Deez Interviews: Catching up with R.O. Kwon on answering that writerly calling, insomnia-fueled application mode, and endurance training for that next novel

Happy Friday, Deezers! This week’s interview is with one of our literary faves, R.O. Kwon, whose debut bestseller The Incendiaries should be on your Q4 reading bucket list before you die of shame for not reading it last year. You can also catch her recent profile on Ali Wong here, and a beautiful essay she wrote for Vogue’s National Coming Out Day series, too.

If you’ve been slogging through any kind of writerly or creative rut, this v. uplifting Q&A will 1000% cure what ails ya. Enjoy!!


The interviewee: R.O. Kwon (follow her @rokwon!)

The gig: Writer & author of The Incendiaries

Your recent interview with Into The Gloss struck such a chord when you talked about quitting your job in management consulting to get your MFA. The line where you said "No matter how miserable the writing gets, no matter how disheartened I can get, even my worst writing day never feels as bad as it did when I tried to live a life away from it” was especially resonant.

I’d love to hear more about what it was like right after making that decision — where there moments afterward when you wavered on it? 

Before I took the job, I’d promised myself I’d write on the side, and not only did I have no time or energy to write, but I also didn’t have the wherewithal to read. Which was so disorienting. I hadn’t been writing all my life, but I’d always been an obsessive reader, and now, for the first time, I wasn’t. I’d taken the job in large part because, well, I’m an immigrant, my parents often had serious money troubles, and I was afraid of the financial insecurity of a life in the arts. I thought I needed minor things like health insurance, a regular salary. The small things.

It’s also true that, as a Korean American woman, I didn’t have many models for what it could look like to be an Asian artist in America. It means so much to me that the situation’s changing — not enough, and not with the kind of speed I want and hope to see — but still, there are so many more Asian American artists in the public eye than there were when I was in college. 

The other day, I was at the National Book Festival in D.C., and an Asian American kid was in the signing line. I think he might have been a first-year in high school, though I didn’t ask. Maybe a sophomore. I was trying not to freak out. But he was clearly a kid, and he’d read The Incendiaries — on his own, for fun — and as I signed his book, he asked me insightful questions about structure, motifs. He compared the book to another Asian American writer’s book he was reading, asked me what I thought about a shared narrative choice he’d noticed. 

I was trying to be chill, so I pretended all of this was no big deal, but when I got back to my hotel room I cried for a moment — with joy for that kid, and maybe with a bit of sorrow for what I wish I’d had.

You started writing your debut novel, The Incendiaries, at the end of your MFA and also have received fellowships/awards from places like MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference since then. I’m curious about how these formal avenues of training have shaped your writing process — do you think they’re still the best route for young writers to take in order to do this whole “writing” thing correctly? 

Maybe I should start by saying I love applying for things. Of course, I find applying for things to be a pain, too, but if I’m insomniac, which is often, I find it calming to look for more things I can apply for: residencies, fellowships, grants. (This is still the scarcity-fearing immigrant in me, maybe: I love free shit!)

 But I wouldn’t say it’s a good route for everyone, let alone the best one. I appreciated the ways in which these fellowships and whatnot helped me feel seen as a writer — since I worked on The Incendiaries for ten years, it could be hard not to feel I didn’t have much to show for how long I’d been writing — and I was, and am, grateful to meet people along the way who have become close writer friends. And artists’ residencies like MacDowell were and are wonderful for my writing: I can get so much work done at a residency.

I did, always, make sure to get money for things before going somewhere — so, for instance, I didn’t attend a conference unless I received a scholarship, and I didn’t apply to residencies that charged money for a stay. But even when things are free, I know not everyone can easily leave home for a residency or conference, and so conferences, etc., aren’t necessarily available to everyone. 

I think, in general, I’d argue more for the value of creating community wherever you are, whether that’s in person or online. 

When we first met, I loved hearing about the structure and discipline behind your creative process — especially how disciplined you are with your phone! Can you share a bit more about how you minimize daily distractions from your work?

A key thing I realized about myself, at some point, is that I don’t have much self-control. So, for instance, if my phone is in my apartment, I’m going to check social media and email and the news and I’ll probably end up watching a video about an octopus unscrewing a jar from the inside, and then I’ll get pissed off and sad about the orange clown in power, and none of this is helping me write. 

Every minute I’m spending watching octopus videos is a minute when I’m not reading a book, let alone writing. To the extent possible, I try to substitute other measures for the discipline I wish I had. Using programs and apps and passwords to make sure I can’t access the internet while I’m working, for instance. 

I’ve read that we all only have a certain amount of self-control in a given day — so, metaphorically, a cup’s worth. If I’m using half of that cup to try to stay off the internet, then I only have half left to work. I want to have as much of that cup as possible for the writing.

Where do you do your best thinking?

In my dining room, where I have a small desk facing a blank white wall. I have nothing up on my apartment walls, other than bookcases — I find that this kind of visual asceticism helps keep me more involved in the world of what I’m writing.

Finally, The Incendiaries took ten years to write, and you even said in a BuzzFeed interview that you’re not sure exactly how many drafts were involved — maybe 30, maybe 60! 

Now that you’re working on your next novel, are there any lessons you draw from your first novel in maintaining that kind of endurance?

I know a lot of writers say this, but I’m also finding it to be so deeply true — this second book, which I’ve now been working on for over three years, in some ways feels harder than the first book. I think often of something Teju Cole said, that the work gets easier or it gets better, not both. 

But the day-to-day writing is the best part. Everyone says this, too, but I didn’t believe it until I experienced it for myself — the real joy’s in the writing, in the words, in the act of pushing up against the limits of what we can do. Not everyone gets to have a calling, let alone to follow it. If writing’s your calling, it’s terrible, it’s hard, it’s a pain in the ass, but also: what a joy. What a gift.


What a joy indeed. Don’t forget to follow @rokwon on Twitter, and have a visually ascetic weekend!

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