Transcript: Episode 71: R. O. Kwon

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 71. Today’s guest is R. O. Kwon

Hey there, folks. Today I’m pleased to bring you a conversation with writer R. O. Kwon. R. O. Kwon is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Noon, Time, Electric Literature, Playboy, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. She has received awards and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, Omi International, and the Norman Mailer Writers' Colony. And, most relevant to this conversation, her debut novel The Incendiaries was just published by Riverhead Books—yesterday, in fact, if you’re listening to this on the day this episode airs.

Now, I have to say, The Incendiaries is one of best books I’ve read so far this year. I’d already enjoyed R. O.’s nonfiction before, particularly her piece about watching the Pyeongchang Olympics as a Korean American, as well as her piece for The Cut, which was entitled “Why I Don’t Leave the House Without Putting on Black Eye Shadow.” And I put links to both of those pieces in the show notes, so do check them out. So, yeah, I had liked her essays quite a lot, but this book, this novel, it’s really next level. The Incendiaries is the story of Phoebe, a young Korean American woman, but told from the perspective of her white boyfriend, both of them students at an elite East Coast college, and as the story unfolds we watch as Phoebe gets drawn into a cult. Mind you, this isn’t giving anything away, you find out on the first page about an act of domestic terrorism Phoebe’s cult is involved with.

Writing for The Rumpus, Christine No compared it to a Haruki Murakami novel, saying “Alongside Kwon’s persistent, driven prose is a narrative of personal and interpersonal unraveling. Kwon cultivates a palpable emptiness, a space to feel the growing sense of loss that progressively saturates these pages.” I think it might also be apt to compare it to Faulkner for its close, stream-of-consciousness-style perspective—certainly as a stylist, she deserves to be up there in the pantheon of American literary deities.

Now, as I mentioned, the book was just published yesterday, July 31st, and R. O. is currently on tour. She’ll be in LA tomorrow, August 2nd, at Skylight Books—that’s with Jade Chang. On Friday, August 3rd, she’ll be here in San Diego at Warwick’s, in La Jolla, with Lizz Huerta. And then after that she’s headed to New York; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Denver; back to the Bay Area; Chicago; Vegas; Portland; Austin—really, this is a huge tour and you can get info on all of the dates and locations on her website at, and I’ll put a link in the show notes for that.

OK, if you’d like to join in the conversation, you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenFiction to livetweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with R. O. Kwon.


First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So, you know, one of the things that I always like to do when I'm going to talk to someone is try and think of the first thing of their work that I am familiar with and I went back through and I think the first thing of yours that I had read was your essay on BuzzFeed earlier this year.

R. O. Kwon: Mm.

MS: It's, "I'm Korean American and I Can't Watch the Pyeongchang Olympics."

RK: Yeah.

MS: And I just remember, you know, just being really moved by that piece.

RK: Oh, thank you.

MS: One of the things that I was sort of thinking about—because obviously the main thing I'd like to talk to you about today is your book, The Incendiaries, which I also loved. I actually—the only reason that I didn't read the whole thing in one sitting is because at a certain point I realized I had to go to work the next day and I should probably go to sleep. I think it was like 1:30 in the morning.

RK: [laughs]

MS: But yeah, I really loved it.

RK: Thank you so much. That makes me—I'm glad to hear it. Thank you.

MS: So one of the things that I was thinking about since the first thing that I had read of yours was this essay that you'd written—ostensibly about the Olympics, but really it's about borders and about the partitioning of Korea. It's about a lot of things about Asian American identity. And that was sort of what I had on my mind when I started reading the book. And one of the things that I thought was interesting about it is how the book isn't exactly about the same kinds of things, although it's sort of underneath a lot of it in that way. Does that sort of makes sense?

RK: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

MS: So throughout this book you have one of the three major characters, John Leal, his backstory involves getting put in a North Korean prison. And then one of the other major characters, Phoebe is Korean American herself.

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: So there's a way that some of the things that you talked about in that essay seemed to sort of lie underneath the novel without being really completely explicit.

