Grief That Drives: R.O. Kwon by Colin Winnette

The novelist on her loss of faith, youth culture, cult leaders, and spending time with syllables. 

Kwon Headshot Smeeta Mahanti Color Vertical

Photo Credit: Smeeta Mahanti.

Before we were swept away by the endless and sundry responsibilities of putting new novels into the world, R.O. Kwon and I would get together twice a week and go rock climbing. Our approaches were very different. I tended to drift from problem to problem, easily frustrated and typically relying on my size to get me through moves designed for finesse and skill. Kwon, however, would settle down in front of what seemed an impossible problem, and she would work it. Bit by bit, dropping over and over, she would learn the shape of the climb, what it was asking of her, and how she might best respond to each new twist and turn in the route. This focus, care, and almost magical will-power touches everything she does, from her carefully and whole-heartedly maintained friendships with weirdos such as myself, to her transcendent fiction. In her writing, Kwon is a careful and deliberate problem-solver. She works her sentences until they are entirely suited to her purposes, singing and electric. There’s no wasted breath in The Incendiaries (Riverhead), Kwon’s debut novel, ten years in the making, about love, youth, and loss of faith (not just in a higher power). She weaves together three distinct voices, all intimately linked but just out of one another’s reach, to tell a story about the dangers of losing ourselves in the ideas that save us.

Colin Winnette The novel deals in large part with characters who’ve lost what I would describe as a sustaining force. Will is shaped by the loss of his relationship with God, and Phoebe is also driven by the loss of someone very important to her. You’ve talked elsewhere about the experience of losing your faith, and I wondered if part of the project of the novel was to explore the subject of grief, the role it can play in shaping, limiting, or even driving a person?

R.O. Kwon In general, I don’t think in terms of having projects for my fiction—with The Incendiaries, it was more as if I had to let it tell me what it hoped to be. Sometimes, though, what helped me keep going was the thought of the grief-bewildered, lonely seventeen-year-old girl I once was. That was when I lost the Christian faith in which I’d been raised, and I couldn’t find anyone in life, nor books, who began to understand how catastrophic it felt to lose the God I’d deeply loved. Until I left the faith, I believed I’d never die. I believed everyone I loved wouldn’t die, that we’d all just get to persist as ourselves, shining in paradise. It’s such a different, gladder worldview than what I have now as an anxious, hypochondriac, agnostic person who thinks about the terrible eventuality of death, oh, every day.

So, for the ten years I worked on The Incendiaries, I wanted to let that girl know she’s not as alone as she imagines she is. That I’m here, too, grieving. To quote Beckett, “Don’t lose heart: plug yourself into despair and sing it for us.”

CW As someone who thinks about death a lot, I’m realizing I have no memory of becoming aware of it. I lost a friend when I was very, very young, but I don’t remember feeling surprised by the reality of his death, that death existed and was a thing that could and would happen. I wonder if, rather than being an effort to explore the subject of grief, as I so ponderously put it, The Incendiaries is closer to an act of grieving? Charlie Kaufman talked about how everyone lives in relationship to a wound, and as a writer he feels most honest when he writes from that place.

ROK First of all, you weren’t ponderous! I’m finding I balk a little at Kaufman’s “everyone”—I’m so wary of sweeping generalizations. But The Incendiaries as an act of grieving—I love that, Colin. I’ve thought sometimes that everything I write might be a song to the God in whom I can’t believe. Maybe a praise song of the world I once thought He made, and which He abandoned by failing to exist. I listened to so much religious music while I wrote this book, a lot of polyphonic singing, Palestrina and Byrd, all those Glorias and Kyries. Never the Credos, though! Maybe it’s the last way I have of being with Him.

The Incendiaries High Res

CW While the novel explores these enormous spiritual questions, it also grounds itself in the complexities and immediate problems of life on this planet. There are several instances of sexual assault in the novel, with varying proximity to the central characters. They each struggle with the question of how to respond to assault, typically from a distance, sometimes in painful and disappointing ways. As a reader, I felt these actions haunting the whole book, radiating from the things unsaid or undone. How early in the writing of the novel did you decide to write about these issues?

