A week before my scheduled one-on-one interview with Kevin Kwan, I was completely engrossed with several concerns: What should I wear? Will my outfit be aggressively head-to-toed upon meeting him? Or will my unimpressive pedigree of "Filipino, some Spanish, and maybe a just a fraction Chinese" be unbelievably apparent?
If you have read the bestselling author's two incredibly juicy novels Crazy Rich Asians and its sequel China Rich Girlfriend, my mentioned concerns are quite valid. In the book series (there will be a book three!), the Singapore-born Kwan weaves delicious tales about the lifestyles of the ridiculously rich, hilariously tacky, and incredibly Asian. We are introduced to ABC (American-born Chinese) Rachel Chu, who is thrown into this lavish and loony world of the crazy rich when all she thought she would have is one relaxing summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young. Like many, I devoured the international bestseller like a hungry fat kid let loose in a buffet, and chased it soon after with the even crazier book two.
Upon meeting Kevin Kwan before the Manila leg of his book tour with Fully Booked, all the previous worrying was quite silly, really. Fresh from a trip to Palawan, he shakes my hand; the author has a pleasant demeanor and a genuine smile, and we briefly talk about his upcoming tours in Fully Booked. "Tell them to please come, I'll be so sad if no one shows up," he tells me with a soft chuckle. I was at the BGC leg of the tour the following day, and I am sure the long lines for book signing have made him anything but sad.
As we chat in the very Shanghai-chic, theme-appropriate Salon de Ning at The Peninsula Manila, Kwan becomes this charming and witty person to interview–and the nicest–that I can easily compare him to his character, Nick Young. We take our plush and velvety seats, and talk about fiction, writing, creative pursuits, and more.
Q: How early on did you realize or decide that you were going to do this–write fiction?
Kevin Kwan: You know, in 1992, when I was studying creative writing, I wrote a poem called Singapore Bible Study, and that was the genesis of the chapter three in the first book when Eleanor [Nick's mother] goes to bible study with her friends and all they do is look at jewelry and gossip. And that was what essentially the poem was about. So even back in 1992, I knew that I had the seed of a book that I wanted to write– about this crazy world that I have temporary exposure to. So it was always my idea to want to write this book.
When you were writing this poem, were you thinking about it, in the long term sense?
I think after I wrote the poem, and the response to the poem of people–it was published quite widely by a lot of poetry anthologies and stuff like that. And people loved it. And I was at that time doing a lot of readings, you know–it was like a crowd pleaser poem and people loved it. And I was like, you know what? I think I'm on to something here, and I can see this really transforming into a whole book. But you know, I always thought I would write it when I was sixty years old, like in my retirement or something, I would start writing a book.
What attracts you into writing fiction?
I think you can tell a lot more truth in fiction than you can in non-fiction, quite frankly. [laughs] You know? You can really explore into characters and their thoughts and their emotions in a much deeper way, than if you were just stating fact.
When you're writing, do you have certain habits or rituals to get you in that zone?
Well, not really, for the first book definitely not. For the second book, I was really starting to force myself to turn off the phone and not look at e-mails until at least 2pm because I became a morning person in terms of like how productive I was.
How was your writing schedule like, your first book compared to the second one?
Totally different. Because the first book was sporadically written when I had little time here and there. Second book, I had to deliver in a year. They gave me one year to finish this book–actually, less than a year, but I don't really tell people that because they get very stunned. So I was always on a deadline or a schedule, so I had to be really be disciplined about writing this much in a day, and make it work.
What have been the most surprising things that you've learned while writing these books or creating these characters?
The most surprising thing that happened I think in the writing process, and I heard this all the time, and I used to think it was complete B.S.–your characters speak to you. Your characters start taking you places where you didn't expect them to go. And it's very hard to explain that…I know it sounds weird but it really does happen when you are writing fiction and you're really getting into the heart of your character. Sometimes they make choices and you just have to follow along.
What character surprised you most–the one that totally changed direction?
Astrid. Astrid surprised me the most. Because she started out very much just a side character, she's just one of the cousins, like Oliver is a cousin, or like Alistair is a cousin. But as I began writing her story, or the little bit of her story, it just grew and grew and grew, until it became a very resonant character.
Now that you have these two books, do you have the end in mind already for all these characters?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. It's always been planned as a trilogy. In a way, the second book was harder to write, because I already knew what would happen on the third book. So on the second book, I had to bridge the first and the third, you know?
I know you can't really divulge about the third book, but what can readers expect?
Well, there will be new characters and new destinations. Because I've always wanted the book to hop around different parts of Asia and show different types of Asian wealth and different types of families and different types of characters. Locations will surprise you, and there will be a few twists that will hopefully be surprising, and very entertaining.
What I get from reading these books is how you are redefining or changing the way Asians are usually stereotyped in literature. Were you consciously doing that while you were writing?
It really wasn't a concsious thing–it was really just writing characters I wanted to read about, and characters that I understood and knew, that just happened to be Asian. And I think that's kind of what people have been saying about what's groundbreaking about it. It's that they're not exploring specific Asian issues, they are very international and modern and Westernized, but also very true to their cultures. The fact that they're relatable to a lot of people not from their culture is what was suprising.
Have there been interesting feedback or suggestions by your fans or readers?