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: I thought that was sort of an interesting framework as I was thinking about the novel.

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: And I was wondering if we could talk about that a little bit.

RK: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. No one's quite asked that. Maybe a way to get at it is when I'm writing, people are often curious—and I'm always curious with other writers—people always want to know who writers are writing for, I think. And I always say, I'm thinking first of myself and writing for myself. I'm the first and last person who has to get it right for me to feel okay letting go of a project. That said—and that's true, I think, it's almost impossible for me to think of anyone else, any other kind of audience while I'm writing. That said, I think beyond that, the first readers I have in mind are people who are more like me.

MS: Mm.

RK: And so, Korean Americans, Asian Americans. I'm certainly not centering a straight white American man as a possible reader. And so the ways in which this came up for me are—so this is a small thing, but for me, these kinds of decisions I think permeate the novel.

A copy editor asked at some point, because Phoebe has her English name, Phoebe, and then she has her Korean name, Haejin. And the first time Haejin comes up, a copy editor asked, very reasonably, "Should there be a note to just say, this is her middle name, this is her Korean name." And I said, "No, because any Korean American I know, and I think almost—pretty much any Asian American I know would understand that that's her Korean name and there wouldn't be any confusion." And so I don't want to explain something that doesn't have to be explained to people like me. And so I think in that way, I hope—well, the first long review of the book came in—in The Rumpus—just a couple of days ago from this wonderful writer, Christine No. And I found it so moving.

I mean, the review is beautifully written and it meant a lot to me, but I found it so moving when she talked about seeing aspects of a Korean experience reflected in the novel and that they were small things that she's not even sure people who aren't Korean or Asian would pick up on. But little things like having Fuji apples cut for you by your parents and things like that. Just tiny details that she thinks are common to and that she's seen in a lot of Korean American families. And the idea that she could see herself reflected on the page. I thought that was... I loved that.

MS: Yeah. I mean, it's definitely something that for me has been sort of an interesting experience. It's only been in the past few years that I've started really reading or even knowing that such fiction was available, fiction that was written by Asian American writers, that really includes that kind of representation. It's been a very revelatory experience for me. One of the things that I sort of was thinking about with respect to some of the nonfiction that I'm familiar with of yours is sort of more explicitly about racial and ethnic identity. And so I think what was really interesting to me about the way it's presented in the novel is that I feel like a lot of times for marginalized writers—members of marginalized communities—there's this sort of expectation that those things are going to be front and center, that that's going to be explicitly what everything you write about is about. And here it's definitely there, but it's also sort of more subtle, you know?

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: And I thought that was really fascinating, you know, like a way to sort of both be able to write including these experiences but also sort of pushing back against the expectation, if that makes sense.

RK: Mm-hm. Yeah. There's something—I know other other writers of color have written at length about this. I think there is still very much an expectation or an assumption that writers of color and writers from other marginalized groups are going to write about and focus on trauma. And I mean in The Incendiaries, of course there are varieties of trauma. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RK: But I wasn't quite thinking about that as I was writing. But I do think it's important that everyone get to write what feels deepest and truest to them without ever having to respond to or pander to such assumptions.

MS: Yeah, I mean I guess that's sort of what I was thinking. Less in terms of the creation of the story and more in terms of the publishing of it. Because I feel like, I don't think anybody are necessarily writing—I mean maybe some people do—but I don't think it's necessarily that we would be writing to say, "No, I'm not gonna write about that." But rather, you want to be able to write about whatever you want to write about and the act of doing that, and getting that published once you have written it—I don't know, there's something kind of, to me, a little bit subversive about being a person of color and writing a story that isn't... You know what I'm saying? Like to be able to have an Asian name on a story that in a lot of ways people wouldn't necessarily think of being an Asian story. You know what I mean?

RK: Yeah, yeah. No, I agree with that.

MS: [laughs]

RK: [laughs] No disagreement.

