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Art of
the 
Riff:

An Interview with Gene Kwak

Full disclosure: I am a fool.

 

In our digital age, I have chosen print as my primary medium.

 

I am reminded of this conundrum in mid-December 2021, while preparing to interview and write a feature on Gene Kwak. Every soundbite from the author is literary and often comic gold, but the feature form sets quotes at a premium.

 

I’m tempted to deviate. Hit record. Launch the inaugural Breakwater Review Podcast. Recline in my swivel chair. Ponder.

 

Why act as an intermediary?

 

But a podcast would be too easy, I suppose. Besides, my interviewee also chose the written word as his primary medium: Kwak graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, one decade before I matriculated in the program.

 

Kwak’s mastery of the craft recently yielded a virtuosic debut novel, Go Home, Ricky! The novel received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and was also recommended among perennial bestselling authors such as Richard Powers and Jonathan Franzen in Vanity Fair. Rare feats for a debut. Kwak recalls joking with his students at the University of Nebraska, Omaha: “I was like, ‘My shit’s in Vanity Fair, so there’s a greater chance that Harry Styles knows my name.’”

 

With Kwak’s debut book tour complete, I’m eager to learn about his formative years—before the critical acclaim, before he became an instructor, before he published two chapbooks, before his work appeared in The Rumpus and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

 

So we rewind to the mid-2000s: Kwak, a Korean-American born and raised in Omaha, did not have writerly aspirations until his junior year of undergrad. A literary journalism professor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, was impressed by Kwak’s work and suggested he pursue a Master’s in Writing. “What the hell is that?” Kwak remembers thinking. “Why would I get a Master’s in Writing?” Information on MFA programs was scarce, with few resources for writers of color, but Kwak applied and was accepted to multiple programs.

 

In the summer of 2008, Kwak left his hometown for Boston. He arrived in time to watch the Celtics defeat the Los Angeles Lakers for their first championship in twenty-two years. “I loved the Celtics,” Kwak says. “It was perfect timing.” Paul Pierce, a favorite player of Kwak’s for his underdog reputation, earned Finals MVP. Kwak attended the parade, during which members of the Celtics organization travelled on Duck Boats through the city and on the Charles River. It was an auspicious moment for Kwak, who awaited the first of three years in the MFA program at UMass Boston.

 

Kwak spent the initial two years in workshop experimenting with the short story form: developing narrative voice, subject matter, characters, structure, et cetera. “You’re not really riffing in a short story,” he says. “It’s got to be tight.” He sought to impress his cohort, and vice versa, in preparation for a third-year thesis.

 

 

Outside of workshop, Kwak and his cohort maximized their experience. They contacted students from the three other MFA programs in Boston: Emerson College, Boston University, and Lesley University. “It doesn’t make any sense that there’s this city with all these great writing programs, undergrad and grad, and they weren’t connected,” Kwak says. His cohort planned house parties where the community of writers shared work. This tradition is alive and well with the Breakwater Reading Series, which hosts multiple events each semester.

 

And yet, as the third year approached, Kwak lacked passion for his workshop material. “I took the worst possible pathway to my thesis,” Kwak says. He recalls asking his advisors, “What if I just throw out everything I’ve been writing for the last two years and I just start brand new?” This route was discouraged, but Kwak worked feverishly and completed a collection of entirely new stories—an audacious move. The writing process was more joyful, he believes, than it would have been working with earlier material.

 

Though fond of his time in the program, Kwak was ready to leave Boston upon receiving his diploma. He was eager to see family and friends. He recalls the journey home in an essay entitled “The Last City I Loved: Omaha, Nebraska,” published by The Rumpus. Kwak writes, “I wanted no last seaside views, no last late-night South Street Diner dinners, and no last Orange Line rides.” (As a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I concur with the latter.) Kwak arrived in Omaha, officially a Master of Fine Arts.

 

 the state is primarily open road. “If I want to go anywhere,” Kwak says, “I just jump in the car and I’m there immediately.”

 

Omaha serves as the primary setting for Kwak’s debut novel, Go Home, Ricky!, published in October 2021 by The Overlook Press. Our narrator, Ricky, believes he is half-white and half-Native American. His estranged father is Jeremiah Twohatchet, or so he is told by his mother, Lena Powell. Ricky is a janitor at the local high school, where he befriends (or attempts to befriend) Native American students in the Intertribal Council. He also wrestles in an independent league, where his tomahawks and plastic headdresses are best sellers.

In the opening chapter, Ricky suffers a wrestling injury which leaves him in a neck brace. Unable to work, Ricky is joined by his mother on a trip to Kansas in search of Jeremiah. They discover he recently died. Also—spoiler alert—Lena wasn’t honest: Ricky’s father is not Jeremiah. His father is a white man named Roy Templeton, who lives in West Virginia. The novel’s true conflict is the fallout from this new reality. “I always knew that that was going to be the case, because the book isn’t really about finding his father,” Kwak says. “It was always about Ricky confronting his whiteness.”

