“In the Philippines, even authors are celebrities,” a fellow journalist quips as Kevin Kwan rises to escort her exit out of the interview area. The author, now-celebrity in question cheerfully engages her remark, but I couldn’t help but notice Kevin’s eyes moving around the rest of the space, seemingly contemplating the next agenda set out for him for the day. It was barely lunchtime, and the bestselling author was just wrapping up his previous interview when he was given a subtle prompt that the next writer was now ready to see him. It was my turn.
Many other book-touring authors have made the Philippines a pitstop, but perhaps no other author had been received as fabulously as Kevin Kwan. He was in the country to promote Rich People Problems—the third instalment to his wildly successful Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, a series of novels that tell colorful tales of the (not so) discreet Asian upper crust—and his stay in the country was decidedly in-theme: from fashion magazine editors, blockbuster actresses and veritable "It" girls throwing posh dinner parties in his honor to his regional book signing event hosted by arguably the most sought-after celebrity in all of Philippine history. Celebrity or not, Kevin is most definitely no stranger to his subject matter, and his fans and supporters better believe that his runaway hit of a book trilogy is only the beginning to a much wider unraveling of upcoming ventures inside the Kevin Kwan universe.
With a well-received book tour (Kevin is currently in his Australian leg), a Crazy Rich Asians movie in production and a TV show in the works, I sat down with the author for a fun and insightful chat.
Are you a Crazy Rich Asian?
I am not. I wish I was—no, I don’t. I was just fortunate enough to tangentially intersect with a lot of Crazy Rich Asians, but I don’t really have any of the requirements…I’m a writer, I live in New York. And writing is not a crazy, rich, lucrative enterprise. It’s a labor of love.
What amazes people about the trilogy is how each character is so well-developed. Do you keep a character profile, or do you just build them as you write?
I have a very strange mind, and I’m really obsessive about details. I also have a very good memory…that’s come in handy as a writer. But for most of the characters, they have to appear fully in my head before I begin [writing], so they’re already fully formed. Of course, once I start writing, they evolve. And [the characters] start surprising me, as they change and evolve… It’s a collaboration—always—between me and the characters. It’s fun to discover these characters, once I’m writing them.
You are a man of detail, and it's the details that drive your story forward, making your book feel like a novel, gossip column, food and travel guide all in one. How do you manage all these facts and use them in your book?
I am a tremendously disorganised person and if you go into my hotel room right now, it’s a disaster. The hotel room is a metaphor for my life, like I can’t find anything. Everything is everywhere…I see my mind in the same way. There’s all these strange things in different compartments…they’re very disorganised in [my] mind but somehow they appear [in the books] in a very organised manner. I don’t know how it happens honestly, cause I’m a wreck. But I don’t keep notes, or an outline, it just unfolds.
The locations and characters in your novels are inspired by people and places you know. Say, Tyersall Park.
Tyersall Park was a composite of different houses that I visited over the years and know very well. There’s a bit of my own family home in it. There’s a bit of my uncle’s house. There’s a bit of other places that created the illusion of Tyersall Park.
Have you had a real person call you out and say, “You wrote about me!”
I have had that happen. I have had a certain friend come up to me and say, “Why did you put me in your book?” [This friend] was actually very upset at me. After the conversation I thought, “This person has gone crazy…” because this person was not Asian, lives in a very different part of the world, and this person’s life does not in any way resemble the character they thought they were! I was like, “You’re saying that Ben Stiller is Astrid Leong.” …No one’s ever been right. I know who I write about.
There is a character that I wrote about that is largely inspired by a real person. And this person said to me, “Why didn’t you put me in your book?! I am such a fabulous person and I deserve to be in your book more than other people” and I’m just like, “Oh, boy.”
How has the response with the third book been so far?
It’s been fantastic! Really amazing reviews from all corners of the world. It was a New York Times Bestseller the first week it came out and people seem to love it. I’m really grateful. Every time I write a book I have no idea how it will be perceived, like, “This person is full of shit…” But they seem to like it! They like the way I wrapped up the story.
