The Rumpus Book Club Chat with Gene Kwak


The Rumpus Book Club chats with Gene Kwak about his debut novel, Go Home, Ricky! (The Overlook Press, October 2021), performance, the best Starburst flavor combinations, and more.

This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming authors include Christopher Gonzalez, Gabrielle Civil, Eva Jurczyk, Suzanne Roberts, Laura Stanfill, and more.

This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Alysia Sawchyn.


Alysia Sawchyn: Hi, and welcome to our Book Club chat with Gene Kwak about his new novel, Go Home, Ricky!.

Gene Kwak: Excited to talk to y’all today. I’ve always had a soft spot for The Rumpus.

Alysia Sawchyn: Thanks so much for joining us. This is going to sound weird, but I really, really, really loved this book—which feels like something I have to say but is completely genuine.

Gene Kwak: Thanks for hosting, Alysia, and thanks for saying that. Really appreciated. When you wrote, “This is going to sound weird but…” I was on the edge of my seat.

Alysia Sawchyn: Whoopsie! I would love to know about how you develop your character’s voices—with a big focus on the narrator, the reader is able to inhabit this brain and not shy away, even though, shew.

Gene Kwak: Voice is maybe one of if not the most important thing to me as a reader, so I obviously care about it as a writer. Any narrative, whether it’s a story being told to you in a bar or an edge of your seat thriller by a campfire, mostly rides on that speaker’s voice. One of the things I learned while writing this novel was to let go a little bit. Let some air in, if that makes sense. The original intro was “well-written” according to other people, but it was a bit dense. It was trying too hard.

So, I rewrote it, and once I tapped into that voice I was off.

Alysia Sawchyn: I can just hear that—”It’s very well-written.” (Me: dies inside.)

In the book, there’s a lackadaisical tone and haphazardness that balances the precise language.

Gene Kwak: I took a workshop with Julie Buntin, and she pointed out some places where it was breathing a little more and that was invaluable.

Marisa Siegel: I was lucky to be in Gene’s cohort at Tin House Summer Workshop back in 2018, and when I read the section from Go Home, Ricky! he shared with us, I knew it was going to be a book. Nonetheless, it is so cool to see it now in hardcover form, out in the world! And I love the cover—did you have any input into that, Gene?

Gene Kwak: Marisa! Yes. One of the things I sent to the designer at Abrams, Eli Mock, was an old wrestling poster. The stars and font have that old-timey feel. We played around with the image a little and then at the last second, I requested a pink-and-yellow mock-up, and we all knew it was the one. The people over at Abrams and Overlook were super collaborative.

Alysia Sawchyn: The color scheme is fabulous—I think in part because of the hyper-masculine content, again, thinking about balance.

Gene Kwak: I thought about that, too. Also, my favorite combination of Starburst and a nod to Macho Man Randy Savage.

Alysia Sawchyn: I personally have a very fraught relationship with/feelings about wrestling, but I really enjoyed how you capture both the pageantry and the brutality here.

Gene Kwak: I totally understand. I feel the same way about all the combat sports—MMA, boxing, martial arts, etc.

Alysia Sawchyn: Where there any particular sections or scenes that you conducted specific research for (I am assuming that you already have a generally high baseline of knowledge)?

Gene Kwak: Not too much research was needed. A lot of it was based on Ricky’s feelings of nostalgia for wrestling and how those feelings shaped his world view. I have that same sense of nostalgia, although I’m not as caught up on contemporary goings-on at the highest levels. But the local promotions, which inspired this book, not only have live events that are constantly being promoted through Omaha, but a lot of them blast their stuff on the internet as well.

Alysia Sawchyn: Gotta love the Google.

I’m thinking about moments like, right at the beginning, how the narrator opens with “two ways generally exist to enter the ring,” and then there are these gorgeous/hilarious/specific examples that work because they’re spot-on. Is all that stuff floating around in your brain or were you rewatching old clips, etc.?

Gene Kwak: Kind of both. Re-watching a lot of old stuff, new stuff, reading things, going to a few local events before COVID. One of the most interesting things about wrestling to me is that it’s all about persona. In the olden days it was all about whether it was “real” to outsiders. And so, there’s this element of wrestling called kayfabe that’s about presenting the narrative as “real.” A lot of that has fallen away now. People know too much about performer’s lives due to social media and it’s been repackaged as “sports entertainment.”

That element of performance is so interesting to consider as a writer. Like imagine that in the old days The Ultimate Warrior would just have to like pump his gas and pretend to be that guy.

