RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet at a prestigious East Coast college, and they begin dating. Will has just transferred from a Bible college. Phoebe has abandoned the music career she dreamed of. Will has lost his religion, while Phoebe has lost her mother. Hovering over their grief and guilt is a violent religious cult that seems to offer Phoebe a way out. The novel "The Incendiaries" begins with an explosion. A building falls, and people die. It's R.O. Kwon's first novel. She joined me from our studios in San Francisco to talk about it. Welcome.
R O KWON: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I'm so excited.
MONTAGNE: This story is told from three perspectives. There's Will. There's Phoebe. And there's another character, John Leal, who is the leader of that Christian cult that Phoebe joins. Explain to us - Phoebe starts out as a young woman who drinks and is having fun at parties, but there's something missing, obviously. And there's this pain of her mother dying. Tell us more about that.
KWON: It's true. She doesn't really have a sense of purpose. Not only has she lost her mother, but, not long before she comes to college, she's given up the piano. And she really did believe that she was going to be a professional pianist. And so she is and was a very ambitious woman, a very driven woman, a very disciplined woman who no longer has any of that to give her life structure. And so she's drawn to both Will and to John Leal for different reasons. But they both offer - they - John Leal and Will do not lack for discipline or structure or a sense of purpose.
MONTAGNE: But as she's pulled into this cult, Will starts wanting to save her. But can he? Can he save Phoebe?
KWON: Will has a desire to save people in general. It was part of what made him such an effective Christian and such an effective evangelist. And so I think that that definitely bleeds over into his relationship with Phoebe. And no, he doesn't seem likely to succeed.
MONTAGNE: And then there's John Leal, who is a bit shady...
MONTAGNE: ....Fascinating, though. But you never get inside him. And you're never even sure if his story is true.
KWON: John Leal - he tells fascinating stories about himself, about having volunteered at the North Korea-China border, about having been in a North Korean gulag. And in a lot of ways, it's hard to tell what's real and what's not.
MONTAGNE: And is it also possibly accurate to say for a creator and leader of a cult that it's pretty hard to get inside their heads?
KWON: I suppose I should say yes so that I don't worry my family and my parents. But, in some ways, John Leal was the easiest for me to write.
KWON: Yes (laughter).
MONTAGNE: What would worry your parents about that?
KWON: I think John Leal - well, so much of his appeal is dependent on language, on the stories he can tell. And so I think - I was never in a cult. But, at some point, I was involved with a youth group that was so absorbing that a lot of our parents were concerned it might be a cult. It wasn't. But I've had my own experiences with charismatic preachers, with charismatic youth leaders. And I think I was accessing a part of me that not only loved that and was drawn to that but could channel that.
MONTAGNE: You write about Will's loss of religion quite beautifully. Read for us a little section about his inner thoughts on that.
KWON: OK. (Reading) I tried not to leave the faith. I'd had such purpose living in single-minded pursuit of the God I loved until the afternoon I knelt in my bedroom asking one last time for a sign. White gauze curtains rippled. I waited. But I heard nothing else. Muscles stiff, I got up. I should, I think, have told Phoebe how cut open I felt since then 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 still grieved as though he'd been real.
MONTAGNE: I understand that you yourself had a difficult separation from religion.
KWON: Yes, I did. I did. It was extremely painful.
MONTAGNE: You were raised as a Catholic?
KWON: Yes. I was raised as a Catholic. But at my most religious, I was spending a lot of time going to various - to my friends' Protestant churches. I grew up in a town and in a school that's predominantly Asian-American in LA. And it's also, on top of that, predominantly Korean-American, which is what I am. And the churches I went to were very fervid. There was a lot of people falling to the floor, a lot of people talking in tongues. It was a very charismatic kind of Christianity. And I loved it so much. It was so wonderful. And for me, it was not only so painful to leave the faith. It remains painful. I'm still grieving it. I still love God - is what I've realized over time. It's just that I don't think he's real. Augustine has a line that I love that - to say I love you is to say I want you to be. And I think that's how I feel about the Christian God.
MONTAGNE: All of your characters are hurting. They're in their own worlds of pain. So how does this question of God and religion and belief and something to have to heal the pain, I suppose you would say - how does that bring them together and also puts them at odds?
KWON: I think that when people are hurt - I think when people are grieving and in pain - or at least I know I did. I tend to shy away from generalizations. I know when I'm hurt and I'm in pain, I become more open to an elsewhere. And so I think that for my characters, too, they're open to other kinds of answers than the ones that they've been using. They have that in common. But they do, of course, end up coming to different answers.
MONTAGNE: R.O. Kwon's first novel is "The Incendiaries." Thank you so much for joining us.
KWON: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
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