The Author of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Can’t Go Home, Except in His Books

A reader of Kevin Kwan’s books could be forgiven for expecting him to make a grand entrance at lunch in Beverly Hills — in a Lamborghini, perhaps, or wearing a slick pair of shades.

Instead, on an unseasonably brisk Tuesday in April, Kwan walked into the private dining at Crustacean with a tentative tilt to his head, as if clearing a low roof. He wore tortoiseshell glasses, a blue cardigan and hair cut for maximum pensive tucking behind ears. Picture David Foster Wallace minus the bandanna.

Kwan immediately moved a vase of white roses from one table to another — “Do you mind? So we can see each other?” — then hugged Crustacean’s chef, “the great Helene An,” whose garlic noodles make a cameo in his new book, “Lies and Weddings,” coming out on May 21.

To understand Kwan’s reputation for fabulousness, consider his oeuvre. His debut novel, “Crazy Rich Asians,” published in 2013, has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and been translated into over 40 languages. A Broadway musical is in development. The movie version was the first since “The Joy Luck Club” to feature a majority Asian cast.

Kwan’s next three novels covered similar territory: wealthy people behaving decadently and questionably, but usually with heart and always with panache. They were best sellers too. At one point, the “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy occupied the top three spots on the paperback list, landing Kwan in an elite clique of authors including Colleen Hoover.

Kwan didn’t utter a word about these laurels at lunch, nor did he appear to have much in common with his over-the-top, entertainingly superficial characters. His relocation of the flowers showed a willingness to look a person in the eye. His hug was real, not an air kiss; Crustacean has been Kwan’s home away from home since he moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2019. As for his car, Kwan preferred not to go public with the make and model, but it’s not one a valet would be tempted to take for a joyride.

“I get tangential access to the world in my books, but I’m not part of that world,” Kwan said. “I feel like I’m always an outsider.”

Kwan has a habit of summarizing his characters’ educations — and, to an extent, their pedigree — in parentheses after their names. In “Lies and Weddings,” for instance, the heart throb is Rufus Leung Gresham “(Mount House/Radley/Exeter/Central St. Martins),” whose best friend Eden Tong “(Greshamsbury Nursery School/Mount House/Downe House/Cambridge)” secretly pines for him, much to the chagrin of his mother, Lady Arabella (Willcocks/Cheltenham/UWC Atlantic/Bard). You get the idea.

Kwan’s personal parenthetical is equally revealing. “Far Eastern Kindergarten/Anglo-Chinese Junior School,” he said, pausing for a swig of orange turmeric spritzer. “Clear Lake Intermediate School/Clear Lake High School/San Jacinto Junior College/University of Houston.”

The first two schools Kwan attended were in Singapore where, he said, “I grew up in a big house, with grounds, staff, all that.”

On weekends he boycotted Sunday school, preferring to sit with his parents in church (“ground zero for Singapore society”) while studying social machinations: “Who was seated where. Who dissed who.” Then he’d go to lunch with his aunt, Mary Kwan, an Auntie Mame-like figure who wrote for Singapore Tatler and “spared no fools.” Their dining companions were a roving salon of artists, architects, business people and royalty.

“I could hold my own,” Kwan said. “I didn’t behave like a kid. I would participate and listen to the gossip and feed off it from a really early age.”

If those meals were entry-level classes in the art of observation, Kwan graduated to the doctoral program when he moved, with three weeks’ notice, to Clear Lake, Texas. His father had spent his formative years in Australia and, Kwan said, “missed it when he went home to Singapore. He was a dutiful son; he gave his parents three grandsons. But he always wanted to have a different life.”

Clear Lake was NASA country and, circa 1985, home of “the last gasp of idyllic America,” Kwan said. “You went out and played with your friends till dinnertime. I think that’s really what my dad wanted us to have. He also wanted to toughen us up — toughen me up. He’d be like, Kevin, go mow the lawn. Kevin, take out the garbage. I became a really good lawn mower.”

Kwan’s new home, a suburban ranch, was a far cry from the protected luxury he’d left behind. His family lived within spitting distance of neighbors. His mother taught piano; his father was one of the original franchisees of Marble Slab Creamery.

In Texas, Kwan skipped two grades and was the youngest, smallest student in his class, earning the nickname “Doogie” (as in Howser). “I was a strange kid. I was smart and verbal. I could talk about high society,” Kwan said. “I was just trying to finish reading my biography of Margaret Thatcher.”

Among the children of engineers and astronauts, there was room for a creative type who liked to write and draw. But Kwan didn’t pursue either one with any intensity until he landed in Victoria Duckworth’s freshman composition class at San Jacinto Junior College.

“She encouraged my writing and my love of reading,” Kwan said. “She gave me Joan Didion’s ‘A Book of Common Prayer’ and that just blew up my world.”

