May 6, 2011KR BlogKR

Gangsters and Gryphons: Microinterview with Reese Okyong Kwon

Reese Okyong Kwon’s story “The Stations of the Sun” is currently available on KROnline.

Kenyon Review: Is there a story behind your KR piece?

Reese Okyong Kwon: Yes, there is: I was reading Lauren Groff’s wonderful story collection, Delicate Edible Birds, and from it I learned about the Chinese myth of the goddess Nugua’s creation of mankind, and how an appreciation for pale skin is built into the creation myth. My own parents, like many Korean American immigrants, are reflexively heliophobic, and taught me to stay the hell out of the sun. Something about the Nugua myth grabbed me. The rest of the Kenyon Review story, in its basic outline, came very quickly to me–I turned to the blank pages at the end of Lauren’s book and took notes until I ran out of space. Since I was in bed, sick with the flu, I started writing the body of the story as soon as I could sit upright again. It was a pretty ecstatic experience, one I’ve never had before or since, sadly. I wouldn’t mind having it again. I imagine more Nyquil might help.

KR: Talk about how the books you are reading influence your writing.

ROK: I find this difficult to do, if only because at any time I’m usually in the middle of at least a couple of books. Does what I’m reading influence my writing? Of course, but so might the anecdote I heard from a friend at dinner, or the Talking Heads song I’ve been listening to on loop all day. That said, I’ve been learning a lot lately from, let’s see, Leonard Michaels, Deborah Eisenberg, Anne Carson, and W. G. Sebald.

KR: How do you anticipate what your reader’s imagination will bring to your work?

ROK: I don’t, really. There’s something Michael Cunningham said in a recent (and beautiful) Times piece about how he writes for an acquaintance he once knew, a busy restaurant hostess, and I love that, I wish I could do that, but I think I write for myself, with the attendant hope that, in doing so, what I’m writing will speak to readers. I should note that I’m a fairly private person, and not only do I love the shield that fiction gives–I can write anything I like, and it might all be true, or all made up: no one knows–but I also have to half-pretend that no one’s ever going to read what I write, or I might have trouble writing anything. It’s always a bit of a surprise to me when, after a story I write gets published, people are so generous as to share their thoughts about it with me. It’s as if I’ve had a dream and someone wants to discuss it the next morning. How do you know about the firefight between the gangsters and the gryphons? I want to say, then I think, Oh, right.

KR: What internal or external factors have the biggest influence on your creative process?

ROK: I’m not sure. I think I’d rather not know. In the case of the Kenyon Review story, Lauren Groff’s book had an immediate influence, of course, and I suppose I’d been holding on to scraps I’d read in the past about Apollo’s paramours and the Madonna-seekers because they interested me, but I don’t know what prompted me to pull them together. Anne Carson says in a Paris Review interview that “individuality resides in the way links are made.” I like that. I also like the idea of a muse, some divine being who floats along and grants gifts of inspiration. I wish I could believe in it.

KR: What exactly is (poetry/fiction/nonfiction) good for?

ROK: What’s life good for? I don’t mean that facetiously–it’s a question that troubles me all the time. As far as we know, we’re here for some number of years, we make scratch marks in the dirt, we gradually lose control of our bodies and/or our minds, then we die, along with most to all of what we’ve done or loved. Even Michelangelo’s sculptures will be swallowed by the sun one day, as will the rest of the earth. It makes me miserable to think about it. Writing–and reading–forestalls some of that misery.

KR: In the spectrum of entertainment and media (music, movies, television, Internet, art, etc.) where does the literary pursuit fit?

ROK: I wonder if it has to fit, or if it just has to do with what people respond to. A life without literature is unimaginable to me, a desert of the mind; meanwhile, if someone told me I could never watch a movie again, I think I would recover from the loss. But I wasn’t really allowed to watch TV, growing up, and, maybe as a result, I happen to be less endlessly fascinated by moving images than I am in the power and musicality of a sentence. I suppose that, according to the news, nowadays more people’s preferences are shifting away from literature, which is too bad. All those people are missing out on so much fun.

KR: What advice would you give yourself five years ago?

ROK: Five years ago–let’s see, I was living in New York, I’d very recently realized I wanted to make a real go of being a writer, and I knew I was matriculating in an MFA program in the fall. I’d tell myself to worry less, and write more. I would tell myself: when you can’t sleep and you start thinking of what you’ve been working on and you come up with a good sentence or idea, don’t let yourself go to sleep until you’ve written it down, because you might forget it and never find it again. In fact, when that happens, just get up and keep writing. Please waste less time. It’s almost impossible to believe, but eventually, like everyone, you’re going to die, and every day you have less time. Read more widely. Stay out of the sun. Read more Dickinson and Bishop. Don’t stay out of the sun too much.

Reese Okyong Kwon‘s writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, the Believer, Missouri Review, Sun Magazine, and elsewhere. She has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Squaw Valley Writers’ Conferences, and she was named one of Narrative’s “30 Below 30” writers.