MS: So one of the things that you said previously about how you didn't want to write this book centering the straight white American male reader. There's a couple of things about that that I thought of when you said that. And, one—maybe I'll just do the one first—was that, it's really interesting because I feel like the book doesn't do that, right? It doesn't center that reader, but at the same time, the overwhelming majority of the book is written from that point of view. And that's a really fascinating thing to me to be able to take such a... Especially because the perspective of the book is so close and so tight on Will's emotions and thoughts and he is that in a lot of ways. In a lot of ways he's very stereotypically that. That was really, I thought, just a fascinating choice as an author.

RK: Yeah. So that... I feel as though in so many ways this book—and with my writing in general—I don't feel as though I make choices. I feel as though in some ways big questions of point of view and who's telling and who's narrating, first person, third person, all of that. I feel as though—it almost feels as though there's a right answer out there and there's a book out there that I'm working my way toward. Like I'm almost excavating my way toward a book that almost feels as though it preexists me or something. But with Will... For the first two years I was working on this book, it was a first person book told entirely by Phoebe. And then I... when I threw all of that away and sort of re-thought about how I was going to tell the story, I realized that at least for me, and at least with this particular story, and at least with Phoebe, it felt too claustrophobic to remain entirely in Phoebe's head for the length of the book.

RK: And I think it's because she's going through so much what with losing her mother and then falling into a cult and blowing up a building. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RK: There's so much going on that I found that it opened up the book for me. It gave me space to have a somewhat more tangential character tell a lot of that story. And a classic example of this, of course, is The Great Gatsby. And I was thinking a lot about that, what a difference it would have made to The Great Gatsby if Jay Gatsby had told the story or even if Daisy Buchanan had told the story. So that's part of why Will became the primary narrator of this story. That said, I have been really glad that when people talk about the book to me, they talk about Phoebe being the main character, which makes me glad because that was what I was hoping to have happen regardless.

MS: Oh yeah, definitely.

RK: And I will say that with the second book, my second novel—which I've been working on for about two years—I'm absolutely determined to keep telling it from... [laughs] From the point of view of the character who's telling it now, who is a Korean American woman. I just want to stay with her.

MS: Mm. The comparison to The Great Gatsby is one that sort of occurred to me as well when I was reading it and particularly because there's so much in this book that is about... Well, one, about wealth and about how we perceive wealth and how the characters perceive wealth. But also just in general about this idea of people inventing themselves. How we see each other and how we want to be seen, how the characters want to be seen. And, in that, setting it in a college milieu makes perfect sense because that's such a time when people are sort of explicitly reinventing themselves and sort of trying on different identities. But I just thought that was really interesting, you know?

RK: Mm-hm. Well thank you for saying that. Yeah, that was part of why I wanted to set the book in college because college is such a liminal time when people are... College is a time when people are figuring themselves out, are changing, when a lot of people—especially if people go away from home to go to college—when people have a chance to rethink how they want to be seen, when a lot of people start reinventing themselves, I think. And so that was part of what was exciting for me about setting the book in college. Also, as I read in some of the research I did into cults and terrorist groups and religious groups, a lot of these groups do focus on recruiting people from high school and college right around that age because of this. Because people are in a state of change.

MS: Mm. I mean it's... All of the characters—or at least the two main characters, Will and Phoebe—are at this moment of change, but also dealing with... There's this really profound sense of longing and even self loathing from each of them, in different ways with different focuses. And that also seemed like a pretty major sort of theme of the book, is what we do with that sense of longing and what we will reach for to try and fill that hole, you know?

RK: Mm-hm. They all want so much. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RK: Yeah, I think that's part of what draws Will and Phoebe together at the start. And that is part of what draws them to John Leal, too. And what John Leal sees in Phoebe initially is this desire for elsewhere, this desire for more. There's a part in there when John Leal talks about how Christianity just doesn't fetishize pain, but it sees the possibilities of pain, it sees how cut flesh is more open than closed flesh. And in different ways, they've all been very hurt and I think that makes them more available to other answers than the ones that they've been given.

MS: Mm. Going back to the other thing that I was thinking about was this question of who the reader is.

