been. And getting there, well, it takes a while.

I did a lot of research for this book—at various points, I read everything I could find about, in turn, cults, terrorists, abortion clinics, and North Korea—but with each of these categories of knowledge, I also found I had to stop researching and to try to forget everything I'd learned. In other words, I wanted Jejah, the cult in The Incendiaries, to be its own cult; I wanted the terrorists to be their own variety of terrorists.


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GR: Your book explores questions of lost faith and grief. What did you want to say about how these experiences make us vulnerable?

ROK: In The Incendiaries, John Leal tells his group that Christianity recognizes the potential effect of pain, "how it can, with most of us, open what's closed. Like cut flesh, we become available to excluded possibilities." I've noticed that when I'm reasonably happy, if I'm contented, I'm less likely to seek out change. But if I'm in pain, I'm more likely to start looking for an elsewhere.

GR: What writers are you influenced by, and how are those influences reflected in your novel?

ROK: So many—more than I could ever list. Sometimes I wonder if any book I love enough to reread shouldn't count as an influence, since books are made of other books. But here I'll name some living writers who have meant a lot to me. I love the fiction of Christine Schutt and Diane Williams: I've learned a great deal from their devotion to the power of sentences. Mary Ruefle, Anne Carson, Samanta Schweblin, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje, and Lauren Groff all give me such joy. Celeste Ng, Alexander Chee, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Aimee Phan are shining examples of the kind of writer I want to be in this world. While I was writing The Incendiaries, I frequently reread parts of Teju Cole and Justin Torres.

GR: What do you hope readers take away from reading your debut?

ROK: In The Incendiaries, I wanted to bridge imaginative rifts between fanatic and more rational worldviews. Every time there's a new terrorist attack, people say they can't begin to understand what the perpetrators were thinking. I hoped to give some insight into how people can bring themselves to commit terrible, violent acts in the name of God. Which, in some cases, is also in the name of good.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

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ROK: This summer and fall, there's a proliferation of exciting books by women, many of them by women of color, and I feel so fortunate in having had an early look at a lot of them. There are debut novels by Vanessa Hua, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Lydia Kiesling, Crystal Hana Kim, Aja Gabel, Lillian Li, and Lucy Tan. There's a debut memoir from Nicole Chung, an anthology edited by Jennifer Baker, and a story collection from Rita Bullwinkel. There are new, wonderful books from Laura van den Berg, Rebecca Makkai, Lauren Groff, and Adrienne Celt. One of the books I most often recommended in 2017 was Rachel Khong's Goodbye, Vitamin; we're well into 2018, but I find I can't really stop talking about that book. Who knows, maybe I'll never stop.

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

ROK: I've been working on my next novel for close to two years, but it's still raw enough, I have trouble talking about it. I can say it includes women artists, ambition, and sex. Also, I'm coediting an anthology called Kink with Garth Greenwell, and it's scheduled to be published in 2020.

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