Kevin Kwan on weddings, Captain Lee and his favourite London spots

kevin kwan
An OTT wedding inspired Kevin Kwan's new novelJessica Chou

It's impossible not to like Kevin Kwan. The witty and warm energy so often found in the pages of his novels, the wildly successful Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, and then Sex and Vanity, which was published in 2020, is evidently an extension of his personality. Over a Zoom call one Monday afternoon, he is energetic and reflective, and when I tell him how much I love his novels, he humbly reveals his surprise at having fans in Britain, going on to share his London recommendations - not the grand ballrooms his characters often frequent, but cosy pubs hidden away on quiet streets.

This is not to say Kwan, who grew up in Singapore before moving to the US as a child, doesn't understand the rich and aristocratic world he bases his characters in. In fact, he knows it so well (he is the great-grandchild of the founding director of Singapore's oldest bank,) he's now made a career of writing stories that unpack, satirise and give warmth to the most affluent people on the planet.

"At the end of the day, no matter how much money you have in your bank account, you still suffer loss, heartache and disease," he says, when I ask why he thinks we as a society love to indulge in stories about the wealthy. "These are very satirical novels. And I'm turning a lens on the rich, but hopefully you see, the message is not one of glorification."

Kwan's latest novel Lies and Weddings is full of the glamour we've come to expect from his work. Lies and Weddings tells the story of Rufus, the future Earl of Greshambury, who, when discovering his family is drowning in debt, is divided between family loyalty and marrying for status, and the love he has for his best-friend-next-door, Eden. As he flies around the world attending boujie weddings, he tries to figure out what he wants - and his hearts true desires.

Ahead of the release of Lies and Weddings, we caught up with Kwan to find out about his aristocracy research, the wild wedding event that inspired a moment in the book, and why Captain Lee (yes, as in Below Deck's Captain Lee) makes a cameo in the novel.

Hi Kevin! Lies and Weddings is mainly set in England, and is full of British references (shout out to Caffè Nero). How much of this was your own existing knowledge?

Kevin: I've been coming to England since childhood, for years and years, and my brother has lived in England now for more than two decades.

England is really a second home to me, and I feel more comfortable in London, possibly than even in New York, where I lived for 23 years. I think there's something baked in that as a child growing up in Singapore, which was a former British colony, all my cultural touchstones, everything I read as a kid, all the Enid Blyton books for example, the sweets I would have, all the Rowntree's, everything was English.

So it's something I've always been very familiar with and I hope that translates, because I was very wary. Do I dare set a book in England? I knew the level of scrutiny that would come from it - "Am I saying this right? Am I getting the mentality of people right?" So it was a fun experiment for me.

What research did you do for the novel?

When I was trying to recreate the history of the [Gresham] family, I did a deep dive into the lesser known aristocracy from the West Country.

And the schools [universities] are important to me to get right. The affectation of this book is everyone's introduced by their entire list of schools. A friend recommended me someone and she's like, "Oh, you need to speak to this one person because she would be the expert on all the schools and all the different stereotypes." So I began to call her my posh expert.

I'd consult her and ask, "Would this person go to this school?" and she would say, "No, no, no, that's too far away. They need to be within, a four hour train ride so they can come back on the weekends for hunting" and she really got into minutiae of how these landed gentry families pick their schools.

You mentioned you've visited London a lot. Where are some of your favourite places?

They wouldn't be the glamorous places that my characters go to, although a few of them do make it in the book. The Nag's Head on Kinnerton Street for example. I love the old book shops, and there are certain restaurants I've been eating at for years.

There's such amazing Chinese food in London. The Four Seasons restaurant does the best roast duck in the world. Mandarin Kitchen is known for their famous lobster noodles and they made an appearance in China Rich Girlfriend. The original Ottolenghi on Ledbury Road, I still have very fond memories of that place.

Why did you decide to set this novel around the British aristocracy?

The idea really began when I planned this new cities trilogy, which began with the last novel I wrote Sex and Vanity. That was the New York book. It was really my Valentine to New York, set there and in Capri. And so the next book, it was always going to be the British book and the next one I hopefully get to write is Paris.

My first three books, the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, was looking at Asians in Asia. And so in this new series, I wanted to look at Asians outside of Asia, how they integrated into various different western communities and what would happen, in that collision of cultures. And I think that's perfectly characterised by what happens in Lies and Weddings.

You've got Rufus, who is born British, but really caught between the demands and obligations of two cultures. I think there's an equal sense of obligation and duty, both to his father's lineage and the Gresham line, but then with his mother there's 5,000 years of history there. You have to honour your mother, you have to honour your parents.

Asian parents really feel like you belong to them, that you exist to serve and do their bidding. That's why they created you. It's very different than the Western mentality of every man for himself.

Arabella [Rufus' mother] is a force of nature of a character. She's hilarious, a somewhat villain, but you also feel sorry for her...

She's so damaged, and she doesn't even realise it. But hopefully, you are sympathetic to her, and she becomes the villain that you love to hate. Like, what will she do next?

You see the root of so many of her issues, it's laid bare in terms of her hunger to ultimately to fit in and for her children to fit in. And she thinks they all have to marry as "up" as possible to really survive.

It comes from a meaningful place, but unfortunately, it gets lost along the way.

The weddings that feature in the novel are full of OTT, ostentatious things. Have you ever seen anything like the scenes in the novel at weddings you've attended?

I once went to a wedding, and it sort of gave me an idea for the ice sculptures in the novel, that had so many enormous ice sculptures. And they were just melting furiously, and I'm like, "We're watching money melt away right before our eyes".

Then all these young kids started coming up to one of the sculptures and began licking it. I was just thinking, what an amazing scene that you've never seen anywhere else.

Is Captain Lee from Below Deck aware he features in the novel?

I have no idea. And I wonder if he'll be mad at me, but you know, I love Captain Lee. I don't want him to retire. But of course, he's got to live his life and enjoy his retirement, but I wish he'd come back.

Are there any plans for a Lies and Wedding adaptation?

There has been intense interest from Hollywood on this project. I really do see this as a really fun series, it's such a sprawling story. It's got so many characters and it takes place in so many locations. Never say never, it could make a great movie too. And, of course, it would be a dream if [White Lotus director] Mike White would take this on.

In terms of a dream cast, there's so many fun characters, I could see Bill Nighy playing Lord Gresham. And, of course, to me, Michelle Yeoh can do no wrong. I don't know if she would want to play yet another demanding imperious mother, but we should all be so lucky.

Which books have meant the most to you in your life?

That's a really challenging question because the list is really really long. The books I think of immediately, first of all, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. That was a seminal experience for me, because she was holding up a mirror to part of my experience. She was really showing the Asian American experience and telling in a way that really connected so deeply with me, and really spurred my fascination with looking into the history of my own family.

When I first moved to the US, you're so busy trying to fit in and assimilate you sort of forget your own culture. And until I read The Joy Luck Club, I had no interest in my own family background.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is another book. I actually read it as an adult in my early 20s, and it was so good, because it really captures coming of age. I think it's one book that's not necessarily wasted, but I think a lot of times in the US it's read by young people, in school, and I feel part of it will be lost on them.

It's a great book to read when you're slightly older when you've remembered that phase in your life, as you were coming into awareness, maturity and adulthood.

Earlier you mentioned your next book, the Paris novel, what can you tell us about it?

Well, it's a state secret, so I really can't say much. Like my other books in this series, it will be jet setting. There will be Paris as one setting, and another exotic far flung location. I do think it's going to be the most serious of them all. Things are going to take a turn...

Lies and Weddings is on sale now

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