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: And there's a way that's almost explicit in the text because of the way that the whole thing is told as a recollection by Will. Even the parts that are told from Phoebe's point of view, ultimately those are recreations, reconstructions by Will, as you find out later in the book. The thing that really strikes me then is that, you know, here's this man and he's talking and it left me to wonder who is he talking to, exactly. You know?

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: And I was sort of wondering if you had it in mind—you don't have to say, obviously, if you'd rather not—but if that was something that you had in mind, who he's talking to or if it's just sort of an open question for everyone.

RK: No, that's a great question. I think he is telling this story—because I know this is such a... It seems like an unimportant question, I think, but I think I often, when I pick up a book, especially a first person book, I start wondering why this person is telling this story. And I think I love when there's... when a possibility of an answer is given. And with this book Will is very much—it's a story that Will is telling and it's very much driven by his desire to try to understand what happened. And so in a lot of ways the person he's thinking about the most and the person he's addressing—one of the people he has in mind is definitely Phoebe.

MS: Yeah.

RK: It's a way for him to try to understand and... Yeah, I'll stop there. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] Very early on in the book, there's even a line where he seems to be speaking directly to the reader, but addressing the reader as Phoebe, where he says something like, "You always said that I didn't understand and I'm trying." Something like that. I don't have the exact line in front of me, but there was something like that. But even that, what's interesting to me about that is that he could be... That was what sort of occurred to me as I was reading it, is that maybe he's talking to Phoebe. But in a lot of ways it also sort of felt like he's almost talking to himself a lot

RK: Yeah.

MS: Because so much of the book seems to be some kind of him trying to justify to himself or to whoever's reading it, how he was during these things.

RK: Yeah. That's really beautiful. Yeah. I think that's part of who Will is, and that's part of what leads to... I guess I shouldn't give anything away, but that's part of what causes the story to unfold the way it does—at least for Will—is, he does have some trouble seeing outside of his own point of view, I think.

MS: Yeah.

RK: And yeah, so you're right, he does—in various ways he is justifying what happened to himself while he's trying to understand what happened.

MS: It's... You know, one of the things that I've found really the most... [sigh] I'm not sure what exactly the right adjective is. Like I on some level want to say "troubling," but that's not right. And on some level I want to say "satisfying," which is right, but not complete.

RK: [laughs]

MS: But just the way that we spend the most time inside Will's head and because of that we have this real tendency towards empathizing with him and seeing things from his point of view and sort of identifying with him just because he's the narrator. And at the beginning of the book I feel like you—or at least I had this sense of, like, he seems like a little bit clueless but more or less an okay guy, a guy who wants to try and be decent. But then that really changes as the book unfolds and—

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: —you see all of these ways that he's really not as good as he wants you to think he is.

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: I just, I found that—especially considering what you were saying before about not centering the straight white male American reader, that in that way that your opinion of him, what he reveals to you over the course of the book, it reads to me like a critique of straight white American male-ness. You know what I mean?

RK: I guess what I'll say about that is, there's a key instance—again, I personally don't care about spoilers, but I know a lot of people do, so—

MS: Yeah, yeah.

RK: There's a key instance of sexual violence in the book and when I realized what was happening—because again, I really don't impose story or character from on high. I feel as though the characters reveal themselves to me, the story reveals itself to me. And when I saw that starting to happen, I tried really hard to take it out. I just, I didn't want it to happen. I didn't want to have that as a point in the story. And I realized as I was trying to take it out and as it kept trying to push itself back in, as I was rereading the parts of the book I already had and seeing why it felt so necessary, that there are ways Will looks at women. There are parts of who Will is that made what happened seem inevitable in that moment.

MS: Yeah.

RK: And so I think it is in some ways, the book is—I think, and I hope the book is deeply feminist to its core. And, yeah. So, thank you for saying that.

MS: Yeah, I'm curious about what that impulse was, why you wanted to take that part out. Like what was going on there.

