A Word with R.O. Kwon: Author of The Incendiaries


The eye-catching cover. The compelling storylines. The national bestseller! If you consider yourself bookish to any degree, you have either heard the praises or already love R.O. Kwon's The Incendiaries. Lucky for us, Novella caught up with R.O. to share some insight around her process, career, and inspiration when it comes to writing.

Scroll down to learn about the path to The Incendiaries (hint: good stories take time!) and R.O.'s foolproof ways of defeating writer's block.


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A Word with R.O. Kwon

Congratulations on your debut (and already bestselling) novel! You’ve shared that The Incendiaries was a decade in the making; can you take us through that timeline? Were you writing this full-time or working on the side?

Thank you! I started the book in graduate school, and then I kept working on it for, yes, a decade. I’m still aghast at how long it took; I’m really hoping my next novel takes less time. During that time, I did a variety of things: for a while, I taught English at the undergraduate level, and I worked at a literary agency. I was also freelancing—copyediting, writing nonfiction, and so on.

How much of your own background and viewpoints play a role in The Incendiaries vs. others? In general, how much do you feel an author’s personal experience can (or should) impact fiction writing?

Part of what I love about fiction is its wild flexibility—there aren’t many shoulds, I think. The Incendiaries is deeply personal, but it’s also very much an invented story. (I haven’t, for instance, blown up any buildings.) That said, the initial spark for the book was my own experience with faith. I grew up so religious that I thought I’d become a missionary or pastor, and I lost my faith when I was seventeen. The loss was cataclysmic, one I’m still grappling with every day.


Many of Novella’s community members are freelance or full-time writers who often express the difficulty of finding a schedule that works for them. How did you manage your day-to-day schedule while writing? Were there times you felt you had to be writing when you couldn’t or vice versa? How did you deal with that?

Oh, there’s never enough time to write. Even when I have all day to write, it doesn’t feel like enough! I know writers have varying preferences, but for me, it’s best for me to go straight from waking up to my laptop (or notebook, if it’s a draft I’m writing by hand).

While I was writing The Incendiaries, I had a lot of routines in place to minimize distractions: I used password-protected programs to lock off the internet, I only had a flip phone, things like that. A few years ago, I also stopped buying any clothes that weren’t black. I was always trying, to the extent possible, to save as much of my attention as I could for my novel.

As a decade long project, you’ve worked as a freelance writer for several outlets including Vice, Time, and New York Magazine’s The Strategist, amongst several others. What came first: selling your novel or freelance writing? We’d love to hear more about your path (and if you would take the same one again if given the chance).

I started publishing nonfiction while I was in graduate school, but fiction was and is my first priority. I feel most alive when I’m writing fiction. That said, I like and appreciate what’s required of me when I’m writing reviews, etc., the way the form asks me to build some kind of an argument. I’d do it again, for sure.

Could you share a bit around how punctuation plays a role in your own writing and when you read in your personal life?

Attending to punctuation is integral to how I write, so it isn’t really something I edit on its own. But yes, I love thinking about punctuation! I love semicolons, I love dashes, I love colons, I love the period. The comma! It’s both thrilling and terrifying to see how much a sentence can change based on a single choice in punctuation. While I read, it’s different—when I read, I’m trying, as much as I can, to give myself over to another writer’s choices and style and way of being.

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