“I was born in Seoul, Korea, and then I moved to the States when I was three. I grew up in a very small town outside of LA. Then I went to the east coast for college, lived in New York for a few years, and then eventually made my way to San Francisco. Growing up, I loved to read, and I was really into school. I knew I loved writing, and I knew it was all I wanted to do—to write novels—but I didn't know how to get there. From a very early age, my parents encouraged me to study. They wanted me to go to a good college, and their story for a long time was that they moved to the states specifically and entirely for my brothers’ and my education. My whole life was so pointed towards college that I almost thought I would die right afterwards, like the way insects fulfill their purpose in life and then just die [laughs]. I took writing classes pretty much every semester, and I studied economics, even though I hated it. It wasn't my parents pressuring me at all—I feel very lucky in that they told me I should do what makes me happy, but I also think that terrified me.
After I graduated, I worked in management consulting and I was miserable. What I hated more than how exhausted I was, was that I had no time to write, almost no time to read. I could feel myself dying inside. There were a few key moments that triggered a turning point. One was when I was on a plane, and I looked outside. There was one of those epic sunsets that you see when you're above the clouds. And of course the sunset is a pretty cliché image, but I was moved by the beauty of it, and I thought how I had no reason to try to put what I was seeing into words. I'd given up a life in which it was important for me to think about how I would put things into words. And it was so crushing, to have that feeling, to realize that I'd walked away from what I felt was my true purpose.
Another moment happened when I was on the phone with my mother, and she knew how heartbroken I was, so she was encouraging me to apply to graduate school. I remember I was standing in the grocery store and staring at a random collection of soup cans, and the soup cans all took on color, almost like a hallucinogenic experience. But it was the color coming back into my life, I think, because everything had gotten so gray. So I applied to the only MFA program that still had applications open, which was Brooklyn College.
I started writing my book towards the end of my MFA, and I got my MFA in 2008. There's something about having wandered so far away from [writing], that I’m now grateful for it in a lot of ways. Because no matter how miserable the writing gets, no matter how disheartened I can get, even my worst writing day never feels as bad as it did when I tried to live a life away from it. Sometimes I joke that what I really love about writing is the syllables. But I'm not necessarily sure it's a joke in that it's just...I love language so much. And while that's nice, it doesn't necessarily lead to speedy writing. That's kind of why it took so long to write my first book. Now I have a lot of rules in place to help me write. It really helps me to write first thing in the morning. And so, when my writing is going decently well, I really need to get from my bed to the laptop as fast as possible. I'll get a glass of water and I'll get coffee. I used to be such a coffee snob, but now I just get my coffee from the Keurig machine. It's awful coffee, but it's fast. It’s all about trying to remove as many barriers to entry to writing as I can.
I started getting into skincare two, maybe three years ago. I love learning about the science behind skincare, and I love getting to know my skin better. I also love that with skincare, it's a moment where I am paying attention to my body and giving it time. I love working in a little quick facial massage when I’m washing my face—it always feels really good, and it’s a moment for me to check in with myself. I double cleanse at night, but not in the morning—in the morning I find it to be too drying, and I won't even use soap then, just plain lukewarm water. At night, lately I've been favoring Origins’ Clean Energy Oil. And then after that, COSRx Low pH Cleansing Gel.
In general I try to avoid things that smell good, but the Origins cleanser does smell good and it doesn’t irritate my skin. The COSRx Low pH one was a recommendation that came from the writer, Arabelle Sicardi. Arabelle posted about it one day saying, ‘Everyone I know who has good skin uses this.’ And that was enough to convince me. After that, I go a little heavy on the toners because my skin tends to get really dry, especially at night when I’ve double cleansed. I love the Son & Park Beauty Water, and then I follow up with the Klairs Supple Toner—the unscented one, not the scented one. And you can really tell the difference. At first I was like, what is this? Why am I paying for something called beauty water? But if you have dry skin and you want to add just one thing, toner or essence really helps. Sometimes at night I might double up on them. I don't do this often because it starts getting to be too much, but if I splash the Klair's toner on two or three times, my skin gets even more hydrated.
Then I move on to an active—I switch them up. During the day I use a vitamin C serum, and lately that’s been the Timeless Vitamin C Serum. It's straightforward and very cheap. At night I used to switch between Sunday Riley Good Genes and a Curology subscription that has tretinoin in it. But—and I hate that this happened—I finally started using Drunk Elephant’s Babyfacial. I knew people loved it and I had a sample, and when I tried it I immediately fell in love. That's how they get you! I only do that like once a week or once every other week, so it lasts longer. After the active step, if I'm at all broken out, there’s a spot treatment from COSRx called BHA A-Sol that I love. It's very low key. I don't go a week without breaking out, at least a little bit.
