Ep 78 What skills a Vogue editor really needs, Zoo Weekly shuts down, do you agree with brand journalism? How to fit freelance writing around a full-time job, kidlit blogger Tara Lazar and bestselling novelist Kevin Kwan, author of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “China Rich Girlfriend”. Also: how do you know when you’ve done enough research for your article?

podcast-artwork In Episode 78 of So you want to be a writer: Valerie reads 270 short stories, book 3 of Allison Tait’s “The Mapmaker Chronicles”, Bauer Media shutting down Zoo Weekly magazine, what skills a Vogue editor needs, do you agree with brand journalism? Faulty freelance writer assumptions, how to fit freelance writing around a full-time job, kidlit blogger Tara Lazar, Writer in Residence Kevin Kwan, author of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “China Rich Girlfriend”, and team work and productivity app Asana. Also: how do you know when you’ve done enough research for your article?

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Show Notes

Breath of the Dragon: The Mapmaker Chronicles book 3

Bauer Media to shut Zoo Weekly

Vogue’s Edwina McCann: Unlike some of our competitors, we’re still investing in content

Corporate storytelling as a brand journalist

7 Faulty Assumptions That Derail New Freelance Writers

Stephen King: Can a Novelist Be Too Productive?

Working on the Side: How to Fit Freelance Writing Around a Full-Time Job

Five Reasons NOT to Self-Publish & Five Reasons You Should

Asana

Writer in Residence 


Kevin Kwan wearing a black v-neck t-shirt and with his long black hair loose and flowing around his shouldersKevin Kwan

Kevin Kwan was born and raised in Singapore, where he attended Anglo-Chinese School in the mornings and spent his afternoons either hiding from his Chinese tutor or chasing after neighbourhood dogs on his bike. When he was eleven, he moved to the United States, where the next few years were a blur of trying to survive high school, reading too much F. Scott Fitzgerald and Joan Didion, and dreaming of living in New York.

After obtaining his first degree in creative writing from the University of Houston, Kevin moved to Manhattan to pursue a BFA at Parsons School of Design.

In 2000, Kevin established his own creative studio, where he specialised in producing high profile visual projects for clients such as the New York Times, the Museum of Modern Art, Rockwell Group, and TED.com.

Throughout all this, Kevin always remained passionate about books. His critically-acclaimed debut novel Crazy Rich Asians became an international bestseller in 2013 and is currently being adapted into a feature film by Ivanhoe Pictures and Color Force, the producers of The Hunger Games movies. The sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, hit bookstores in June 2015.

Kevin still resides in Manhattan, eats too much pasta, and these days dreams of living in Italy.

Find Kevin on Twitter 

Working Writer’s Tip
How to tell when you’ve done enough research?

Answered in the podcast!

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript

 

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Kevin.

 

Kevin

Hello, great to be here.

 

Valerie

China Rich Girlfriend, this is your second book, but for those readers who haven’t read
China Rich Girlfriend just yet, can you tell them what it’s about?

 

Kevin

China Rich Girlfriend is like Downton Abbey in Asia, but set in contemporary Asia.

 

So, it’s really, you know, it’s a comedy of manners. It’s a romance. It’s an adventure story. All set in modern day Asia, it hops around from Singapore to Hong Kong, to mainland China. It all concerns this one messy, crazy, filthy rich family.

 

Valerie

And your first book Crazy Rich Asians took the world by storm. It went on bestseller lists in so many countries. Take us back to your first book, because this is where it all started. How did the idea for that particular book come about? When did you start thinking, “Oh, I might write this book.”

 

Because your background is actually design, isn’t it?

 

Kevin

Yeah, will my first degree actually was in creative writing. I went to the University of Houston and studied creative writing. And, this was more than 20 years ago, I think. And I wrote a poem back then called Singapore Bible Study, which I think was published in, you know, 1992, or 1993.

 

Valerie

Right.

 

Kevin

Somewhere around that time. And, you know, it got quite a bit of acclaim. It was published and anthologised in few different poetry journals and this and that.

