Kevin Kwan Almost Didn’t Finish This Book

lies and weddings
Kevin Kwan Almost Didn’t Finish This BookMike Kim
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“My ability to write is gone,” Kevin Kwan told his publishing team at Penguin Random House in 2020. “I’m sorry. I lost whatever gift I had. I need to go to cobbler school and learn how to make shoes.”

Kwan is the author of Crazy Rich Asians, which was adapted into the highest-grossing romantic-comedy movie of the 2010s—and the only one to make me cry since Nora Ephron died. Born in Singapore and now based in Los Angeles (when he isn’t traveling the globe), Kwan is known for a breezy brand of jet-set escapism that’s become a publishing phenomenon. Following two best-selling Crazy Rich Asians sequels, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, he published a stand-alone novel in 2020, Sex and Vanity. His books are fun, fast, fashionable romps that modernize the Victorian comedy of manners for our late-stage capitalist era.

But his new novel, Lies and Weddings, almost got stuck on the tarmac forever—until an unplanned trip to Hawaii inspired him to keep writing. After a shocking death in its first five pages, Lies and Weddings tells the story of Rufus Leung Gresham, the only son of a British earl and a Hong Kong supermodel, who discovers that his noble family has spent all of the money he was destined to inherit. “No one had any inkling that behind all the magazine features and Instagram stories of the glamorous Greshams—luxuriating in couture at their swoon-worthy manor, glistening with golden tans aboard their antique black-sailed yacht in the Ionian Sea—rose a gargantuan mountain of debt,” Kwan writes.

To save the family from ruin, Rufus’s mother sends him on a mission to find a wealthy fiancée at his sister’s extravagant wedding in the shadow of a volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. Armed with “a bespoke pearl-gray linen suit from Sartoria Ripense and loafers from Bocache & Salvucci,” Rufus rubs shoulders with a French heiress but also encounters his childhood sweetheart, a doctor of (relatively) modest means named Eden Tong. Spilled secrets, romantic fireworks, and volcanic eruptions ensue, making Lies and Weddings the most fun I’ve had reading a novel in years.

I spoke with Kwan over the phone about writing gossipy beach reads, the magic of Hawaii, the nineteenth-century novelist Anthony Trollope, and his upcoming film, TV, and stage adaptations. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: How did this book begin for you? Where did it come from?

KEVIN KWAN: When I started writing Lies and Weddings in 2020, I just could not make it work, so I basically abandoned it. But near the end of 2021, a friend invited me to the Big Island in Hawaii. Something about seeing the turtles and the lava fields up close helped my writing start flowing again. My week-long trip turned into six weeks, and being in a totally different world recaptured my imagination.

I stayed in this house on Puako Beach Road, which is where I set the main action of the book. It’s one of the last remaining beachfront streets on the island that isn’t part of a gated community or a resort. There are all these houses built during World War II—these little surf cabins next to enormous mansions. The Big Island is also home to so many different climates. You can go from a tropical beach to basically the Scottish Highlands where the temperature is 50 degrees. You can go from a rainforest, where it’s humid and rainy, to a snow-capped lunar landscape on top of Mauna Kea, where it’s so cold you have to wear special arctic gear. It’s magical. I was a tourist, but I got to meet a lot of locals, including some local farmers and a wedding planner who shared incredible stories.

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Do you love weddings? What draws you to them as a writer?

I have a love-hate thing with weddings. In many ways, especially when they’re destination weddings, it’s kind of an ordeal, right? You have to pack a lot, you’re going somewhere outside your comfort zone, and you’re stuck with a bunch of people that you may or may not enjoy. It’s a mixed bag, but therein lies the beauty of what a wedding is: a collision of people who all have different intentions. From the bride and the groom to the friends and relatives on each side, everyone’s experiencing some sort of drama. People meet each other, they fall in love, there are drunk hookups and scandals—you name it. Weddings are such a microcosm of society.

Lies and Weddings is an homage of sorts to Doctor Thorne, a nineteenth-century comedy of manners by Anthony Trollope. Why is Trollope still so funny and relevant today?

I’m a huge fan of historical English fiction and the country-house novel, and Trollope was the master of that. He’s not the easiest author to get into, but you’ll learn so much about British society in the Victorian era. Doctor Thorne is one of my favorite novels and very much the inspiration for [Lies and Weddings]. It’s really his version of Melrose Place. It flips the script on that classic Victorian trope of a woman in need of a good marriage: In this book, you have a man who desperately needs to marry a rich woman, and that was so fun and refreshing for me when I first read it.

Is Doctor Thorne the best place to start reading Trollope?

It’s a great one to start with, and then you should read his masterpiece, which has the best title of any book in the world. It’s called Can You Forgive Her? When I first came across it twenty years ago, I was like, this title is so awful and ridiculous. But then when you read it, by page 100, you’re like, “I cannot fucking forgive her!” There’s no way you could possibly name it anything else.

Lies and Weddings is your second stand-alone novel. Is it harder or easier to write stand-alones instead of series?

I had been plotting Crazy Rich Asians for twenty years, and there was a real pleasure in letting that sprawling family saga flow through three books. But it was a burden as well. When I was writing Rich People Problems, I remember thinking, God, I hope something doesn’t happen to me. It would really suck if this plane crashed right now or I choked on a chicken ball or something. When it was finally done, I was so glad I finished it. I had to slay that beast.