The two lost touch years ago, but Duckworth was aware of Kwan’s success and sounded delighted to hear his name when she was reached by phone at her home in Buffalo. Even as a teenager, Duckworth said, “Kevin’s writing seemed effortless. He just had this wit.”

She recalled “preparing for the worst” when Kwan shared his poetry with her, but he turned out to be a gifted stylist with an “inner intellectual life.” Duckworth, who taught for more than three decades, said, “Out of the handful of students I remember, Kevin is one.”

At the University of Houston, Kwan started to take himself seriously as a writer and filmmaker. He also earned a new nickname: “the Designer Poet,” because he used words like “Armaniesque” in verse.

“I’ve always enjoyed the comedy of pretension,” he said. “I was hyper-aware of it as a child because I was in this world where there were all these high status people coming and going.”

Kwan said he has never been back to Singapore. In 2018, the country’s Ministry of Defense announced that he owed two years of national service and could face a fine or prison term if he returned. He used to dream about his home country when he was younger; now, Kwan said, “people show up from my childhood who become fully formed characters.”

Writing fiction, he said, is a way of “remembering and revisiting” that part of his life.

“Crazy Rich Asians” started as a lark, something Kwan planned to self publish for the amusement of friends. Midway through, he was working on a book about the Oprah Winfrey Show with Deborah Davis, the author of “Strapless,” and mentioned that he had a novel of his own in the works. Davis offered to read it.

“People were always asking me to read manuscripts and they were always dreadful,” Davis said. But she was fond of Kwan — “He was proper and courtly and had impeccable manners” — so, “I said, ‘Of course I’ll read it,’ half thinking that I probably wouldn’t.”

Davis was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 25 people when the draft of “Crazy Rich Asians” arrived. “I looked at it and I thought, OK, I’ll read five pages,” she said. “I read five pages. I peeled five carrots. I read five pages more. Ten pages more. It was the worst dinner I ever made, but it was the best book. I could not stop reading.”

She encouraged Kwan to send “Crazy Rich Asians” to Michael Korda, a veteran biographer, novelist and longtime friend.

Kwan was reluctant. He said, “That would be like going to Michelangelo with a lump of coal and being like, ‘Look, I carved a little something, what do you think?’” — but Davis “would not let up.” Eventually he obliged.

Four days later, Korda called. He put Kwan in touch with Alexandra Machinist, then an agent at Janklow and Nesbit, who sold the book to Jenny Jackson at Doubleday.

“Crazy Rich Asians” was an instant hit in Asia, Kwan said. It was excerpted in the June 2013 issue of Vogue. Once it came out in paperback, it landed on the best seller list. And then, “Crazy Rich Asians” was the guest that never left, perched by the caviar for 41 weeks. Kwan’s ascent had begun.

Now, a dozen years and four books later, he admitted, “I wish I could have written under a pseudonym.” He was joking, sort of.

“I’m an introvert,” Kwan explained. “I grew up in a family where there were so many people who were public figures, and I saw the pressures they had to endure. I had no interest in that.”

Also, Kwan continued, “it takes a lot to write in this voice, to write in these characters’ voices. Actors always say, it’s a lot harder to make comedy. I feel the same way about writing fiction that’s funny. I can write you the saddest damn story you want; I could do that in my sleep.”

While working on “Lies and Weddings,” Kwan experienced writer’s block for the first time. The pandemic was at a low boil; the world was rife with uncertainty. “Those years changed me,” he said. “They changed everyone; how could they not? I was dealing with the new reality of, what do I even want to write anymore? There was a lot of soul searching.”

Unlike the “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy, his new book doesn’t take place in Singapore. The story bounces from England to Hawaii to Morocco, with enough designer labels, priceless artwork and luxurious accommodations to make Beverly Hills seem folksy. But there’s an undertow beneath the froth.

“Kevin’s writing about mixed race heritage. He’s writing more about gender than he has before,” Jackson, his editor, said. “There’s this whole second layer that’s social commentary and astute cultural observation.”

The shift is intentional, Kwan said: “I’ve branched out. I’m inspired by this new generation of Asians who are so much more comfortable in their own skin.”

He went on, “I love looking at the theatricality of it all” — the art, the fashion, the food — “just like I did as a kid. I love sitting back and watching drama unfold. What happens when families get together? What happens when friends get together? What happens when someone new marries in?”

Now 50, the age his father was when the family moved to Texas, Kwan remains committed to his upper-crust characters. He still maintains folders of outfits, locations and foods for each one. He said, “I’m trying to show that authentic side to people who have rich people problems. Heartache is still heartache. Grief is still grief. That’s a through line you’ll see in all my books: what money does to families. How it can infantilize people. How it can be a prison.”

The garlic noodles arrived from the secret kitchen where An protects her family recipe from prying eyes.

“Hopefully I’m creating a faceted portrait of people and their issues,” Kwan said. “For better or worse, this is just what I know.”

Source link