RK: I think I was just—that came relatively late in the book and I think I just didn't want to have sexual violence as a story point. I wanted to write a book without it, without enacting that kind of violence upon a woman. Even if it was a woman I'd made up. [laughs]

MS: Yeah. I can see that. Yeah. I mean, it does really feel inevitable after the way that—because of the fact that you see so much through his eyes and that you get a really detailed and three-dimensional look at how he views women as two-dimensional and how he fantasizes about women—especially Phoebe—or what he notices about them. And actually this also played very strongly into the way that he thinks about Phoebe, was so much... I almost wonder if white readers would get it, the way that he tends to see her as inscrutable or, you know, that kind of thing, which is such a stereotype for Asians, especially Asian women, that... [sigh] I'm not entirely sure exactly what I want to say about that except just that it felt so perfect. But also it was done in a way that felt subtle enough to me that I wonder if some readers might even miss that. You know?

RK: Mm. Someone asked recently, just straight out, "Does Will have an Asian fetish?" [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RK: And I was actually... I mean, you know, of course readers will take what they will from a book. And the book doesn't end when I finish writing it. But to my mind, Will doesn't really have an Asian fetish. He also has a sexual relationship with a woman who's not Asian in the book. And I'm also not sure that he sees women quite as being two-dimensional, but he does see his needs and his wants as a priority. And so, yeah, he does think that he's a much better person in some ways then he turns out to be. Yeah.

MS: [laughs]

RK: [laughs]

MS: Yeah. Another thing that I was thinking of is how, because the story is told as a recollection and in some parts a reconstruction, in a lot of ways it seems like it's very much about memory and about how imperfect memory can be. There's even—I wrote this part down—there's a line at one point in the book where this is pretty explicit. He says, "I'll emphasize this lack of alcohol because, teetotal as I soon felt, I should be able to retrieve more of what followed. Instead, for the most part, it's lost. I have the outline, bits of conversation. Fitful images. Wide swaths of it, though, have blurred as in old film. Is that the problem? I've reviewed this initial feast with them so often I've smudged it with my fingerprints." And, you know, so because of the fact that he's telling this all in the future from the events, there's this inherent unreliability to the whole narration. And that also—partially just because in that particular excerpt there's a photography metaphor and I'm a photographer so that [laughs] jumped out at me.

RK: Oh! You are.

MS: But, you know, photography is often so much about memory, too. And so I find that whenever I find works of art that are grappling with that imperfection of memory, it's really fascinating to me.

RK: Mm-hm. Yeah. First of all—well, the narrator of my second novel is turning out to be a photographer and so I've been reading as much as I can about photography, and realizing how little I know about it. But, yeah, photography being so much about memory. Yes. I think that's part of what's drawing me to photography for my second novel. But back to The Incendiaries. Yeah, I think I am so interested in general in how imperfect memory can be. And people have been calling Will an unreliable narrator, and asking about that part. And yes, he's not the most reliable narrator, but I honestly don't think—I don't really see that as a divide in general. I think all narration tends to be unreliable to some extent or another. I think even at the simplest level, when I see someone at the end of the day and they ask "How was your day, what did you do?" and I say something, I'm already shading it by what I choose to pick out. I'm already sort of glossing over things, making things inaccurate. And I think I am fascinated by that, by the mismatch between what happened and what we can tell about it.

MS: It runs through the entire book and how everything that Will does, from his perspective, is always colored by... You know, I feel like it's done really skillfully in the way that a real person would sort of highlight the things that they want to be highlighted and sort of trying, you know, shove under the carpet the things that they're perhaps not as proud of. I really liked the way that that was done. So yeah.

RK: Oh, thank you so much. [laughs]

MS: So before we go to the next segment, I did want to just ask very briefly about the epigraph. And it's a quote from Clarice Lispector, "At the bottom of everything there is the hallelujah." And there is something about that quotation... I haven't read the book, the Lispector book, but there's something about that quotation that it fits the novel perfectly, in a way that feels very resonant, but also, like, I can't quite put my finger on what it is.

