R. O. Kwon released her first book, The Incendiaries (see Jennifer Lee’s review of it in the IE), on July 31 and will be making a pit-stop in Seattle on Nov. 9 at 7:30 PM as part of the Hugo House Literary Series, joining authors Shelby Early, Kim Fu and Lauren Groff. The IE caught up with her over email to talk about this breakthrough new novel receiving positive reviews throughout the literary world.
International Examiner: Who or what inspired you to become a professional writer?
R.O. Kwon: I was a reader first; I didn’t start writing consistently until college. Reading was my first, deep love – when I was a child, I used to go to other people’s houses carrying a stack of books with me – and, in a lot of ways, I think my writing is a continuation of reading.
IE: What were some of the hurdles you encountered and what did you have to overcome to become one?
ROK: Hurdles – there were so many hurdles! I took writing classes throughout college, but I majored in economics, unsure if I could make a life for myself in writing. (I was worried about minor problems like, you know, procuring health insurance.) I have a lot of Asian American writer friends who have useless degrees in economics for similar reasons.
IE: Faith, loss, religion and fanaticism all seem to play a role in The Incendiaries. What inspired you to tackle these topics for your first book?
ROK: I grew up so religious I thought I’d become a preacher or missionary. I lost that faith, and the God I loved, when I was seventeen. It was extremely painful, a loss that still feels fresh as though it had just happened. I can’t imagine having written a first book about anything else.
IE: It took you 10 years to finish this book. I heard during the first two years, you got hung over the idea of making everything perfect from the get-go, so you kept returning to what you wrote to polish everything over and over again. I am sure I am speaking for many writers when I ask this: What did you do to get out of the perfectionist funk?
ROK: Oh, I have so many thoughts on this! Okay, here are strategies that have helped me: writing early drafts by hand, trying to go as fast as I can. Throwing those drafts away. Writing with a laptop program that turns my computer into a de facto typewriter – the program only lets me backspace one letter at a time so that I can’t go back and fiddle with preceding sentences. Turning paragraphs white as I go, which makes the words on the laptop screen invisible. Lately, I’ve found it useful to write with a lot of line breaks, like this:
just a handful of words
at a time,
so that I can’t fixate
on what they
look like once they’re
extended and properly
IE: Who or what has been your biggest support throughout your 10-year writing process?
ROK: The “who” would be my husband. He’s my first reader, and believes in my writing even when, as does happen, I find I can’t. The “what” would be reading – if I’m not reading, and reading seriously and deeply, at that, then my writing’s also not going well.
IE: During your research process, how did you know when to stop the information gathering and when to start letting your creativity and imagination take over? What percentage of your research would you say went into your storytelling?
ROK: For months at a time, I read all the nonfiction I could find about cults, faith-based terrorists, extremists and so on. After that, I stopped, and tried as much as I could to forget everything I’d read. I wanted the cult in The Incendiaries to be its own cult, arising out of my own characters’ obsessions and losses.
IE: When I first heard you were going to write about a North Korean gulag, my first reaction was to become wary since not a lot is officially known about the country. I couldn’t help feeling like this could lead to stereotyping of the country in general. Were you concerned about stereotyping at all during your creative process? Were you ever worried about accuracy of portrayal or misrepresentation?
ROK: At a certain point, I was reading a lot about the country because parts of my family are from what’s now North Korea, having fled before the start of the Korean War – and so, that reading arose for personal reasons, because I wished to know more about my own history. There was a longing, a desire to fill in gaps in knowledge. But, of course, so little is knowable about a country with the most closed borders in the world. When John Leal, the cult leader, began taking on a North Korean past, I wanted the book to portray that unknowing itself. I don’t think I’m giving too much away by noting that the novel fairly explicitly makes no claims about even trying to reliably portray North Korea.
IE: Asian American representation in the media has become a big issue in the past few years, and books like yours are helping to build Asian American presence in contemporary Western media. What titles would you recommend to people who are interested in seeing more representations of Asians outside of the model Asian prototype in the arts and the media?
ROK: Ah, so many! This has been a wonderful, heartening summer for books by Asian writers, especially debuts by women – for a while, I kept by my desk a stack of books by fellow Asian women’s summer debuts, just because it made me glad to look at them. Some summer titles I’d recommend: What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan, If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim, Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza, An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim, and Severance by Ling Ma.
IE: Can you explain to our readers what you will be reading or what they could look forward to when you make your appearance at Hugo House in Seattle?
ROK: I plan to read new nonfiction about my loss of faith! As to what people can look forward to, I’m very excited to hear what Lauren Groff and Kim Fu will read – I love, love their writing.
IE: What would you say is the best response you got from a fan or someone who has read your book or writing?
ROK: Hearing from people who’ve read The Incendiaries is, in general, so special. It means a great deal to me. The notes I’ve received from people who have also lost their own faith, or are struggling with religion – well, let’s just say every single note has made me tear up.
IE: What is the greatest advice you could give to aspiring young writers?
ROK: Emerson says our moods do not believe in each other – I love that. While I’m writing, sometimes I’m jubilant; sometimes I’m despairing. But moods pass. What matters is that I keep writing. That would be my advice: just keep writing.
R.O. Kwon will be at Hugo House on Nov. 9. General admission: $25, Hugo House member: $20, Student: $12) She will also show up at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way NE, 98155) to do a reading of her book.