Korean novelist describes 10-year struggle in writing first book

Lexi Kerr, Sports Editor

Author R.O. Kwon spent 10 years writing her novel, “The Incendiaries,” but didn’t get past the initial 20 sentences in the first two years.

As part of Linfield’s Reading at the Nick series, Kwon shared the inspiration for her novel and recounted her tedious and “obsessive” writing process.

“The Incendiaries” is about violence, love, faith and loss. The main character, a Korean-American woman, joins a radical group that turns out to be a cult and gets drawn into acts of terrorism tied to North Korea.

Kwon has distant family members from North Korea that she said she will likely never meet. She said she was interested in writing about North Korea but was careful to not make claims about a place she’s never visited.

“In this book, I hope to explore the vast gaps in knowledge of the country and to dwell imaginatively in that place of unknowing,” Kwon said.

Kwon’s process consisted of writing, rewriting and repeating. She said she didn’t plan for her book to take 10 years. In fact, she claims she didn’t have a top-down plan at all.

“In general, I don’t really write with goals,” Kwon said. “I almost believe the book pre-exists me. I almost believe that the lines exist in an ideal way and I’m working toward it.”

She recounted how she would obsessively rewrite sentences, but found it not helpful when she was still figuring out the characters.

“It was like Alice and Wonderland,” Kwon said of her changing manuscript, describing how it would repeatedly get longer and shorter as she wrote.

After spending so long on the first 20 sentences of her novel, Kwon said she began implementing strategies that prevented her from seeing sentences in their entirety so she didn’t get caught on the details.

“I am truly obsessed with language to the tiny levels of the syllables and the individual letters of the alphabet,” she said.

She downloaded a typewriter app on her laptop that wouldn’t let her backspace more than one character at a time. She turned paragraphs white after she was done so she couldn’t see them. Sometimes she would randomly hit enter after a few words, making it look like a “very sad disordered poem.”

While unusual, these strategies kept her writing process moving.

Kwon said she found it helpful to have an accountability system while writing. She described how she was part of a group that was committed to sending each other their work every day.

However, the group allowed a few “redacted days” if anyone wasn’t particularly proud of his or her work.

Kwon hopes that her next novel doesn’t take as long. She is aiming for six years instead of 10 now that she has some systems in place.