We’re All Unreliable Narrators: Talking with R.O. Kwon

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We open with Will Kendall imagining his girlfriend, Phoebe Lin, on a rooftop. She’s with a group of religious terrorists as they watch bombs go off that they placed in an abortion clinic. Nearby, their leader, a sketchy but compelling man named John Leal, encourages them to celebrate their success. And then we rewind. Because in R.O. Kwon’s forthcoming debut novel, The Incendiaries, the journey is not about the ending.

The narration sticks mostly to Will, as he first meets Phoebe on a fictional New England college campus called Edwards. A poor kid from California, Will tries to reinvent himself and in some ways his relationship with Phoebe, a smart and outgoing piano protégé, is in line with that plan. We follow as he tries to understand what pushed Phoebe into a cult, until other voices chime in to fill in the story. It’s a novel of lush language and moments of quiet meditation, but with a dark underbelly that will leave you questioning your own ideas about faith and self and grief.

R.O. Kwon earned her MFA from Brooklyn College, and received awards and fellowships from Yaddo, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony, and MacDowell. Her writing has been featured in the Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Time, Electric Literature, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Our conversation delved into considering the writer at the desk, how we do or don’t craft place, and advice that’s useful for writers and readers alike.

[Don’t miss a special Rumpus signed book giveaway of The Incendiaries, available through July 31! Details here. – Ed.]

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The Rumpus: I’m curious, but where did the idea of the cult come from?

R.O. Kwon: I can’t remember a single moment of thinking, Oh okay, there’s going to be a cult. It was more like an extension, for me, of Christian belief taken to one possible logical extreme.

As someone who used to be deeply religious, I’m fascinated by religious terrorists. Some people who commit acts of terror are doing so in the name of love and in the name of God. And in the name of their idea of good. And so, there’s a total mismatch between what they believe to be good and right and how the rest of us feel about, for instance, a terrorist’s bomb. So, in the book, I wanted to try to show some of that mismatch.

Rumpus: Did you do research into cults? And what elements make a cult leader?

Kwon: I read every cult book I could find. But then I tried to forget everything I read. I really wanted it to be John Leal’s own cult. I wanted him to discover what his cult would be. I didn’t want to force it on him. I’m also drawing on my own religious past. One of the churches I attended, it wasn’t a cult, but the church was fanatical enough, and absorbing enough, that even our parents were worried that it might be a cult. Back then, my idea of a fun night was to go to a youth group rally where there would be dancing and yelling and falling to the ground. It was a very charismatic branch of Christianity.

Rumpus: And did you always have that beginning—us knowing without a shadow of a doubt that Phoebe was integral to a terrorist attack?

Kwon: I did after the two-year mark. I spent the first two years working on this novel, just reworking the same first twenty pages almost every day. I had this idea I needed to have a really solid foundation. And it was such a terrible metaphor because how do you build a foundation if you don’t know what the rest of this building will look like? So I just polished and polished and polished those twenty pages. The sentences had to be exactly right before I could proceed, I thought, but then, of course, I threw those twenty pages away.

Shortly thereafter, luckily, I attended my first artists’ residency. In that residency, after having thrown away two years of work, I was trying to figure out how to proceed, and the book’s first couple pages came to me. They came relatively fast and I could see the characters on the rooftop celebrating the bombing. As much as I revised the rest, that first part didn’t change all that much for the next eight years.

Rumpus: Wow. So you really threw out those twenty pages? They never came back into the book?

Kwon: No, they didn’t. I published them as a short story instead in a literary magazine. The obsessions were the same. Those pages were about a woman wandering and meditating on the nature of an absent god. I love books where people walk around alone and think about things, but that turned out not to be what I wanted this book to be.

Rumpus: So once I knew the Phoebe’s involvement in the bombing was inevitable, I began to pay attention to other details in the story. Did you intentionally eliminate that buildup?

Kwon: I’m almost always less interested in what happens than in why and how. In my own writing, I tend to care more about psychology and motivation than the actions themselves.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about faith. I found myself agreeing with particular statements on faith from everyone, even John Leal, which surprised me. And I had to answer my own internal questions about belief and faith. Did writing this book answer any questions about faith that you had?

Kwon: I don’t know that I came to any conclusion about faith by the end of the book. I used to be very religious and I thought I’d become a preacher or a missionary, or even a religious recluse.

A giant part of what drove me to write this book is that I was once deeply religious and now I am very much not. While I’ve experienced both ends of the belief spectrum, most people live on one side or the other and they often don’t really understand the other side’s point of view. And it’s such a giant difference. I actually used to believe I was going to live forever, along with everyone I loved. I believed that our bodies would be returned to us. And that’s so different from what I believe now. So straddling that split, with my fiction, is very interesting to me.

