It takes Will Kendall until page 137 of R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries to acknowledge what has, by that point, become searingly obvious. Will's effervescent, charming girlfriend with an unhealed trauma in her not-so-distant past has been sucked into a cult. “The situation, well, it was a crisis,” Will narrates. “The girl I loved was in a cult – and that’s what it is, I thought, a cult. It was a problem, but I'd solve it, because I was intelligent."
Unfortunately, Will's cool, rational intelligence is no match for the radical faith his girlfriend Phoebe Lin has burning inside her, thanks to the ministrations of the mysterious cult leader John Leal, who has begun recruiting students of their small liberal arts university to join his warped mission.
The Incendiaries, a book about people gaining and losing God, is deeply informed by Kwon's own experiences growing up religious, and eventually losing the faith when she was 17. "Without that experience, it would’ve been a different book. I would’ve written about something else entirely," she told Refinery29 in a recent phone interview. We spoke to Kwon about her 10-year journey to The Incendiaries, which will go down as one of the seminal cult novels, out July 31.
Refinery29: The Incendiaries is about a charismatic cult leader and two people drawn into his web. What drew you to this subject matter to begin with?
R.O. Kwon: “It started with having grown up very Christian. I lost the faith when I was 17. I wanted to write about both sides of that experience. The world-changing, life-changing pain of losing God — well, world-changing for me — as well as the joy I felt back when I loved God and what it felt like to fall in love with a deity."
Something that I particularly admired about the book was its pacing. How imperceptibly Phoebe “falls in love,” as you say. It’s hard to pin down the exact moment Will loses Phoebe to Jejah, the cult. How did you time her gradual pull into the group?
“As tends to happen with falling in love, the change can be as mysterious for those undergoing the transformation as those watching it from the outside. It was important to me that the novel not know more than it can. I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying essentially the novel is all narrated by Will, more or less. It was important to me that the novel not know more than he does. I was interested in leaving space for what can’t be known."
Is that why so many of the specifics about John Leal, the cult leader, are left vague?
“Yes. That was part of it, for sure. There’s only so much Will knows about John Leal. But at the same time, John Leal intentionally cultivates that mystery. He knows he gets power from it. This is perhaps too long of a sidenote, but while writing the book, I thought a lot about evil and villains, and what it means to understand evil versus not understand evil. I found that John Leal became a more powerful character for me when I explained less about him."
And how does that tie into evil?
"When people who do evil don’t explain themselves, it can be a lot more interesting than when they do explain themselves. The classic example is Iago in Othello, who doesn’t have a real motivation for what he does. In the text from which Shakespeare took Othello, he does have a motivation. He’s in love with Desdemona. Shakespeare took that out. That black hole of clear answer can add depth to a character."
When creating the specifics of Jejah, did you research other cults?
"For a little while, I did a lot of research. I read every nonfiction book about cults I could find. After that, I put them aside and tried to forget every single thing that I’d read. I wanted this to be John Leal’s own cult, and arise more organically from John Leal’s obsessions. I did draw on my own experiences. At my most religious, I was never in a cult, but I was involved with a church where all our parents worried that it might be a cult. There was also a church in Berkeley that’s been accused of being a cult and exhibiting cult-like behavior. As I was writing this book, I went to services there a few times."
How did you make sure John Leal’s organization was a cult, and not a religious organization?
“There isn’t always a fixed line. The novel is interested in exploring where faith shades into fanaticism and where religion shades into a cult. At least in The Incendiaries, the cult has an authoritarian nature to it. It’s completely taken over – potentially completely takes over – the lives of everyone who’s in the cult. Those are two classic distinguishing characteristics of cults.”
Why was abortion the issue this cult was fixated on?
"I was volunteering really briefly at a Planned Parenthood, and it occurred to me that the fight over reproductive rights and over abortion was one of the most divisive ways differing religious beliefs made themselves visible in the U.S. That started working its way into the book."
The book gives away what happens in the back flap. The cult blows up an abortion clinic, killing five people. That climax is revealed really early on. How did revealing that in the beginning allow you to explore the other things you were interested in?
"In general, when I read and certainly when I write, I’m far more interested in how and why things happen than in what. When I’m reading an extremely plot-full book I usually get so uncomfortable with the yanking sensation of being pulled along by the plot that I’ll often look it up online and read spoilers so I can know what’s going on. With movies, too, I’ll do the same. Definitely with TV series. Like Friday Night Lights. I was reading all the episode summaries on Wikipedia because I was so stressed about what was going to happen to the characters. I find story to be interesting, of course, but almost besides the point and I want to speak about everything else that’s happening."
Why do you think people are so fascinated by cults?
"I have trouble generalizing. I know that as far as my own experience goes, I was at my most joyful when I was my most religious. I’ve never known that kind of daily joy, unshadowed by the fear of loss. I wasn’t in a cult, as I said, but I really did get pretty fanatical. At my most fanatical, I felt so certain. Since losing the faith, I noticed in myself and in other previously religious people, an allergy to certainty. That certainty can feel wonderful and be so calming, and I think that certainty can be dangerous. Cults sell certainty."
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
All summer long, Refinery29 will be examining cults from every angle: pop culture, fashion, food, beauty, and their controversial origins. Let’s dig into the fascination behind this fervor with "Cult Classics."