R.O. Kwon is the author of The Incendiaries, a stunning novel that explores the fresh pain of loss and the lure of the absolute. Psychologically deep and haunting, the story is set on the campus of a Northeastern college and told from the perspective of three characters: Will Kendall, a scholarship student coming to terms with the loss of his formerly zealous faith, Phoebe Lin, a kinetic and dazzling young woman coping with a recent loss of her own, and John Leal, the mysterious and charismatic leader of an extremist Christian group with roots in North Korea. The Incendiaries is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award for Best First Book and Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Fiction Prize, and is nominated for the Aspen Prize and American Library Association Carnegie Medal.
It was a pleasure to speak with Kwon over the phone in late 2018, not least because she holds an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College — where this magazine is produced — and the seeds of The Incendiaries were developed in her time as a student on our Flatbush campus. During our conversation she answered my questions about craft, her writing superstitions, and the vivid characters in her debut novel that was ten years in the making.
An earlier draft of this novel was told completely from Will’s point of view. Later, you expanded the story to incorporate all three of the main characters’ points of view, with Phoebe and John’s points of view filtered very slyly through Will’s remembering. What did extending the points of view open up for you?
For the first two years I worked on the novel, the entire story was actually told from Phoebe’s point of view. I ended up switching to Will because when the story was told from Phoebe’s point of view, it felt claustrophobic. She both loses so much and gains so much. I began thinking about what might happen if the story was told by someone who wasn’t at the center of the action, and was thinking particularly about The Great Gatsby, and how having Nick Carraway narrate — instead of pretty much any other character in the book — helped shaped the story. Once Will became the narrator, it opened up space in the book and allowed for a greater variety of registers than I’d previously had. It wasn’t as spiky, and the swings didn’t have to be quite as dramatic.
When I showed that draft to my agent, her primary point of feedback was that she would love to see more of Phoebe — after I’d thrown away two years of work with her as the narrator! I agreed with my agent’s feedback, but found that reintroducing Phoebe from her own hybrid point of view was more interesting at that point and again opened up space in the book. I found that to be true when including John Leal’s point of view, too.
In a previous interview with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, you said that you tried really hard not to write a scene in which there’s a central act of violence between two of the characters, and that you were surprised by them as you were writing it. Do you usually let your characters lead the plot as you’re writing, or do you a combination of outlining and explorative writing?
One of my grad school mentors from Brooklyn College is Michael Cunningham. He said something that I love and think about a lot: We must love our characters as God does, but not more. Writing fiction is an act of revelation that feels more like a discovery than invention. I’m following the characters and asking them to reveal themselves to me. At one point early on I wrote a one-page outline and I’m not sure I ever looked at it again. I’m not an outline-heavy writer who can plan ahead of time. I need to follow my characters and let them lead the way.
How well do you feel you have to know your characters before you continue writing after the first 20 pages or so?
I spent the first two years obsessively reworking the first twenty pages over and over again. Then I threw it all away. I love sentences, I love syllables, and I love words, but I realized that my obsessive love and fascination with language was running into conflict with figuring out who the characters were and what their story might be.
After I threw those first twenty pages away, I started getting through drafts as fast as I could for the next year or two, trying not care about the language, trying to write a rough draft that would show me what the story was and who the characters were. It takes me a long time to get to know my characters. That central act of violence you mentioned was just one of many points when a character surprised me. If I knew everything about my characters and everything they were up to ahead of time, I’d be really bored — I’m not even sure I could write that book.
You’ve spoken about your own loss of faith as being the inspiration for this book, but it’s pretty obviously not autobiographical. How did the character of Will come to you and what were the first things about him that took shape?
My initial spark for writing this book was wanting to convey how terrible it was for me to lose my faith, but also how wonderful faith was when I did believe. I wanted to bring to life for people who might not have experienced these varieties of faith — whether it’s having it or losing it, or both — what this experience could look like. Will’s sections — especially the way he talks about having lost God — are some of the most emotionally autobiographical parts of this book, even as not every fact of his life lines up neatly with my own life facts. It was so important to me to get this right. I wrote those scenes over and over, trying to convey the enormity of the loss. There’s a large part of me that wishes I could have stayed faithful.
And Will was a good vehicle as a character for that?
I’m not sure that I think about fiction in that way. It’s more that he seemed like the right person to bring that to life. I’ve heard a lot of people say this, but it does feel to me that the characters I write are more or less alive, and I feel responsibility towards them as though they are alive.
On that same note of faith, did you think about your novel’s audience at all — either while writing or after the book was published — in terms of how someone who’s a believer might interpret this book versus how someone who’s a non-believer would?
While I’m writing it’s impossible for me to think about what anyone else might think. When I’m working I don’t have space for anything except my own critical judgement of the work. That said, it’s been tremendously meaningful and wonderful to hear from readers. I cry every time I get a note from someone who says that they’ve had their own complicated relationship with faith, and that the book made them feel more seen, understood, or less alone. That’s meant the world to me.
I’d imagine that there were many different forms of religious activism that you could’ve had John Leal promote to his followers, so I’m interested in your choice of abortion clinics. Why did you decide to make those his target, and what about that particular topic interested you?
