'Crazy Rich Asians' author Kevin Kwan doesn't believe in villains

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The author discusses his new book “Sex and Vanity,” writing meet-cutes, satirizing with love, and placing Easter eggs in his latest novel. Photos courtesy of PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

Rizal (CNN Philippines Life) — A desire to escape is something that many of us probably feel lately. Social distancing and self-isolation have constrained us in so many ways throughout the ongoing pandemic. At any given point, we have all felt limited by video conference calls and via messaging platforms. Sometimes it helps to step out of this new daily grind for a little while.

Escapist literature has been the very thing for me these days — a reminder that a different world used to exist, and a ray of hope that things can return to some semblance of normal someday. Reading author Kevin Kwan’s work has always felt like some sort of fantasy world for many of his readers, and his latest novel “Sex and Vanity” is no exception. His books have been called the ideal beach read. And while reading at the beach may not happen for a while (please don’t go to the beach), it certainly gives me a sense of adventure that I haven’t felt for quite some time.

That’s because “Sex and Vanity” takes you on a rather fabulous trip to Capri, Italy. 19-year-old Chinese-American Lucie Churchill attends the uber glamorous wedding of her friend Isabelle Chiu, with her older cousin Charlotte acting as her chaperone. When Lucie and Charlotte discover that their hotel room faces a dull view, Charlotte asks for an upgrade — which Rosemary Zao overhears. This is where the story truly starts: Rosemary is accompanied by her young son George (who is said to resemble actor Takeshi Kaneshiro of “Chungking Express” and “House of the Flying Daggers”), and offers her room with a much better ocean view. Charlotte is offended by her earnestness, and Lucie is taken aback by her shy but intense reaction to George.

Their Capri trip turns out to be a flashback, and Charlotte and George see each other once again in the present day. Their rather strange meet-cute (and the rest of the story) turns out to be inspired by “A Room with a View,” the 1908 novel by E.M. Forster, which was turned into an Academy Award-winning Ivory-Merchant film in 1985.

Kwan decided to pay homage to the novel and film because of the film’s impact on him and his schoolmates during his teenage years. “It was like the move of the era, especially for romantics,” he says. “People never expected that this little movie from England would become a phenomenon. And it became a movie that people in the theaters would watch over and over again.”

When he finally decided to create his own take on the book, he wanted something that felt modern and relevant — one that not only felt fun, but also satirized the very world it was set in.

In a video interview with CNN Philippines Life, Kwan discusses writing meet-cutes, satirizing with love, and placing “Crazy Rich Asians” Easter eggs in his latest novel.

This might be a minor spoiler, but in the book, there’s a very brief mention of a glamorous wedding guest named Astrid. I understand that you wanted this book to feel removed from “Crazy Rich Asians,” but do your books exist in the same universe?

Absolutely. Of course Astrid would be at the wedding. It’s the wedding of the year, and Isabella Chiu is someone she would know — they’re all crazy rich Asians. So yeah, there is some overlap. I actually put in a few Easter eggs in this book, for fans of “Crazy Rich Asians” to spot. But you have to be very sharp-eyed to spot them. There are at least three.

The story is inspired by a novel that eventually became a film. Did you have any particular attachment to “A Room with a View?”

I think you’re sort of revealing what generation you’re part of. (Laughs) You’re quite young, aren’t you? Which is great! You know, I came of age in the sort of late eighties, and back then “A Room with a View” — the book and the movie — were a sensation. It was like the move of the era, especially for romantics. The book, of course, has been around since 1908. It’s a masterpiece written by E.M. Forster, a British novelist. And then they made a movie in 1985. It was really revolutionary. It was the first kind of period film that became a global box office sensation. It was like the “Crazy Rich Asians” of its day. It made so much money all over the world. People never expected that this little movie from England would become a phenomenon. And it became a movie that people in the theaters would watch over and over again. So there was “A Room with a View” fever when I was a teenager. People were obsessed with it, and some of the stars in the movie are people like Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, you know, some of the greatest British actors. And if you watch it today, it absolutely looks timeless and beautiful.

It was definitely a big movie in my teenage years. All the girls in my high school were like, “Oh my god, I’m so in love with it,” and they were clutching the books everywhere, so I had to see what all the fuss was about. And it really sort of made me fall in love with Italy for the first time.

The original story was set in Florence but what made you decide to set it in Capri instead? I read in one of your interviews that you often visit Capri.

Yeah, I mean, I love Capri. And when the idea occurred in my head to do an homage to “A Room with a View,” it was about ten years ago. I would start planning in my head, you know, how can I reinvent this story, and make it fun and relevant and sexy for this day and age. And these days, people wanna be at the beach, people wanna be with the ocean. They want a room with an ocean view. That’s the coveted thing.

I used the [E.M. Forster] book as an inspiration point, but as you can see, my story becomes so different. The settings become so different. The characters have completely different character arcs. It was really an excuse for me to spend time in Capri, really. (Laughs) Although I didn’t really get to spend time when I was writing the book. I wrote the book in L.A., in a corner, right here.

This is the first time in your novels that you actually explored a romance blossoming. Did you plan out how Lucie and George’s Capri meet-cute would be like, or did you just let it happen?

Like I said, this book has been in the works for ten years. So I would construct scenes in my mind, Everytime I went to Capri I would collect more experiences and scenes. I would go visit Casa Malaparte, that beautiful house on a clifftop. I’d be like, “Oh, I have to set a scene here, where they’re standing on the beautiful rooftop, and something dramatic and emotional is happening.” In a way, as I wrote the book, it was kind of a cinematic experience. I was thinking of moments and scenes, and I would go places… There’s this beautiful sacred cave called the Grotta di Matermania. And so I was like, “Something special has to happen here.” I would pick and choose all my favorite places, and just set a book around it. I had so much fun writing this book and planning it over the years. I hope that fun comes across to readers.

In all your books, there’s a very acute observation of Asian society and culture. It never feels mean, though; how do you satirize with kindness, so to say?

Um, you’re the third person to ask me that this week and I’m stumped to answer! I just do what I do, you know what I mean. I think all my books come from a place of love, and come from a place of wanting to communicate joy ultimately. And yes, I poke fun at ridiculous people, and snobs, and racists, and people like that. But at the end of the day, we’re all human. I don’t believe in villains, I believe in people with complex lives and issues. We’re all a product of our issues. Why is Cecil [Pike, from “Sex and Vanity”] the way that he is? I really try to show that, so you have some empathy from him. That’s how I see the world, and that’s how I communicate my characters. There’s a lot of love there. This book is a satire of the New York upper-crust WASP-y society, and that was a world that actually welcomed me. And I have so many great friends who are part of that circle. And this is my love letter to them, and how influential they were to me as I grew up in New York.

With the rise of billionaires in both the East and the West, there’s a growing discussion of the ethics of wealth. Your novels are satirical about excessive wealth, but did you consider bringing up that discussion in a more straightforward narrative — especially in “Sex and Vanity”?

I feel like I do that with satire. There are a lot of subtle messages embedded in my books, and I really try to portray the truth of these people who do happen to be wealthy. And I feel like this is what I know, these are the characters I know, this is the world I know. This is what I know how to do. It would be disingenuous of me to try to do a book that is a dark, sad, angry diatribe about income inequality — which is very, very real, and very much a huge problem. But I like to catch bees with honey. I like to show things with humor. And hopefully people will see beyond just the surface, and see the message I’m trying to communicate in my books.


“Sex and Vanity” is available at National Book Store and Fully Booked.