Exclusive Interview: Author Kevin Kwan on 'Rich People Problems' and 'Crazy Rich Asians' the Movie

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New York Times Best-Selling author Kevin Kwan is back in Manila for a tour around the metro to promote Rich People Problems, the third and final book of the Crazy Rich Asians series, and also to promote the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians, book one of the trilogy, the filming of which just wrapped up a few weeks ago.

And just like his previous book tour in the country back in 2015 for China Rich Girlfriend, Kwan was not able to resist the calling of our islands. He was able to find time to escape to Palawan (a special place he includes in his third book, slight spoiler alert!) for a quick breather from the craziness of promoting book three.

During Kwan's last book tour here in Manila with Fully Booked, we kept up with the high-end antics and A-list adventures of the Shangs, Youngs, and Tsiens with two incredibly juicy novels, Crazy Rich Asians and its sequel China Rich Girlfriend. Rich People Problems fancifully ties in all the stories to make it quite a fitting ending. "It's book three, it's really the conclusion of the story of the Shang, Young, and T'sien clan," Kwan shares during the press conference, "and wraps up all the stories about Nick and Rachel, Astrid and Charlie, Kitty Pong. It hopefully gives insight into this family and the different generations of this family and why they are so crazy."

I am about one hundred pages away from finishing Rich People Problems, and like every reader who has known well Nick and Rachel (and everyone's favorite, Astrid) since book one knows that there are still many more stories we want to see written about these crazy rich Asians. And while the series may have ended, we can now look forward to the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians and how Kwan's words will come into life in the big screen with all the high fashion and extravagance that it deserves. Kwan shares that he is very involved in the film, so fans can expect all the details they loved reading to turn into reality. "Nina Jacobson, the producer, she asked me when we first began this adventure, 'What do you care about the most in this movie?' And I think she expected me to talk about character, you know, story... I was like, the fashion," the author shares with a chuckle. "The fashion has to be perfect. And so I really wanted to play a role in the fashion, and set design, because I think you have to get that right. Readers care so much about the details."

Kevin Kwan

Read below the highlights of the exclusive, one-on-one interview with Kevin Kwan as he talks about his third book, writing, and the first film adaptation of the Crazy Rich Asians series.

Question: With three books in the Crazy Rich Asians universe, how do you keep track of all the characters and families? Personally I sometimes have to backtrack because there are just so many of them. Do you have an organized master list of all of them?

Kevin Kwan: I don't. In the crazy jumble in my head, somehow I'm able to keep track of all these people. You know, I know them all so well at this point. There all like little children to me, so I try to be a good shepherd of my flock. [laughs]

Let's talk about a favorite character in the books, Astrid...

Oh is she everyone's favorite character?

It seems like it! I mean, I love her and everyone I've talked about the books with just love Astrid.

Oh yeah. You're part of the Astrid society. There's an Eddie society, there's a Kitty society...

Oh I like Kitty too! But then, there are so many readers rooting for Astrid. Did you ever feel that when you were just starting to write Astrid in book one, that readers will be that drawn to her character?

No. Never. It was just almost like a supporting role, you know what I mean? And now she's become a big star in the series. So that was kind of a lovely surprise. When you write a book and when you release it to the world, you don't really own it anymore, you know? Readers interact with the book, and they have their own relationship with the book, and it takes on a whole new life that you don't ever expect.

You mentioned at the press event a couple of days ago that the real Astrid [Kwan's characters are based on real people] has read the books. But do you think that she knows Astrid is based on her?

I don't think so, no. I don't know, I really don't know, frankly, whether she knows. In a way, I hope she does not, you know? But she's a very smart woman, you know?

Yeah, maybe she's just keeping mum about it. Astrid would be like that.

Yeah, she's being very polite and very proper as she is.

There's also something I'm very fond of in your books -- the footnotes. When you were writing it, did you have a particular voice or character in mind? Because the tone is very different.

Absolutely. Oliver. It's all Oliver. It's completely in Oliver's voice.

So you were really writing with his voice in mind?

Yeah. Actually, I wanted the cover to say, "Book by Kevin Kwan, Footnotes by Oliver Tsien." Somehow my publishers wouldn't allow that, they thought it would be confusing, you know. It gets into filing issues and ISBN issues and this and that. [laughs] But it's just a joke, it's part of the concept.

How different is the feedback or the reaction of readers from the US compared to when you are in Asia and you get to interact with the readers here?

You know, I love my American fans. My biggest fanbase is still in the US, they love the books there. Caucasian American readers tend to be more reserved. They're enthusiastic, but there's no Justin Bieber effect in a way that there is in Asia, you know? Everyone's very respectable, you know? In the Philippines, I really feel the love, people are very vocal about expressing themselves in a very passionate way that you just don't see in the US.

