R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries is the rare debut novel that excels on every level. The writing is superb, the story is brilliant, and the mechanical elements blend with the larger structure to create a work that is cohesive, exhilarating, and impressive. I don’t use the first person much when writing about books, but to make a quick exception—I love this book and you should read it.
Set primarily at the fictitious Edwards University, The Incendiaries follows the romance between undergrads Will Kendall, a former Christian fundamentalist, and Phoebe Lin, a Korean-American party girl who once hoped to “be a piano genius” and left Seoul with her mother at a young age. Coming to college after a horrific car accident that killed her mom, Phoebe still feels immense guilt, having been behind the wheel. Over time, the couple is sucked into a radical cult led by John Leal. Phoebe, uncharacteristically, appears to be a true believer, whereas Will plays along in hopes of holding onto his crumbling relationship.
Will’s point of view is most prominent throughout the novel and he often has to fill in gaps in the story using his knowledge of Phoebe and John. This results in Will providing more access to other characters than would be possible without conjecture. Furthermore, Will’s deep and ongoing obsession with Phoebe is revealed. Through Will, we learn about the personal baggage and complex, morphing ideologies that tie the three together.
I spoke with R.O. Kwon over the phone. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
There are so many places we could begin! But I wanted to talk to you a little bit about process. I noticed in the acknowledgements you had done some residencies while working on this project and was interested in what it was like to bring your first novel to full fruition.
Well, the novel took 10 years. I’ve been working on it since grad school. In the first two years, I spent the entire time reworking the first 20 pages over and over again, because I loved sentences. I loved the words at the syllable level and I wanted to get those pages as perfect as they could be before I moved along.
In retrospect, it was kind of a nutty way to go about it, because I barely knew who the characters were or what the story of the book would be. I didn’t know what the structure was so I couldn’t tell any of it. So on a friend’s advice—Lauren Groff’s advice—I ended up changing my method entirely and I started whipping through early drafts without worrying about the prose. I worked in longhand or used a program to turn my laptop into a typewriter so that I could only do one backspace at a time and couldn’t copy and paste. At one point, I was turning the font white with each new paragraph as I moved along so that I couldn’t see what came before it. I was doing all kind of things to subvert my own inclination to obsess over the words.
I’ve never heard of turning the text white and I’m definitely going to steal that. I imagine 10 years feels like a long time to commit to a project, but what has happened in that time you didn’t expect? Does it feel weird that the novel is here now?
Well it was so private for so long. It felt like a private dream that I was having and cared so much about. I’m still getting used to the reality that other people are reading it. Interviewers or friends will be asking me about the book and internally I’ll wonder “how do you know about that?” Then I remember “oh right I wrote this thing and it’s getting published.”
I’ve been working for two years already on my second novel. It’s been sort of going in starts and stops, because any time I have work to do on my first novel I drop it and go back to it. Having spent so long on my first novel, I’m still sort of wrapped up in that world, and I think I still haven’t quite figured out how to move on from that.
With the idea of dropping everything when necessary for the first novel, what has the revision and editing process been like? One thing I truly adore about this book is that you can see the attention to detail at the sentence level. It’s not a surprise to me that you talked about those first 20 pages because the prose is gorgeous. You can see the precision on every page. Was it difficult bringing editors into the mix as the novel moved toward publication?
The book sold to my editor at Riverhead in March 2016 and we weren’t done with edits between the two of us until last summer. Then there were still copyedits for some time after that. So we did about 15 months of major editing. I love my editor. I have no idea what people are talking about when they say no one in publishing edits anymore, because her attention to detail was as intense as my own. We had these wonderful back-and-forths about punctuation. Getting to work with someone who cared that much made the book so much better.
Perhaps a follow-up question, and I don’t mean to put you on the spot here, but I do follow you on Twitter, and I saw one of your tweets challenging the old adage of killing your darlings. I don’t have the tweet in front of me, but the idea I got out of it was generally that all your sentences are your darlings and you can make them better. I’m interested in your personal ideas about revision and what strategies you use when working on the sentence level.
For one thing, I care so much about sound. It was really helpful for me, especially in later drafts, to record myself reading the book and then play it back as I read, which distanced me from the prose a little bit. I also change font sizes. I write in 10-point font. I know there are some hardcore Times New Roman haters, but I appreciate that it’s a little bit ugly. Garamond is way too pretty and it hides flaws.
Garamond tricks you into thinking what you’ve written is good.
