Faith, Loss, and Fiction with R.O. Kwon

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By Strong Feelings, Katel LeDû, and Sara Wachter-Boettcher. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

What’s it like to spend a decade working on your first novel, become a bestselling author, and still have the first thing people say about you be that you’re “adorable”? We talk with Korean American writer R.O. Kwon to find out.

R.O. is best known for her 2018 novel, The Incendiaries. It’s a story about young love, religious fundamentalism, violent extremism, and coming to terms with the loss of faith. It was named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Atlantic, Bustle, Buzzfeed, the BBC, and a bunch other outlets—and it’s finally out in paperback this week.

It was a dream to talk with R.O. about finding massive success after working on her book for 10 years, loving literature she couldn’t see herself in, and why we all need to stop calling Asian women “cute.”

I was desperately in love with an art form—literature—in which I physically could not and did not exist… the books I had around the house that I loved and still love were Henry James and Jane Austin and Edith Wharton. All these books by very dead people in a world in which—if I were ever to appear in, say, Edith Wharton’s world—I couldn’t have even gone into the rooms where things are happening. Nobody would have talked to me. At best, I might have been a circus attraction.
—R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries

We chat about:

  • Why reworking the first chapter over and over isn’t the best way to finish a novel. “I had twenty pages of the most elaborately reworked prose I had ever read. I threw it all away and then I started again.”
  • Why including sexual violence in the book came so naturally. “It would have felt unrealistic to me I think in retrospect to have a more sanitized version of a college world. That wasn’t the college world that I knew, at least.”
  • What it’s like to lose your faith at 17. “My entire life is divided into before and after. And that aftermath has in a lot of ways felt like an aftermath where a predominant note has been grief.”
  • How she handles online harassment. “Every woman writer I know who is online in any way is getting harassed—that seems to be a part of our online lives, which is so awful. So, there has been harassment, especially anytime I write a nonfiction piece that has anything to do with gender or race or, god forbid, both.”

Links:

Plus:

  • Embracing a shitty first drafts mentality—in writing and pretty much everything else.
  • How perfectionism makes us feel safe and in control, but actually shuts down progress.
  • Fuck yeah to saying no! Did you know you can rest even when you're not sick?
  • Why capitalism hates that you have a body.

77 episodes