Bustle Exclusive

Kevin Kwan Writes About The “Gunk” Behind The Fantasy

The novelist, best known for his Crazy Rich Asians series, paints a vivid and not-always-flattering portrait of the 1%.

A photo of Kevin Kwan, wearing circular glasses and a blazer, next to the cover of 'Lies and Wedding...

Private jets, $40,000 dresses, and a benevolent bachelor blissfully unaware that he’s on the brink of bankruptcy: It’s a trifecta that can only come together in a Kevin Kwan novel. The Singapore-born, Los Angeles-based Kwan famously mined his own experiences with the ultra-wealthy to write Crazy Rich Asians, the bestselling book series that led to the 2018 blockbuster. In his latest, Lies and Weddings, he goes back to the well to deliver another delicious romp through the lifestyles of the rich and wannabe famous.

Hopping among Hawaii, Marrakech, the British countryside, and Beverly Hills, Kwan tells a story like only he can, sending up the 0.01% while underlining that the heart wants what the heart wants, regardless of tax bracket.

Ahead of the release of Lies and Weddings, Kwan sat down with Bustle. Over a languid lunch at Mauro Cafe in West Hollywood — pasta to start, espresso to finish — he talked about the high life, the social mores of New York and Los Angeles, and whether any of his monied muses have ever thrown a drink in his face, so to speak.

I’m loving the book, and I’m going to confess that I’m not done yet. I’m trying to savor it. It’s been keeping me company every morning and night.

That’s what it should be. It’s like a piece of chocolate. You eat some whenever you want.

I’m also learning so much. As with your previous novels, you basically teach a master class on how the other half lives while telling a really entertaining story. How often do readers come to you and say something like “I had to read your book with a browser window open to look things up”?

I’m always very amused and tickled when people have that reaction. An author recently told me that reading my books keeps her Google search suggestions interesting. Really, it’s all the trash that’s in my mind. I have a trash-can brain for useless information.

Crazy Rich Asians stars Henry Golding and Constance Wu with Kevin Kwan (right).Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

You know the saying “One man’s trash …”

I’m talking like the people who make the Pope’s socks. Stuff like that. That’s what’s in my brain.

You write about a world that you can really only know if you’ve experienced it.

In very limited, tiny doses. I just want to put that caveat out there. The world of my books is not my everyday life.

Still, who else would know the rules of, like, how to behave on a G6? Or how when you get on someone’s private plane, if they want to stop in Dubai or some far-flung city that’s not technically on the way — which happens in Lies and Weddings — you’re going to have to go, too? Have you ever been in a situation like that?

I have.

Where was the stopover?

I can’t say. That would be incriminating. I have to be a good guest if I want to be invited back. But look — you’re going where they want to go. You’re basically their captive. So, you know, be careful what you wish for. People think this world is a fantasy. I like to peek behind that curtain and show that behind the fantasy, behind these amazing destination weddings, there’s a lot of gunk. That, to me, is what’s interesting. It’s about the five people waiting on a plane on the tarmac, stewing because the pilot won’t turn on the engine until the principal arrives. That’s the rule. It’s their plane, you wait for them to start burning fuel.

I like to peek behind that curtain and show that behind the fantasy, behind these amazing destination weddings, there’s a lot of gunk.

So they could tell you to be at the airport at 10 a.m., and they’ll just show up whenever.

Yes. Or — and this has never happened to me, but I hear stories all the time about a friend who took a lift on someone’s jet, and they were so grateful until they realized that there would be three stops along the way. The owner was running errands. It’s like you’re getting in their car, but they’re going to stop in Omaha to drop off something or sign a document or you know, whatever. And you’re like, “Oh, I thought this is gonna be the efficient way to travel.” Nope! But you can’t complain.

So, say you get an invitation from a very wealthy friend who says “Come join me on my yacht this summer.” What’s the next step? Do they put you in touch with an assistant who’s like “OK, we’re setting sail from this place on July 4, meet us there”?