 

And whenever I performed it, you know, I really got such a positive response. And, you know the poem was really about this world of this crazy rich Asia. Even from then I really thought, “You know, it’s the seed of something. I really should write about this world that I was exposed to as a child. I grew up in Singapore and spent the first 11 and a half years of my life there. But, I’ve constantly traveled back to Asia and every time I would go back I would find and encounter this world that was increasingly decadent. And, with the decadence came all of this drama, you know, I was pulled into lots of family dramas, dramas involving friends.

 

And so I would come back to the States, to New York, where I live. And I would tell friends about happened to me on these travels. Over and over again I kept hearing, “You need to write about this, no one is really documenting and sort of portraying contemporary Asia in this way.”

 

And so, you know, and it was true. I would go into bookstores and I would see, you know, books by authors, like Amy Tan and Lisa See, which really concerned sort of historical China.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Kevin

And they’re lovely. You know, I really admire the writing and I read all of those books. And then there was another sub-genre of what I would call Asian-American literature, you know Maxine Hong Kingston… people like that, that would write about the assimilation stories of Asians into the American culture. But, no one was writing, you know, from a Western point of view about what’s happening in Asian right now. And that’s what I felt like I needed to do.

 

Valerie

And did you always think it was going to be a work of fiction?

 

Kevin

Well, I didn’t want to be sued to high-heaven.

 

Well, you know, I felt that in a way I could tell more of the story and really explore these characters and their motivations with fiction, versus non-fiction.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Kevin

I mean a lot of it is based on the truth. And, I think that’s what makes the book so fun, and I think that’s why Asian readers in Asia in particular have responded to it so much, because, you know, to them it’s sort it’s like Truman Capote, and they’re trying to unravel who I’m talking about, which families, which people, this and that.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Kevin

And so in a way it is, but in many ways it also, you know, takes a lot of imagination to build these stories out.

 

Valerie

Yeah, it is unique, there is nothing like it in bookstores these days.

 

Tell us how did you get into design and how did you then find your way back into writing?

 

Kevin

Well, this begins in the writing program. I think in a way my writing was always very, very visual. And, in fact one of my instructors actually called me the designer poet, which at the time I took to be quite an insult, because there were references to brand names and design elements in my poetry and in the quid writing that I did.

 

Valerie

Right.

 

Kevin

I decided, “Why fight it?” I graduated after getting my first BSA, I decided to go to art school, and really explore the visual side of myself. And, I thought that if I could really, you know, marry the visual side with the text side I could really sort of find a viable job. You know, this was the early days when the Internet was first beginning to sort of be created. And, I thought, “If I can write and design and take photographs, I’ll be a triple threat.”

 

Valerie

Ah, yes.

 

Kevin

It didn’t quite work out that way. But, I found myself after graduating from design school with a degree in photography and design. But, I was working on a lot of books, designing books for publishers. I started out in the coffee table book world, where I was making books for people like Oprah Winfrey and for, actually Gore Vidal. I did a book of all of his snapshots and archives, things like that. Increasingly finding myself, once again, because I could communicate with the writers, and manage these projects involving writers and designers and photographers, I was finding myself lured back into the world of writing. And so that’s the point I said, “Well, I’m just going to go for it, and try writing a novel.”

 

Valerie

When you decided that and you had people saying… you came back from your travels, told all of these amazing stories about, you know, the crazy rich Asians in Asia, and people saying, “You’ve got to write this in a book,” did you have the plot in your head? Did you start with the seed of a character? How did it actually form into what became the novel?

 

Kevin

I did have the plot in my head and I think the plot was gestating and sort of growing for the past 20 years. Always there was this idea of really introducing the outsider, for example, you know, she is Rachel Chu, she’s the protagonist of Crazy Rich Asians. And, she’s what we call American-born Chinese. So, her ancestry is Chinese, but she is very much an American, and really doesn’t have a clue what’s happening in Asia.

