How do you follow up one of the most successful trilogies of the 21st century? For Kevin Kwan, whose Crazy Rich Asians books have sold millions of copies and spawned a $200-million-plus movie, the answer rested in his greatest inspiration: A Room With a View. His new novel, Sex and Vanity, plays like a straight tribute to the E.M. Forster novel—but in this version, the story moves between Capri and New York, tackling the nuances of Asian-American identity in the process. In his first extensive interview about the book, he spoke about all that and more with EW.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I feel like, since your last book, a lot has changed for you.
KEVIN KWAN: Um, yeah. [Laughs] The last book was in 2017, and everything exploded in 2018 in a completely different way.
So how did that inform the way you approached your next book?
Not at all, really. This is a book that has been brewing in my mind for at least 10 years now. It was always this fantasy book that I wanted to write. I'm pretty good at filtering out everything when I'm writing, in terms of expectations from my editor [Laughs], on down to readers. Ultimately, every time I write a book, I'm really just trying to create joy. That's always the underlying spirit that guides me. When you think of joy, you think of wanting to spread it to the people who are going to read it, basically. But in terms of guiding the narrative or guiding the plot or the idea, that doesn't really come into play.
You must have thought about what would come next. Why a fresh take on A Room With a View?
Pretty obviously, this book is an homage. But in many ways I’m equally influenced by the movie—a beautiful adaptation. The visuals. The actors. I remember when I first saw the film, Maggie Smith as Charlotte so reminded me of people I knew in Singapore, [particularly] an aunt I was very close to. This could have been [brewing] more than 10 years. Time just collapsed. I first read the book when I was 15 years old. Loved the book instantly, probably saw the movie two or three years later. It's been several decades now. [Laughs]
It's also, as in your previous books, a very witty and smart exploration of Asian-American identity. I'm curious for you what that process was like, of balancing your own story with this classic love-triangle, particularly in one that is based on, to some extent, people you knew.
Yes, the initial spark of inspiration came from the book and the movie, but I always wanted to tell a larger story of what it’s like for someone who is being pulled by two different worlds. The theme comes up in all my books, whether it be an Asian-American like Rachel Chu or Nick Young—both New Yorkers tied, in some way, to Asia. But it’s especially complicated when you’re biracial, American and Asian at the same time. Growing up, I had many cousins who are half-Asian: half-British, half-American. It's always been fascinated to see how they straddled two cultures and reconciled differences between the cultures, the expectations, and even their parents having such different backgrounds. That's something I really did want to explore in telling this story.
I'd imagine the process of writing a successful trilogy would inform the way you approach writing going forward. What did you learn about yourself as a writer that you brought to this book?
For me, practice makes perfect. I find that each novel got better and better, I felt like my writing got better and better, with these novels, if I had to self-analyze this. [Laughs] Crazy Rich Asians was a fun kind of folly: It was a lot of short-stories cobbled together into a novel. It was written in a very haphazard fashion over a number of years, in airplane lounges and hotel rooms, wherever. The second novel was a much more serious commitment, then the third novel; each time I got much more serious and was able to go deeper. I feel like that has continued. Having three novels down, there was an ease to writing this one where I really, for the first time, felt truly comfortable in my voice as a novelist. Which is totally different than my voice as a poet, as a nonfiction writer. And I wanted to innovate. This is not Crazy Rich Asians part four. This is a whole different beast. It was important to me to flex my muscles and try something new with language. I just had fun with it and let myself play in this world.
What kinds of choices did you make?
I gave myself license to play. There's one chapter at a party that exists purely in conversations; another chapter also takes place entirely in dialogue. Maybe that's influenced by all the writing I've been doing on TV projects. And earlier on, in the first part of the book, I really allowed myself to go to these crazy flights of fancy, in terms of how we describe places. The first part of the book is much more Conde Nast Traveler. I was able to put on my travel-writing hat. I used to do travel writing. I did some longer pieces for magazines. I really wanted to make this fun, juicy travel porn.
Right, I have to ask you about the settings in this book. They’re insane! Just how decadent can you get?
All the stuff in Capri is real. In the Capri section, at least, every place you go is based on an actual place. I have disguised names at some points here and there. Most of them are real places, real restaurants, real historical sites to visit while you're there. In New York, the same holds true. All the private clubs that we go to are the real deal. The only fictional space is Cecil's apartment. But that also is influenced by all of these other audacious spaces I have seen or know about. His house to me is a mishmash of all the latest trends, in really decadent homes. I wanted to have fun satirizing that world. But I always say: In all my novels, if it doesn't exist, I can't write about it.
You're attracted to classic romantic structures. What's the secret sauce there, for you?
It's something that's just gathered from observation and experience. It's really imagining scenarios of what would happen if you put this character in this situation. The characters really begin to take over the longer you write them; they really become these real begins that tell you where they want to go. They start speaking and they start dictating their perspectives. In many ways, Lucy, George, they guided me into how they want the story told, and what they wanted to say. It's strange. I'll have an idea and think I've spent 10 minutes on it and look at the clock and it's three hours. Then I've written a whole chapter and I'll be like, "Where did this come from?" I can't quite explain what happens when I'm locked in my writer's room, in a corner.
Did their journeys surprise you?
Absolutely. I know where they're going to end up. [Laughs] That's just what comes from it being homage. But the course it takes and the journeys they go on and the places they take you, it truly is a magical experience. I can't tell you how that happens, the great mystery of the creative process. Things just happen in the most unexpected ways.
Is that something you're more comfortable with now?
Absolutely. It's always the batshit crazy stuff that happens so spontaneously and so quickly. Some chapters, I literally spent weeks [stressing] over. They're always the most mundane chapters. Then any time I have to write about nasty characters, they just come flying out so quickly.
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