RK: Yeah. Well, I love Lispector so much. I love that line. I love that novel. I think sometimes of the time—somebody once asked T. S. Eliot, what he meant when he wrote in "Ash Wednesday" the line "Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree" and he responded, "I meant 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.'" And I really don't think he was being evasive or coy. I think he was saying the line conveyed as much of his intention as possible, and that he couldn't really add anymore. And similarly, I don't think I can add anything by explaining why the epigraph felt right.

MS: That's a fair point. [laughs]

RK: [laughs] But I do love that line a lot, and I'm really glad that you responded to it.

MS: I think one of the things that I think about—and I thought about this through the book in several points—is, to me, one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of the word "Hallelujah" is the Leonard Cohen/Jeff Buckley song, which is very much about sort of using this sort of ecstatic, religious language to describe a sexual experience. There are points at which, when Will is describing his sexual experiences, he uses very flowery language to do that. That also reminded me of, in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, there's a sex scene in that which the main character does the same thing. And that sort of juxtaposition of different kinds of ecstasy—whether, you know spiritual or religious or physical, whatever—there's something about that comparison that seems to me to resound through a lot of the book. Does that feel right to you?

RK: Yeah, for sure. I don't know how much you've read from saints and other accounts of... Well, to put it differently, while I was writing the book and certainly while I was religious, too—because I grew up so religious—I've read a lot of books written by saints, written by religious people grappling with religion. And so much of that is just soaked through with—the books are soaked through with the language of love and with the language of ecstasy. And I don't think that these feelings necessarily come from very different places. I mean, Christians talk very overtly about falling in love with God and from my own experience when I became deeply religious, it did feel very much like falling in love. It felt like an all consuming love. It had all the excitement and passion, if not more, of falling in love with a person.

MS: Mm. Alright, well why don't we take a quick little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment.

RK: Okay, that sounds great.


Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which could be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?

R. O. Kwon: Let's talk about rock climbing. Which is the only other thing I do with any regularity other than writing.

MS: Wow. So, okay. So—

RK: I mean I guess reading's in there too, but other than reading and writing. [laughs]

MS: Those are—in many ways seem almost opposite, reading and rock climbing. Although maybe not. What would you like to say about rock climbing? [laughs]

RK: [laughs] I don't know except that I love it so much and I don't know why more people don't do it. I guess it's getting more popular. But I started rock climbing with my dear friend, Colin Winnette, who's a wonderful writer and—I think that was two and a half years ago—and it's the first form of exercise I've ever found that doesn't feel like exercise. It just feels—I mean, it feels frustrating and it feels great and it can be heartbreaking. It's all of that, but it's all-consuming in a way that I find to be really helpful and a good counterpart to writing. Because when I'm on the wall—I usually go bouldering. I've gone top roping too, which is when you're tied to somebody. But bouldering is free-climbing and so you don't have anything holding you up.

So when I'm on the wall and I'm 14 feet up and reaching for the next hold, there's no way for me to be worried about my novel or whatever it is I'm working on in that moment. [laughs] And so it completely clears my head. And so I honestly don't know how I kept myself together before I started doing this. Because people say that yoga does that for you, but—and I know this means I was doing it wrong—but I did yoga for years and it never cleared my head. It only ever—during Shavasana at the end, in Corpse Pose, when you're supposed to lie there and you're supposed to clear your head, I would always immediately start making to-do lists and/or worrying about my novel and/or [laughs] and/or just worrying about small things. So yeah. And I feel so lucky to have found rock climbing. In this last month before the book comes out, I find that I've been wanting to climb more than ever. This is a central thought in my mind with book touring is how on earth I'm going to get rock climbing in. [laughs]

MS: Do you usually climb in a climbing gym or outdoors or...?

RK: In a climbing gym. I know a lot of good climbers say that there's no substitute for outside climbing and that you should go outside climbing. But I think I'm borderline allergic to sunlight.

MS: [laughs]

RK: I really don't like being outside during the daytime and so a gym it is. [laughs]

MS: Yeah, yeah. There is definitely something... I've only been rock climbing once and that was when I was in high school and it was actually in Joshua Tree, out on a big rock.

RK: Oh yeah.