What do you think real Crazy Rich Asians (CRAs) feel when they read your novels?
There are two different reactions. Some CRAs who read my book really identify with it, they find validation and sympathy. I’ve had CRAs contact me and say “Thank you for being true to how I feel about the world, and helping me understand my family.” There are some who read [the novels] and just don’t get it; they don’t know what makes it interesting to other people. They don’t see the humour in it because they’re so much a part of this world. They don’t see the satire.
Are your novels celebratory of their lives or a cautionary tale?
To me it’s neither. I’m just presenting a world that I know, and I’m exploring the stories of these characters. It’s up to the reader to decide. I’m not trying to judge this world, I’m just documenting it.
As your career moves forward will you be continuing to make a Asian fiction or are you open to doing something more Western?
Crazy Rich Asians was a great way to introduce myself to the world, but… I don’t want to piegonhole myself to just write the same novel over and over again. I think the industry wants you to do that. There are certain authors who follow a formula. I want to challenge myself, and even not limit myself to just books—bring in my expertise to a whole new medium.
Your body of work is very holistic. You went to Parsons for photography, you worked in Interview magazine, you produced coffee table books, you were into design consultancy. Why did you decide to write about the lives of rich Asians through a novel? Why not say an Asian society magazine?
I felt like [writing a novel] was the best way to tell the story. I wanted to have creative liberty to expand on the story. I think there are certain truths that you can tell more in fiction than in non-fiction, in my opinion.
If there was one character you had to do a spin off novel of, who would it be?
Astrid. If I do a book on other things and no one wants to read those, I’ll write a book on Astrid.
Say someone had 24 hours in Singapore and she wanted to have a Crazy Rich Asians experience, what would be her day like?
She would wake up in a beautiful suite at the Raffles Hotel, then would wander down to Lau Pa Sat and have this amazing feast of 20 different hawkers. I think the Crazy Rich experience is about amazing food. A lot of crazy rich Asians send their maids out to the hawker center to buy 30 dishes to feed 20 people on you know, Bernardaud china.
She would then go shopping on Orchard Road, have lunch at one of the clubs—because no one wants to eat in public in a restaurant. In the afternoon, she would visit the Asian Civilizations Museums to look at some amazing Peranakan furniture, take a lovely drive down Nassim Road and end up at tea in one of the great hotels.
In the evening, they’ll go to a dinner party with their friend in a leafy suburb, and why not end the night with a tour in the Night Safari? The zoo is amazing. The animals at Singapore zoos are some of the most pampered in the world, so why not see the crazy rich animals!
Crazy Rich Asians is the first Hollywood romantic comedy with an Asian male and female lead and the second movie with an all Asian cast. Was this something you fought for?
I don’t think there was even ever a question. From the beginning, everyone wanted to do [the film] authentically to the book. Nina Jacobson, the producer, said “This is what we’re gonna do. Make a movie of crazy, rich Asians.” And I don’t see any white people except the hotel manager! The whole cast was going to be Asian. There was never a question.
Some people decide to write their own screenplay for their novels. Why did you choose not to write the screenplay for Crazy Rich Asians?
At the time, I really felt that if I had the chance to do a movie, I want to have the best team in the world doing it. I did not, at that point, feel like I had the experience as a screenwriter to do the best script possible. Number two because the book is so close to me, I didn’t feel like I would have the objective…I wouldn’t be the right person to take out what was necessary from the book. I wanted the screenplay to be in the best hands possible. Three, the movie deal was done just as when the book was becoming an international bestseller and my publisher was already commissioning China Rich Girlfriend…my commitment is to the books…so I let someone really qualified to do the screenplay.
Will novels two and three be turned into a movie?
I hope so!
What's next for Kevin Kwan?
The TV show! I’ve created a TV show. It’s a one-hour drama series set in the Kevin Kwan universe. Hopefully readers who enjoy my books will love the TV show. We’re in the process of doing the deal with the channel right now…hopefully [it will start airing] next year or the year after. Once we do the deal we’ll start writing the full series and shooting it. So you know, probably 2019.
Interview by and special thanks to Maricica Villarta.