To fully grasp the magnitude of R.O. Kwon’s debut novel, The Incendiaries, being named the #1 Indie Next pick for August, you first have to understand what the Indie Next List is. Containing just 20 titles each month, it comprises the most highly recommended new books, as nominated by independent booksellers nationwide. Considering how much bookstore staffers read (not to mention how many hundreds of books are published each month), making it into the top 20 really sets a book apart. Kwon has landed not just on the list but in the highest spot — and with her first book, a short, unusual, and entrancing novel about a young couple pulled together by love and apart by religion.
Critics can’t stop talking about The Incendiaries either. The Washington Post called it “the most buzzed-about book debut of the summer, as it should be.” From The New Yorker: “It is full of absences and silence. Its eerie, sombre power is more a product of what it doesn’t explain than of what it does.” The New York Times put the book on the cover of its Book Review this week in a piece titled, “When First Love Is as Lethal as Religious Extremism.” In its “Writers to Watch” piece earlier this summer, the Times gave this succinct preview of the story:
The book is thematically about the spectrum of belief, and is told from the perspectives of three main narrators: Will Kendall, who transfers from a religious college to the fictional Edwards University, where the book is set, after becoming a nonbeliever; his girlfriend, Phoebe Lin, who joins a Bible study and support group after her mother’s death; and, to a lesser extent, John Leal, who leads the gatherings and has mysterious ties to North Korea. Will must contend with Phoebe’s spiral into Christian fundamentalism and the group’s eventual embrace of violence.
What makes someone fall in love with another person? What makes someone turn to religion? And what happens when the person you fall in love with turns away from you and toward a religion that terrifies you? Kwon discussed The Incendiaries with our Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott. Here’s their conversation:
These characters fall in love as they’re on opposite spiritual trajectories: Will has lost his faith just as Phoebe believes she has found hers. They’re . . . not star-crossed lovers, exactly . . . God-crossed lovers? To what extent did you draw on your own personal experience of being out-of-sync with your loved ones and faith?
Kwon: God-crossed lovers—yes! I love that, Mary Laura. I drew substantially from my own experience of having lost my faith during high school. Back then, almost everyone I knew was a believer, which made the apostasy extra difficult. I was desperately lonely, as lonely as I’ve ever felt, and, in some ways, I think I was writing this novel for that 17-year-old girl, to let her know she’s not alone. She never was.
Why set this love story in college?
Kwon: One practical answer is that college is a liminal time, a time of flux, when a lot of people are figuring out who they are. (Terrorist groups and religious groups both often recruit at the college and high-school level for this reason: because people’s selves tend to be shifting, changing.)
The other answer, though, is that I loved college. Sitting around and learning, reading—it was an arcadia for me. A problematic time, in some ways, but also an enchanted time. I loved being able to revisit that time of my life while writing The Incendiaries.
You’ve said this book took a decade to write. What kept you coming back to it?
Kwon: Part of it was that sense I mention of writing for the lonely girl I was—I felt I couldn’t let her down. There was also my love of sentences: anytime I could really get lost in the words, I’d forget I had an I, and then I could just write. That feeling might be the deepest joy I know.
How does it feel to see the book finally going out into the world and landing in other people’s hands?
Kwon: It’s wonderful, strange, and disorienting. For all these years, the novel was my private dream, and now, each time, it feels a little startling when people talk about the book to me. How on earth do you know about this? I want to ask. Then I realize, Oh, right.
Talk about the decision to write dialogue without quotation marks. I’m always curious when a writer makes that choice.
Kwon: It didn’t feel like a choice so much as a necessity. I did, at various points, try putting in quotation marks, but I found that, at least for The Incendiaries, the marks shifted the balance of the book too much toward the dialogue. Quotation marks are so emphatic! They’re showy, and pop out at me. I wanted less pop, more flow.
You were a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow in 2016 (alongside some big names, such as Anthony Marra and Celeste Ng). What did that support make possible for you — and how important is the NEA to our country’s continued cultural vibrance?
Kwon: No joke, the NEA changed my life. The money’s wonderful, of course, but it also felt profoundly meaningful to receive that vote of confidence from the government, from my country. It gave me the last push I needed to finish revising my novel, and then to have my agent send it to publishers.
The amount of money allotted to supporting the arts, as a percentage of the nation’s budget, is ludicrously small, especially when compared to what other countries do. The NEA is vital to the nation’s arts. There are whole, incredible organizations that would be in peril if the NEA were cut. People who want to cut the NEA—good god, what short-sighted trolls.
OK, let’s say you’re in a bookstore, and a fellow reader browsing nearby asks your advice on what she should buy. What books do you pull off the shelves and place in her hands?
Kwon: I love everything I’ve read by Anne Carson, but this time, I’ll recommend Eros the Bittersweet. It’s one of her less well-known books—it was her dissertation in graduate school—and it’s a delight. It’s a kind of meditation on a Sappho fragment, though that word, “meditation,” sounds so static. It’s a romp. It’s a celebration.
I’d also recommend some August books I’m really excited about, and which I’ve been so fortunate as to get to read early. There’s Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel, which is so haunting it stole into my dreams, and Vanessa Hua’s epic A River of Stars. There’s also Crystal Hana Kim’s heart-shredding If You Leave Me. Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s splendid Fruit of the Drunken Tree publishes in July, but it’s the last day of the month, so I’ll slide that in as an August pick as well!
I loved what you wrote in The Cut about your signature eyeliner look, and now I have to know: did you ever find a good black eyeliner that can stand up to summer heat?
You’ve been on quite the media circuit lately. Anything you wish you’d been asked but haven’t?
Kwon: No one’s asked yet about the last books I loved. One I just read is an advance copy of Ancco’s Bad Friends, a graphic novel set in 1990s South Korea. It’s about cycles of violence and abuse, and the limits of love, and I cried as I read it. I’m thrilled it’ll be out in the U.S. this fall.