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July 31, 2018

R. O. Kwon's Playlist for Her Novel "The Incendiaries"

The Incendiaries

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Propulsive yet spare in its prose, R. O. Kwon's timely The Incendiaries is one of the most rewarding debut novels I have read in years, and one of the best books of the year.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"A dark, absorbing story of how first love can be as intoxicating and dangerous as religious fundamentalism."

In her own words, here is R. O. Kwon's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Incendiaries:

I depend on music to write fiction, so much so that it can be a problem. If I can’t find the right song on a given day, I’m incapable of getting into the prose. This means I’m always hunting for new music—in fact, I’ve often come here, to Largehearted Boy, to find possibilities. Every word of The Incendiaries was written while I played one song on loop, or, if I really felt like getting wild, mixing it up, two songs. During the ten years I worked on this novel, I replayed a number of tracks thousands of times. There’s one especially helpful song I listened to 20,000-plus times. 30,000? Who knows. That particular song, I can’t name; I’m afraid that if I do, it’ll lose its occult powers. But I’ll talk about some of the others.

The National, “All Dolled Up in Straps”
In general, I need writing music to be pretty unvarying. It can’t range too dramatically beyond a single octave, and it’s seldom in a major key. (I love what Edouard Levé said in Autoportrait, that listening to cheerful music is like spending time with people unlike him.) The National’s been a rich source of music that exists more or less within these parameters. I listened to “All Dolled Up in Straps” on loop at the first artists’ residency I ever attended, on an island near Seattle. At that point, I’d been reworking twenty pages of my novel for two years, obsessively rewriting the sentences, and I’d just realized I needed to throw it all away, start anew. In other words, I felt more than a little despondent, and this song helped see me through.

William Byrd, Peter Phillips & The Tallis Scholars, “Mass for Three Voices”
Everything I write is, to some extent, shot through with longing for the God I lost when I was seventeen, and whom I can’t stop missing. I love the naked desire in sacred music, the way it reaches up, and Byrd is a standby for me.

Missy Elliott, “Lose Control”
Okay, this isn’t a song I can write to, but it’s exactly right for my preferred kind of writing break: a give-it-all-you’ve-got, solo dance party. I’ve never once come to the end of a day and thought I’ve had enough dancing, but Elliott’s frequently been with me when I’ve tried to make up the ongoing deficit.

Dmitri Shostakovich, Emerson Quartet, “String Quartet #8 in C Minor, Op. 110: II. Allegro Molto”
This is more frenzied than I usually like my writing music to be, but hey, sometimes I want a little frenzy. There’s conflict in my novel, there’s rage and grief, and the discord in Shostakovich often harmonized with the trouble my characters were undergoing.

Ella Fitzgerald, “Blue Skies”
But it’s not all rage and trouble—there’s joy, too! The Incendiaries includes a couple of pivotal dance scenes—one of its characters, Phoebe Lin, loves dancing at least as much as I do—and I played this song a lot while she danced.

R. O. Kwon and The Incendiaries links:

the author's website

Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New Yorker review
Publishers Weekly review
Washington Post review

San Francisco Chronicle interview with the author
Weekend Edition interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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