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Being in the Front Row: A Q&A With R.O. Kwon

We’re so pleased to introduce one of our keynote speakers for Hollihock 2019: R.O. Kwon. Kwon is the author of the best-selling novel “The Incendiaries” (Riverhead Books, 2018) and will join us as a keynote speaker at Hollihock Writers Conference on Sunday, August 25. She took the time to have a conversation with us about her connection with New England and the experience of writing her first novel.


HOLLIHOCK: Hollihock celebrates writers with a connection to New England-- those who have lived, worked or studied here. Elaborate on your connection with New England. Has this region inspired your writing?

R.O.: My novel is set in upstate New York, and Noxhurst is a town I made up. But I did draw a lot of my physical descriptions of from memories of my own college experience. I went to college in Connecticut, and I grew up in Los Angeles, where there aren’t really seasons. There’s a strange limbo all year round. I remember going to college, and the first fall, I went around and took pictures of every tree that had changing leaves. I think, in a lot of ways, I was struck by the physical beauty of my campus in Connecticut, and that has stayed with me.


HOLLIHOCK: How much did your time at Yale inspire “The Incendiaries?”

R.O.: The quadrangle I describe is informed by my memories of Yale, and there’s a private club where the characters go that’s inspired by my memories of a club at Yale. But I very much wanted to make it a fictional college in a fictional town, because I wanted it to be mine. I wanted to be able to shape it in whatever ways I needed to and not have to stay true to a place or a town.


HOLLIHOCK: I read that “The Incendiaries” was a 10-year writing project. What was it like to be working on a book for 10 years?

R.O.: I wasn’t too concerned until the five-year mark. And then at the five-year mark is when I just started thinking, “what’s taking me so long?” Around the seven-year mark, I was feeling pretty down. I sold the book at the eight-year mark, and then there was a year and a half of editing. I very often would get discouraged. I would sit at my desk thinking, “What the hell am I doing with my life? Why didn’t I become a dermatologist?” What got me through is that I really do love writing. As hard as it so often is, in the moments when the writing is going well-- there’s nothing like it for me. And as long as I can remember that and stay with the writing and not worry too much about larger questions like “what am I doing with my life,” that’s when I was all right.


HOLLIHOCK: How do you find the motivation or endurance to keep working on a project for that long?

R.O.: The initial impetus for the book is that I grew up really religious, and when I lost that-- I was devastated. But I couldn’t find a book about a loss like this. I lost a world order, in a lot of ways, and so I wanted to write a book for that 17-year-old woman who felt so desperately alone in the world. I wanted her to know she wasn’t alone.


HOLLIHOCK: How did you know when it was finally ready for the world?

R.O.: When Louise Bourgeois is asked, “When do you know a sculpture is done,” she says, “When the questions stop.” I think about that a lot. That’s kind of what happened with me. I love sentences. I love words and syllables. I love all of it. I wanted to open the book and look at any two sentences and know that I didn’t want to write them all over again.


HOLLIHOCK: What did it feel like to finally finish it?

R.O.: It was so drawn out that even after the edits were done, there were still copy edits. I was able to keep telling myself, “It’s not the final final.” And then, by the final version, I’d already been fantasizing about my next novel so much. Like what people say about romantic relationships. I don’t think I could have been done with the book unless I, in some ways, personally felt done.


HOLLIHOCK: I read that you spent the first two years on the first twenty pages and then they didn’t end up in the book. For other writers who may be working on something like that for many months or years-- what is your advice to them?

R.O: Something that helps me is to remind myself of the parts of it that really give me joy. For me, that is hanging out with the language. So, figure out where the joy comes from. Whatever it is that brought you to the writing in the first place, try to remember that and keep that.


Also, keep reading. I honestly don’t know any writers who aren't deep, rigorous readers. If I'm not reading very much, then my writing is going badly, too.


HOLLIHOCK: I find that I often have to write fiction to discover what I think or how I feel about something. Did you come to any greater understanding of your faith (or lack thereof) or anything else about yourself from writing the novel?

R.O.: I found that I was spending as much time with the idea of God as I would have if I had stayed religious. I was reading the Bible and Christian thinkers. Writing was, and continues to be, a prolonged act of grieving for me. I think it’s possible that I never stopped loving God, it’s just that I no longer think he’s real. I miss a lot of my old beliefs. I miss what it felt like to be such a fervent believer. But that missing is also a way of being with someone. Sometimes grief doesn't end because love doesn't end.


HOLLIHOCK: How has your personal identity played a role (or not at all) in your writing career?

R.O.: People so often ask, “Who are you writing for?” When I write fiction, I find it so absorbing that I have no space to think about any external readers except myself. I used to think that my answer to that question was very straightforward and boring. But there are much larger implications.


If I’m centering myself as a reader, I’m centering a queer, Korean immigrant woman as a reader, and that’s not a person who has very often been centered as a reader. Toni Morrison said, “I stood at the border... and claimed it as central... and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.” That’s so powerful. She spoke often about how she was explicitly writing for black women. For me, the first row of seats, when I think of who I’m writing for, is Asian women. Those are the people I want to center first. That doesn't mean that I’m only writing for an Asian women, but that’s who I’m thinking about being in the front row.


HOLLIHOCK: If you could have dinner with Virginia Woolf, what do you think you two would talk about?

R.O.: I would hope that I could become invisible so that could just follow her around for a day and see what she says and what she was up to. As with so many writers, I never want to talk to them. I just want to engage with their work. I think because I would be worried that I’d say something that I’d regret the rest of my life.


HOLLIHOCK: What can you tell us about your next novel?

R.O.: My next novel, for now, is about two women who are both artists. One is a photographer and the other is a choreographer. The photographer becomes obsessed with choreographer. The book is very interested in questions about what women are allowed to want. What women are pushed to want versus the desires that we are judged for or punished for. The book is grappling with those kinds of questions.


Meet R.O. Kwon at Hollihock 2019. Tickets available on Eventbrite.