Victoria Namkung | Longreads | July 2018 | 8 minutes (2,150 words)

R.O. Kwon’s debut novel, The Incendiaries, is a meditation on faith, extremism, and fractured identity. A poetic thriller, written in an inventive stream-of-consciousness style, with shifting narration between characters and spare yet haunting prose, the story is also partly inspired by Kwon’s own experiences separating from Christianity as a young woman.

At the fictional Edwards University, Will Kendall, a poor transfer student and former evangelical Christian, is desperate to believe in something new. He becomes obsessed — and falls in love — with the charming Phoebe Lin, a similarly godless Korean-American pianist who is plagued with guilt over her mother’s death. Phoebe, however, falls under the spell of John Leal, a gregarious cult leader. Leal’s mysterious Bible study group, Jejah, eventually descends into right-wing terrorist violence targeting abortion clinics. When Phoebe disappears after a fatal accident involving Jejah members, Will is desperate to find out what happened to her.

The Incendiaries reflects on how our backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs can lead us to justify all sorts of perilous actions, how quickly well-intentioned devotion can turn deadly, and how life-altering it can be to find or lose religion.

We spoke by phone between Los Angeles and San Francisco, where Kwon resides and teaches part-time at the University of San Francisco. We discussed faith and fanaticism, love, North Korea, and the intersections between writing a novel and practicing religion.

Victoria Namkung: In The Incendiaries, Will has already lost his religion, and Phoebe finds hers in the form of an extremist, secretive group while at college. You’ve described yourself as former “Jesus freak” and “God-crazed girl” and know the experience of loving and leaving religion. Did the novel help you reconcile your dichotomous experience?

R.O. Kwon: What the book helped me realize is there is no resolving it. I loved God. I loved believing, like Will, and I really did plan to devote my life to God’s service. I planned to preach—I thought I might become a missionary—and I think what I’ve come to learn is that not only will I never get it back, but that I’m also going to keep missing it. I think I’ll always have that longing, but there’s no going back into the garden. I find it very moving when readers who have also left their faith write to me and say that they haven’t previously seen their experience of apostasy reflected in a book.

I really wanted to show how exciting and passionate religion can be and therefore how terrible it was to lose that, and to lose my faith.

You worked on The Incendiaries for 10 years. Can you talk about some of the ups and downs of working on a book for such a long period of time? How did it change or evolve over the years and what kept you going?

For the first two years I worked obsessively on the first 20 pages of what I thought would be the novel. That version did have Phoebe and Will, but it was otherwise pretty different from what the book turned out to be. I love sentences, I love hanging out in the intricacies of syllables, so I really thought I had to make the sentences as perfect as I could before I could proceed. I’d reworked those 20 pages I don’t know how many times when I realized that it felt terribly inert. I threw it away and started over. That wasn’t the most cheerful moment. Luckily, I had my first artists’ residency set up right after that happened, so for three weeks I tried to figure out what on earth the book was and somehow the first pages came to me. Those pages have stayed pretty much the same since then. It was such a different experience from what I had been working on. It felt alive to me in a way that the book hadn’t felt before.

The next several drafts of the book, I used a variety of tricks to thwart my own worst impulses. I wrote drafts by hand and threw them away. There was a draft where I turned white every paragraph of what I’d written, so it would blend into the document, so I couldn’t stare at what I’d done. That was how I’d keep going. For a few years, I was in an email group of friends and we’d commit to writing, say, 300 words a day. That helped. At the five-year mark, I was at another residency when, in a fit of despair, I opened a new document and I wrote maybe two sentences of a different book. I’d imagined it would be so much easier but then I thought no, the other book still feels alive to me, even if it’s not where I need it to be.

Where do you see the line between faith and fanaticism? At what point does a religion or religious group veer into cult territory in your mind?

I don’t see it as a line; I see it as a spectrum. Anytime there’s a faith-based terrorist attack, one of the first things people reach for is that it’s unimaginable and beyond fathoming. I hope this book gives some insight into how people could commit violent acts without considering themselves to be evil.

Much like religion, first love can be fanatical and obsessive. Will often seems consumed with Phoebe in ways that she never is with him. Can you talk about the parallels or intersections between love and religion?

With religion as I experienced it, the first and foremost feeling was one of love. I loved my idea of God. I really wanted to show how exciting and passionate religion can be and therefore how terrible it was to lose that, and to lose my faith. When I most deeply fell into religion, not entirely unlike when I’ve had one-off crushes, there was a feeling of ‘maybe this will give me all the answers I’ve been seeking.’ Losing my faith was devastating to me. For the next year I was as depressed as I’ve ever been. I was and am close to my parents, but I remember thinking that I’d rather lose one of my parents than lose God.