As with characters, choice doesn’t feel like quite the right noun for me. I don’t feel as though I’m choosing things as I’m writing, it feels more like I’m making my way toward a book. But one day I was volunteering at a Planned Parenthood as a patient escort, walking people back and forth from their cars and the clinic. We were walking past protesters, all of whom — as far as I could tell from their signs — were very visibly Christian. I felt this near physical split in my body between the person I had been and the person I was: the very Christian person who might’ve believed what the protestors believed in versus the person who was so strongly opposed to their beliefs that I wanted to help people walk into the Planned Parenthood, some of whom were there to get abortions. There was something about that sharp divide between who I was and who I had been that interested me, and I think that’s how that strain came into my novel.
It’s really interesting how you can be one person and have felt so strongly about both sides.
That’s something I love about fiction. In fiction, I get to keep asking questions while not necessarily providing conclusions. Having been so deeply religious, and having left that behind, I’m such a different person than I used to be. That’s left me with a deep allergy to certainty in most of its forms — I want to say all of its forms, but even that sounds way too certain.
On that note, I also loved reading the stories John Leal told his followers. They reminded me of political stump speeches, in which small details keep getting changed to fit a broader message. Why do you think these stories are so effective at convincing, even when people perceive shifts in details and facts?
Going back to the question of certainty, John Leal peddles certainties. Cult leaders and demagogues often do. I think that kind of certainty can be very appealing to a lot of people, and often dangerously appealing, as we see every time we read the news.
Do you think that’s why a character like Phoebe was persuaded by him?
I think leaders like John Leal can be particularly appealing to people who have a lot of questions, which Phoebe does. The same is true for Will, to a certain extent. Both Phoebe and Will experience great pain, and I think that pain has left them dissatisfied with the answers they’ve previously been given, so they’re on the lookout for other kinds of answers.
You have this way of making everyday objects haunting, and the love of language you mentioned earlier completely comes through in your writing. Does most of this come in revision? Do you prefer writing first drafts or revising?
I’m really in it for the sentences. You know those moments when you’re writing, and for the first 100 reads you thought that a sentence was good, that it was going to work? And then you read it for the 101st time and you realize that it’s actually trash, that it needs to be fixed, and that all your judgement up to that moment must be questioned all over again. As heartrending as that can be, I love working in that 101st read space. I can spend all day working with three sentences, fiddling with them, moving around a word, then two commas, and I’ll feel really good about the work I’ve done that day — as though I’m doing what I should be doing on this earth.
The early drafts are really hard and are far less transportive. They feel much more like gruntwork, like the parts that I have to get through.
You’re also a fairly prolific writer of nonfiction work, and have written for various online outlets. How do you balance writing nonfiction with fiction?
Since December 2017, I haven’t consistently written fiction in the way I was before, partly because there was so much to do around the publication of this first novel that I haven’t been able to focus on my second novel. So the real answer is that I’m not balancing it well at all. This next year I plan to get back into working on fiction for hours a day, every day, if possible. I find that both fiction and nonfiction are really greedy animals. If I’m working on fiction, it doesn’t want me to work on anything else. The same goes for nonfiction, and that’s not even touching on the terrible temptations of Twitter, Instagram, and email. I feel the most fulfilled if I’m writing fiction every day. I love working on nonfiction but it doesn’t draw from my marrow the same way fiction does.
When your life is in a more balanced state, do you have a specific writing process that you try to stick to?
I find it very helpful to go as quickly as I can from bed to my laptop. During the last few years of working on this book, I would roll out of bed, get coffee, bolt to my laptop, and try very hard not to do anything else. I try to keep the dreaming-brain that gets interrupted when I wake up as intact as possible and go from there into the dream world of writing, which isn’t all that dissimilar from the brain that manufactures dreams.
That transition also makes writing less scary for me. Any time I start writing, I find it to be quite terrifying. It doesn’t matter whether the day before was good or bad. If it was a bad day, then I might feel discouraged. If it was a good day, the kind of day where writing felt amazing, then it’s even worse because I’m almost certain the next day isn’t going to look nearly as good. So I’m just trying to cut down on the fear, the excuses, and the impediments so I can get to writing as fast as I can.
It makes sense that you wouldn’t let yourself get in your head, or start reading other things that would put different people’s voices in your head.
Yes, although for a few years while I was working on The Incendiaries, I started the day by reading a couple of paragraphs or even just a few lines from a Virginia Woolf book that I really love. I love it so much that I’m afraid to name it for fear that it might somehow stop helping me. I’ve been working on my next book for about two years now. I don’t have a particular book that I want to be reading while I’m working on it — I haven’t found it yet.
Has your mentality or approach changed now that you’re writing a second novel, or does it feel like you’re starting the same process all again?
It feels harder in some ways. When I first started writing this second novel, I was trying to get away from my previous obsessions. Then I started realizing there’s no getting away from them, that there’s a reason they’re my obsessions, and that maybe it’s about meeting them in a different way. I’ve been trying to do that.
The one very useful thing I took away from writing the first book was not to do what I did those first two years: obsess over the first twenty pages over and over again. So I’ve been trying to get through drafts more quickly this time. I let myself lose track of which draft I’m on because I don’t want to know what’s going into it or let myself get discouraged. I think I’m already two or three drafts into the new book. Four, maybe? I have no idea.
This interview has been edited and condensed.