ROK As with “project,” “decide” is a more intentional word than what I’d usually invoke in talking about how I write. But the characters are in college, and in my experience of college, as well as my experience of life, sexual assault is an omnipresent possibility, a threat polluting each day. I have no experience of what it’s like to consider walking alone in my city at night without first thinking through the potential dangers. It’s the ongoing, fucked-up enterprise of trying to stay safe from physical harm while inhabiting a woman’s body.

I will say, though, that I really hoped to keep a pivotal instance of sexual violence out of the novel. I kept trying to write drafts that omitted the scene, but they didn’t ring true. Leaving out that violence felt inauthentic to who the perpetrator turned out to be.

CW Where did the resistance come from?

ROK My graduate-school mentor, Michael Cunningham, often said, “We must love our characters as God does, but not more.” I love that. I had to follow who the characters were, rather than decide for them who I thought they could be.

I also tend to be deeply suspicious, at least in my own fiction, of violent acts. Which must sound strange, given how much violence there is in this book! Deaths, explosions, abuse, assaults. But I don’t like feeling jerked around by plot, by action—with my husband, it’s a running joke that, if we’re watching a movie together and I feel yanked around, I’ll shout “I work too hard!” and flee the living room. Well, I guess that’s not a joke. It’s just what happens. But I want any big changes to feel truly integral to the story, as though the story couldn’t have been told any other way.

CW I thought it was one of the most powerful and subtle accumulations in the book, which is something you’re very good at: letting things fester and build to a brutal release.

Along those lines, the insidious influence of Jejah was handled with admirable subtlety and creeping inevitability. Did you do any research into cult practices or initiation ceremonies?

ROK Thank you so much for saying that about the accumulation. There was a spell when I read every nonfiction cult book I could find, as well as every book about domestic terrorism. It was a short period, though, just a few months, and then I stopped. To the extent I could, I tried to forget what I’d learned. I needed John Leal, the cult leader, to discover the rules and composition of his group for himself—it had to be his radical cult, unique to him and his experience of North Korea, and colored by his life, his hopes, not anyone else’s.

But also, at my most religious, I briefly attended a church with a youth group that was so all-encompassing that some of the kids’ parents worried it might be a cult. It wasn’t, but I had those radiant lost-garden memories to draw upon.

CW As much as the book deals with grief, terrorism, and faith, it’s also a love story. A story about young love, at that. What drew you to that state, and how did you go about striking the balance achieved here?

ROK When I believed in God, I loved Him. I loved His creations, too: I tried to love people, in general. I walked around feeling euphoric, dazed with love. After all these years, I still have trouble explaining how glorious I felt.

I lost that faith, but I didn’t entirely lose that love. I still love God. It’s just that I don’t think He’s real. Grief can also, of course, be a variety of love. It’s frustrated love, love for an object that’s become unavailable. So, with this novel, I think I wanted to explore that kind of love, to see where else it might go.

CW A college campus is a terrifying place to set the development of a cult. It’s so unsettling to imagine John Leal roaming that campus. How did the backdrop of higher education change or develop the questions at the heart of the book?

ROW In my research into cults and into terrorist groups, I read over and over again that both entities often recruit college students, high-school students: people at an age of change, which is often a time of instability. And universities can be such a liminal space, especially in the U.S., where a lot of people move away from their families to go to college. I know I became a fairly different person in college than who I was in high school.

CW You worked on The Incendiaries for almost a decade. How did your process change during that time? Also, when did the novel start to feel finished, and what did that look like?

ROK I spent the first two years obsessing over the first twenty pages, just trying to get the sentences, the language, exactly right. I care so much about syllables, how they look and sound. At the end of two years, I threw those pages away, then I started afresh.

