R.O. Kwon on Being Thwarted and Remaining Enthralled
An interview with R.O. Kwon, from The Write Stuff series:
R.O. Kwon’s first novel, Heroics, is forthcoming from Riverhead. She is a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing has appeared in NOON, VICE, Tin House, Ploughshares, the Believer, and elsewhere. Named one of Narrative’s “30 Below 30” writers, she has received fellowships from Yaddo, Omi International, and the Steinbeck Fellows Program, as well as scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. She can also be found at ro-kwon.com.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
I want to be better at writing. I don’t say that to be self-deprecating: I spend much of my fiction-writing time feeling terribly frustrated because I can’t quite do what I want to do. Of course, this isn’t a unique problem. I like what Martha Graham said: “No artist is pleased. No satisfaction whatever at any time.” Maybe it helps me stay interested, or so I tell myself. If I were as good as I’d love to be, I might have gotten bored long ago. Instead, thwarted, I remain enthralled.
At least, that’s what I would have said before the 2016 elections. Now, I don’t know. These are such dark times. On the one hand, it’s rousing to see so many people become more politically active—for instance, most of the writers I know are making daily phone calls to representatives. Writers. If there’s anything I know about us, it’s that we hate talking on the phone. All these introverts rising above lifelong aversions—it’s goddamn beautiful. On the other hand, we’re only a month into this presidency. People are so tired, and afraid. Maybe the struggle now is trying to be the best version of myself as a writer and human despite the daily infusions of rage, sorrow, and panic.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
The micropig dancing to Rihanna’s “Work.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve attached that video to missives of various kinds: often enough that a friend, Colin, finally told me, “You know, you’ve sent that pig a lot of times.” He was right, but the pig was so relevant. If I’d written an email about work, for example. Or if I’d mentioned dancing. Or sadness. Or life.
In addition, this Ruth Bader Ginsburg video has been like medicine. Bless you, RBG.
What are you working on right now?
I recently turned in first-round novel edits to my wonderful editor, Laura Perciasepe. By the time I’ve finished the edits, I’m going to have written the first book, Heroics, for over nine years. If it’s at all possible, I’d like the next novel to take less time.
I’ve also been working on that second book, which—well, when Laura asked about it, I said, “I can’t talk about it for a while, but it might have a lot of sex in it.” She said that’s all I have to tell people. So: I’m revising my first novel, Heroics, and I’ve started writing a second novel, which is full of sex.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
First, I’ll pull in a bit of E.M. Cioran:
Think about those who haven’t long to live, who know that everything is over and done with, except the time in which the thought of their end unrolls. Deal with that time. Write for the gladiators.
Next, Edith Wharton:
I don’t believe that there is any greater blessing than that of being pierced through & through by the splendour or sweetness of words, & no one who is not transfixed by ‘Die Sonne tönt nach alter Weise,’ or ‘thick as Autumnal leaves that strew the brooks,’ has known half the joy of living. Don’t you agree with me?—I wouldn’t take a kingdom for it.
I think often of both these passages. I badly want my writing to be urgent, gladiator-urgent; I also care, so much, about writing on the level of the syllable. The phoneme. I have strong feelings about each letter of the alphabet. To my joy and terror, these feelings keep getting more powerful, not less.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
My tastes run to extremes: I’ve prioritized having a quiet, writing-focused life, a controlled life, with a lot of rules in place that help me get work done. I’ll go days without talking to anyone but my husband. If I’m not going to be cloistered, though, I like a bacchanal. I want dancing, I’ll sing karaoke, I’ll revel all night with beloved friends.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Chalk, sweat, a little disinfectant. I’ve taken up indoor rock-climbing, and I’ve gotten kind of fanatical about it. Unlike most activities, climbing lets me not think about writing—or politics—for whole minutes at a time. Plus, if the climbing’s going well, I get to feel like an action hero, or like Spiderman. Gleeful as hell, is what I’m saying. In the past year, I’ve sprained my ankle twice and pulled a shoulder ligament, but I don’t care. I love what I smell when I walk in the climbing gym, that chalked perfume: it smells like elation.