Writing A Novel about the Spectrum of Belief: Thu Interviews Author R.O. Kwon

The Incendiaries travels between Phoebe, a piano prodigy who grieves and blames herself for her mother’s death; Will, a young man studying to become a priest until he loses his faith and drops out of the seminary; and John Leal, a mysterious and enigmatic man with ties to North Korea; all of whom meet at Edwards University. Deeply troubled and searching for a purpose beyond themselves, the three become swept up in a chain of dangerous acts, fanning the flames towards destruction and an irreparable tragedy. I cannot recommend it enough for a suspenseful and alluring read!

Back in May when I interviewed R.O. Kwon for her debut novel (which arrives on July 31), there was already a lot of press for the book and now it has blown up (you might have caught that) with features in The New York Times, NPR, and The New Yorker. Just in case you haven’t heard about it, to quote DJ Khaled, “another one!”

Thu Doan: Hey! Thank you for doing this interview with me.

R.O. Kwon: Yes, of course. Thank you for doing this.

TD: How has promoting the book been so far?

RK: Good! I’ve been really grateful to other writers and my press for their support and generosity, and I really want to give it back to other writers. I’m really overwhelmed too because a New York Times profile for the book posted online too. Yup, that just went up!

TD: That is so exciting! What does your reading schedule look like?

RK: I’m going to be on the road for quite awhile. A lot of August. Pretty much all of September. And a couple of other things popping up in November.

TD: Have you done public readings before?

RK: I read a little bit after grad school, but I haven’t read all that much from my novel, just short stories and I’ve managed a magazine and read at conferences.

TD: I really had to sit on the book for a little while, and I really enjoyed it, but there were so many things to think about. When I was preparing for the interview, I read a few other interviews that you had done and the one that stuck out to me was one you did for Electric Literature. I was really surprised to hear that initially, in the novel, there were two perspectives?

RK: Actually, there was only one. Initially, it was all told from Phoebe’s point-of-view. For a very long time too, I told it from Will’s point-of-view. Then towards the end I reincorporated Phoebe and John Leal. So the first two years, I thought it would be a book that would be told from Phoebe’s perspective. I realized that she has so many ups and downs that are being tracked throughout the novel, she goes through so much, with her mother dying; I found that that opened up some narrative space for me if I let Will tell more of his story. I was thinking a lot about The Great Gatsby, and I thought Will’s perspective let the story expand.

TD: What was your inspiration for the book? It’s a timely topic and the story is so beautifully woven together that I think it’s amazing how relevant it has become.

RK: The core of the book came from my desire to write about really losing and gaining faith. I wanted to cover both sides of that.

Where that came from was how I grew up Christian. When I left the faith, it was utterly devastating for me. For about a year after I was grieving intensely. In a lot of ways I still think that I am grieving that loss everyday. During that time, I felt so alone, not only did my friends and family not understand what was going on. They really thought that it was a passing childish rebellion, and I couldn’t find what I had experienced in books.

When I was used to finding parts of my experience reflected in real life, in books, I could always find camaraderie, but I couldn’t in this respect. Eventually, after I read more broadly, I did find a few books that did catch onto this. But I still wanted to write a book for that 17-year old girl who felt really alone.

TD: When you describe this, I felt like it was more similar to what Will experiences before he heads off to college. I was really surprised to see that extra dimension, especially when you talk about loss. Phoebe experiences loss, but so does Will. I think their loss is the same, but it’s miscommunicated to one another.

RK: Yeah, I think the reason they can’t fully fathom each other’s feelings is because they go about their grieving in different ways. I think that can happen to people who are grieving at the same time or have a similar pitch of intensity. It doesn’t necessarily bring people together.

TD: When you lost your faith, did you feel misinterpreted when you would try to make others understand, or see how they weren’t receiving the message properly?

RK: Yes, on one hand, my family and friends who were very religious remained religious. So it was very hard for me to convey in any way that it wasn’t a rebellion or something I wanted to do. Like Will, I didn’t want to lose the faith, it was something that came upon me. On the other hand, I went off to college afterward and all my new friends tended to be agnostic or rarely went to church. On that end, it was nearly impossible to convey what the loss had meant and how much I was still hurting. And in the same way that Will does it in the book, I just started turning it into a joke and I think I really wanted to give witness to both sides of the equation.

TD: Why do you think that spirituality is so important to either of them? Why is it such a loss for Will, and why is it so important for Phoebe to find spirituality in anything after her mother’s death?

RK: I don’t know that I would say that it’s essential for either to have spirituality, but what Christianity and faith offer is an answer that solves every problem one can imagine. That all encompassing nature of the answer can be tremendously consoling.

When I was Christian, I barely believed that I would die or anyone else I loved would die. I genuinely believed that we would continue living as we were for the rest of time. To lose that was earthshaking. It was a completely different way of seeing life. At one point, I never felt endangered and now that’s not how I think about the world or life; but that can be a magnificent answer when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one.

TD: I think Phoebe’s attitude towards the religion that she found (in Jejah) was, well, if you don’t want to believe it, that’s fine, but I will because it’s my decision. But in a way, I felt like she wanted to be validated so that someone else, like Will, could see the value that it brought to her life. I still think she wanted him to be able to see or be with her in this experience. Do you think there is a sense of validation? Someone else believing it too or someone on the same page?

