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R.O. Kwon's anticipated debut novel, inspired by agnosticism, explores loss of religion

The New York Times called Kwon a “writer to watch” in 2018, and several outlets have listed “The Incendiaries” as one of the year’s most anticipated reads.

When R.O. Kwon was 17 years old, the Catholic-raised author fell out of love with her religion.

That newfound agnosticism served as the inspiration behind her July 2018 debut novel, “The Incendiaries,” which tells the story of Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall, who meet while attending an elite American university. Phoebe, who secretly blames herself for her mother’s recent death and is haunted by the loss, gets drawn into a religious group — a cult tied to North Korea — founded by a man who shares a past with Phoebe’s family. Unable to accept the fact that Phoebe has joined the cult, Will attempts to find her and seek answers after she disappears following the bombing of an abortion clinic.

“I put in my experiences of the pain of falling out of love with faith and God, and the love of gaining another deity,” Kwon said.

Image: "The Incendiaries," a novel by R.O. Kwon
"The Incendiaries," a novel by R.O. KwonCourtesy of Riverhead Books

For being her first novel, “The Incendiaries” is already creating buzz: the New York Times named Kwon as a “writer to watch” in 2018, and publications ranging from the BBC to Vanity Fair have all listed “The Incendiaries” as one of the year’s most anticipated reads.

It’s a bright spotlight for the Yale-educated Kwon, who majored in economics because she wasn’t sure her interest in writing was practical enough to sustain a career.

“I had the notion that I needed things like health insurance,” she said. “I'm an immigrant and come from an immigrant family and I didn’t feel like becoming a writer would be a tenable life path.” Five months after she graduated, Kwon began working at a consulting firm in New York City, but quickly realized how unhappy she was there.

“I was especially miserable at the core of my job because I wasn’t writing,” she said. “I remember I was flying on a business trip and looking out the window and being so sad because I had no need to describe what I was seeing and I felt like I lost my purpose and all sense of what I was doing.”

Image: R.O. Kwon
R.O. KwonSmeeta Mahanti

That moment served as a revelation, and Kwon began applying to MFA creative writing programs. Brooklyn College, which was still taking applications at the time, accepted her into their program in 2006, which is where she began developing what would become “The Incendiaries.”

“From that point on, I centered my life around writing,” she said.

Kwon added that she gained inspiration for “The Incendiaries” from her experience as a Planned Parenthood volunteer, which led her to want to examine the difference between religion and American political values when it came to reproductive rights.

“While there, I saw the fervor of the clinic protestors, and it sharply reminded me of the Christian I used to be, how I also used to believe life begins at conception,” Kwon said. “It's not at all what I believe now — as is probably clear — but that divide between who I was and who I am, it helped spark the idea of bringing the fight over reproductive rights into the novel.”

Ultimately, Kwon said the biggest thing she wanted to shed a light on for readers to take away from the novel is seeing both sides of religion and faith.

“I wanted to shed some light on the belief spectrum,” Kwon said. “I wanted to explore people who really believe in an all powerful deity that’s guiding them in their everyday life versus people who are atheist and agnostic, and I wanted to bridge this with my own experiences and imagining.”

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