In ‘The Incendiaries,’ a Debut
Novelist Reckons With Lost Faith
R.O. Kwon’s loss of faith was a slow unfurling. By the time she was 17, years of reading and inhabiting the minds and worlds of non-Christians had caught up with her, and “it became impossible to believe that all these other people were going to hell,” she said.
“I was so heartbroken when I lost the faith. I was so lonely.” Ms. Kwon was raised Catholic by her Korean parents, who she said were “devastated” by her newfound agnosticism.
That particular desolation, of losing what Ms. Kwon calls the joy of believing in God, is one she did not find represented in literature. In her debut novel, “The Incendiaries,” she bridges those “imaginative chasms between rational and fanatic world views.” The book is thematically about the spectrum of belief, and is told from the perspectives of three main narrators: Will Kendall, who transfers from a religious college to the fictional Edwards University, where the book is set, after becoming a nonbeliever; his girlfriend, Phoebe Lin, who joins a Bible study and support group after her mother’s death; and, to a lesser extent, John Leal, who leads the gatherings and has mysterious ties to North Korea. Will must contend with Phoebe’s spiral into Christian fundamentalism and the group’s eventual embrace of violence.
Ms. Kwon was born in Seoul, South Korea, but raised in Los Angeles, where she moved when she was 3 years old with her parents and younger brother. Growing up, she was always drawn to books, but opted for a more pragmatic path in college, majoring in economics at Yale. In 2005, after graduation, she worked for seven months at a consulting firm, but was “so miserable” that she decided to pursue a master of fine arts. The next year, she enrolled at Brooklyn College.
Her debut was 10 years in the making. “I am very obsessed with language at the level of the syllable,” she said. Ms. Kwon spent two years “in the wilderness,” revising her first 20 pages, before heeding the advice of other writers to move through drafts more quickly. She said the book easily went through more than 20 versions.
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Her second book, which deals with sex, women artists and ambition, is still raw, and she is trying to keep religion out of it. But writing is a continued grieving for her, she said, so she’s not sure she will succeed. “Losing the faith has proved to be the central loss of my life,” she said. “It’s the thing I contend with every day.”
— Concepción de León
An Author’s First Work of Fiction
for Adults — That We Know Of
Judy Blundell isn’t actually sure how many books she’s written.
That’s because she worked for so many years as a novelist for hire, cranking out books for multiple children’s series under various pseudonyms. But recently, with her adult novel “The High Season” about to hit stores, her publisher Random House asked her to count them. “It was hard!” she said. “There were so many different series. I would look up the summaries of individual books and think, did I write this one? Or this one? I can’t remember! In the end I came up with 114. That’s my best guess.”
Ms. Blundell didn’t publish under her own name until 2008, when the noirish Y.A. novel “What I Saw and How I Lied” came out. “When I got the page proofs, I called up my editor in a panic, and I said, ‘David, David, my name’s on it! We’ve got to do something! Is it too late?’ And he took a deep breath and said, ‘You can do what you want, but you might consider leaving your name on this one, because this book is really you.’ So I thought, well, nobody’s going to read this book anyway, so I might as well come out from behind the curtain.” Shortly after publication, “What I Saw and How I Lied” won a National Book Award.
Unlike her recent Y.A. fiction, which is historical, “The High Season” is contemporary, an acid-laced domestic drama set during one golden summer on the moneyed, beachy North Fork of Long Island. Ruthie, separated from her husband, is scrabbling to keep her toehold in the middle class after being forced out of her job at a local museum by a conniving board member. Though Ms. Blundell weaves in various subplots — a lost Patek Philippe watch, a forged painting, a famous actress who hits on Ruthie’s soon-to-be ex — the museum drama fuels the narrative.
Ms. Blundell, who calls herself a “museum spouse” (her husband, Neil Watson, is the executive director of the Long Island Museum), said that nonprofit boards can be microcosms to examine careless use of power. “It starts with just one noxious person who then ropes in a couple of others, and before you know it, corruption spreads throughout the institution.”
Though Random House is billing “The High Season” as Ms. Blundell’s first adult novel, she has, she confesses, written adult fiction under other names. “No, I’m not going to tell you what they are,” she said firmly. “I really, really don’t want anyone to look them up!”
— Tina Jordan
A Memoir That Came to Life
When She Removed Her Hijab
The first time Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and activist, walked in public without her hijab was in 2006. She was a 30-year-old columnist for Etemad-e-Melli, a now defunct Iranian daily newspaper, and working on a series of articles in Beirut, Lebanon. Ms. Alinejad, who was on her first trip outside of Iran, was immediately struck by the city’s relatively relaxed attitude toward women’s appearance in public.