With the next several drafts, I forced myself to work quicker. I took measures to thwart my obsessive interest in sentence-level prose: writing by hand helped, for instance, because my handwriting’s such a mess. On the laptop, I turned the font white as I went, so that I couldn’t look at preceding sentences until the end of the draft. With one particularly difficult draft, I used a typewriter app that only let me backspace once before it would freeze up, compelling me to move forward. I had to get to know the characters, to play with the novel’s scope and shape, and it wasn’t until the sixth draft, maybe—I don’t know the exact number, and I don’t ever want to know—that I allowed myself to begin spending real time with the syllables again.

The novel started feeling finished—or, at least, as finished as I could get it—when I was able to pick out lines at random without needing to rip them apart and rewrite them.

CW You’ve mentioned before that you developed specific rules for your prose toward the end. What sets a finished sentence apart from all the attempts?

ROK I badly want each sentence of my fiction to achieve what Sontag called lexical inevitability, for every single line to feel as if it couldn’t have been any other way. This isn’t possible, of course, but one can try and try. I’m close to believing that every sentence has an ideal potential shape and form. It’s almost as though each line preexists me, and it’s my job to find my way to it. With any given line, I can’t quite know ahead of time how to get there. If I did, maybe I could write more quickly! Colin, I’m realizing I’m not sure what constitutes a finished sentence for you, and now I’m so curious.

CW I don’t know! Each sentence is born of a feeling, then I go back to make sure it actually communicates something. If a sentence is working on those two levels, provoking feeling and communicating something, then I’m getting somewhere. But that looks different in each book. In one, the sentences I keep are those that disappear. In another, the stubborn presence of the sentence is more important. I like to jump around and try out different approaches as much as I can, keeping those first two qualities at the front of whatever I do.

In our previous interview, we talked a little about this. You asked about the traditions that informed The Job of the Wasp, and I’m curious: what traditions shaped The Incendiaries? Were there any novels or works of art you were writing toward or grappling with?

ROK I’m realizing I don’t tend to give thought to traditions while I write. But if I reflect on some of the writers who have offered me the most, the ones I kept rereading, there’s some commonality in the way their writing reaches for not just beauty, but also—what to call it? Wildness, maybe. They push up against the limits of possibility, what language can do. Woolf, Lispector, Cortázar, Anne Carson—they all kept, and keep, helping me. Like patron saints.

CW I’m drawn to the distinctions you made around intentionality. I really admire the way you write, and I’m wondering how you think about the difference between being intentional on the sentence level, that is trying to get them “right,” versus on the plot or the thematic level? There was the “look and sound” you responded to in your syllables, but were there similar guideposts for the larger-scale elements in the novel?

ROK On my own, I’m inclined to avoid thinking about large-scale elements. It makes me feel too much like a puppet-master manipulating the strings. I almost believe that if the sentences are as true as I can get them to be, the rest of it will follow. It’s what I believe even while I’m in the early, faster drafts: I’m still following the logic of the sentences, seeing where they take me. That said, I had the great good luck of working with a wonderfully insightful agent and editor, Ellen Levine and Laura Perciasepe, both of whom, at different stages, asked big, novel-reshaping questions about character and story.

CW What kinds of questions did your agent and editor ask?

ROK The first version Ellen saw was told purely from Will’s point of view! She wished to know significantly more about Phoebe, and about John Leal, and I found I agreed with her, so that was when I started adding in the other sections.

Laura asked very perceptive questions about motivations, about characters’ interactions. It was also while working with Laura that I realized I wanted to make far more explicit the underlying shape of the book: Will’s essentially the one telling this story, and he’s trying to imagine what Phoebe and John Leal would have said for themselves. I had that idea in place, but it wasn’t nearly as explicit as it is now.

CW There are several pointedly unanswered questions in the book. Why was it important to leave them unanswered?

ROK I didn’t really set out to leave questions unanswered—or, to put it differently, I had to let the book exist within the confines of what the characters can know, or can try to know, about what happens. I love what Cortázar says about Hopscotch: “I’ve remained on the side of the questions.” To which I’d say, Yes! Or maybe: yes?

Colin Winnette is the author of several books, including Haints Stay and The Job of the Wasp. He lives in San Francisco, and his website is a .net.

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