By Seija Rankin
August 09, 2018 at 11:00 AM EDT

The Incendiaries

  • Book
Smeeta Mahanti; Penguin

If the name R.O. Kwon, or the book title The Incendiaries, or even the perfectly-Instagrammable, rainbow-fractal cover, are immensely familiar to you, there’s good reason: This book has been everywhere. The tome has taken over bookshelves, both physical and digital, for practically the entire summer. You probably noticed it all over your social media, in the pages of any publication you’ve picked up (or clicked open), or as the latest pick for Emma Roberts’ book club, Belletrist.

But there’s one more thing you probably noticed about the debut novel: No one really knows what it is, exactly.

They know they love it — they being both members of the literary world and said members of social media — and they know it’s beautifully written and that its plot is haunting. But no one quite knows how to describe it. The book — which follows protagonist Will Kendall as he arrives at a prestigious university straight out of bible school, meets and subsequently falls in love with a former piano prodigy who is secretly recovering from a horrific family tragedy, and then subsequently watches her fall prey to a campus cult hell-bent on dabbling in domestic anti-abortion terrorism — has been described as a campus novel, a love story, a terrorism mystery, a thriller, and even a novel about North Korea (where the leader of the aforementioned cult spent time).

A book with this many layers may be hard to pin down — an all-the-more-impressive feat considering its brisk 214-page length — but that’s exactly what author R.O. Kwon had in mind, right down to that eye-catching title.

“I wanted a title that had multiple interpretations,” she explains to EW. “And I loved the richness of the word itself, how it has to do with bombs but also setting fires. It can be excitement, but it also has to do with inciting others toward action. And [the title] contains a few of the book’s central obsessions: passion and terrorism and love and faith.”

Despite all that, Kwon admits to still feeling surprised by the many (many) different interpretations of the book. Maybe it’s because she spent so long with it (she began writing the first chapters over a decade ago) or maybe it’s because each review brings a wholly new take.

Does she see it as a campus novel? “No, but it makes sense because a lot of it takes place on a college campus. But it wasn’t something I thought of as a genre because it just seems like a place to set a book.”

Is it a mystery? “So many love stories are mysteries too, right? Love is so strange in and of itself.”

Is it historical fiction? Definitely not: “For awhile, I was reading everything about cults that I could get my hands on. I really wanted to know as much as I could about the mechanics of cults across time, across beliefs. And then after that, I tried to forget everything I’d learned. I really wanted the cult to be John Leal’s own cult and be based on what I knew about the character.”

Is it autobiographical? Well, that’s complicated. Kwon herself grew up deeply religious, just like Will, and had a cataclysmic loss of that faith, just like Will. The rest is up to the beholder.

“It’s been tremendously moving to me to hear from readers who have their own complicated relationships with faith,” she says. “Whether it’s because they’ve left, or they’re not sure how they feel. In part, I wrote this book for the 17-year-old girl who felt desperately alone in her experience of losing faith.”

Read on to find out Kwon’s answers to EW’s burning author questions. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
R.O. KWON: In grade school, for some sort of school-wide assignment, I wrote a story about a girl who turned into a swan. And I don’t remember why she turned into a swan, but what I remember most vividly, besides the joy of writing the story, is that the school librarian read it and after she looked a little bit afraid. There’s something about seeing the power that words can have that really stuck with me.

What is the last book that made you cry?
Rebecca Makkai’s book The Great Believers definitely made me cry. The end was a lot, man.

What is your favorite part of The Incendiaries?
The parts in which Will is grappling with faith. It was very important to me that those feel as truthful as they could — and I don’t mean in a factual sense, but truthful in terms of the experience and the emotional core. I needed those to feel right and I worked and worked on those sections, so they mean a lot to me.

Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?
I’m reading it slowly, but Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin. It doesn’t come out until January but I loved her last book, Fever Dream. She has such a wild imagination and I’ve been loving her short stories but I’m taking it slowly because I want to savor them.

Where do you write?
I just wrote at home [for Incendiaries]. And when I write at home I’m in the dining room and I face a blank wall. On purpose, I have nothing on the walls because when I look up I want nothing to distract me. It’s just me and an off-white wall.

Which book made you a forever reader?
I think the first book I truly loved as a child, that I just kept loving through adulthood, would be Portrait of a Lady. My parents just had a lot of books lying around the house and I read that when I was pretty young, but every time I read it, it crushes me, it astonishes me — I love that book with all my heart.

What is a snack you couldn’t write without?
This is part of why I write at my house, because I want to have all my coffee and tea and snacks with me. I think I switch up my snacks, to be honest, but I do down coffee. Studies seem to keep indicating that if you drink more coffee it’s better for you, and every time I read one I’m just like, sure, great.

What was the hardest thing to write in The Incendiaries?
The portions with Will’s faith were also hard to write in that I kept reworking and rewriting. Also, all the sections of the book that took place in North Korea, I didn’t want to make any claims about a place I’d never visited and a place that’s so closed off that most people don’t ever get to see. So I wanted to show that unknowing itself, rather than make any claims about North Korea the real place.

The Incendiaries

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  • R.O. Kwon
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  • The Incendiaries