MS: And I think there's something about it that, just like you say, it's very focusing because if you want to not fall, you really have to be giving your complete attention to what your body is doing. It's not something that I've taken up before, but what I think is interesting is what you're talking about seems to me really to be a form of meditation. That by having this focus for you—a physical focus—that that allows you to sort of escape what might otherwise be going on in your head. For me, I have never been good at finding that through something like yoga or literal meditation, but I do get something very similar out of running. That when I'm out on the road, especially if I'm running when it's dark out and it's quiet and I'm running really hard, it's something that the inside of my brain gets quiet in a way that it just doesn't in other times. Which is—it is kind of addicting.

RK: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And it feels like a reset. Like my brain feels better after I've been climbing. Yeah, I think I agree with you in that the only other times that I've found my way to that sort of mental space where I'm just not really thinking about anything except the task at hand is when I've been taking part in any kind of exercise thatt's just really, really hard, like physically difficult. But that tends to be a hard place to get to, at least for me. I ran cross-country when I was in high school, and I ran so much for that and then after that, I've sworn never to run again.

MS: [laughs]

RK: [laughs] I get deeply pissed off if I have to run a little in the airport because we're going to miss a flight.

MS: [laughs]

RK: [laughs] But I remember that in cross-country when I was running really hard in a race and that would happen, too. That was definitely available there.

MS: Yeah. There's something about—I think in both sports, whether it's climbing or running, where you can get in a sort of rhythm and your body just sort of takes over. It's unlike anything else that I can think of. Except, actually now that I think of it, there are times too when things are flowing really well when—it happens for me a lot more often when I'm photographing than when I'm writing, although it has happened when I'm writing—but you know, that sort of state that they call creative flow, I think? That almost seems a little similar, too, where it almost seems like when things are really clicking and you get into a rhythm, it's almost like you're watching yourself do it from the outside. You know?

RK: Mm. For me, when I'm writing—and this is the—this doesn't always happen, of course, and I can never force my way there. It happens or it doesn't happen. But when I'm writing, if it's going really well and when I'm really deep into it, I lose all sense of myself. I lose all sense of who I am or I lose all sense of ego. That goes away and it just becomes becomes... All I focus on is trying to make the sentence I'm working on the best version of itself it can possibly be, the truest version of itself it can possibly be. And I love that so much. I love being there. It's my favorite thing. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RK: But it's so hard to get there. And once I'm there I always lose track of time. I'm never sure when it starts or when it ends and I think some of my best writing—maybe even all of my best writing—happens when I'm in that place.

MS: Yeah. When, you're not really thinking about it so much and it's just sort of coming ou,t all in one go. Yeah.

RK: For me it's less that it comes out all in one go because I'm such a painstaking—I write so slowly and I write with such—I revise so much as I go. But I think for me it's more about just maintaining that level of attention for any length of time and not feeling so scattered by other things.

MS: Yeah. I know for myself that I'm able to focus on things very deeply when I need to, but it takes me a really long time to get into that state. Like there's a sort of activation energy, a sort of slope that I need to get up and once I can get up over it then I can focus more. But getting to that point is very difficult and takes—it's like I can't write for just half an hour because it takes me 45 minutes to spin up, you know what I mean?

RK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, for sure.  I write best when I have hours at a time. So I love residencies for this reason. I love artist residencies because they provide a space in which I can really just—I don't really have to leave the world of my novel for three, four weeks on end, essentially, which is an incredible thing to have happen, and every residency I've ever had has been such a gift. That said, I have heard from—I mean, I don't have any kids—I've heard from people who have kids that after having kids, they figure out ways to drop into that space much more quickly. And I wonder if that's available. But for me, I definitely need... Yeah. It's hard for me to write when I don't have hours on end.

MS: Yeah. Yeah. I have three kids, so—

RK: Oh wow. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] And, you know, sometimes you make do the best you can, but there's still nothing quite like... I mean, I guess what it is more that—when I need to just find a minute or two here and there to work on stuff, I can do that, but it doesn't feel as satisfying, it doesn't feel like that sort of flowing creativity. It really feels more like work at that point.