RK: Hmm, let me bring that back to my own experience. My family still very much wants me to be Christian again, and they think I will be again, and God will do that to bring me back. It makes sense to me, because given that they truly believe that paradise is waiting for believers, then of course it’s an act of love to want everyone else to believe too. They are trying to save their loved ones from Hell or oblivion. I think there is something about Christianity and its evangelicalism that does come from a place of love.

TD: Phoebe’s character develops so much throughout the novel. Do you think having Will’s perspective amplifies how much Phoebe has grown throughout the novel? At the beginning, I think she’s very lost, she seeks superficial ways to validate herself and she doesn’t find it, but when her character sort of goes off the radar in the end, and I think it’s up to Will to show that growth.

RK: I’m not quite sure.

In some ways, I don’t remember how the book came about anymore and it almost feels as though I’m trying to write something that already exists. It’s as if the book exists and I’m finding a way to write toward it. I certainly feel that way on the sentence level, where I tend to spend most of my time and energy, in the depths of an individual sentence. So I don’t think I give a lot of conscious thought to novel building; I almost believe that if I get the sentence just right, then the rest of it will follow. With that being said, I did work very closely with a wonderful agent and editor, who did ask me questions about novel shaping and character building.

TD: Do you think that that is an approach you use for most of your writing?

RK: Yeah, definitely. I have trouble looking down from the top. It makes me feel really false, like a puppeteer. It’s not a feeling I really like. Whereas if I’m deep in it and just letting the sentences bring me to the next part of the story, then it feels like I’m letting the story tell me.

TD: Do you ever feel like, in a hypothetical world, if you were to write one book, this is what you wanted to write about? As your one chance?

RK: On one hand, it was a book that I really wanted to needed to write about and on the other hand I really hope it’s not my last book, hahaha! As hard as writing can be, there is no greater joy.

TD: How long did it take for you to write The Incendiaries?

RK: This book took me ten years.

TD: Whoa.

RK: I know, sometimes I gasp when I hear it myself. I really hope the next one takes a little bit less time. That would be really good.

TD: Did it feel weird spending so long writing about a smaller amount of time? And even how memories and looking back to a different time play out in slow motion?

RK: Yes, but in actual chronology the book spans quite a bit of time in Phoebe and Will’s life. It didn’t feel like it was a small amount of time.

TD: It felt like we were growing so quickly with them.

RK: I’ve been delighted to hear that and startled to hear that it was very suspenseful and that it was a fast read. That’s not how I thought of the book, but I have been with the story for so long that I’m so deeply familiar. It’s all been very strange and wonderful.

TD: Do you think each of the characters is biographical?

RK: Of course I’ve given a great deal of myself to every one of the characters, but in terms of the hard biographical details, there’s a lot of it that isn’t me. For instance, I haven’t been in a cult or blown up any large buildings (laughs) or visited North Korea.

TD: Was it fun to stretch your imagination and think about North Korea, or explosives, or being in a cult?

RK: It wasn’t fun exactly. I get the most amount of joy mostly in creating the sentences, at the level of each syllable, so the things that happen, to me happen because they have to.

I was very concerned with the parts that allegedly take place in North Korea. My approach was, there is no getting it right, but I did the best I could by reading as many books as I could about North Korea, That doesn’t mean I’m getting it right, it just means I did my research from afar. In the parts about North Korea, I really wanted to show the craft in the narrative.

TD: How much research did you do?

RK: I did quite a bit, but I didn’t actually start reading it for the novel. My family has some history in North Korea and before the war parts of my family fled. For a long time, I was reading about it because I wanted to know more about this part of my family. As I was reading on, John Leal started taking on this North Korean past.

TD: Why did you decide to add him?

RK: People had other questions about the the inside of the cult. I realized that there was a lot I knew because I’d been spending so much time with the cult and John Leal that I thought wasn’t making it into the novel. Putting in that perspective really helped provide an insight into the workings of a group.

TD: I think it’s really great because it does provides lots of clarity, but it also makes it seem less like as a machine, instead it involves people. Just like church or a community group. As a leader, I think it’s powerful that he has his doubts and the book shows how he functions and his thoughts about being a leader. He’s very concerned about looking appropriate for the job.

RK: A cult is made up of people and when there is one cult leader, that person tends to be a very charismatic person who can convince people in what he/she is preaching, but also that they can believe in themselves. I really wanted that to come through in the book too.

TD: It gives a face to the power of faith and the search for an answer.

The Incendiaries really an enigmatic book. It was a fast read, but I felt like I had to read it many times just to see how Phoebe grew, and to see what everyone was seeking and for what reasons. I loved how Phoebe takes control of the situation.

RK: I love that you’re saying this and I love the part about re-reading. That always feels so wonderful to hear. I almost feel as if I get nothing out of a first read and it’s in the re-reads that I start to learn from a book.

TD: I think it’s important, especially when there is a novel that’s enshrouded in a mysterious topic. Like what is going on in a cult, or in North Korea, or what even goes on in a human being’s mind. I think that’s why we do need to re-read these stories. To take apart these mysteries. It’s hard to accept that things are just mysterious without going back and questioning. It’s like looking at art; it’s up to the viewer to look at it through their own lens and find out what is so great about it.

RK: Thank you so much! I love that you’re saying that.

TD: It’s a wonderful book and it’s fun to read new writers. I think it’s an exciting summer for new writers and I think your story is especially unique.

The Incendiaries: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780735213890
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Riverhead Books - July 31st, 2018

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