It really varies. Some people in that world have one, two, three, or a whole team of concierge travel specialists. Some people do it themselves. Some are really casual, like, “Oh, please use my boat,” and you’re like, “OK,” and then you realize how big the boat is.

I was once lucky enough to have the treat of someone letting me use their boat for the day, and it was such an amazing experience. We were in Italy, and the captain took us to where no other boats or tourists could go. At the end of the day, we tried to tip the captain. He absolutely refused. We left a tip as we walked off. The crew came running back after us, like, we will not take your money.

These are the sorts of friends that many people would kill for, like, how do I befriend someone who’s going to loan me their boat and refuse to let me pay a dollar? What would you say to someone looking to advance in the game of life by befriending such people? Do you have any advice?

I really don’t. The most important thing is always just to be yourself and be authentically you. Real friendships, real chemistry, you can’t fake. The friendship that I just spoke about predates me becoming an author — it’s someone who has known me for a very long time. So I wouldn’t know how to give that kind of advice.

It’s not, like, go hang out at Zero Bond.

It’s sort of the opposite. I’m really bad at schmoozing.

I have a hard time believing that.

Some people are so well connected. They’re yacht-hopping and island-hopping and this-and-that hopping. I’m really not that person. Once in a lifetime experiences, like that boat day in Italy, I don’t take for granted. The vast majority of my friends do not have yachts.

Studies have been done that really show that the happiest people are the ones who have friends who are actually less versus more fortunate than them. Like, if you surround yourself with rich people all day long, there’s always going to be someone who has more money. Unfortunately, in a lot of those circles, it’s hypercompetitive. It’s based on how much you have. The minute you lose it, where are those so-called friends going to be? We’ve seen that time and time again.

You’ve spent a lot of your professional life between New York and Los Angeles. What, in your experience, is different about the way the 1% live in New York versus L.A.?

New Yorkers are way more active in that they’re much more social. There’s a lot of emphasis on how you support the culture of New York. There’s a lot of civic pride amongst the New Yorker 1 percents, and they’re really generous and philanthropic. Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg gave the city a whole island, you know. There are different crowds — the ballet crowd, the opera crowd, the art crowd — but they intermingle. There are a lot of overlapping circles.

Then there’s the culture of social clubs, the old school social clubs, like the Knickerbocker, the Union League, the Colony Club, things like that.

What about L.A.?

L.A. is very home based. All the socializing, I find, happens in homes, and it’s much more low key. From what I’ve observed, it’s also much more infrequent. There’s no benefit season like there is in New York in the fall. In L.A., one thing happens a week. It’s not a criticism, it’s an observation. People are really doing their own thing.

Look, I’ve enjoyed being in those circles, but I don’t aspire to be part of that world.

What made you move here?

Work. Film and television projects. Also, I wanted to try a different life. After two decades in New York, I wanted something new. I didn’t want to eat out every night.

What do you cook? Do you have a signature dish?

Fried rice. I do a couple of pastas, too. Very simple, one-pot type things. But also, L.A. is a much more outdoors life, which is what I wanted. I walk around a lot in my neighborhood, and on the weekend, I go for hikes off the grid.

Truman Capote has been talked about a lot lately, and that got me thinking about the similarities between his chronicling of the high life and your own. I’m curious — are you ever afraid that one of the generous people who’ve let you into their world will read one of your books and say, “How dare you?”

That’s never an issue for me because I would never do something like that. I would never reveal any of my friends’ intimate stories or secrets.

Also, look, I’ve enjoyed being in those circles, but I don’t aspire to be part of that world. I don't have any of that inclination or interest. My intimate friends are not in the world I write about.

Of course, there is an observational aspect to what I do — I’m not that imaginative. But so much of what I’ve seen has been shifted and reimagined in the service of writing a fun novel. It’s never gotten to a point where it’s recognizable or in any way incriminating to anyone.

Least of all yourself.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.