“Throughout my life I had been told that my virtue, my chastity, my self-worth, all were wrapped up in my head scarf,” Ms. Alinejad writes in her new memoir, “The Wind in My Hair,” out May 29 from Little, Brown and Company. “In Beirut, women had a choice; some chose the hijab, but others didn’t. And yet the fabric of Lebanese society had not fallen apart.”
Along with another Iranian woman she befriended early in her trip, Ms. Alinejad swallowed her nerves and stripped off her head scarf one morning near her hotel. Eight years later, she founded “My Stealthy Freedom,” a social media campaign against compulsory hijab laws, and gave voice to millions of Iranian women by encouraging them to share photos of themselves without their hijabs. “It is just the first step toward full equality and it is just the most visible symbol of oppression against women,” Ms. Alinejad said of her campaign and hijabs earlier this month.
Before Ms. Alinejad, now 41 and living in Brooklyn, founded international movements or wrote books or became one of the Iranian government’s fiercest critics, she grew up in Ghomikola, a rural village in Iran. As a young girl she did not understand why she could not run around and play like her brothers or why she had to wear her chador, a full body cloak. Instead of accepting her fate as prescribed by Iranian law and her family, Ms. Alinejad chose to be different.
The throughline between Ms. Alinejad’s early acts of rebellion — from refusing to wear a chador to starting a political reading group in high school — and her current work inspired this memoir. “My life is just full of stories, and as a young girl I was always told that ‘your story is not important,’” she said. “This book is about overcoming obstacles as a woman in Iran and fighting for my identity.”
“The Wind in My Hair,” which Ms. Alinejad wrote with her husband, Kambiz Foroohar, paints a vivid portrait of modern Iran and chronicles her journey from Iran to Britain and finally the United States. She details her career as a journalist covering Iran’s parliament, her first marriage, raising her son and her 2009 exile from Iran. The book comes at a time of renewed energy within the feminist movement, and Ms. Alinejad believes that the book’s themes transcend borders. “If you are a true feminist then you have to condemn inequality everywhere, whether it is in the West or in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” she said. “If you want to have a better world for women, you have to stick together.”
— Lovia Gyarkye
Into the Wild With a Man
Hoping to Outrun Trouble
While he was studying for his M.F.A. at the University of Virginia in the mid-1990s, James A. McLaughlin finished what he refers to as “Bearskin 1.0.” “It was a typical first novel,” he said. “The characters were boring. Nobody wanted it.”
As a fan of Jim Harrison, he had been aiming for something that Harrison might write, something “poetic, heartbreaking, steeped in the natural world.” Instead, he found himself stuck between genres. “One agent looked at it and said, ‘You know, it’s not literary enough to be a literary novel, and it’s not thrilling enough to be a thriller.’”
The manuscript morphed into various other shapes over the last 20 years. In 2008, he published it as a prizewinning novella in The Missouri Review.
Now, “Bearskin” is being published in its full and final form.
The book combines intensely observed nature writing with white-knuckle suspense. It is, despite what it was when that agent saw it, a literary novel and a thriller. Picture Thoreau having left for Walden with a bunch of bad dudes hot on his heels.
Rice Moore, the novel’s protagonist, lands in Virginia, having escaped trouble involving Mexican drug cartels operating in Arizona. His quiet new life has him caring for a mountain nature preserve, but he is worried that trouble will find him. And when he comes upon mutilated bears in the area, it does.
Mr. McLaughlin, 54, comes to nature writing honestly. Born in Lexington, Va., he spent a lot of time in the surrounding countryside, where his parents ran a summer camp on a farm. “I grew up outdoors, fishing, hunting, a geeky little bird-watcher, the works,” he said.
“There are a lot of thrillers set in the wild,” Mr. McLaughlin said, “but I wanted to try to do this where the setting is very realistic and respected for its own sake, and not just something you twist to feed the plot.”
The novel’s long gestation period is ironic, since “Bearskin” is a suspenseful, and therefore fast, read. “Sometimes it can be propulsive,” Mr. McLaughlin said of the time he spends writing, “but most of the time it’s just an excruciatingly slow process to write something that moves quickly.”
Mr. McLaughlin now happily calls Utah home (“I’ve always wanted to live in the Rockies,” he said), where he is working on a couple of possible follow-up projects. One of them features Rice Moore again.
“I have this fear that it’s going to take me another 20 years, and of course that’s unreasonable,” he said. “I hope I’ve learned something. I’m trying to be more efficient.”
— John Williams