 

So, the device was to use her, she gets involved in a romance with Nicholas Young, who is this heir to the ginormous fortune in Singapore. And, through their romance she gets introduced, she goes to Singapore, she meets his family and she discovers this world of hidden wealth and all of the drama and scandal and antics that go along with it. So, she’s sort of our guide into this world, and, you know, sort of in a way many people have compared it to Pride and Prejudice, you know, the story of Elizabeth Bennet and counting Darcie and all of the resistance that’s not in their romance by his family and all of that. That very much was an inspiration.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

Kevin

Yeah.

 

Valerie

China Rich Girlfriend is the sequel, but it can definitely be read as a standalone book, did you have a sequel in mind when you wrote the first one?

 

Kevin

Definitely. I had envisioned the book really as a trilogy.

 

Valerie

Right.

 

Kevin

And I wanted to showcase different parts of Asia and I wanted to begin in Singapore, which, to me, represents the old money culture of Asia. These are people that left China centuries ago, established bases in Singapore, built their fortunes. And then in book two I wanted to go into that sort of instant wealth world that represents what mainland China has become, the money is brand new. It’s so enormous. It’s so brash. And, I wanted to explore that world in the second story. And then continue that into the third.

 

Valerie

Does that mean you’re currently writing the third, or have you finished writing the third?

 

Kevin

I have not finished writing the third, but it’s definitely in gestation mode.

 

Valerie

Yes. And when you’ve done that, obviously the trilogy is done, do you have an idea of what you would like to do next?

 

Kevin

Oh I do. I very much do. I already have an idea for book four. I’m not really ready to sort of reveal the whole theme and concept. But, it will be a departure, I think. I still think I have a lot more to say than just, you know, the sort of Crazy Rich Asian world, but I think that hopefully it will still have sort of the flavor and style of my books and what readers have come to enjoy.

 

Valerie

Did you anticipate it would be as successful as it has become?

 

Kevin

I really, really didn’t. I mean I’m still shocked, quite frankly, that anyone has read the book, I mean outside of a few friends and family. You know I was just in Hong Kong and the Philippines touring and it was just… the reaction and the response… and sort of meeting people that… hundreds of people waiting since 7:00 in the morning to come meet me at book signings, that’s just… it’s kind of unimaginable in a way.

 

Because I didn’t really have an audience in mind when I wrote this book, I just felt that I had to sort of explore this world and tell my truth, in a way.

 

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Kevin

And just tell it in the strange way that I’ve told it. I didn’t think it would have as much sort of international appeal as it has.

 

Valerie

Yes, it’s certainly not just in Asia. I mean I was in Sydney the other day and my hairdresser was telling her other client about this book that she had just read and that it was your book and that she just couldn’t stop reading it. I mean it’s laugh out loud funny.

 

Kevin

Yeah, that’s wonderful to hear. It’s always surprising to hear that.

 

Valerie

What did you find the most challenging thing about writing… well, either book, about writing generally, writing novels?

 

Kevin

You know, I think the for the first book, it’s really overcoming the fear of being yourself, and of really sort of expressing in the way that you want to. There’s so much self-doubt and even halfway through writing the book… the first book took me three years to write. I was always wondering, like, “Is anyone going to want to read this? I’m going to keep writing it the way I want to,” but you sort of wonder whether it’s working.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Kevin

And like a lot of other writers I really didn’t share this with many people at all, really no one at all. I was writing sort of in secret between doing my other projects. And, so it was really a surprise when I began showing it to other writers to get sort of the very positive response that I did.

 

Valerie

You wrote the whole book before you took it to an agent or a publisher?

 

Kevin

I wrote actually about 70 percent of the book. I showed it to a friend, who was quite an acclaimed writer, and I said, “I’ve been working on this, will you please take a look at it.” And I think she rather reluctantly said she would.

