R.O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries was named one of the best books of the year by more than 40 publications including NPR, The Atlantic, LitHub, PBS Books, and more. The Incendiaries is a powerful, darkly glittering novel about violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young Korean American woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea. This novel, which the The Guardian called “a startlingly assured book by an important new writer,” is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most.
We spoke with Kwon via email ahead of the paperback release of The Incendiaries and her July 31 program right here at the American Writers Museum. Kwon shared insights into her writing process, book recommendations and why reading is crucial to developing as a writer. Read on to learn more and be sure to RSVP to our July 31 event with R.O. Kwon here.
AMERICAN WRITERS MUSEUM: The Incendiaries is a fantastic novel — how did that thrilling story develop into the final version it is now?
R.O. KWON: First of all, thank you. With The Incendiaries, I wanted to write a book about losing and gaining faith, how life-upturning both can be. I grew up passionately religious, so Christian I thought I’d become a pastor, and losing that belief, losing the God I loved, has split my life into a before and after: it’s the pivotal loss dividing my life.
I was interested, too, in some of the ways extremist faith makes itself visible in the U.S. One day, I volunteered as a patient escort at a Planned Parenthood, and I thought, Oh, right—this is a national obsession, the question of reproductive rights, of abortion rights. It’s a belief split that’s helping cut this nation apart.
AWM: You are a rather prolific writer — do you have any strategies that help you maintain that output? Are there any things (snacks, drinks, etc.) that help you get in the writing mindset?
KWON: I’m not sure I’d call myself prolific—The Incendiaries took me ten years to write! It’s a pretty short book, too. (Once, with the final draft, I did the math on how many average words a day I’d written, and it was such a small number that I immediately tried to forget all about it). That said, I do try to spend as much time as I can on writing. Something that helps me a great deal is to write first thing in the day, and to get as fast as I can from my bed to my writing desk.
AWM: What inspires you to write?
KWON: Nothing else I do makes me feel as alive as writing can.
AWM: If you could meet one American writer from the past who would it be and why?
KWON: I’d love to be able to thank Audre Lorde for her work, for what she’s given.
AWM: What was your favorite book to read growing up?
KWON: Almost all of the books in my house, when I was growing up, were by dead white people, so that’s what I was reading. It’s been an ongoing priority, for me, to decolonize my bookshelves and my mind. I loved Henry James, though, and still love him so much. Portrait of a Lady is a marvel.
AWM: What are you reading now? What should we be reading?
KWON: I’ve been reading a lot of forthcoming books, and some I’ve found particularly exciting include The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang, Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis, and A Map Is Only One Story, an anthology of writing on immigration edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary.
AWM: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
KWON: I tend to shy away from absolute statements about writing—the house of literature is so large, and it has many rooms—but a central belief I do hold is that I’ll only stand a chance of being as good as what I’m reading. I try to read broadly, deeply, and daily. Oh, and if you’re writing, you’re a writer—never mind the aspiring. You’re a writer already.