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Talking With Kevin Kwan About ‘Rich People Problems’ And Casting For ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

Culture

The book comes out tomorrow

There are a lot of lines in Kevin Kwan’s forthcoming novel Rich People Problems that will make you both roll your eyes and chuckle at the pure absurdity of the characters. Take this one, for example, said by protagonist Nick Young's mother while scolding her only child: "You're my son—I've watched your nannies change your diapers, you know! Now, aren't you going to eat any of the food we bought?"

If you’ve read either of Kwan’s previous books (Crazy Rich Asians and Crazy Rich Girlfriend) you know this kind of she-can’t-be-serious dialogue is par for the course when it comes to the highly spoiled, insanely wealthy Chinese families the plot surrounds. They’re not likable people—most of them—but you’re not picking up these books hoping to read about characters who change the world, you’re picking it up for pure entertainment. Think: Bravo's Housewives but with a lot more money and, as a result, a lot more drama. 

Rich People Problems is the final novel in the Crazy Rich trilogy and follows the Shang-Young clan from Singapore to Europe to India to the Philippines and back again as they battle over fortunes, love, and family. When I chat with Kwan over the phone, I have about 50 pages left in the book. “They all die,” he tells me. “There’s a terrible massacre at the very end.” He’s joking, of course. Though we wouldn’t put it past the family; they’re vicious to the point where violence would be, and sometimes is, a viable option for dealing with their problems.

You’ll have to pick up the book tomorrow when it’s released to find out what actually happened at the trilogy's conclusion. But in the interim, read what Kwan had to say about finishing the trilogy, the casting process for the upcoming Crazy Rich Asians film adaptation, and how his characters would handle the current political climate.

I know that you mentioned, in former interviews, that you always had plans to make a trilogy. But did you always know how you wanted the story to end?
I did. Even before I even began the first book, the big picture was already carved out in my mind, and it was just a matter of connecting the dots and making that happen.

In all three of the books, the footnotes and the asides have a significant presence. How much time did you spend parsing through details and doing research?
There was actually very little research involved. This is all stuff that I kind of know. So, it was really just telling it in a different voice. A lot of people think they’re in my actual voice, Kevin Kwan the author, and they're really not. The author of the footnotes is really Oliver. You know, the kind of know-it-all. It’s really in his voice and his tone because he’s kind of snarky all the time, and it's meant to be fun and comedic but also informative.

As a reader, it can be hard to keep track of the characters, not to mention their backstories. Do you have a "who’s who" and "who did what" document to keep track of that?
I really don't. These are all just kind of swimming around in my crazy brain. I begged my publishers to let me put in more indexes and graphs and charts and tables. I love the design of informational charts and that you can make them really fun for the reader. But, with space and pages or so at a premium, they only let me have like two extra pages for the family tree.

You used your upbringing as loose inspiration for the book. Do people assume that you’re a specific character in the book? 
It’s really funny, people always think that I'm in my books or I'm writing the story of my life, which couldn’t be any further from the truth. These are novels, it's fiction inspired by memory and by experiences. But by no means is this my life… I wish it was. Or maybe I don't because you can see that some of these people are miserable.

How has your family reacted to the books? Is there like a favorite among the group?
I think most of my family is completely puzzled by these books and they don't really understand what the fuss is all about. I would say, the ones that have read my books—because I think most of my family hasn't read my books—they've liked Crazy Rich Asians the most. But it's kind of hard to say because a lot of them didn't read the second book. So how would they think it's the best if they haven't read, it right?

They're just not interested in reading them at all? 
I think sometimes when you're in the bubble, it's hard to be able to see within it. A lot of my relatives are sort of in that world, so they don't really get the humor, and it's just like, "Everyone has a hundred million dollars, what's the big deal?" or "Why is any of this interesting?" Interestingly enough, I find that the relatives and family members who have loved the books the most and have read them all are the ones who have left Singapore and Hong Kong and other Asian cities and actually live in the west because they totally get it. They're out of the bubble as they remember it, and so they can totally see what I see. 

The book is a satirical look at these grand families. Have you gotten any pushback for just how excessive and lavish it is?
Not really, I think people just want more. I felt like I'd really described the world ad nauseam in the first book, but, when I was writing my second book, my editor would come back with notes like, More brands! More designers! Describe it more, this is what your readers want. I think people who are going to pick up a book called Crazy Rich Asians or Rich People Problems are looking for the fun and the froth; they're looking for an escape. They're looking for it to be like a fun romp into the lifestyles of the rich and famous. They’re not looking for Cormac McCarthy.

It’s kind of exhausting reading about these characters; is it ever exhausting writing about them?
I'm totally exhausted at this point. I need a vacation. I literally finished the book maybe, like a month and a half ago. I had so little time to write this book, and then immediately when I finished, it went straight to press, and then now I'm doing all the press for it. I may be touring for the next two months, so I'm looking forward to, in August, sitting on a beach somewhere. Just forgetting my whole life, for a little while at least.

