That Garden of Certainty: A Conversation with R.O. Kwon

Kyle Minor

R.O. Kwon has been around a long time, publishing beautiful work in literary magazines and showing herself in settings public and private to be a formidable reader and thinker. So the enormous and not-overnight success this summer of her debut novel, The Incendiaries, is no surprise.

Some writers might be jealous of Kwon’s willingness to play the long game, to wait to publish her first book until she had already achieved what seems to many readers to be a mastery of the form. Other writers might be jealous of the pristine sentences, the elegant short chapters, the Faulknerian control of the many voices.

 These writerly jealousies quickly give way to readerly pleasure. The Incendiaries,  for all its timeliness of subject and contemporariness of its form, is also an old-fashioned novel of the sort that fulfills John Gardner’s prescription that the writer create for the reader “a vivid and continuous dream.”

 One more thing: As a person raised in a fundamentalist Christian milieu, I’m spending my adulthood trying to understand the distance between the harsh magical vision of the world I was taught and received, and what I have to do now to be a citizen of a more complicated temporal world, and to understand and inhabit a new set of ideas about how to think, speak, and be. Very rarely have I encountered in contemporary American fiction anything that rings true to this sort of experience.

 R.O. Kwon’s novel—in playing a not-dissimilar world not for laughs, but for keeps, out of the difficulties and generosities the intentionally empathetic stance requires of writer and reader—threads the needle, avoiding false redemption and false hope while trying, and succeeding, to chase something like understanding. I was happy to get the chance to ask her about a few of these things.


Kyle Minor: Reading The Incendiaries, I was thinking about how this historical moment is more than a little like the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Certainly there are echoes, in the book and in our time, of Jim Jones, the Weather Underground, the Fighters for Free Croatia, all varieties of ostensibly righteous causes gone wrong, turned to violence. I was also thinking about the fundamentalist Christian world I think we both fled, with its purity tests and demands to orthodoxy and power cults of personality, and how afraid it sometimes makes me to see some of these same kinds of urgencies manifesting in the progressive community to which I’d hoped to flee. I was thinking about the seductive nature of being right, or of belonging to the people who are right.

R.O. Kwon: For a short while, I did a lot of research. I read every nonfiction book I could find about domestic terrorists, radical causes, and cults. But then, I put them aside, and I tried to wipe away what I’d learned. Which wasn’t possible, of course! I did, though, want this to be my novel’s cult, one only my made-up cult leader, John Leal, could have founded.

Belonging to people who are right—I think about that a lot. Since leaving the faith, I feel averse to certainty, afraid of it, so much so that I’m not even certain I’m right to be be wary of certainty. Do you miss that kind of belonging?

KM: Yes. Very much.

I’m also interested in the formal choices. All the first person voices, which are reminiscent of various evangelical testimony traditions, but which are also in echo of novels that proceed in a series of dramatic monologues, such as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or Graham Swift’s Last Orders. I was also thinking, while reading, of all that the limitations of first person can make possible, rhetorically. Here we have plenty of room for not-knowing, for speculation, for thinking, for tentative meaning-making. And we also have, for example, the ability to render John Leal in third person, for a practical reason you may or may not want to discuss, although I’m interested in hearing your version of why.

ROK: In its first two years, The Incendiaries was told entirely by one character, Phoebe Lin. But after that, I realized I wanted the novel to have a little more distance from Phoebe. She’s going through a lot, and I wanted an entryway point of view. I kept thinking about Nick Carraway telling Gatsby’s story, how that can crack open some narrative space.

So, Will Kendall, who loves Phoebe, started doing all the talking. Then, I found I really missed Phoebe: there wasn’t enough of her, not with just Will’s perspective. So, I added her voice back in; a short while after that, I discovered that John Leal had more to say.

This wasn’t an efficient way of going about it all! Which is part of why it took ten years.