There have been people that have reached out to me that have wanted me to write their true stories. Because they're like, "If you think your story's crazy, wait 'till you hear mine!" [laughs] And people want to pour their hearts out to you. And so I have talked to people and they have sent me letters and wanted to share their life story in this crazy rich Asian world and what happened in their lives. It's become sort of a confessional and very revealing, and I have to tell them you know–'Please stop, I can't.' They're revealing too much… It's like they feel like I'm someone who can relate to the craziness of what's happened in their lives.
Speaking of craziness. How much part of the books would you say its real?
You know, I would say that every character is based and inspired by real people. There's not a single character that's completely dreamt out of my mind–I don't have that kind of imagination, quite frankly. [laughs] So everything is based on what I observe and what I've seen and the things that I come across. And of course all the locations are real, too. I don't ever write about a place unless it truly exists. For me it's very important to have seen the room or breathe the air of the space before I can describe it.
So is the park in Singapore real?!
Oh yeah. It is. The Tyersall Park? Yeah. It's a private property. It's not abandoned because it's owned by the same people, but if you Google it, there are people that lead tours now into the property, and they are secret tours… They have kind of
infiltrated it because it's an abandoned sort of palace. But it's still there, and it's in the heart of Singapore.
In the second book, you introduce Filipino characters. Do you know of Filipinos, crazy rich Filipinos…?
I have some Filipino friends, definitely. And I just thought it would be great to put in that bit, you know?
What has been the most challenging thing about publishing a book?
That writing is only about thirty percent of the job. I'm normally a very very shy and private person. I never thought I would have to do this much PR. [laughs] Thankfully I am enjoying it, but you know, I never thought that people would be interested in doing signings and stuff like that. So you know, having to do that and social media and all these other things, it really begins after you finish the book. The second step is selling the book because it's such a challenging environment for publishing these days.
When it comes to selling the book, do you have any tips for aspiring authors on how to push their books?
I really believe it begins with the story and what you're writing. And you really want to be as true to yourself as possible. Because when it comes from that place with honesty, it will ultimately be much more original, and I think that's what the people will notice.
Aside from writing, what else keeps you busy?
You know, the last couple of years I really had no life. I've really been writing nonstop and then involved with the movie. I went from writing the first book to going to this whirlwind book tour publicizing it, then starting book two. So I didn't really have much of a life. But in my spare time I love hiking, I like spending time outdoors as much as possible. I loved going to Palawan and going kayaking, snorkeling, stuff like that. I try to balance the sitting on the chair twelve hours a day with a physical side.
And if you weren't writing, what would you be doing?
I think I would still be very much involved with what I did before I wrote, which was I was doing design consulting for publishers and for lots of different brands. Something I still love but haven't had time to do.
Where do you see your characters five, ten years from now?
That would be really interesting, some sort of post-sequel. Because they're all still so young and it would be interesting to see what happens as time passes. And also, I like to set my books in real time. So, what's going to happen in Asia? You know, what's going to happen the next five years in China? Next ten years? What happens when someone like Cassian grows up, Astrid's son? And starts going school and all that kind of stuff. What kind of world will he be living in? That new generation of crazy rich, little Asians.
How about for yourself, how do you see yourself in ten years?
Wow. [laughs] It would be amazing to keep writing. I think it's really been a joy and a privilege to be able to do something creative and actually be able to make a living doing it. I think it's so rare. However long do I have to keep on doing that before I have to you know, start enrolling in dental school or something, or like learning a new trade? I really hope I could keep doing that…beyond just books. I'm interested in other creative forms–movies, stuff like that. Expanding from that.
Speaking of movies, any developments on the movie adaptation of the first book? Because now you go online and you see all these articles on who's their dream cast and all that.
Yeah. Casting has not happened yet, but we're getting very close to doing that, that's the next priority now. The script's finished, so now we can finally cast who's going to be in the movie. I'm going to be part of the team that does the casting, but I don't get the final say—the actors get the final say. I have people in mind, yeah, but whether they want to be in it? [laughs] That's a whole different thing.
Who are some of the authors that have inspired you to write?
I think definitely Julian Fellowes was a big inspiration. He created Downton Abbey, but he also wrote Snobs and Past Imperfect. To me he is an amazing writer and I loved his books, I love how he translated them into his whole other world so he's definitely a huge inspiration. I'm actually influenced by non fiction writers. Like Jon Krakauer who wrote Into the Wild, Joan Didion who wrote The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem--huge influence on my writing.
Is there a book that you wish you wrote? Like you've read it and thought, "Why didn't I write this?"
Wow…Harry Potter? [laughs] I wish I would have written Harry Potter!
I wish I wrote Harry Potter too! [laughs] Okay, last question: what writing advice do you have for aspiring authors?
I think you really have to first of all–write. A lot of people want to write, they plan to write, but they don't actually write. And I think that's what separates writers from aspiring writers. You really have to put in the work and you really have to produce something. So sit down, and put in the time. Whether it's a short story or a poem–gather a body of work, first of all. That would be my first advice. And don't listen to so many people. [laughs] That's my second advice. Really trust your gut as a writer.
Kevin Kwan's 'Crazy Rich Asians' and 'China Rich Girlfriend' are available at all Fully Booked outlets. Reserve your copies or purchase them online through the Fully Booked website (www.fullybookedonline.com). Like Fully Booked on Facebook (/FullyBooked), and follow on Twitter and Instagram (@_FullyBooked).
Follow Kevin Kwan on Twitter and Instagram (@kevinkwanbooks), Like on Facebook (/KevinKwanBooks) and visit his official website www.kevinkwanbooks.com