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Kevin Kwan was busy working on a TV project when he felt the sudden urge to write a new book.
“I literally had four months to write this book … I was like, ‘I see this window of opportunity, I’m just going to seize it’ and I’m so glad I did,” the author tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The story, written pre-pandemic, marks Kwan’s first since releasing the final book of his Crazy Rich Asians trilogy in 2017. The first book, Crazy Rich Asians, was adapted into a 2018 feature film directed by Jon M. Chu and starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Awkwafina. The film became an instant phenomenon, grossing $239 million at the global box office, with $175 million of that figure coming from North America. Beyond box office glory, Crazy Rich Asians also made a cultural impact, winning recognition for being the first Hollywood studio film to feature an all-Westernized Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club 25 years prior. A best-seller even before Hollywood came calling, Kwan’s original book version went has sold more than 1.5 million copies, buoyed by the movie’s performance.
After such success, Kwan’s follow-up is bound to face pressure to reach such heights again, but the author says he found embarking on a new book journey after Crazy Rich Asians a “breath of fresh air.”
For Sex and Vanity, Kwan was inspired by E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room With a View and its 1985 Merchant-Ivory film adaptation. Kwan’s novel serves as an homage to the British classic but with his signature twist: The story centers on a Lucie Churchill, the daughter of an American-born Chinese mother and a New Yorker father, who unexpectedly falls in love with George Zao after the two meet at a wedding in Capri. Because Lucie has always sublimated the Asian side of herself, she adamantly denies having any romantic feelings for George. But several years later, when he unexpectedly reenters her life at the same time she becomes engaged, Lucie finds herself drawn to George and is forced to confront her feelings for him.
“Using A Room With a View as a departure point, from that first premise, it really changed and became its own thing. Lucie became her own character that in no way resembles the Lucy Honeychurch of A Room With a View. She’s Lucie Churchill. She’s biracial. She’s struggling to get a whole new set of issues that are relevant to her time and her age,” Kwan says.
Ahead of Sex and Vanity’s release, Kwan spoke to THR about venturing into writing a new love story inspired by his lifelong admiration for Forster’s very English classic, releasing a book in the middle of a pandemic, his hopes for a “meaningful change” in the creative industries as well as an update on the Crazy Rich Asians film sequels.
This is your first book that is outside of the Crazy Rich Asians universe. Were you nervous to jump into a new story given how successful your previous trilogy was, or was it more exciting to do so?
I mean, it was definitely the latter. It was a breath of fresh air. After writing this intense trilogy, which ended up being like what 1,800 pages in total, it was so great to just really do something totally different. Something that also isn’t weighed down by my own history. Crazy Rich Asians, it’s so close to my personal history, my family and lots of experiences growing up. I wanted to do justice to the country of my birth and to culture and to represent it right. And here, I could just have fun. Like this is a summer rom[-com]. I wanted to write a book that was fun for me to write, but also fun for people to experience. That’s the only intention there. I’m not trying to change culture this time but, of course with anything, I’m hoping that people will see beyond just the summer romance and see that there are deeper issues that plague in the book. It was really written in good fun.
I know this book serves as an homage to A Room With a View. What was it about that book or film that inspired you for this book?
A Room With a View is just one of these seminal books that I really loved, even starting as a teenager when I first picked it up. Then even more than the book, I loved the movie. It was kind of groundbreaking for its time. It was an international smash hit, so unexpected. It became one of these movies that became a phenomenon, kind of like Crazy Rich Asians. It reinvented the whole country house drama and created a whole genre of films that has led to everything else, like Downton Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, all the English period movies. They really owe such a debt to this movie because it made period films kind of relevant and sexy again. It was always a very special book and a movie to me. Seeing A Room With a View made me want to go to Florence and made me actually discover Capri. I’ve had a love affair with the book and the movie and Italy ever since.
The story highlights so many locations. When did you start traveling to Italy?
It was maybe two years later, I finally got to go to Italy for the first time and have a huge adventure and then discover Capri. I’ve been going very often ever since, so I’ve been lucky in that sense. I had this fantasy, maybe starting 10 years ago, that I really did want to try to do an homage to A Room With a View in a novel form. Every year, when I would go in the summer, something interesting or cool would happen. I would meet people or I would see a character. I would see a girl who really seemed like Lucie and so many times there are these island romances between the American girl that arrives and she meets some like hunky Italian, and you see that when you’re there. It’s just so amazingly vibrant in that way. It’s this pulsating sexy island.
Given you’ve traveled every summer, would you say that you were already inspired to write this new book before Crazy Rich Asians?
Totally. I was like, once I can finish a trilogy and think about life beyond the CRA trilogy, I want to write this book. Then going to Capri every summer, I would see new facets and new stories. I would say, “Oh, I can do this. I can do that.” So, it’s sort of been writing itself for like 10 years. It’s been sort of charmed in its own way because it allowed me to really quickly write the book when I finally was ready to do it.
When did you exactly start writing Sex and Vanity? Was it right after finishing the Crazy Rich Asians books or when the film adaptation was released?
