(Smeeta Mahanti)

R. O. Kwon has jokingly said that everything she writes “is, in some way, about the God I lost.” Raised Catholic, she planned to be a missionary from a young age. Then, in high school, she lost her faith—a loss that fractured her sense of self and the world and that she still feels deeply today. Her superb debut novel, The Incendiaries, reimagines this loss, examining the gifts that faith provides and the injuries it leaves behind once it’s gone.

The Incendiaries weaves together three related stories. First, there’s that of Will Kendall, a college student who once had faith in God but now doesn’t, who wants to believe but can’t: “He hears the church bells sing, but not to him.” Next, there’s Phoebe Lin, Will’s classmate and girlfriend. Phoebe was a piano prodigy when a child. Now, after several personal losses, she finds herself moving towards religious faith, “wish[ing] upon God’s attested promises: the dead alive, a past repealed.” Finally, there’s John Leal, the leader of a cult called Jejah. Leal and his followers possess a historical, even eschatological sense of mission that extends to a violent anti-abortion program. Phoebe begins attending meetings; then she starts making public confessions; finally, she finds herself involved in the group’s radical political actions.

Phoebe finds Leal’s incendiary faith captivating; Will finds it both seductive and deeply discomfiting. In one of the novel’s many fine descriptive passages, Will recognizes Leal’s obvious charisma: “With his hair brushed to stand upright, a high plume, I had the sense of a surfeit of energy, not quite contained, like a child’s color-book illustration escaping its lines.” But Will recognizes the cultivated nature of Leal’s charisma—the incendiary look is the result of careful primping—and sees how this excess of energy might lead to violence.   

In strikingly Augustinian fashion, Kwon returns again and again to how the true motor of faith is desire: desire for meaning, beauty, healing, peace. She also shows how this desire continues, perhaps even more powerfully, once faith has left us. At one point Will describes what it’s like to be left “with a God-shaped hole I didn’t know how to fill”: “If I was sick of Christ, it was because I hadn’t been able to stop loving Him, this made-up ghost I grieved as though He’d been real.” The Incendiaries makes us feel the grief and the love, the awesomeness of revelation and the painfulness of its retreat.

Kwon and I spoke recently by email.


Anthony Domestico: I know it’s not really an either/or, but generally what matters most to you as a reader—and, presumably, as a reviser: large-scale narrative concerns or individual sentences? Another way of asking this: in the ten years you spent working on this, did you focus most on perfecting the micro details or on refining the macro structure?

R. O. Kwon: Individual sentences, for sure! I care so much about the words, even the syllables. I find such joy in getting lost in those details. I almost want to say that, as long as my fiction’s cohering at this cellular level, larger-scale concerns will fall in place, but it’s also true that, at key points, my agent and editor asked insightful, wide-ranging questions about character and story.

AD: Speaking of structure, you move between three different narrative perspectives throughout the novel: that of Will, who strikes me as the narrator proper; that of Phoebe, whose section tracks her increasing involvement with John Leal and his cult; and that of Leal himself. Was this structure there from the beginning, or did it arise relatively late in the writing? I’m also struck by how different John Leal’s sections are—in length (much shorter); in register (more consistently theological); and in narrative perspective (written in the third person as opposed to the first person of the other two).

R.O.K.: For the first two years I worked on the novel, it was told entirely by Phoebe. And then I realized, for a variety of reasons, that the book felt too constrained when it was all her story. At that point, Will’s point of view came in; he was the only narrator for several years. When I was close to finishing the novel, it seemed Will’s perspective alone was also too narrow, even blinkered. So Phoebe came back in; then John Leal.

John Leal, as the cult leader, lives at a remove from the rest of the cult, Jejah. He has to mythologize himself to sustain his followers’ belief in him. I think that’s part of why it felt best to tell his parts in the third person, which is, of course, a slightly more distant point of view than the first. I will say, though, that I especially loved writing his sections. He came relatively easily to me.

AD: Were you ever worried that the braiding of two related but also distinct stories—a story about religious faith and a story about extremist violence—might distract or detract from one another? Did you look to other models for how you might do justice to both the personal and the political effects of religious belief?

R.O.K: I don’t necessarily see these categories—faith vs. extremist violence, personal vs. political effects of religious beliefs—as being binary. The terrorists in The Incendiaries set off bombs in the name of the God they love, or are trying to love. In other words, their faith is part of what drives their violence.

While I was writing this book, I read every bit of fiction I could find that grappled with terrorism. There isn’t much, though, at least not in English. With my own novel, I realized I really wanted to delve into terrorists’ minds: to inhabit, for instance, the elation that comes of starting to believe so deeply and passionately in something all-encompassing, the sense of homecoming that comes with finding a single answer to all one’s problems. “To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity,” said the political philosopher Eric Hoffer, and that net can be powerfully appealing. I hope that, in The Incendiaries, I’ve brought to life one variety of the blaze of conviction—or the desire for it—that can fuel radicalism.

The loss itself hasn’t changed much, but what has changed is any hope that, with time, I’d feel less. I think I’m beginning to accept that I’ll miss God for the rest of my life.

AD: Could you briefly describe your own loss of faith—what precipitated it, what the loss felt like at the time, how that feeling has changed over the years, if it has?

R.O.K.: It’s like what Will says in The Incendiaries—it happened gradually, then all at once. There wasn’t any one reason, but there were a lot of them. It was extremely painful. It still is. The loss itself hasn’t changed much, but what has changed is any hope that, with time, I’d feel less. I think I’m beginning to accept that I’ll miss God for the rest of my life.

AD: What are your favorite literary texts that explore what Will calls his “God-shaped hole”—that desire for divinity and plenitude that exists before and remains after belief? I, for one, heard echoes of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping at several moments, like when John Leal thinks, “To covet is to begin to have” …

R.O.K.: “That desire for divinity and plenitude”—what a lovely phrase. I greatly admire Marilynne Robinson—and I’ve reread Housekeeping several times, so there are definitely echoes of that book in my novel. Gilead, too. I really love Gilead.

I love Simone Weil, as well. I read her every year I was working on this novel. Clarice Lispector is, in a very different way, an intrepid cartographer of God-shaped holes.

AD: You use a quotation from Clarice Lispector as an epigraph: “At the bottom of everything there is the hallelujah.” How do you see this framing the story that is to come?

R.O.K.: I love that epigraph, and Lispector, so much. I think sometimes of the time T. S. Eliot was asked what he meant when he wrote, in “Ash Wednesday,” “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.” And Eliot replied, “I meant, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.’” I don’t think he was being coy! I think he was saying the line conveyed as much of his intention as was possible, and that he couldn’t add more. I don’t think I can add much by trying to explain the epigraph—I think it’s its own explanation, at least insofar as I can provide one.

AD: If you don’t mind my asking, what’s next for you?

R.O.K.: I’ve been working for two years on my next novel. It’s still at a place where it feels difficult, even dangerous, for me to say much about it, but it has to do with women artists, ambition, and sex.

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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