I think a lot of people now, with everything going on, are looking deeper into how privilege informs their lives. And it's clear that that's not something your characters ever think about. Do you think the happenings of today would impact the characters lives at all, or are they too far removed and living in their own bubble?
I actually think that a lot of my characters really do spend a lot of time, introspectively, looking at what money has done to their lives. Rachel, for example, is acutely aware of how screwed up and dysfunctional Nick’s family is because of money; that's why she stands apart and she's not taken in and seduced by this world of money. She can see it for what it is. And I think Astrid, especially in book three, really had a revolution that involves a deeper understanding of her relationship to her family and her relationship to the money that she's inherited and how it's all a bit of a curse. She's trying to turn the curse into a blessing.

In the world of my book, it’s 2015, so what happened now hasn't happened yet. But if my characters were reacting to that today, I think they would be all profoundly affected in their own ways. Nick, I think, would be very concerned by history repeating itself in negative ways. And Rachel would be worried about the economy, with all the decisions that are being made with fiscal policy and stuff like that. 

I want to shift to talk about the upcoming film for a bit. How big of a role are you playing in the making of it? 
I'm an executive producer of the movie, and I was involved from the very start. The producers have involved me in every creative decision along the way, I helped to choose the screenwriter that would adapt my book, and I came to the casting also. Now I've been working with the costume designers and the production designers and just giving advice on how to make the sass and the costumes and everything absolutely 100 percent authentic as possible. So it's been a really beautiful collaboration with the filmmakers, and I'm really grateful for that.

I read that one of the gripes director Jon Chu was having is figuring out whether it’s okay to have a Korean actor play a Chinese character, or, say, a Japanese actor. How important is it, to you, to get the ethnicity of the actors and the characters they're playing accurate since the book is pretty culturally specific?
It is culturally specific and, in a perfect world, it would be great to find that amazing talented actor that happens to be the exact racial group and religion and political party of the character. But we’ve discovered, in the casting process, that that's really not possible because there's only a limited pool of actors and actresses who are English-speaking, first of all, and who can really give authenticity to these characters. I think, sometimes, it's about really choosing the best actor for the role. 

It’s unfair because there's really a kind of typecasting going on in that Korean-American actors are only to play roles that are Korean. And I think that's the double standard that's happening in Hollywood, where Brad Pitt can play an Irishman, he can play an Englishman, he can play a Polish-German, whatever he wants. But why are Asian actors so specifically siloed into only playing roles that come from their specific ethnic background? I don't think that's right. And so, in many ways, we've had to really recalibrate what our original expectations with the reality of what's out there… And I'm thrilled. I'm really thrilled by the cast. It's kind of this dream team of the top Asian talent from around the world. John Chu has also worked on some of these huge, amazing, big-budget Hollywood movies and even he's like, "I've never worked with a more international cast." There are actors from England, from Australia, from Malaysia, from Singapore, from the U.S., from all over the world.

The book is very grand and opulent, I imagine it would take a big budget to have that come across on screen. 
We’ve been really lucky that Warner Brothers is behind us and backing this movie. It's pretty historic in a way; this is the first Hollywood-produced movie with an all-Asian cast in 26 years. And it's the first Hollywood romantic comedy ever to have an Asian cast and Asian leads. So, it's going to have the budget to tell the story the way we see it and to create these amazing mind-blowing shots and the costumes and the jewelry and the cars and the jets and the houses. It's just such amazing eye candy. Even I was impressed, and I've seen a lot.

Now that you're finished with the trilogy, what do you feel like writing it has given you and your readers?
It's always just so fulfilling, on a soul level, when you're able to do something creative and express yourself creativel—I think it's what everyone strives for. And what they do in their work. Writing about these characters and writing about this world has given me a much deeper understanding of my childhood and people I knew in Singapore.

As far as readers are concerned, I just wanted to write a book that would entertain people and also, maybe, make them think a little bit and realize that the world is a big place and filled with amazing places, especially in Asia. At the end of the day, there's this universality in the stories. As much as Astrid is unrelatable, being this exotic beautiful heiress with billions of dollars, I think so many readers can still relate to her on a very personal level. She suffers from the same heartbreak, she has the same issues that so many people face. It doesn't really matter what's in your bank account, we all have the same kind of elemental struggles while trying to get through life. We all have mothers, we all have snarky cousins, it's all there.

What did you listen to when writing Rich People Problems and has your soundtrack differed from book to book?  
I like to use music to help my moods and help set the tone when I create scenes. For this book, I listened to a lot of classical music. Especially when I was writing about those historical flashbacks to World War II, I was listening to Beethoven's piano concertos and stuff like that. But then for other scenes, I listened to more contemporary music. So, for this book, I was actually listening to a lot of James Bay. For the last book, China Rich Girlfriend, I was listening to a lot of albums and Jake Bugg. They're both British musicians. For this latest book, I also listened to a lot of Jeff Buckley—Jeff Buckley is a God. So I was listening to his first album, Grace, a lot, especially when it contained much more emotional scenes.