‘Crazy Rich Asians’ author Kevin Kwan joins this year’s roster of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival to talk about his latest novel, ‘Sex and Vanity’ — we caught up with Kwan to learn more.
Anyone who relishes in the life of excess and extravagance (and gleefully privy to all the rich people problems that come with it) won’t be strangers to Kevin Kwan’s works, which started with the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ trilogy. The bestselling series was later adapted into the 2018 film, applauded for bringing Asian representation on a monumental scale to Hollywood. His latest novel, ‘Sex and Vanity’ was picked up for a feature film presentation by Sony Pictures — just a week after it hit shelves in June.
‘Sex and Vanity’ has been named a breezy update to E. M. Forster’s ‘A Room with a View’ for 2020. The plot places the lens on Lucie Churchill, a biracial protagonist who, on top of a lifetime of contending with racial microaggressions, is torn with two love interests: the WASP-y fiancé of her family’s dreams or George Zao, a former flame she now can’t stand.
Kwan has no doubt been keeping busy: amidst a drama series in development at Amazon with STX Entertainment and numerous film and TV projects in the works, he was a speaker at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, hosted at the Asia Society.
We caught up with the author ahead of his session on 14 November, who shared more about his latest novel, what he got up to during lockdown and his own take on the world of luxury going forward.
1. Following the incredible success of Crazy Rich Asians — the book trilogy and ongoing film — can you tell us how the idea for Sex and Vanity came about?
I wanted to do something totally different from the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ trilogy for starters. I wanted to tell a fun romantic story set on two of my favourite islands in the world: Capri and Manhattan.
2. ‘Sex and Vanity’ is about the journey of half-Chinese, half-white protagonist Lucie Churchill. Can you tell us more about how you decided to centre the story on her?
I wanted to create a character that was representative of so much that is happening in the world and especially in America today. Lucy is biracial, caught between two worlds, two cultures, two class systems, and I wanted to explore her journey of self-discovery as she navigates all these various tensions.
3. What themes have you been able to explore more of with this new trilogy?
The subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of racism that exist within a multi-cultural family; identity issues that arise from being an insider/outsider; the social structures and idiosyncratic ‘rules’ of New York society.
4. Certain facets of Sex and Vanity are linked to Hong Kong — do you have plans for the story to revisit Hong Kong, or will you ever write an entire book based in Hong Kong?
Two of the main characters, Rosemary Zao and her son George, are from Hong Kong. I’d love to set more of my stories in Hong Kong if the opportunity allows.
5. While Crazy Rich Asians features a much larger ensemble of characters and lineages, ‘Sex and Vanity’ has a much smaller cast of characters, was this intentional?
Absolutely. I really wanted to tell a much simpler, more intimate story that surrounded one very fascinating young woman.
6. The ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ film achieved its immense success in part by giving a major platform to previously underrepresented Asian characters in literature and on screen. Can you tell us a little about how this has also evolved in your latest book, or in works by other contemporary authors?
I just write the stories I’m interested in telling. The fact that my stories are populated with Asian and Asian-American characters is only natural. Hollywood’s problem of grossly under-representing Asians on screen is a separate matter that I and many many others are working to address by creating projects that feature all the amazing global Asian talent out there.
7. What’s your understanding of the world of luxury for Gen Z — how might that shape your novels going forward?
I think for Gen Z there is less of an emphasis on luxury and identifying with certain designer labels and ‘blingy’ stuff, but more of a focus on how what they’re wearing and how they’re living is a reflection of their personalities and values. I think even in ‘Sex and Vanity’ you see that my heroine Lucie isn’t fashion obsessed or even really interested in status symbols. She happens to have nice things but they do not define her, and in fact they have to represent her authentically. She loves shopping at the boutiques of artisan designers in New York rather than global brands.
8. Will you factor in the pandemic in upcoming novels?
I really don’t know how I will handle the pandemic in future books. We’ll see.
9. How have you been coping with lockdown during the pandemic? Can you share any recent/new projects (or newfound hobbies?) that you’ve been working on?
I won’t kid you, it’s been rough. I’m used to travelling a lot, so staying in one place has been a real challenge. But I also realize how lucky I am to have a safe haven and that I can work from home when so many others do not and cannot. I’ve been reading a lot more fiction than normal and of course watching a lot more TV. The silver lining is that I have found new ways to collaborate with people on new projects I never thought I’d be involved in.