Yeah, exactly! When I write in Garamond it makes me think “wow that’s a really elegant sentence,” but in Times New Roman I look at it and realize “No, there’s nothing going on here.” I like the plainness of Times New Roman. I know some people write in Courier New, but that’s too messy for me.
As I’m revising, I’ll switch the font to 12-point because the things that are wrong, the errors, jump out more at me. I also care—and I try not to talk about this too much because people sometimes think it’s weird, but I think poets understand—about how the letters look on the page. That matters a lot to me too.
I’m also curious about structure and how point of view function in this novel. I felt like at the beginning of some of the chapters it kind of tricks us a little bit with reported dialogue, especially in Phoebe’s chapters. Can you tell me about how you brought these characters to life and how you found the points of view? Are you purposefully manipulating point of view a little bit?
The first two years the book was entirely told by Phoebe, but when I threw away everything and restarted I realized it was hard to stay in the head of someone who was going through so much for the length of the book. I found when I started telling the story through someone close to her, in this case Will, it gave me distance and space to do more. I thought about The Great Gatsby and what the novel would be if it were told from Jay Gatsby’s point of view instead of Nick Carraway, who’s so much less involved in the heart of the story. For several years, it was only told from Will’s point of view, but when I sent it to my agent, one of her biggest pieces of feedback was to ask for more of Phoebe’s point of view. I had a lot of Phoebe written that wasn’t in that draft of the book so I added some of her back in. Then I realized I could add some of John Leal’s point of view and that would add other insights. I structured it that way because—even though I was telling it from three different people—I wanted the book to have a reason for existing that makes sense within the world of the book. In a lot of ways, the book comes about as a result of Will trying to understand what happened. He tells the story in a way he can make sense of everything. Having him as the overall narrator and having him pull in these other points of view keeps it an organic piece of fiction for me.
With Will trying to make sense of Phoebe ending up in a cult, I thought some about the general disposition toward believing we can’t be manipulated that way. There are nuances of this novel where we see Phoebe change and we see Will change. I’m wondering what kind of research you had to do on cults and how you made it believable that Phoebe would join up with a terrorist organization, even if it’s not in her best interest.
There was a period of time where I read every nonfiction book I could find about cults and about cult life, but after that I tried to forget pretty much everything I learned, because I really want the cult in the book to be its own and for John Leal to be a leader with his own obsessions. I was also drawing on my own experiences with religion. I grew up deeply religious and there was a time in early high school when I became even more religious. You know, my idea of a really fun Friday night was a youth rally in a church. I was part of a youth group that became so all consuming all of our parents were worried that it might have been a cult. It really wasn’t, but I do strongly remember how absorbing it was to be that wrapped up close in a group of people. During the earlier parts of working through the cult-like aspects of the book, I also visited a church in Berkeley a few times that’s been accused of being a cult.
Where do you think our interest in cults comes from and how does religion sometimes get wrapped up in cult mentality?
I hesitate to generalize, because I can only draw on my own experience. Something cults often peddle is certainty. They offer clean, broad answers to questions people tend to have and they can be extra appealing during times of uncertainty. I’m not sure exactly where the lines between cults and religions are, but in the novel I was interested in exploring them.
Maybe on a less serious note, to end with a question I ask authors all the time, because they’re often on the pulse of what’s going on in the lit world. What are you reading right now and what are you excited to read in the near future?
I’ll talk about what I’m looking forward to in the fall. There are two books coming out, one by Nicole Chung and one by Lydia Kiesling. They’re both really wonderful. I believe Lydia’s comes out in September and Nicole’s in October. There’s also a graphic novel by Ancco coming out from Drawn & Quarterly called Bad Friends and I was just really excited to read it. I finished it in one go. Kiese Laymon has a new memoir, Heavy, coming out in October. I haven’t read it yet but I heard him read from part of it at a conference in Louisiana and I’m really excited about it.
By R.O. Kwon
Published July 31, 2018
R. O. Kwon is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing is published or forthcoming in The Guardian, Vice, Buzzfeed, Time, Noon, Electric Literature, Playboy, and elsewhere. She has received awards from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Omi International, the Steinbeck Center, and the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony. Born in South Korea, she has lived most of her life in the United States.
Aram Mrjoian is a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University, an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an associate fiction editor at Guernica, and a 2022 Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellow. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Electric Literature, West Branch, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Rumpus, The Millions, Longreads, and many other publications. Find his work at arammrjoian.com