By Adam Vitcavage
R.O. Kwon has had a lot of buzz ahead of her debut The Incendiaries. Everyone in the publishing world is in love with it. However, it was a long, winding road for the writer to get to this point. While many writers start and fail so many debut novels, Kwon spent a decade writing this story every day.
Over the course of multiple drafts, she finally landed on the final version. The Incendiaries follows three characters in a love triangle of sorts as a religious cult threatens to pull everything apart. This explosive story about love, obsession, religion, and death comes off as nearly perfect.
Most young writers on message boards or in writing groups hold onto this dreamlike formula that will produce a strong book. Here, Kwon reveals how sometimes you have to cut an entire section of the book or write multiple versions that sometimes take two years but end up in the gutter.
Adam Vitcavage: You have various short stories published in various publications. Did you always want to write a novel or did you view yourself as a storywriter?
R.O. Kwon: I was working on The Incendiaries for 10 years. Even as I was writing short stories, I was always working on this novel.
AV: A decade. Wow. That’s a long time. Where were you in life when this book came into your mind?
RK: I was in grad school. I started writing a book in which I could evoke some of my own experiences with religion. I grew up very religious. My life plan was to become a missionary or a preacher. I lost faith when I was seventeen. I can’t really state how painful that was for me. I wanted to write about that. I wanted to write about the extraordinary joy and love I felt. I wanted to write about what it felt like to lose that. I wanted to bridge the two worldviews: one that believes in a higher power and people who don’t. I’ve existed on both sides of the spectrum.
AV: I spent the first few years of my education at a small private Catholic school, but then when my family moved across the country I ended up going to a public school and my religion sort of fell out of my life. It didn’t have a big impact on me. Since it was such a big impact on you, was writing the only way you knew how to explore the emotions you were feeling at that time?
RK: No. No. I wanted to write. Period. I’m a writer. That proved to be the most essential loss of my life until now. But, no, I wanted to write regardless.
AV: So a decade ago, you come up with this theme you want to explore. How quickly do these three characters come into mind?
RK: For the first two years it was told entirely by Phoebe. After those two years, I threw it all away and told it from Will’s point of view. That’s the version I sent to my agent. One of her thoughts was that there could be more of Phoebe. I remembered that I spent two years writing Phoebe and at some point I realized I wanted to hear more from John Leal. It was a very gradual experience.
AV: As a first time novelist, you really master three character’s voices with such distinction. Albeit in a unique way.
RK: They’re so alive to me. Essentially the novel is narrated by Will regardless because of how I play around with point of view and other tricks. I wasn’t quite concerned with keeping them too distinct.
AV: The book is also presented so quickly. There are shorter bursts of scenes that can last only half a page at times. Was that always the structure you wanted?
RK: When I started writing, no. Eventually for me, it felt like the right way to tell it. I didn’t want there to be a single inessential sentence or scene. Which meant cutting and cutting and cutting. At some point this book was 400 pages long. There was an entire section that was narrated by Phoebe’s father in 1970s South Korea.
AV: What was that editing process like? Why did you cut so much?
RK: There were just a lot of different versions throughout the 10 years. I don’t know how many drafts I had and I don’t want to know.
AV: You mentioned how losing religion really came into play at the beginning of writing this, but did you also always want to explore Korean identity?
RK: I grew up in a town that had a lot of Asian people and a lot of Korean-American people. Most of the Korean-Americans were deeply religious. That went hand in hand, but then again, I would never write a book without Koreans just like a white writer wouldn’t write a novel without white characters.
AV: When writing, do you write for a Korean-American audience? Or I guess do you think about how white or black readers will view this book?
RK: I write very much for myself. I know a lot of writers say that, but it’s entirely true. I am writing with my own reader’s eye and the novel only felt done when I picked up the novel and felt like I didn’t want to desperately change everything. I am not writing for a specific audience. I can’t. There’s no space for that.
AV: And now to change course a little from the book that you’ve spent 10 years on and are promoting ahead of it’s release. I’m assuming you’re already onto your next novel. What’s it like to put that entire project on hold?
RK: It’s something that I find deeply puzzling. For the first book, I worked on it pretty much every day for 10 years. I write holidays. I write on family vacations. Now, for the first time in so long, I don’t have the wherewithal to write every day. At first I was incredibly bewildered and disappointed in myself. But as I talk to other writers they all confirm this is just how it is. That it’s okay and it will come back.
AV: I can imagine your time per day writing during that 10 years fluctuated?
RK: Hours per day in between jobs and other duties is pretty much what I was doing. Basically every day. I’m lucky to have had the ability to do this because I really need hours at a time to sink into what I’m doing. I love residencies; I love the way how I don’t have to leave the world of my novel. I got a lot of work done at residencies. I last went to one in November and I’m desperately craving another stay somewhere.
AV: When you sit down to write, do you have goals or do you see what happens?
RK: In the early stages of this book, I had goals. One page per day or a certain amount of words. Those were really helpful, but by the end of writing this I didn’t really need them. The first few drafts of anything are the least joyful. Throughout the whole process it fluctuated. Sometimes I had goals and sometimes I didn’t.