Literary Hub

When Kevin Kwan Realized He Could Be Funny

WS: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and this is But That’s Another Story. I’m not one of those readers who feels compelled to visit the places where my favorite books are set. When I’ve tried, my attempts have usually ended in disappointment. I once tried to find the Hotel Edmont, where Holden Caulfield stayed in The Catcher in the Rye. As far as I can tell, it never existed. And even when literary landmarks do exist, they’re not for me. I have no desire to stand outside Tiffany’s before it opens at breakfast time with all the other Holly Golightly wannabes. But I’ll tell what you I do love—visiting the places my favorite authors lived and seeing where my favorite books were written. For this, New York, my hometown, is a goldmine. In the West Village, just a stone’s throw from where I live, I can stand outside Edna St. Vincent Millay’s tiny house and know she often stood just there. I can go to Langston Hughes’ Harlem brownstone where he wrote so many of his greatest works. At the South Street Seaport, I can imagine Herman Melville walking the same cobblestone streets. But the best part of all is that New York isn’t a museum—it’s a living city. And as I walk around, I get to imagine the poems and novels that strangers are working on, and what great writing will emerge from this city that’s already given birth to so many. And recently, I got to talking about the literary pull of New York with today’s guest.

KK: Hi, I’m Kevin Kwan. I’m a professional dilettante, and the author of Crazy Rich Asians.

WS: Crazy Rich Asians is just the first of Kevin Kwan’s books—the first in a trilogy that also includes China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems. And it’s also one of the biggest films of the summer. Much of the series is set in Singapore, where Kevin was born and spent his earliest years.

KK: I was a really typical, rambunctious little tyke, basically. I ran around barefoot, in surfer shorts and a tank top. And I was part of a bicycle gang that would terrorize the neighborhood.

We’d steal fruit from people’s gardens. Just a fun, innocent, idyllic, Huck Finn kind of childhood.

WS: And The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wasn’t the only book that inspired adventures during Kevin’s childhood.

KK: Tin Tin was my favorite growing up in the colonies. You know, TinTin and Asterix, all those comic books, and then Enid Blyton, who is not very well known in this country.

She’s much better known in the rest of the world. I think she’s the best selling children’s author in the world. So I began reading her books when I was probably four or five and it was sort of the fantasy series. I would compare it to Harry Potter today. There were goblins and elves and things like that. And then when you got a little older—when you were six to ten— there were the adventure series with all these various English schoolboys going off on cool, crazy adventures.

WS: Is that who you were were emulating with your little band of ragamuffins?

KK: Totally. Because we all read the same books and we all were sort of recreating pirate land. And when I was 11, all that changed.

My father on a moment’s notice decided to move to Texas. And I think I was sort of in shock, because I think I was just at that point where you’re really beginning to, going into adolescence, make these friends for life. And I was in sixth grade and felt like I was king of the hill finally, and then he took me out of that world and planted me in the middle of suburban Houston, Texas.

I remember walking outside of our house—very normal, suburban house—and just being stunned that there were rows and rows of houses and these open yards. And that struck me as really odd, because I’d come from a world where everyone lived behind gates, behind fences, on pretty large estates and here I was, all exposed. And you’d walk on the street at 10 AM in the morning and there was no one there. It was dead quiet, just all these houses and their garages and their perfectly trimmed lawns. And that freaked me out.

WS: But despite the initial shock of moving to Texas, Kevin says he made quick work of adjusting to his new middle school.

KK: It was easy for me, actually. We moved in August and by September, I was in eighth grade. So I skipped two grades, which is a really odd thing to do, because I was maybe three feet tall and my voice hadn’t broken yet. And here were these eighth graders who were gigantic and it was a whole different social world that I knew nothing about. And I was speaking in this sort of strange, pseudo-posh English accent. I look like a little typical fresh off the boat Chinese kid with my bowl cut, but then I would sort of speak like this, and they’d go, my goodness, where are you from? Well, they wouldn’t say that. They’d be like, who the hell is this? So I had to lose the accent by about fifth period. And I did.

WS: Always quick to make friends, Kevin soon found a new bicycle gang in Texas.

KK: The entire high school experience for me, I think, was just about assimilation and beginning to understand a culture. Because I remember in high school, it was a rejection of academia that made me cool. I was not like the other Asian kids that were studying hard for their SATs. I was the little Asian party boy. I did so well that I graduated at the very bottom of my class.

I had fantasties of going to Oxford, but reality didn’t match the fantasy at all. So I stayed home, went to junior college, and very quickly realized that slacking off was not going to cut it anymore.

WS: And it was while studying at junior college that Kevin began to take his studies—and literature—more seriously.

KK: When you’re in junior college, you meet a whole new group of people who are really trying to climb out of a certain world, and this is their last chance. And that was an interesting awakening for me. I actually got to meet some really interesting professors there. One of whom introduced me to Joan Didion.

She was my English professor. Her name was Dr. Victoria Duckworth. Very cool lady. She was this beautiful woman with waist-long, flowing, brunette hair and she had the cool office, and the cool posters of European movies and so immediately, I gravitated towards her, and she gave me a copy of A Book of Common Prayer.

WS: A Book of Common Prayer was Didion’s third novel, a sparsely written, incisive story about politics and wealth set in a fictional Central American country. But what stuck with Kevin more than the plot was the surgical precision with which Didion wrote, a style he found himself emulating.

KK: I was just so blown away by her use of language and I just wanted more. And then a friend of mine at the time said, well you’re reading her fiction. That’s not her good stuff. You should be reading her nonfiction. And he gave me, if I remember correctly, my first copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

WS: When we come back from the break, Slouching Towards Bethlehem sends Kevin down his own path of self discovery.

WS: Kevin Kwan was a student in junior college when he first encountered the fiction of Joan Didion. But it was the nonfiction essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem that really left its mark.

KK: It’s a collection of essays that I think really defined an era of America. It really was the first look at American and specifically Californian counter culture.

WS: And soon, Kevin found himself pursuing the very sort of journalism Joan Didion was practicing.

KK: I got accepted to University of Houston. And so I was really getting my first hard dose of trying to become a hard-nosed reporter. And to read her work, and to see her as this protojournalist that really embedded and did a deep dive into a culture and just reported about it in such a beautiful and yet unscathing way. And there was such an exquisite beauty to her use of words and how she could just use three words to really encapsulate a whole situation. I loved her economy of language. And after years and years of reading overwrought fiction, it was just so refreshing to find this new voice.

I think she inspired me to want to be a better writer and to really hone my language, and my use of words, to strip it down to the essence of what I was trying to get at. And so interestingly enough, while I was writing nonfiction for my university newspaper and experimenting with creative nonfiction inspired by her work, I was also getting really into poetry. And for me, poetry was the ultimate expression of the economy of language, and choosing the most precise words, and polishing each stanza like it’s a diamond until it gets to a point where you have to abandon it. Because as they always say, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

WS: So Joan Didion actually influenced your poetry?

KK: Absolutely. My poetry is extremely different than anything I write in fiction. And for a long time, I felt it was my truer voice. 

KK: They called me the designer poet in my poetry group.

WS: What did they mean by that?

KK: Because I would use words like Armani-esque within a poem. Or I would mention Prada. So there was always a design element or a visual element to my poetry that was quite different from what other people were writing at the time.

WS: But Didion’s influence was not limited to her words.

KK: She really romanticized New York for me, in a way. Especially in the essay “Goodbye To All That,” which is the final essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. As much as she was trying to get away from it, that’s what I wanted to come to. But it wasn’t just her. At that point, I did feel, in a way, like I had really maxed out in Houston. I had written everything I could up to this point that was interesting. All the teenage angst, all the young pre-20s stuff, was already in my writing. And I just needed to live. I needed to have a different adventure before I could write more. And so, after a while, I wanted to move to the big, big city and really have much more access to all the things that were interesting to me. Which at that time was encapsulated by places like The Strand. Or Rizzoli bookstore. Or Tower records. It felt like all the music I wanted to hear, or all the books I wanted to read, I had to always special order from New York. All the magazines I was reading were coming out of New York. That’s the New York I really wanted to be part of. I wanted to move to the Village and be a writer and an artist there. And that’s exactly what I did.

