Interview with Novelist Kevin Kwan

Image: Author Kevin Kwan (photo credit: Giancarlo Ciampini)


When Kevin Kwan’s first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, came out, I couldn’t stop talking about it. I had been waiting for someone to write an Asian society novel in English (think Jane Austen or Edith Wharton) and the book was every bit as witty, cutting, and loving as I hoped it would be. Here was a narrative that expanded Asian life beyond poverty porn, immigration trauma, and tiger moms. The work fit exactly into my fantasy of what fiction should be. I was so curious about this Singaporean writer who lived in New York.

A few months after I read the novel, I was at a Thanksgiving dinner party when I met Kwan in the foyer of a house in Hong Kong. (I may be misremembering, but I recall that space next to the door being bigger than my apartment.) “I love Crazy Rich Asians!” I said. What can I say, I have no chill. Reader, I was rude: I monopolized his attention for over an hour, but he was so gracious and kind.

Kwan’s latest novel, Rich People Problems, brings the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy to a close. (If you haven’t read it, go forth! It’s a delight.) We caught up over e-mail.

[Note that there are minor spoilers in this interview.]

Doretta Lau: What did it take to bring this narrative to a close? How does it feel to let go of these characters?

Kevin Kwan: Rich People Problems was by far the easiest of the three books to write. I always knew how I wanted to end the trilogy, and in a sense, the stories in this book had the longest gestation period, starting when I first began writing Crazy Rich Asians. It feels tremendously cathartic to finish these books and to let go of these characters. Because I only really finished writing the book in April, I think I’m still trying to process everything.

DL: You named Charlie’s security teams after Wong Kar-wai films. I take it you’re a fan of his work. Which of his films is your favourite?

KK: Haha! Thanks for picking up on that! I am a huge fan of Wong Kar-wai, and In the Mood For Love is quite possibly my favourite film of all time. Of course, I also love Fallen Angels and Days of Being Wild. Films are one of my biggest inspirations when I’m writing.

DL: Kitty Pong is such a genius creation. She’s an outsider who doesn’t care about manners. I’ve been meaning to ask you whether Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country was an inspiration.

KK: Absolutely and totally! I’ve actually stated that in previous interviews when China Rich Girlfriend was first released. Elizabeth Bennett was only a fleeting inspiration for the first book, but Undine Spragg was a complete muse when it came to writing about Kitty. The Custom of the Country also happens to be one of my favourite books and I have a fantasy that one day I’ll get to direct a miniseries based on it.

Image: Cover of Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan


DL: What’s the most Crazy Rich Asians moment you’ve experienced while on book tour?

KK: There have been so many. I think the one that stands out was when a very well connected gentleman invited me to get on his helicopter and fly off to a secret undisclosed location to visit a famously exiled political figure that wanted to meet me. I very reluctantly (but probably wisely) said no.

DL: Life imitates art—are you following the Oxley Road home situation in Singapore? It’s real life Rich People Problems!

KK: As they say, “truth is stranger than fiction.” I’m just glad my book was published well before this all happened so no one can say I stole a story!

DL: Any fun stories to share from the Crazy Rich Asians film set?

KK: I’m really not supposed to say anything. What I can tell you is that it was a magical experience for all involved—from Jon M. Chu to the entire cast and crew, everyone felt like they were in the midst of creating something very special and history making.

DL: What are you planning on doing once you’ve wrapped the tour and the film?

KK: I need a beach vacation desperately. Then it’s on to my next big adventure—writing the one-hour-scripted-drama TV series that I’m creating for STX Entertainment. For me, it will be a new experiment in telling stories.

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