 

The novel would be vastly different from any perspective other than Ricky’s irreverent, high style. In fifty-four chapters, mostly of vignette length, Ricky riffs on a number of topics. For example, he compares his old Mustang to a leather jacket: “You convince yourself that it doesn’t mean you’re trying too hard, that you do look cool, you do look cool, you do look cool.” Ricky has experience in stand-up, sketch, and improv; I’m surprised to learn that Kwak doesn’t. Given my attempts at stand-up and sketch as an undergraduate, it’s clear that Kwak has the cadence and material to bring the house down. “I have so much respect for the stand-up genre,” Kwak says. “I don’t know. I’d be terrified to try it.”

Kwak’s literary influences include Barry Hannah and Amy Hempel, as well as contemporaries Jenny Zhang, Mitchell S. Jackson, and Kimberly King Parsons. At one point, Kwak read upwards of 150-200 books per year, which has informed his writing and syllabi. He encourages students to question the canon. “Why are we holding up these people as a sort of status quo?” Kwak asks. “And who are the people slipping through the cracks?”

 

With busy semesters, Kwak can’t allow superstitions to inhibit writing time. “When I was in Boston, I would go to these stationery stores and, shit, drop like fifty bucks, a hundred dollars,” he says. “I would buy expensive notebooks and cheap notebooks and fancy pens and cheap pens.” He often wrote one or two words before tossing them aside. He now manages his time more efficiently. In general, he avoids public spaces. However, Kwak wrote a large portion of Ricky at a Barnes & Noble, with coffee and croissant by his side.

 

“During the writing of the first draft, I went bonkers,” Kwak says. “I don’t even know how I did it. There were months where I feel like I blacked out and I just wrote and wrote and wrote.” He doesn’t outline his work, which lends to Ricky’s improvisational aura. He first has to establish voice so he can riff, then create characters and study how they approach hurdles. Sometimes solutions aren’t as obvious as they appear. In the novel’s early drafts, Ricky travels alone to meet Jeremiah. “And then I was like, ‘You know, this shit’s boring. Who’s he going to be talking to?’” Kwak says. “‘Is he just staring out the window?’” With Lena beside Ricky, the scenes become dynamic.

 

 

referring to an abortion. Ricky hoped to raise the child.

 

Kwak posits that our digital age creates new ways to misread each other. And while he doesn’t believe that every contemporary novel needs to respond to technology, he wonders why it is often left out. “I do wish more novels were unafraid to grapple with the way that technology is complicating our communication as human beings,” Kwak says.

 

Ricky is the rare novel that encapsulates the zeitgeist. It is an uproarious satire on race, masculinity, and modern technology. The indelible voice alone is enough to coax the reader forward—and I haven’t even mentioned the proposed orgy.

 

“Once I fell into the novel, I’m like, this is the form for me,” Kwak says. “I just loved being able to write about all these characters and have these longer character developments—but also be able to just riff.”

 

A novel and an author of this caliber revitalizes my infatuation with the written word.

 

I might not be a fool, after all.

 

Surely all the praise from Publishers Weekly and Vanity Fair is moot without approval from Breakwater. Now Kwak has earned a starred review from his alma mater.

 

Kwak is prepared to build on the success of Go Home, Ricky! He already has concepts for two novels, and is generous enough to share details for one in the early stages of development. “It’s the first real, heavy-duty thing that I’ve written about being Korean-American,” Kwak says. He invokes Anthony Veasna So’s posthumous story collection, Afterparties, which follows Cambodian-Americans post-genocide. Kwak underscores So’s occasional use of humor to explore generational reverberations of trauma, a theme which Kwak plans to explore in the aftermath of the Korean War. “At its core,” Kwak says, “I’ll be writing about a character who’s figuring out what it means to be Korean-American.”

Jonathan Smith is a first-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is the fiction co-editor for Breakwater Review.

Photo credits: author photo by Kevin Kwak; book jacket © 2021 Abrams

  "you're not really riffing in a short story. It's got to be tight.

"What if I just throw out everything I’ve been writing for the last two years and I just start brand new?"

I have never visited Omaha. I suppose it’s safe to say the city doesn’t garner the same appreciation as other major metropolises. Perhaps this influences Kwak’s admiration for underdogs. Rent is “dirt-under-your-fingernails cheap,” he states in his aforementioned essay, and “car keys left hanging in car doors will still dangle there come morning.” The city is home to about 500,000 people, while

"During the writing of the first draft, I went bonkers. I don't even know how I did it. There were months where I feel like I blacked out and I just wrote and wrote and wrote."

  "What the hell is that? Why would I get a Master's in Writing?" 

Whether on the road or in Omaha, Ricky is not bashful with modern technology. Netflix binges, late-night Googling, Instagram algorithms—these are routinely invoked in the narrative. Ricky himself goes semi-viral, not once but twice. The novel mirrors our technological moment. Text messages become dialogue, devoid of proper punctuation and capitalization. Early in the novel, Ricky's girlfriend, Frankie, sends this text: "i did it got gelato after". She is