I mean, I really probably shouldn’t even admit this, but I’ve been so busy doing movie and TV stuff [and] I really felt like it was time to write a book. I wanted a book out this summer and so my studio really gave me a break. They let me go on hiatus from a TV project I was developing back in October and I literally had four months to write this book. So, October, November, December, January, I finished and then I went straight back into TV world.
January of this year? Such a quick turnaround!
Yeah, it was crazy. But I was like, I see this window of opportunity, I’m just going to seize it and I’m so glad I did.
What was the biggest challenge in venturing into a completely new story?
The timeframe was a bit of a challenge, but also, with any story it’s how do you bring it alive? How do you make it compelling for the reader? In many ways, this is such a different type of story and type of writing than I’ve ever done. It’s quite different from Crazy Rich Asians. It’s a much simpler story in a way, but sometimes simpler is harder to pull off. How do you hold some of the tension in what is essentially a very simple love story and how do you make it yours? How do you live up to the legacy of an amazing book in A Room With a View, but also really reinvent that and make it relevant and personal and original? I hope I’ve succeeded. I know there’s like legions of fans of A Room With a View that are going to be scrutinizing this stuff with extra magnifying glasses. You want to do justice to the source material, but this is ultimately also very different.
What did you learn from writing your trilogy that you applied to your writing process for this story?
I really was able to learn how to trust myself and to take risks and to really challenge myself to do crazy shit, basically. Like there’s a whole chapter in this new book that is completely told in dialogue. I wanted to challenge myself and I think doing the first three books really gave me the license to keep doing that and keep pushing the envelope and taking those risks. I didn’t want to repeat myself.
This is not in any way CRA IV in Italy and New York. (Laughs.) Although some characters do make very quick cameos! I wanted to keep it fun for my readers. So the ones that notice will notice a few things and people that attend parties and step into the story, too.
Is bringing back old characters in future books something you hope to keep doing?
I mean maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. It seemed appropriate in this book. It was only natural. But never say never. I also don’t want to commit myself to doing that. I don’t know where the other stories are going to take me but, where appropriate, it’s totally fun and I love authors who do that.
You mentioned that you hope readers will see beyond the summer romance and recognize that there are deeper issues. When reading, it’s clear there are moments where you tackle themes such as race, social class and gender inequalities. How does what you see happening in the world today compare with the some of the themes you chronicled in both this book and even CRA?
I just find that in everything that I do, in my film or TV projects or whatever, I’m always trying to be a meaningful advocate for change and for understanding. I can only do my best based on my experience and what I’ve observed of people I know or people that I’m close to, whether they be Asian or Hapa or African American. I feel like as much as I can, I want to try to do my small part. The challenge is that what my characters are going through in no way compare to what’s happening right now in the world. Systemic racism is everywhere and so I can only look at it through my lens of experience and also try to understand other experiences. And I’m hoping that contributed to change in that way.
What’s great about some of these moments in your story, in particular when Lucie, who is biracial, is asked whether she leans more Asian or Caucasian, that’s a moment that could be apply to anyone who is mixed regardless of their race or ethnicity.
Absolutely. I have a lot of Hapa cousins and friends who are biracial who get asked that all the time. But I get asked that all the time too. An interviewer actually asked me just the other day: “Do you feel more Singaporean or more American?” The vast majority of my life has been spent in the U.S. but it’s so hard to define to you, like: Do I feel more American? Do I feel Asian? Do I feel more Singaporean? I am a product of all these various influences. I hope that having this diverse background is what makes me stronger, versus having to be kind of shafted into one culture. (Laughs.) I think that’s the human instinct: People want to stratify you. People want to stratify each other because it makes them feel safe.
We are at a time where we really have to shift that way of thinking and it speaks to race, but it also speaks to social class differences. I try to look at that and really satirize how people have these obsessions with where they are in their social standing and it’s so important to them and which schools they’ve been to are so important to them. That’s why it was so important for me to have this device [in my books] where whenever a character appears, you immediately see their entire educational résumé. Because, to me, that’s a critique of this world that I know, this elite world of this New York circle, where you meet someone at a party and within five minutes, they’ve told you every school they’ve been to and they want to know where you went, too. I just have found that so ridiculous that I wanted to sort of poke fun at it in my books. It speaks to how people are constantly trying to rank each other and stratify each other, and that just has to change.
You’ve been candid how for so long Asians in America have been so underrepresented in media. Have you noticed any changes in the industry to where it seems to be more receptive for non-white stories from non-white writers since the success of CRA?
I think Crazy Rich Asians helped to put a hairline fracture in the dam, put it this way, but I don’t think the dam is in any way broken. And there are certainly a lot more opportunities out there. There’s an awareness now and I think there is more interest. I’m very hopeful because I’m also seeing friends who are actors and directors and they’re getting new opportunities that they’ve never had before, that are really outside the box and that aren’t defining them just by their race. I’m hopeful, but we’re still really at like base camp of the summit, because there’s still so little representation on both sides of the screen. And not just on the screen, but it’s behind the screen in terms of the creative people, the directors, the screenwriters, people in the industry, executives, agents.