Rumpus: Parts of the book take place in Beijing, China and many of the details about the Chinese capital felt familiar to me as someone who recently lived there, like the disorientation of the hutongs at night. Could you talk about crafting place?

Kwon: There’s a part in the novel when Will says the physical details of the world used to be coded messages to him from God, that the details had divine relevance. I used to think that, too. I used to believe that every single part of my life was watched over and seen by an all-powerful, detail-oriented god. I’ve lost that, of course, but I still love looking at the world, trying to evoke those details in my fiction.

Rumpus: So there are three main narrators—Will, John Leal, and Phoebe. And as we switch between them, we get contradicting information. What are your thoughts on the unreliable narrator?

Kwon: I think this is part of why I tend to heavily favor first person. I always try out third person, but end up switching back to the first. I think we’re all unreliable narrators of our lives. So I don’t know that I know what a reliable narrator is.

Rumpus: I kept thinking that a lot of the grief and guilt that Phoebe was working through within the cult would’ve been better managed with a therapist, but she’s very against that. And then I realized that’s a very Western perspective—one that Phoebe, as the child of Korean immigrants, might not have or agree with. It’s a very Western idea to pay someone to allow you to talk about yourself.

Kwon: I grew up in a small town in California that was predominantly Asian, with so many Korean Americans that Korean was offered as a language elective at my public high school. Most of our parents were immigrants, and a lot of families had experienced or were still experiencing trauma, but no one went to therapy. If people did talk to anyone, it might be at church with their pastors or priests, but the idea of going to a medical professional wasn’t visible.

A few years ago, when I was at one of my lowest points, I wondered if I should go to therapy. I collected doctors’ names. I started making phone calls and sending emails. But I didn’t set up that appointment. And generally I’m good about making doctors appointments, so it was strange that I kept putting it off. There were logistical problems with trying to find a recommended therapist who worked with my insurance, but I did have options. I never went, though. And I realized it might have a lot to do with growing up Korean American and not having seen people consult therapists. There was a voice in my head saying, What’s the point? I’m going to go and tell someone I feel sad? What will that get me? I think I did lend that skeptic’s voice to Phoebe. Rationally, that’s not something I believe, at all! I know therapy is helpful. Still, I never went to therapy.

Rumpus: When you sit down to write, do you know where the story is going? Or are you listening to your characters?

Kwon: I don’t know where the story is going, no. On the one hand, with my second novel, which I’ve been working on when I can I’m relearning right now how frustrating that can be. On the other hand, I think if I knew what has happening I would be so bored. I would never write the book. When I write, both in fiction and nonfiction, I’m slowly working through questions that I may or may not be able to answer.

Rumpus: So you’re working on a second book! What have you taken from this first book into the second? Is it easier?

Kwon: It doesn’t feel easy. It feels difficult in new ways. The one lesson I definitely took away from the first book was to not agonize over the language during the first few drafts. I’ve already lost count of how many drafts there have been of the second novel. I don’t want to know how much work is going into it—I don’t want to get too discouraged. I write in very short fragments. I write a few words, line break, write a few words, line break, so it almost looks like a poem, but it’s not. It’s just a way for me to get around my own need to obsess over the sentences, because when it’s broken up that way, it’s harder to see the sentence as a whole.

Rumpus: So in terms of your prose, is there an influence you could name?

Kwon: There are several writers I reread a lot while I was writing this book. Virginia Woolf was paramount. There were points when I was rereading bits of Woolf every day. Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Audre Lorde, Clarice Lispector, Teju Cole.

Rumpus: Did they put you in a certain frame of mind or did it put you in the mood for what you were trying to write?

Kwon: You know how in a cappella groups, there’s someone who sets the pitch? So, rereading parts of one of those books, especially reading Woolf, it would help me set the pitch. It would draw me back into the linguistic and acoustic mood I needed.

Rumpus: I struggled with the main narrator, Will. I know he loves Phoebe, but how that love sometimes manifested was not okay. And he doesn’t seem to have self-awareness, so while his underlying motivations I believed to be good, his actions are somewhat indefensible.

Kwon: I hope and I think this book is deeply feminist. Will ends up veering toward, as you say, some indefensible actions, and I tried really hard not to have that happen, but I think because of who he is, it would have been untruthful to have him act otherwise.

Rumpus: Right, so if you’re being true to the character you have to show everything, even what you may not want?

Kwon: My graduate-school mentor, Michael Cunningham, used to say something I think a lot about: “You must love your characters as God does but not more.”

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Featured photograph of R.O. Kwon © Smeeta Mahanti.


Monet Patrice Thomas is the Interviews Editor at The Rumpus. Her writing can be found at such places as Joyland Magazine, Hobart, & Split Lip Magazine. Visit her website or find her online. More from this author →