When I believed, I lived in a world where there was no real loss and no real death. It’s such a different worldview than what I have now. Before I lost my faith, I would never have considered myself an especially anxious person. I didn’t have to be anxious because somebody omnipotent was always looking out for me. Now I could pretty reasonably call myself anxious. I wanted to try to bridge the chasm between these worldviews. On the one hand it was devastating that my friends and family couldn’t understand at the time how alone I felt and on the other hand it felt strange to then start making friends at college who were just like “okay, you used to be a Christian.” Very quickly I learned to turn it into a joke.

I follow what feels right on a sentence level: I want it to feel as though the sentence couldn’t have been any other way.

Guilt and grief are themes present throughout the novel. Do you think people who feel haunted by their pasts or are dealing with big life changes are more vulnerable to extremism in general or are we all vulnerable at any time depending on the right set of circumstances?

In my research, I learned that a lot of terrorist groups and cults tend to recruit the sad, lonely misfit who has either had something terrible happen or feels out of sorts. People who feel that way start looking for an elsewhere. People who feel happy and fulfilled are less likely to be tantalized by that elsewhere.

North Korea is part of our news cycle on a daily basis and the mysterious cult leader in your novel has ties to the country. Many of us have distant or unknown relatives in North Korea and wonder about them or what life there is really like. What made you decide to make North Korea part of The Incendiaries?

I had a period when I was reading everything I could about North Korea, but not because I thought I wanted to write about it. It was just because of that longing and the ache of not knowing anything about where a part of my family came from. As I was doing all this reading I started realizing that I was never going to get the answers I wanted. What little information makes it out is so incomplete. John Leal, in the novel, started taking on a North Korean past, and it was important for me to show that unknowing. When I was writing about North Korea, I never thought I was getting it right; I really wanted the book to show that uncertainty.

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The book is written in a stream of consciousness style, without dialogue quotes and with shifting points of view and one- and two-page chapters at times. What led you to make these choices?

When I write I tend not to make choices. I follow what feels right on a sentence level: I want it to feel as though the sentence couldn’t have been any other way. What I’m working toward is the point at which I can reread a sentence and not want to change everything all over again. The rest of the book arose from that. Something that’s surprised me is the number of people who’ve said it’s very suspenseful, and that the story really moves along. I didn’t necessarily think of the book that way but that probably has a lot to do with the fact that I sat with the book for 10 years.

Do you think it’s an act of faith to become a writer or to write a novel? Do you think an author’s life dovetails with a religious person’s in any way?

A habit of mine that has carried over from when I was religious is that, for most of the 10 years of my novel, I worked on it every day. A lot of those days it wasn’t going well. I think sometimes about this line from Dean Young: “You have to sweep the temple steps a lot in hopes that the god appears.” There’s something about showing up for the work every day instead of waiting to be inspired.

What were you like as a child? What things were you into and were you already a practicing Christian as a kid?

I loved books; it was my first love. I used to go to parties my parents would have with their church friends and I’d bring seven books at a time. I would plow through them. I also spent a lot of time playing the piano. Phoebe is a much better pianist than I ever was, but I was serious enough about music that my family, teacher, and I were thinking about a conservatory for me as a possible future life. I spent hours a day playing. And yes, growing up, my sense of myself was always as a Christian. When I was a child, the first time I realized death was real I was so frightened, but then almost immediately I realized, “Oh wait, we get to live forever.”

Books are part of what led me away from Christianity. Inhabiting the minds of so many other people and points of view and with such different backgrounds and beliefs—it became impossible to think that what I believed was the only way to believe.

What was your path to becoming a writer?

In high school, my principal asked us what we wanted to be and I said a novelist, but when I went to college I took a detour. Every semester I took writing classes, but I’m an immigrant and my parents are immigrants. I thought that I needed to have a life that could definitely offer things like health insurance. And so I majored in economics and right after college I worked briefly in consulting. I think I lasted seven months. I was working 90 to 100 hours a week sometimes. I feel really fortunate that I was so miserable in the job. If I had been moderately happy it might have been harder to leave.

For me, and for some other people I know, especially writers of color and those from immigrant families, an MFA program can feel less terrifying than just stepping out on your own. I applied to MFA programs while I was still in my job, and once I got in, that’s what gave me the escape hatch to be able to say “bye consulting, see you never I hope.” From that point on, I decided I was a writer now and this was what I was going to do. I loved grad school. I felt the minutes ticking past from the first day. Michael Cunningham was the director at Brooklyn College, and he was and is wonderful. My classmates were kind and supportive while being rigorous and demanding of one another. My overall experience was one of joy. I only know in retrospect how rare this was.

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Victoria Namkung is the author of These Violent Delights and The Things We Tell Ourselves. Her journalism and essays have appeared in The New York TimesLos Angeles TimesVICE, and Washington Post, among other publications. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky