Kevin Kwan's lockdown lowdown
Published in the Sunday Times (05/07/2020)
Compiled by Jennifer Platt
Thankfully I finished the book in my home right in LA before the pandemic hit, but it's almost as if I was in self-quarantine for the last half of last year anyway because I began writing the book last fall. And then I finished it and about two weeks after I was able to go back into the world again, it had shut down.
Keeping the story relevant
I travel a lot, I meet a lot of people. I'm very curious. I'm one of those people who has friends from different age groups. When I was younger, 18 years old, most of my friends were in their 30s and 40s and some older. But I find the older I get the younger my pool of friends is. So I have friends who are in their 20s. And also my friends have children who are teenagers now, who are in college, and so I take a great interest in what's relevant to them. I still don't understand Snapchat and TikTok. It was interesting for me to get into the mind of 19-year-old Lucie. I spent a lot of time talking to people in that age group.
I'm constantly working on my TV shows and films. In Hollywood they had to push the pause button on production and film because of the virus, but they didn't push the pause button on us writers. So we're creating content for a time when people can hopefully come together and start filming again. People want, now more than ever, to watch TV. I know. I was never one to watch that many shows but I have watched more TV than I ever thought I would in the past three months.
Favourite lockdown shows
I've just started Beecham House. It's the new BBC show set in India, co-created, directed and produced by Gurinder Chadha. A mysterious British man goes to India in 1795. I also really loved Giri/Haji on Netflix. A Japanese man goes to London to investigate something. To me, it perfectly captured the British and Japanese cultures.
What are you reading?
I'm a voracious reader. I go to bed reading a book every night. I just finished an astonishing book called Notes on a Silencing written by my friend Lacy Crawford, a novelist who's now written her own memoir. It's a must-read. I don't want to give too much away: she went to a prestigious private school in America and something devastating happened to her there, which shaped the next 30 years of her life. It's so beautifully told. It is painful but at the same time it's an important read. Before that I
read a novel by Christopher Bollen called The Destroyers. It's one of his older novels. I first read his recent one at the beginning of the pandemic in March called A Beautiful Crime set in Venice. I've become a huge fan of his work. They are entertaining page-turners and yet so poetic. It's rich candy.
I used to be in fashion but in the last 10 years my life has become so busy that I don't have time to think about fashion anymore. I'm usually in a T-shirt and a pair of jeans and if I need to dress up I throw on a blazer. I'm becoming more and more like my father. He used to be extremely fashionable when he was younger. I look at old photographs of him in albums and he always had a suit and tie on - he was so dapper. And at a certain point he just stopped. I think I've reached that point too. I dress for convenience now, throwing on whatever is clean. From a cultural point of view, though, I try to pay attention to what creative people are doing. In February, right before lockdown, I was fortunate enough to go to Paris and attend the Christian Dior haute couture show because a friend, Judy Chicago [a feminist artist] designed the sets as well as different aspects of the collection. So I went to support her and to see what they did and look at the artistry behind fashion.
The pandemic is good in a way. It's forced us to all hit pause and take a look at what's important to us. All the protest and the change that's happening in America couldn't have happened at a different time. I think the virus forced these issues to the forefront and in its own way has become a valuable experience. I believe that everything happens for a reason. Hopefully this will lead to more meaningful change in the world.
I see a lot of change with my friends who used to be much more ardent consumers. A lot of them are giving away their money, now more than ever, to important causes. It's made us question why we need those pieces of jewellery, dresses or expensive art when no-one is coming over. It's made us question how we could use that money better and support people. In all my books I use a lens of satire, but this has hardened it. I always wanted to highlight the vast income inequality that exists. I don't try to hit people over the
head with it but in all my novels you'll find characters that say this is obscene. In Crazy Rich Asians, you have Rachel who says she can't believe people live this way, that it's obscene. In subsequent books you have characters who voice how privileged some people are and how wrong the consumption is.
What's in a name
I didn't name the book Sex and Vanity. I have to thank a family friend for that. He was 17 at the time, and we were talking about people in his age group and their obsession with Instagram and social media in general. He's one of those rare creatures who doesn't use social media at all. He couldn't understand about the posting of the selfies and the posers etcetera. He said: 'It's all about sex and vanity.' I said: 'You're absolutely right, it's so true and it's such a great name for a novel!'
I don't think of my books as romances, but I suppose they are. It's the classic story of boy meets girl. It's what people want to read and it's a good plot device. I write books to entertain people and there are only so many stories you can tell. Someone once said that there's only really six stories in the world.
Writing women well
It has to be innate. It's not a conscious decision. It's not something that I meant to happen. I grew up in a household with my grandmother, my aunt, my mother. I was always around strong, female, colourful characters. And the men were all silent and obeying. Even my father was a very quiet man. The women ruled the roost. It was easy for me to access those voices.