Alysia Sawchyn: I think, too, about how that performance affected a lot of boys who grew up watching the sport—masculinity et. al.

Gene Kwak: Totally. I talked about this before, but that generation of boys (and girls) didn’t have these incredibly slick Marvel movies, and so wrestlers of that era were the superheroes of the day. But also, imagine if Superman was real. That’s how it felt at the time. But also, like a lot of ‘80s mass media, they weren’t exactly great models for young people.

Alysia Sawchyn: I know I’m not the first person to say this, but I think part of the wrestling that’s captured here ties in with the voice—that vulnerability and hypermasculinity and absurdity. I’m curious about how you feel that the narrator’s feelings and questions around his racial heritage play a role in the happenings of the book.

Gene Kwak: I wanted to write a book where a narrator had to directly confront his whiteness.

One of the reasons I made Ricky believe himself to be Native is because it’s so commonplace among white folks, especially in the Midwest. There’s a recent stat that something like 1/3 of white college students marked another race on their entrance information. And a staggering amount of those marked Native American as their race.

Also, the sports thing factors in too. While some changes have been made as of late, prior to 2020, so many colleges and professional teams used Native Americans as mascots. A few years ago, a Native organization made a mock-up to show how we wouldn’t let the same thing slide if teams were using other races as mascots and the double standard was pretty obvious.

Alysia Sawchyn: I remember that campaign vividly. Can you talk about when in the writing process (or how) you integrate these larger concerns into character and plot?

Gene Kwak: It’s not something I plot out. I give myself these challenges as a writer (write a wrestling book that has very little actual wrestling on the page or write a book about fatherhood that’s really more about his mother), then consider what bigger picture issues are important to me, and then just come up with characters and let them go. I try to have those concerns in the back of my head, so they’ll flow out naturally through the writing. Going back to some of those masculine writers like Barry Hannah and Thomas McGuane—I love those writers, but a lot of their stories and books are just a guy doing damage in the world. My thought has always been, It’s 2021. We can’t just rewrite the same books over and over.

Alysia Sawchyn: I would like to steal that sentence for feedback: simply, It’s 2021.

I love the idea of setting challenges for yourself. Is that something you do for smaller projects, too, or particularly for longer ones?

Gene Kwak: I do it for both. Sometimes it can be an enormous waste of time, but of course it’s not time wasted. You’re still learning. But when I was younger, I used to do silly shit like try to write a whole-ass story that’s only one sentence long. But as of right now, I’m really enjoying working in the longer mode, so I don’t know if there are going to be any short projects in my near future.

Alysia Sawchyn: What is it about the longer mode that you’re enjoying? I know you published shorts for several years before a few chapbooks… is next going to be doorstopper?

Gene Kwak: No, no, probably never a doorstopper. I’m more of a short novel fan myself. And I love short stories. I always thought I was going to be a short story writer. Most of my favorite writers work in that form, but once I started working on this novel, I thought, damn, this is too much fun. You can just bring in so many more characters, have so many more adventures, etc. I’m really enjoying the kind of riffing you can do.

Alysia Sawchyn: Do you play favorites with your characters?

Gene Kwak: All of them were fun to write. With this one, since it’s first-person, obviously you’re getting them all filtered through Ricky, so there’s a slight flattening effect, but I really hoped that all the characters felt like they had their own agency and that they were treated with grace. I hope that readers understand that they’re trying to do their best; even the characters that Ricky felt made “bad” decisions in his eyes.

Alysia Sawchyn: One of the reasons I loved this book as much as I did was because of that grace. There’s a distinction—even though the novel is in first person—between how Ricky sees the characters and how the readers understand that the author wants us to see them. It’s that breathing room again; all narrators are unreliable.

We’re getting close to the end of our time. What are you reading and loving right now?

Gene Kwak: Speaking of unreliable narrators, I just started that new Claire Vaye Watkins. Seems like a wild ride. Also, just got in Mina Seçkin’s The Four Humors. And excited to dig into Christopher Gonzalez’s I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat.

Alysia Sawchyn: That’s the Book Club selection for next month!

Gene Kwak: Thanks so much, Alysia and Marisa, for doing this! Genuinely appreciate everything you do at The Rumpus.

Alysia Sawchyn: Thank you for your time today Gene, of course, but also for making this gem of a novel and sharing it with the world. Such a pleasure chatting with you.

Wishing you all a lovely weekend, and I hope everyone here enjoyed Go Home, Ricky! as much as I did.


Photograph of Gene Kwak by Kevin Kwak.

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