Kevin Kwan's 'Sex and Vanity' to kick off author's new 'Cities' trilogy

Johanna L. Añes-de la Cruz

Posted at Oct 23 2021 02:26 PM


A post shared by Kevin Kwan (@kevinkwanbooks)

MANILA -- Local book lovers recently caught up with Kevin Kwan, the bestselling author of the beloved "Crazy Rich Asian"s trilogy as part of Fully Booked's Chats series. 

The interview delved into Kwan’s latest novel “Sex and Vanity,” writing tips and inspiration, social issues affecting Asian-American communities, his future projects among other things.

Coping with the pandemic

When asked how he copes with the pandemic, Kwan said he has been trying to make the most out of our current situation like everyone else. The author, who has been based in Los Angeles, California for the past two years, is keen on looking at the brighter side of things. 

“So many amazing things have actually happened, don’t you think? I think there have been miraculous signs. And I think there has been a lot of compassion in the world. Hopefully, more good things will keep happening. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

“Thankfully, here in Los Angeles, the weather has been beautiful. It has been a very mild summer so far, knock on wood. It’s been pleasant; I’ve been able to do a lot of thinking and spending time outdoors,” Kwan shared. 

He is grateful that he and his loved ones have been, for the most part, healthy, and “we’re just (taking it) one day at a time.” 

Releasing 'Sex and Vanity' amid a pandemic

Kwan’s latest novel, “Sex and Vanity”, was released mid-2020 at a time when COVID-19 had already reached the farthest corners of the globe. He admitted that they initially had qualms about launching the book in the thick of a pandemic. 

“First of all, when we were planning the book’s release, we had some serious talks. This was last year at the beginning of the pandemic. Is this the right time to release a book like this, a fun, frothy summer romance? I really had my doubts. I didn’t want to be tone deaf. I didn’t want to be insensitive to what was happening in the world,” he said.

It was his publisher who convinced him to release the book. “You know, they said this is what people need. ‘If people can’t travel for real, they would want to have the fantasy of travel and this is what your book gives them. So please release the book,’ and I agreed.”

Kwan is happy that since the book’s release, he has heard nothing but positive comments. “People have enjoyed the fantasy of being away in Capri and being in the Hampton’s if they actually can’t be there in person.”


A post shared by Kevin Kwan (@kevinkwanbooks)

The inspiration behind the novel

Kwan shared that it was E.M. Forster’s “A Room with a View,” a novel he has loved since he was a teenager, which inspired him to write “Sex and Vanity.” 

“It is the book that made me fall in love with Italy in the first place; it made me want to visit Italy,” he said.

After a few years of “pestering” his parents, they finally went on a family trip to Italy where they visited Florence and Capri among other places. 

“I remember arriving on the island (Capri) and my jaw dropping because it was, at that time to me, one of the most beautiful places in the world I’ve ever been. Since going to Palawan, I may have changed my mind. But at that time, it was a paradise island.” 

He would go on to visit Capri many times and he started to think about recreating “A Room with a View.” 

“If I could retell the story, reinvent it for the modern age, this is where I’d set it. This is the modern-day place where the tourists want to go, just like Florence was so popular at the turn of the century with the British. But, how can I make this my own story, how can I take this inspiration point and evolve the story so that it’s relevant to today?” 

Kwan wanted to write a novel that also showcases diversity and tackles some serious problems, “while it still gives you fantasy, makes you laugh, makes you hungry, makes you dream of fashion and fun.” 

But “Sex and Vanity” was also inspired by another place. 

“Capri is only half of the book; the other half takes place in New York and the Hamptons. At the heart of it, I saw this book as my love letter to New York. It’s the city that sort of raised me. I went to college there. I spent more than 20 years living there. It’s a city that has been very good to me. It ('Sex and Vanity') has sort of been my Valentine to the city, too.” 

Writing 'Sex and Vanity'

Kwan described “Sex and Vanity” as a breath of fresh air compared to the “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy which he said was so rooted in his past and in stories from his childhood and growing up years. 

“It’s so loaded, there’s so much baggage there,” he said of the trilogy which catapulted him to worldwide fame. 

On “Sex and Vanity,” Kwan shared that he just wanted to write something fun, fresh, and easy after writing three books in four years, 

“If you want me to write another book, I have to make it fun for me. I want to have a romp, too. I want to feel like this is also my summer vacation.” 