Since then, maybe out of fear, I haven’t wanted to write another trilogy yet. With Sex and Vanity, I wanted to do something that was the complete antithesis to Crazy Rich Asians. I wanted a light frolic. And I fully intended Lies and Weddings to be a fun little romp. But the story and the characters just kind of took over, and it ended up going in different directions than I thought it would. Everything’s very unplanned for me now. With Crazy Rich Asians, I had the entire outline in my head before I wrote a single world. With these new books, I’ve given myself the freedom to let the story be told the way it wants to be told.

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I love your footnotes and the little in-universe excerpts we get from newspapers, magazines, and invitations. Are those as fun to write as they are to read?

It began with Crazy Rich Asians. I felt like there was so much to that universe that needed to be explained, but I didn’t want to do that within the story, because you would lose momentum. They started out really dry, and then I have to credit my editor, Jenny Jackson, who said, “Why don’t you give these a voice?” The trilogy’s footnotes are written in the voice of Cousin Oliver, so it became this fun, snarky, gossipy footnote universe unto itself. And then in the next books, it just evolved into my voice—or at least the voice of the author.

I’m always fascinated by your attention to detail, whether it’s about something as large as a city or as small as a piece of jewelry. Does that specificity come from research? Taking notes when you’re traveling?

I don’t really do that much research at all. Going into these obsessive details is just a reflection of the trash can that is my brain—there’s a lot of weird stuff lodged in there that wants to come out. There’s very little planning involved. It’s all just spontaneous. But the randomness is what keeps it fun and fresh.

Your books are widely celebrated for their sense of fun but also for their escapism. Where do you stand on the value of escapism when real life is often so dreary?

I’m with you—that’s why I write my books! I want to escape. Real life is real life. We live in really interesting times, and the human condition itself is kind of tragic. When I read, I want to escape. I want to learn about something new and go someplace I’ve never been, so that’s something I want to give my readers. Life is hard enough as it is—why make reading a drudgery? Writing needs to bring me joy, and my goal is to bring the reader joy.

Is vicarious travel part of that joy?

Oh, absolutely. I recently had a friend visit me from Asia, and he said, “The only time I can be myself is when I travel. When I leave my city, I can breathe.” In his hometown, everything is on display. He has to be guarded and put on his best mask every single day. The minute he steps out of that, he has the freedom of anonymity that comes from travel—from being in a place where no one knows you. I think we can all relate to that, but I think for these characters I write about, it is especially true. The only time Rufus can really be himself is when he’s on the Big Island surfing or doing his artwork. Back in London, everyone knows who he is. His name enters a room before he does.

Your writing is always so fast-paced, with a great sense of urgency and momentum. Does that come naturally to you, or is it part of your revision process?

It’s amazing you say that, because I feel like I’m the slowest writer in the world. Every sentence is an agony for me. It takes a lot of effort to make it seem fast. It’s really spitting something out and then polishing, polishing, polishing very slowly for weeks and months. Even when I have to write, like, an Instagram post with a three-sentence caption, it takes me all day. It’s also strange because these books are not written in my natural writer's voice, which is much more influenced by Joan Didion. It’s surgical and precise. But I can only do that when it’s not my story. I have a good friend, Liz Markus, who’s an amazing artist. She asked me to write a little essay to accompany a new show of hers in Sweden. It took me an hour, which for me is really fast. It’s in my true writer’s voice, which is very non-commercial.

Writing smooth sentences that are elegantly simple is so much work.

It’s a ton of work! I’m going to badly misquote Dolly Parton and say it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. Writing is damaging to my health. I have to take breaks in between books. I write twelve hours a day, and I can’t do it in cafés. I write from home, or when I’m traveling I need a quiet, well-lit space of my own.

Can you share any updates on the film, TV, or theater adaptations of your Crazy Rich Asians sequels, Sex and Vanity, Lies and Weddings, or any spin-offs?

We’re working on the [Broadway] musical [adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians] right now, and it’s really, really exciting. With [Crazy Rich Asians movie director] John Chu involved, it’s going to be really special and innovative. And then with all the [movie] sequels and spin-offs—everything is in different stages of development. I don’t mean half-heartedly, either: There are teams of people trying to unlock that magic. Because Crazy Rich Asians was so successful, and because it’s become such an enduring favorite, there’s so much pressure to get it right.

Also, everyone became so fabulously successful and busy after the [first] movie. John [Chu] got committed immediately into doing In the Heights and then shooting two movies back-to-back for Wicked. Michelle Yeoh has won an Oscar and starred in like twenty-five amazing films since then. It’s been a beautiful challenge to get that team back. We had a pandemic; we had a strike; Warner Brothers got bought and sold. So many things that were out of our control happened. But now you’ll be seeing a lot more action with [the next movies] in the near future. Things are amazingly on track. Hopefully we’ll see some things start shooting very, very soon, and one, if not more, will go into production at the same time. Sex and Vanity, for example, is with Sony, and I’m allowed to say that we’ve attached two amazing Oscar-winning actors to it. We have a lot of young new talent as well, and we hope to create the whole [Crazy Rich Asians] effect for them, too.

Is it too early to talk about what you’re writing next?
Not at all. They aren’t a continuous story, but I’ve always seen these new books as part of a dramatic trilogy. I call it my Cities Trilogy: Sex and Vanity was the New York story, Lies and Weddings is the London story, and the next book is the Paris story. I’m looking forward to writing it as soon as I can, but I think I have to go on a book tour before that.

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