Living in Texas for ten years, I probably made six truly good friends, and it took me ten years to do that. Moving to New York, I made 30 amazing new friends in the first month.

WS: Kevin enrolled as a photography major at Parsons, embarking on a career in art and design that had him leaving behind the poetry and writing he had been doing in Texas.

KK: When I moved to New York, I abandoned all that. I was really immersed in art school. And in photography. And in design. And I really left that behind. For almost 20 years.

I became a creative consultant and I worked for architects, and interior designers, and editors, and artists, and fashion directors. And being in that world, going to Parsons, being infused with this new visual language, really influenced the way I wanted to describe this world.

WS: And as Kevin would travel back to Singapore throughout the years, he found himself reflecting on the way the country was changing. And soon, he found himself taking notes.

KK: I think when you visit every couple of years, you see the profound changes. One year you’re picked up in a Mercedes. The next year you’re being picked up in a Bentley. And then the following year they don’t even come to pick you up anymore; they send four maids to come and pick you up. So, that was what was happening. And I felt like no one’s writing about that world and I’m just going to start writing. Because it was a personal project and because it was something that I thought maybe I would just share with friends, I didn’t commit myself to “Is this fiction? Is this nonfiction?” When I began writing, it was just, “I’m telling a story of what I know.”

I was intending on telling a very dark story. A very Didion-esque story. You know? Really an incisive, biting, investigation into this world of obscene wealth. It was a pretty dark time of my life—my father had just passed away. So I think I was also in the throes of grief. So this was my release, in a way. And somehow, my attempt to write an expose, you know, a very confrontational book became a very comedic, light satire, which I didn’t know I had in me. I didn’t know I could ever write anything funny. But you know, the writing process has a way of transforming within its process.

WS: For Kevin, that writing process had him leaving behind the condensed sentences he had been so fond of in Didion—and in his previous work. Instead, the story he found himself telling represented an intersection and merging of the two worlds he knew so well: writing and design.

KK: Writing Crazy Rich Asians was a whole new challenge. To tell a story in fiction, and to embellish, and to set up a scene in a whole new way, and to use more words than I ever wanted to use ever to describe a sofa. Because it was just for me and because I knew certain friends would dork out on certain details and enjoy them, it was a fun folly to do. Let’s just see how I can make this as stupidly audacious for myself and for my friends. Because there were no limits. I wasn’t censoring myself in any way. I never thought anyone beyond a small circle of friends would ever read the books, and begin to enjoy and crave more of these descriptions. You know, that never occurred to me that would ever happen.

WS: But despite the changes in his writing style over the years, Joan Didion’s influence continues to loom large.

KK: I actually sought her out when I first lived in New York.

She was still very active and doing readings. She would do readings at 92nd Street Y, and I remember the first time I met her was at a reading there. She did a signing afterwards and there were, of course, all her groupies clustering around her afterwards. I remember coming up to her, my hands were shaking, I had three of my hardcover first editions—The White Album, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Book of Common Prayer—for her to sign and I was trying to find the right, profound thing to say to her. I can’t remember what I said. But I remember she said something back to me, but she was so soft-spoken, I couldn’t hear what she said. And I think that’s kind of a classic experience in a way.

WS: That’s great, sort of like a Citizen Kane rosebud moment.

KK: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, what did she say to me? I will never know.

WW: Wow.

KK: But, you know, life has a way of coming full circle. My first agency was Janklow and Nesbit. So, Lynn Nesbit is Joan’s longtime agent and, Lynn actually offered, very kindly, to put us together. And I said, you know what? Sometimes you want to leave things as a lovely, beautiful myth.

But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino, Alex Abnos, and Becky Celestina. Thanks to Kevin Kwan, Julie Ertl, and Russell Perreault. If you’d like to learn more about the books we mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at AnotherStory@macmillan.com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks. I’m Will Schwalbe, thanks so much for listening.

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