With this novel, he could just invent a world that has nothing to do with him or his personal life. “There was a freedom in that, to be able to tell this story and not have to think that ‘Oh, I have to disguise this character so that people won’t recognize them because it’s inspired by a real person’,” said Kwan.

Kwan considers writing this novel easier than his earlier bestsellers, 

“The only challenge was time; I wish I had more time. I wish I could take a year, two years to really write the book. Unfortunately my schedule has become so overbooked with so many different projects.” 

Ultimately, it took Kwan only four months to finish the novel. 


A post shared by Kevin Kwan (@kevinkwanbooks)

The role of fashion and art in the novel

Unlike the “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy wherein fashion was front and center, Kwan admitted that it took a backseat in “Sex and Vanity.” 

Lucie Tang Churchill, the novel’s protagonist whom Kwan described as a “hapa,” a mixture of Chinese and classic white New Yorker born and bred in New York, is not into fashion. “She has nice clothes because of her background, but she’s not a fashionista and clothes are not her obsession.” 

He said that the novel’s focus instead is on Lucie’s love life and its complications. 

He shared that he also wanted to “change things up a bit.” Whereas the “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy is so much about fashion, in “Sex and Vanity,” it’s still there, "but it’s been turned down a little bit. It’s beside the point here. These characters are more interested in other things.” 

'Sex and Vanity' as a social commentary

As in the “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy, “Sex and Vanity” also goes beyond being just a love story as it touches on various social issues, especially those which affect the Asian-American community like racialized microaggressions, discrimination, privilege, beauty standards among others. 

Kwan said that he has seen so much of the struggles of “hapas” through his family and friends, and this makes race and identity interesting topics to explore especially in the context of the United States. 

“Lucie represents Asia and America, what’s it like for her to grow up in New York, looking the way she does. She looks a little more Chinese and she has a younger brother Freddie who looks more white. It’s interesting to see the experiences they both have as they go through life looking the way they do,” Kwan said.

He thinks that it is important to keep investigating these issues and bringing light to them as what he had done in all his other books. 

“I’ve heard from a lot of ‘hapas’, from readers around the world. There hasn’t been a story that I can think of in modern-day literature that has a 'hapa' heroine,’” he noted.

These readers have thanked him for bringing focus to their complexities and triumphs. “It rang true for a lot of 'hapas' and Asian Americans.” 

Moreover, Kwan said that having that connection to his cultural roots has been “incredibly rewarding.” 

“It’s helped me find pride in my own identity and meaning in my life. I think that’s important. Some people may not feel that way. I think everyone has their own journey. I don’t want to impose my judgment or rules on people.”


A post shared by Kevin Kwan (@kevinkwanbooks)

Advice for aspiring writers

“I’m always trying to be a champion for other Asian writers, especially young emerging voices. I always just say, make it specific, tell your story, tell your truth,” Kwan said when asked for pieces of advice for aspiring writers.

He believes that the single most important advice one can give someone who wants to be a writer is to “write the book you want to read." 

"Those are simple, but such true words. I did that in the 'Crazy Rich Asians' trilogy. I wasn’t thinking of getting it published. I wasn’t thinking of it becoming a bestseller. I just wrote a fun thing really as a hobby to amuse myself and look at what happened. I think we’re all filled with original stories,” he said.

Future projects

Kwan is excited that “Sex and Vanity” will be having a film adaptation. 

“It’s very exciting right now because the screenwriter is very, very busy writing the script. I was actually able to look at the first draft of it. I loved it. I read the script and I just laughed and laughed and laughed. I think we’re close to getting it perfect,” he said. 

Kwan shared that Sony wants to make the movie next year and that filming may commence in the spring, “Hopefully that will happen and if that happens, we’ll start casting in the fall.”

He also mentioned that “Sex and Vanity” is the first book in a trilogy, which Kwan calls the “Cities Trilogy”. He said that the second book will be set in London and in another (secret) city, and Paris will be the setting for the last installment. He shared that the goal is to start writing the next book this fall. 

“I hope it will be safe enough for me to go to London so I can begin to do research and begin writing there,” he said.

On his greatest joy

Kwan said that his greatest joy comes from being able to wake up every morning and do something creative and something that inspires him. 

“I know that it actually brings other people joy. That for me has been the most satisfying thing that I’ve been able to achieve in my life. I’m so grateful I get to do that. I’m so fortunate, so lucky. It’s a privilege to be able to do this to be able to write a book or tell a story and other people want to read it and enjoy it. That for me is very meaningful,” he said.