KM: This is a book that knows a lot about the North Korean missionary scene, with its Chinese border crossings, its gulag mythologies and their uses, its connections to South Korean culture, including pop culture. I’ve known a few people who have been involved in this world, but I’ve never seen it before in a book. How did you get access to this world, and what did it require of you as a novelist to get it right? (And these aren’t the only subcultural masteries the book requires. We also have the high-end piano and conservatory world, more than one kind of college, and more than one ecstatic brand of American evangelical expression.)

ROK: As with cults and terrorists, there was a point a when I was reading a lot of nonfiction books and short pieces about North Korea, everything I could find. At the time, though, I wasn’t thinking about North Korea showing up in my novel—it was just that parts of my family have long-ago roots in what’s now North Korea, and it was a way for me to try to calm an ache, to learn what I could about the lives of distant family members I’ll never meet.

But so little information makes it out. Eventually, in The Incendiaries, John Leal began taking on a North Korean past. I never hoped to get it right—there’s no getting it right, not in depicting a country with the most closed borders in the world. Especially given the paucity of information about North Korea, I can’t pretend to responsibly or accurately represent the place. Instead, with my novel, I hoped to illuminate that lack of knowledge. To show the unknowing itself.

For those who want to read anglophone books by people who have more direct knowledge of North Korea and North Korean refugees, I’d recommend, for instance, Suki Kim’s Without You, There is No Us or Krys Lee’s How I Became a North Korean.The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Chol-hwan Kang. The Accusation by Bandi.

KM: Because this book is built the way it is, the seams don’t show, plot-wise, the way they do in many other novels. This made me interested, as a writer, in the invisible process that got you to that point. Were there earlier versions of the book that worked in different ways? What kinds of work did you have to do to work out the threads of the story and keep them straight with regard to pacing and proportion and most of all time?

ROK: Thank you for saying that, Kyle. There were so many earlier versions of the book. I honestly have no idea how many full drafts I wrote before getting to the final version. 25? 50? No fucking idea, and I don’t want to know, because I can’t let myself get too discouraged about what it’ll take to finish my next novel.

A couple of the book’s alternative lives: for the first couple of years, The Incendiaries was a meditative novel about a grieving, lonely woman wandering around, reflecting on the nature of an absent God. There were also 100 pages from Phoebe’s father’s point of view that didn’t fit in the book, and which I cut.

I don’t, though, give a lot of overt thought to story threads or pacing. I’m obsessed with language on the level of the sentence, so that’s where I most love to hang out: inside the syllables. With the music.

KM: I was thinking about the place Phoebe occupies in the world of immigrant families—parents and children who don’t share a single common cultural identity, the question of money and the privilege it brings, the incomprehensibility of it, the way others try to make use of it.

ROK: I wouldn’t say that parents and children in immigrant families universally don’t share a cultural identity. It’s not how I felt, growing up. In the novel, Phoebe and her mother are very close throughout most of Phoebe’s childhood; Phoebe’s mother is the one person who knows her best. Part of this is because Phoebe is so focused on playing the piano. It’s a demimonde her mother also knows and values, and loves. And so, of course, it’s all the more cataclysmic when Phoebe’s mother dies.

KM: The book has no small interest in the relationship between pain and pleasure, a thing that ecstatic religious expressions can simultaneously submerge and foreground.

ROK: There’s a part in The Incendiariesin which John Leal’s quoted as saying that Christianity recognizes the potential effect of pain, how it can make people available to previously excluded possibilities. John Leal—like other cult leaders, as well as recruiters for terrorist groups—is on the lookout for people who are in pain. Who might, as a result, be more willing to listen to him.

KM: I wanted to ask you about a remarkable piece of language near the end of the book: “He hears the church bells sing, but not to him.”

ROK: Every day, I miss God. I miss the faith I lost, I miss that garden of certainty. I’m just starting to understand that this will never stop: I’ll grieve until I die. Often, if I hear church bells ring, that’s how they sound to me.

Kyle Minor is the author of Praying Drunk.