RK: Oh, interesting. It's part of why I was joking that I was just going to write an essay against lunch and then... [laughs] And then so I was just like, "That's all the essay's going to be. It's a diatribe against lunch."

MS: [laughs]

RK: [laughs] But I hate lunch. I will never get lunch with people unless I'm traveling and then I'll make more space for it. Or, you know, if it's for work or something. But I'll never get lunch just for fun because lunch just destroys my ability to conceive of having hours of time, hours on end of time. I'm very nocturnal so I go to sleep pretty late and so for me to have lunch means that the entire day is just broken up and destroyed with being out of the world with, you know, a food that I'm not used to. Yeah, death to lunch. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] I've never heard anybody say "Death to lunch" before. [laughs]

RK: [laughs]

MS: You know what I think is interesting for me, and it's a little different, I think—well, I'm sure it's different for everyone. One of the things that I find really fascinating is that different modes of creativity seem to come more or less naturally to me. Like the easiest is photography. For whatever reason I can lose myself in a shoot really, really quickly. You know, when I notice something that I want to take a photograph of, and to work a scene, I can drop into that just immediately and very quickly get into that state of sort of outside myself, of not really thinking about it. Whereas writing is always a lot more difficult. And in particular what I notice is when I want to write nonfiction, that often comes fairly easily, too. But writing poetry or writing... Fiction is just impossible for me. Any time I've ever tried to write fiction, it's been just a real grind. It's one of the reasons why I'm always so impressed by people who can write a whole book.  [laughs]

RK: [laughs] For me, I think I agree that it's harder to drop into writing fiction. I have a lot of rules in place for myself. Well, just over these past several months, it's been different. But for most of the 10 years I was writing this book, I had a lot of rules in place and one rule that I found to be really helpful was to just go immediately from waking up to my novel. Even to the extent that—I mean I love really good coffee, and San Francisco has incredible coffee. There was a period when I would grind my own coffee, I was a grind-my-own-coffee kind of coffee person. But then I realized that that tok so much time, that it was really getting in the way of my getting to my writing. And I need coffee to start writing. And so I got a Keurig machine, even though the coffee tastes like hell. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RK: Because I really want to be able to just roll out of bed, get coffee, get water, and then just start working. I have an "I won't talk in the morning" rule. I have a husband and on weekends we had to find a rhythm in which I refused to talk to him until I've a few hours of [laughs] writing in for the day. Yeah, and I think it's because it feels most seamless to go straight from dreaming to a different kind of dreaming, to fiction writing, which is its own kind of dreaming for me.

MS: So, I think we're getting pretty close to time here, but there's one question that I always like to end with and that is whether there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.

RK: Yeah. So many, but a book I really loved that I read recently by someone who I didn't know at all—her name is Ancco and she's Korean, lives-in-Korea Korean—and it's a graphic novel called Bad Friends. It's going to be out this fall from Drawn and Quarterly. And I read it in one sitting. I really—I needed water but I just didn't want to get up is how captivated and I was by this book. And it's about a pivotal friendship in a girl's life. But it's also about sort of cycles of violence and abuse. And about what love can do for you and what it might not be able to do. I just found it so powerful and I was really excited by it. I'm really excited. It's already been out in Korea and it has been out in France, but it's coming out in the US this fall, so I'm... Yeah.

MS: Alright, well I will look forward to that. I wanted to say thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time talking with me.

RK: Yeah, of course. Thank you. I'm so glad we got to do this.


Mike Sakasegawa: OK, as I mentioned at the top of the show, R. O. Kwon will be at Skylight Books in Los Angeles tomorrow, August 2nd, and she’ll be here in San Diego at Warwick’s on Friday, August 3rd, and, who knows? You might even see me at the Warwick’s event. For a full listing of all of R. O.’s upcoming events, you can check out her events page at, and there’s a link in the show notes for that.

And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find all of the show’s contact and social media info in the show notes. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, you can find that at, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at We’ll be back on August 15th with a conversation with poet Natalie Eilbert, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.

Michael Sakasegawa