My moisturizer also switches up based on how my skin’s feeling. I've just started getting into Biossance's Squalane Oil. For a solid year I tried so many different face oils, and none of them worked for me—they all made me break out. But my skin drinks this one up instantly. That recommendation came from the writer Nicole Cliffe, who was raving about it on Twitter. I follow that up with the Stratia Liquid Gold. When I don't use it, my skin gets so much drier. And my usual go-to sunscreen is Elta MD’s Clear SPF 46 sunscreen. It's just a really good, full spectrum sunscreen.
I really love the Korean brand, Mediheal. Their tea tree oil mask is something I won't travel without, because again, I break out easily. I love their EGT Timetox mask. That's just like a good solid staple. And I've gotten more and more into masks from JayJun. It's another Korean brand, and their masks are really good quality.
At first I was like, what is this? Why am I paying for something called beauty water? But if you have dry skin and you want to add just one thing, toner or essence really helps.
There's a sizable subsection of writers who really care about skincare—I particularly love ‘writer skincare Twitter.’ I have a number of writer friends with whom I exchange a lot of skincare information. Like Esmé Wang is someone who also cares a lot about skincare, and we talk about the things we're looking into. Alice Kim is also very knowledgeable about skincare. And Nicole Cliffe and Arabelle Sicardi for sure. One of my most recent new loves is something that [Lisa Lucas] recommended on Twitter—Biologique Recherche’s Creme Placenta. So good. It smells pretty strongly, kind of like wet dog food. Regardless, it's incredible. I've been using it for maybe three weeks and I already know I will never give it up. And honestly, the smell is growing on me [laughs].
I wear makeup if I'm leaving the house, but I don't necessarily leave my apartment every day. My makeup routine is pretty minimal, except for the eyeshadow—because there are so many layers [of skincare] on my face, the last thing I want is a layer of makeup. After sunscreen, I put on a powder that’s from Chanel, and it's a nearly translucent powder that sort of evens everything out for me. I'm very self conscious about it being functional because I'm a writer and it feels so luxurious, but there's a huge amount of product that comes in it, and it lasts forever. And that's pretty much it. Powder and then some eyeliner and eyeshadow and eyebrow pencil, and I leave it at that.
Maybe it’s because I've been traveling so much in the past year, but I'm getting a little sick of [my signature eye look]. I feel almost as though I'm costumed as myself sometimes. I want to try something new, but I don’t know what. I’ve been doing my eye this way for three years or so. It feels a little bit like armor. Not in a hostile way, but just something that serves as a very small, very flimsy armor. To do it, I start with Proof 10 primer—it's Korean. Then I wait until that dries, and I put on a really soft black powder called Raven, from NYX. I carry a gel pen from Marc Jacobs, in case I need to touch up my makeup during the day. Other than that, it doesn’t take long. Probably a few minutes. I don't like wearing volumizing mascara, so I just use Clinique’s High Impact mascara. It's actually a pretty low key mascara, which I like.
Glossier Boy Brow in Clear—that one’s really lovely. Another standby for me is Clinique’s brow shadow. I started using that in high school. For my lips, SPF is really important to me because I burn easily, and so I love Fresh’s Sugar SPF 15 tinted lip balm. When I do want to put on a more colorful lipstick, I love Hi Wildflower’s products. Her lipsticks are amazing. There's a Matí red that I'm very fond of, and Shona, which is a glitterly, slightly more gold lipstick. It can be really fun.
If I'm blow drying my hair, I put in Kerastase Ciment Trifique [Ed note: discontinued, but this productis similar] first. An essence I often use on my skin is COSRx Galactomyces Balancing Essence. I put that on my scalp as well, because I thought, ‘If my skin loves it so much, will my scalp love it too?’ Your scalp is just another variety of skin, after all. It keeps my scalp from ever feeling dry, and I also put Heritage rose water and glycerin spray in my hair pretty much every day. That also keeps me from feeling dry. I know there are a lot of people who go days without shampooing, and I have no idea how they do that. I have to wash at least every other day. Lately I’ve been trying a couple Kerastase products. There's one called Bain Force Architecte.
I get my hair thermal reconditioned—it takes apart the chemicals in my hair and it makes it straight. Left to its own devices, my hair naturally gets really frizzy. It's not that it's wavy or curly, it just gets extremely frizzy. And so I find that if I get my hair thermal reconditioned, it chills out. I do it once a year. If I'm on the run, I don't have to blow dry it, and that's pretty much all I have to do.”
—as told to ITG
R.O. Kwon photographed by Alexandra Genova on August 1, 2019.