I was working on a TV sitcom for CBS last year and that was such a learning experience for me because it’s still such a white industry and there are so few people who even get what you’re saying and who will advocate for you because they just simply don’t understand. So, I think there needs to be more and more systemic change within and it has to happen very organically. I feel like it’s also just the situation we’re in as Asians in America in that people haven’t been pushed to this industry … to get into the creative fields. More people hopefully will be inspired as more jobs become available and it becomes more viable. More kids will go to film school or whatever it is, and then work their way into positions of power.
I like that you said it needs to happen organically because if jumping all in, there’s a fear of tokenism.
Yeah, we’re not looking for a token experience. We’re not looking to just have these novelty movies that check a box. We really want meaningful change and that has to happen organically, but also we do need that push. We do need the people who are in power that will really help push for that change, and greenlight projects that aren’t just the cookie-cutter projects and are more diverse and come from different points of view.
Do you see Sex and Vanity being adapted into a film?
I mean, it’d be lovely. (Laughs.) I can totally see that happening. I can already see the movie in my mind, put it this way.
Are there any updates on the Crazy Rich Asians film sequels that you could share?
We have been just moving right along and sort of heavy in that development process in terms of getting everything perfect, getting the script perfect in the hopes that we can be ready to roll once the world opens up and we can all safely not have the social distancing from our filming. I think, just like the first movie, we want to get it right. We feel like it’s so important that the sequel really lives up to what the first movie did. None of us wanted to do a rush job on it. So, we really wanted it to find its groove.
Do you plan on writing a sequel to Sex and Vanity, or is this a one-and-done story?
So, Sex and Vanity is the first in a new trilogy that I’m starting but it’s not a conventional trilogy in that it’s not like Star Wars, where the story continues with these characters. I feel like the story of Lucie is complete at this point. But the next two books being inspiration and what’s going to tie all these three books together is that each is inspired by a great city. So Sex and Vanity is not only an homage to A Room With a View, it’s my love letter to New York, and the next book will be my love letter to London and the final book will be my love letter to Paris. So, it’s kind of like a Chanel bottle: New York, London, Paris. (Laughs.) You might see some characters overlap, but it’s not like the next book is a continuation of the Lucie story. I don’t think. She might surprise me! She might pop up in the story that I’m cooking up in surprising ways.
Has the pandemic sparked inspiration for your writing, or has writing seemed to be a daunting task at this time?
It’s been both. I think, like anyone else, there’s good days and bad days, and the industry pressing the pause button on production has, in a strange way, given us more opportunity and more time to deepen and create a better product in terms of the scripts I’m doing. I feel like I’ve had a little more time to really let things marinate and better work has come out of it but, at the same time, there’s also days when you just don’t even want to get out of bed or you’re looking at the news and you’re just so angry and disgusted or sad that you can’t write. So, it’s kind of twofold. But I’m very hopeful that we’re in this wave of transformation and it’s going to transform all of us as a culture, as a society and that’s going to transform how we work. It’s going to transform me as a writer in terms of what I want to say and what I want to push for going forward. And I say that just also acknowledging how lucky I am that I get to do this, because for a lot of people, they don’t have the time and they’re working overtime saving lives every single moment. I don’t want to take that for granted that I’ve been very privileged to have this time to create.
Given you’re releasing this book in the middle of a pandemic, are you going to be going on a virtual book tour?
I am, and it’s going to be pretty crazy. Since they can’t tour me physically, they’re having me do it virtually and the next month is getting so unbelievably booked up. It’s good and it’s bad in some ways, because I’ll just be stuck sitting behind a computer screen having like fake book parties. I’d rather actually be at the real ones, getting to meet some meet people and signing books, but it is what it is and we’re all adjusting to the new reality.
Despite it being a new reality, it does seem like being at home has hopefully pushed more people to read and now your book will be able to keep readers company during this time.
I mean, from your lips to God’s ears, let’s see what happens! I used to never read fiction and in the last three months I’ve read more fiction in my house than I have in years.
What books have you been a fan of recently?
There is an amazing book by Christopher Bollen called A Beautiful Crime. It’s set in Venice. It’s amazing and so beautifully written. There’s another beautiful book that I read recently by a debut novelist, her name is Frances Cha and it’s called If I Had Your Face. It’s such an amazing book, set in contemporary Korea about a group of young Korean women and it’s just, to me, so eye-opening and I learned so much and it was also so riveting. There’s a nonfiction book that I just read, which just blew me away. It’s just an astonishing work. It’s called Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford. It’s just so devastating and majestically written. I don’t want to say anything about it other than, look it up. An incredible book!
So, you are releasing this book and teased that you have other projects in the works. Are there any that you could share?
I mean, I wish I could. I’m under many gag orders, so I can’t, but it’s a very exciting time. I feel like I’m creating all this new stuff, which I really hope will come into fruition. I’m learning now that in Hollywood, you have to have like 35 projects going at the same time because half of one will go. (Laughs.) So, for me, it’s been an amazing experience so far. I’m really excited about the new movies coming out, the possibility of the TV series, possibly of Sex and Vanity as a movie, you know?
Sex and Vanity is available now.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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