top of page

“You Can Lie to Others, but You Can’t Lie to Yourself”: Gene Kwak as Portrait of Humility & Craft

By Gage Saylor

Gene Kwak

The Overlook Press, October 2021

USD $26.00

272 pages

Editor’s Note: This review has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Gage Saylor: I’m always curious about the embodied process of writing. On an average day, while writing Ricky, what did your process look like? Where did you write? For how long? Did you take breaks? What did you do on those breaks? While writing, did you spend your time staring at a screen? Did you pace? When did you call it quits for the day? Did you have a specific word/page goal?

Gene Kwak: I could never really work with word counts in mind. Because some days I’m going to bang out like two thousand words and some days I’m going

to tap out a solid joke. So, I’ve always worked according to time. I feel like a sprinter versus a marathoner. I can’t sit at the computer for hours on end. I can give it two or three hours at a go and then I take a break or even call it for the day. And while I’m working, I’ll stand up, pace, go drink some water or coffee, go online. Mostly, I’m listening to music and just going wild. I don’t feel like I need to shut off the outside world while I write because my writing is about the world, and also, while I understand that some people need to really hunker down to make everything go fuzzy and parachute into their fictive worlds, I’m very much like a child who can go wacko at the drop of a hat.

GS: Now that you’re a year removed from the publication of Ricky, and four years removed from starting the novel, I imagine you see the novel quite differently than how it first began. Is there anything you wish you could go back and tell yourself about this project way back when? Words of encouragement, or like, hey, scrap that whole idea about [X], that’s not going anywhere.

GK: No, I think everything that happened with Ricky had to happen in the way it did. Some of those things were very quick and others took a while, especially due to COVID. But the writing of it was a joy and to see people enjoy it and say nice things and write nice notes is worth the wait. Everything that’s happened has been unexpected. Publisher’s Weekly review. Nod in Vanity Fair. Audiobook getting highlighted by Apple. French edition on the way. None of this was in my wildest dreams. The writing had to happen the way it did and everything else has largely been out of my hands and I’ve approached it all as just bonus lives.

GS: One thing I wonder about is how you find the balance between voice and advancing the story, especially since the book is told in first-person present. Do you see voice and advancing the story as always working in tandem, or were there times where you told yourself, okay, lay off the voice here and convey what’s important. Did you catch yourself overdoing it with the voice? Like, yes, this sentence rips but also does it need to be here? How do you navigate those impulses?

GK: I mean there are always going to be riffs you have to cut. But the writing and rewriting and rereading will reveal the truth. You can always sniff your own bullshit. You can lie to other people, but you can’t lie to yourself. There were a few passages and jokes and one-liners I had to cut. Good ones, too! But they’ll float around in my brain or find new life in a different form or they won’t and that’s okay. One thing I think early writers get obsessed with is thinking that whatever great thing they wrote last is going to be the last great thing they wrote. And I’m always like, no, you have to have confidence you can do even better the next go round. So, if I lose something, I lose something. If you feel like you don’t have another trick up your sleeve, rip your sleeves off entirely and see what kind of magic you can conjure.

GS: What’s your biggest piece of advice for writers at the very beginning of their writing life? Like, how did you get “good” at writing? Or any piece of advice you received that made writing or the process snap into place for you?

GK: You just have to do it. There’s no secret to getting the writing done other than writing. Don’t get too bamboozled by the business side. When it comes to all that, do what you’re comfortable doing, and it doesn’t hurt to learn about some of the machinery from people you trust. Keep a healthy confidence, but also stay humble. Try to help others. Take the craft seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

GS: The intro to your book is one of my favorites of anything I’ve read in a while. How different does the final version look compared to the first draft? I imagine that the opening section is the part of the novel you’ve worked on the most, since that tightrope walk seems so difficult; you have one chance to sell us on Ricky, his aspirations, and the potential of this specific match, not to mention making the wrestling spectacle feel “real.” What a feat to pull off.

GK: Thanks, Gage. I’ve said this in some other places, but truth be told, that intro is not the intro I labored away at for years. The other one was good, great even (it got me into Tin House and Yale and a few other opportunities) but then when I was at Yale for this workshop, the incredible Julie Buntin pointed out some places where the language was a bit dense and a couple other places where it had more air. And I totally agreed. So, I sat in this hot ass (no A/C) Yale dorm and rewrote the whole intro in one rip and that’s almost word for word what the final published version is. But it took those years of finessing and then having the confidence to throw it away to ease the new one into place. But you’ve always got the ghost of the old one in its bones.

GS: Piggybacking off that, this is less of a question and more of a comment—sorry—but it’s interesting that the opening is the only actual wrestling scene in the book. Even though I’m someone who never really followed wrestling in a serious way, I naturally felt this longing for more scenes like that, and it’s interesting because that’s how Ricky feels, right? He wants wrestling back in his life.

GK: You nailed it, Gage. I did want the reader to have this mimetic moment of longing for more wrestling. No one’s really mentioned that. Also, honestly, the intro and injury are a nod to Friday Night Lights Season One. What a bonkers move to hurt the star quarterback out the gate. Also, sports scenes, like sex scenes, are just never as good on the page as they are on film. Maybe the best piece of sports writing in fiction are those first one hundred pages in DeLillo’s Underworld, “Pafko at the Wall,” but even those are more about the mood and the atmosphere.

GS: In a book about identity and masculinity, wrestling seems like the absolute perfect junction for all these things and this whole idea of performance (kayfabe and all that), what’s real versus what’s performed. Did you have a moment early on while brainstorming/writing where you were like, holy shit, this is something; this is a book?

GK: I knew almost immediately that this was a book. It started with a short story that I wrote about wrestling and I tapped into something honest, something joyful. Mostly because I was writing about what thumped my heart and I wasn’t trying to be “literary” or fulfill someone else’s idea of what made for “good art.” I was just doing what I loved and riffing. And then all the pieces started coming together into rectangle form.

GS: The obligatory, what are you reading/watching/listening to question.

GK: [I’ve] been reading and rereading some of Fernando A. Flores’ work. Playful, surreal at times, and bonkers good. I found his book Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas at AWP in 2018 and have been a fan ever since. Rereading the work of my pals, Jean Kyoung Frazier and Joseph Han. I’m always randomly picking up their shit and dipping my toes back into it because they’re inspirations to me on every level. And then I started rereading Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Really under-discussed writer. Even her earlier short novels are oddball and maybe not that solid as stand-alone works (I think even in her own opinion), but she’s a master of voice. Truth is, I avoided Geek Love for years because I thought it was a rom com about nerds. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

GS: What are you taking away from this project into the next one? Now that you’ve published your first novel, does it feel any easier? Or does it feel like you’re back to square one?

GK: [It] definitely feels easier in some ways. People are like, no, it’s not easier, and of course that’s bullshit. Remember how absolutely rudderless you felt when you had never finished a full-length manuscript? That shit’s terrifying. Makes the whole process mystifying. Even if the new project is completely different, it at least feels a little easier in that you can tell yourself, well, shit, hoss, I’ve done this before or whatever you’d say to yourself at your second rodeo.


Gene Kwak has published fiction and nonfiction both in print and online in the The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Wigleaf, Redivider, Hobart, Electric Literature, and in the flash anthology Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction. He teaches at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Go Home, Ricky! is his debut novel.

Gage Saylor was raised in South Carolina. His work has appeared in Passages North, Moon City Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He received his MFA at McNeese State University, where he was awarded the Ada C. Vincent Scholarship, the Robert Olen Butler Award for Fiction, and the Paul-Avee Prize. He is currently pursuing a PhD in fiction at Oklahoma State University.


bottom of page