What I have noticed, though, with the third book--and I've seen this change since book one--Asian Americans who used to be completely silent for the first book, for the second book. For the third book, suddenly they're completely speaking out. They're getting up at events, they're the ones that are talking in events, and saying "Thank you for writing this book," and "You've changed my life," and it's really special. Like this woman came up to me, she looked like a lawyer, corporate dressed woman, like very well put together, Asian. And she came up to me at my signing, I think it was San Francisco or one of these cities, and she goes, "Thank you for writing a book that finally makes me proud of who I am."

Wow.

You know, I was just like... I was so touched I couldn't speak. I just kinda nodded? [laughs] Because I never expected to write a book that wold make her proud--you know, it's such an unbelievable thing to hear. So I'm very greatful.

Does music or traveling greatly influence your writing mood?

Absolutely.

Do you have to have a certain space when you're writing?

Yeah, I write on the same space, all the time. I have sort of rituals, and you know, I have to be disciplined with the second and third books and because it takes a lot [laughs] you know, to write a book in a year.

How different were your writing patterns different from book two to book three?

Book two and book three were quite similar; book one was more haphazard. Because I was just writing little bits here and there for over the year. By book two and book three I had to become almost like a military operation, you know, because I had deadlines to beat. Whereas book one, I had finished the book before I even sold it to a publisher. I think I guess for book three I needed even more quiet space and quiet time, and remove myself from the everyday.

Were there any particular music that you listened to set the mood for writing the books?

It really depends. There were key moments where I put on music, a lot of the times I write completely in silence. But some of the more emotional scenes, I put on some very lovely sad music, like I listen to a lot of Jeff Buckley, for example, during certain pivotal moments. For this last book, you know Jake Bugg, the musician, I listen a lot to his album Shangri La. So yeah, I like to get things in a certain mood, so some scenes, some of the very beautiful grand scenes, I put on the theme from Out of Africa. So yeah, music does really help set the mood sometimes. But majority of the time, I'm writing in silence. Just hearing all the honking and the screaming in Manhattan... [laughs] and all the cursing.

I remember you mentioned you began with the end in mind, that you envisioned Crazy Rich Asians as a trilogy from the start. But when you were already writing book three, did the direction change for some of the characters and plotlines?

A little bit. A few characters surprised me, because as you write, they talk to you, they start telling you what they want to do, what to say. So some of the characters took me in a different direction than I originally intended. I'm happy about that, though.

I think one of the things that fans of the book are looking forward to is how faithful the Crazy Rich Asians film is going to be with your book. Are there going to be some scenes or particular moments that will go off-script, like new characters or stories that will surprise us?

There are no new characters, but I think the readers might be surprised to see which characters get more airtime versus others, and how sometimes a character that was very very small in the books has maybe become a larger character in the film. So we did shake things up.

It's very faithful in many ways. But I didn't want to obligate Jon [Jon M. Chu, Director of Crazy Rich Asians] to make a carbon copy of my book on film. Film is a very different medium, it has to exist in a different way, it has a different audience, and our goal is to make the best movie possible. How can we take this story that's five hundred pages long and turn it into the best, most exciting two hour long spectacle as possible? So changes had to be made, and I approved every change, and I'm thrilled. Some hardcore fans might get angry, I'm gonna say that. But I love it, so, I don't know... I'm not a hardcore fan. [laughs]

So the trilogy has ended, but are you still attached to these characters that you think about what they'd be doing, five, ten years from now?

Oh yes, absolutely.

Like now for example, it's a really different situation right now in the US. Do you ever think about how these characters would react to what's happening right now?

Definitely. I think about future books, possibly doing spinoffs and this and that for certain characters.

Spinoffs? So there's a possibility?

Definitely. At the moment, I'm more excited about the new projects that are in a new universe, involving new characters and storylines. But of course I have a soft spot for these people, I spent six years with them, you know? So, we'll see.

Another thing I'm sure fans are looking forward to is seeing all the absurd extravagance, and all the fashion come to life on film. Was it a tough challenge for the production to really bring everything to life, and have you done a set visit to see it for yourself?

Oh yeah. I work very closely with the costume designer. I think it was challenging for them, because they know how much the readers are gonna care and how much the fans are gonna count the fashion being spectacular. They felt the heat of that. You know, you want to be able to do something that's current, but also that won't date in six months. So you have to walk this line, and what photographs well, and what's going to look good on screen, what's available. And what looks good on each actor, because actors all have very different bodies and different color tones. So it was fun to see what happened and I think people are gonna love the fashion. I love it. Unbelievable pieces, like, unbelievable. And the jewelry, the accessories, the watches, it's the whole universe.

I've read about some pretty amazing facts about the movie: it's the first Hollywood-produced movie with an all-Asian cast in 26 years, also the first all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club. Is there even more pressure knowing that this movie is making history?

I personally don't. Jon Chu might. [laughs] It's also the first Hollywood romantic comedy with Asian leads, where the hero and the heroine are both Asian. You know, think about it. Pretty Woman--think about all these iconic romantic comedies. Actually, Pretty Woman isn't a romantic comedy. It is in a way, yeah. You know, like Notting Hill. Everything's always been very white people. So now you have two Asian leads falling in love. That's huge.

I hear you're working on a television series now. Can you tell us more about that?

Unfortunately I can't so much, but very soon I'll be able to. It's in the stage now that there's a lot happening. I guess it's still development stage, but we're really starting to get into it. But you know, studios are very proprietary about what they say, and it's very precious to them. I would say it's still completely on-brand, so people who like Kevin Kwan books will hopefully love the new show. But it's very different tonally, very different style-wise, it's a different story, different characters. Hopefully it will surprise people.

I'm sure you have been well exposed to the world of crazy rich Filipinos. How would you profile a crazy rich Filipino -- is it different from someone who is China rich?

Definitely. I really think that there is this warmth and generosity and a zest for life and fun here with the crazy rich. They know how to enjoy themselves in a nice way. They're very open, they're not uptight. I've seen so many miserable crazy rich Asians from other cultures that you know are not having fun. They're just doing something because they think they're supposed to. I'm supposed to be eating at this restaurant, I'm supposed to be seen here at this club, or this society or whatever social occasion. Whereas for the Filipinos I've met or in this world, they're there because they want to. They're enjoying themselves, and that's infectious.  
 
One reader is curious about the accents of the Asian characters. Is having a foreign accent or the lack of it an indicator of status?

Yeah, I think so. There's this neutral, Amercian-y British accent that I think a lot of social people now try to put on, I've noticed. You see it even with posh New Yorkers, they all wanna talk the same way. They all wanna sound like one person. I'm not gonna name that person, and you see all these socialites now. Even Ivanka Trump has this accent.

That's so interesting--where did that come from?

It orginated from one particular person. And they've all been trying to imitate this one person, I've noticed.

Are these people with strange accents more for females?

Females, yeah. Guys don't care.

You mentioned before how reading non-fiction greatly influenced your Crazy Rich Asians books. Is there any chance you'd be writing non-fiction in the future?

You know, absolutely. I wrote non-fiction in the past, so I used to write travel and culture pieces and fashion pieces. So if I find the right topic to write about, I'd be happy to write a non-fiction piece. That's where I come from as a journalist. My favorite writers tend to be journalists. So, definitely. I'd love to do a biography of someone, I'm not sure who yet. That'd be a fun thing to try to accomplish.

Any advice for writers who aspire to do what you do -- create this whole universe and write a series of books?

I think if you're just true to your vision and your voice, you just go for it one hundred and fifty percent. Because that's what I try to do. I didn't try to censor myself, I just said I'm gonna do this crazy thing and I'm gonna push it to the nth degree. Because I never thought I was going to write a book that's full of brand names, it just goes against everything I believe in, which is not to name drop. [laughs] And to do this book in this outrageous kind of way. But I pushed it. I just said, okay, I'm just gonna go for it, and go crazy. And for me it's been very rewarding to see the results of that.

How about advice for the next hurdle: getting published?

Never give up. Keep trying. The greatest writers have always had the most rejections from publishers. Keep writing, keep meeting other writers, you know, networking in the community is so important. There's such a great support system among writers helping other writers. Wherever I can, now, I try to help other writers. I give a lot of blurbs and praise for new young authors starting out. Because I know how difficult it was. When I wrote Crazy Rich Asians, it was so tough to get a respected writer to say something nice about the book.

Wow, really?

You have no idea. So many people that I though, that I even knew, turned me down. Because they were afraid to be associated with this book, which really surprised me. But I managed to meet these lovely, generous people that I'm indebted to for the rest of my life--they gave me amazing quotes. So now I really try to return the favor whenever I can to young writers.

Kevin Kwan's 'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'China Rich Girlfriend,' and 'Rich People Problems' are available at all Fully Booked outlets; you can also 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

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Kevin Kwan

Kevin Kwan (born 1973/1974) is a Singaporean–American novelist best known for his satirical novels Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend and ...  read more »

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