Then about a week later she called me, this was in November and she said, “Kevin, you’ve ruined my Thanksgiving, I was supposed to cook a dinner for my family and I didn’t. I just couldn’t stop reading your manuscript.” She said, “What is your plan? Are you going to show this to an agent now? You really need to show this to an agent now.” And it was my belief that you really… especially for first time novels, you have to sell the complete manuscript.

 

Valerie

Yeah. Usually.

 

Kevin

I said, “Well, you know, maybe when I’m done in a year or so I’ll do that.” She said, “No, you need to get it to an agent now, because it’s so timely, it’s so original, and it’s so good that you need an agent to sort of help you really shape it and shape the end, and really strategize and bring this to market now, versus three years from now.”

 

She really pushed me in that direction. And, I’m so thankful that she did that, because it got the ball rolling in a very speedy way.

 

Valerie

You say it took you three years to write and you wrote in secret. Tell us what you were doing at the time and how you fit it in. Did you wake up early? Did you do it late at night? Did you do it… like how did it work?

 

Kevin

Well, I was working as a creative consultant and so I had a variety of different projects with different clients. I would say most of the book actually took place within one year, in 2011 — was it 2011? I’m trying to get the timing right. Yeah. Around then. I spent a year working for Oprah Winfrey, the TV personality, and I was producing a book, a coffee table book about her TV show. It was commemorating 25 years as a TV show. And so I was commuting from New York to Chicago almost every week. Travel in the US is just horrid. You spend so much time. There’s so many airport delays, things like that.

 

I had so much time to kill in airports, in hotel rooms, waiting for things to happen. And I just brought my laptop along and I was just writing in my spare time, and in the hotel room at night after I got back from work I would just… it was something to keep my occupied, I think.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Kevin

While I was dealing with another very frenzied publishing project, but that worked a very different muscle in me. I would say that probably 60 percent of the book was written in that year, when I was doing that commuting and having that time sort of allowed me to do that.

 

Valerie

It sounds like you wrote it in snatched times, like in hotel rooms and while you were travelling and stuff like that. You didn’t necessarily have to block off, “Here’s three weeks, I’m going away, I’m going to immerse myself in the book,” it sounds like you just wrote it on the go. Is that right?

 

Kevin

Yeah, that wasn’t the case at least for the first 70 percent. You know, after I showed it to an agent and the response was very positive, you know, she said, “I want you to finish this in a month… can you please finish this in a month?” Because she explained sort of the selling schedule for how books are sold. She said, “If we don’t sell this by the summer, we’ll have to wait until the fall and that means another year, at least before the book comes out.” And she just really felt that it should come out as soon as possible. So, I rose to the challenge, and I did block off the time and actually I wrote most of it in Australia.

 

 

Valerie

Really?

 

Kevin

Actually. Yeah, I had made plans already to be in Australia, I visit Australia every couple of years. A good friend very kindly offered me her apartment in Cremorne Point. Very quiet with a view of the ocean. I spent like three weeks there just hammering it out for the last 30 percent of the book.

 

Valerie

Great.

 

With the second book then, China Rich Girlfriend, were you caught up doing other things? Presumably you didn’t have to write it in snatched moments on airplanes, did you lock yourself away and write this one?

 

Kevin

That I did because based on the success of the first book, they really were rushing me for the second book.

 

Valerie

Right.

 

Kevin

And so I had to basically sort of drop everything else and saying no to a lot of other projects, for my consulting business and say, “You know what? I’m going to really do this full time. You know? I had been given this opportunity. There’s demand for a sequel, the readers are demanding it and my publishers are demanding it.” So I really… I did take the year off and do nothing but write. So, that was a very different process.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Kevin

There I had to impose a whole new discipline in the schedule for myself to really sort of churn it out and really meet my deadlines.

 

Valerie

Tell us about that discipline. Did you aim to write a certain number of words per day? Or think, “I will write this chapter this week…”? Or, did you have a routine?

 

Kevin

I created a routine. I didn’t want to give myself limitations, you know? I really wanted to sort of let the story be told and come out the way it wanted to. I just said, “I’m going to write every morning, starting at 8:00 AM, uninterrupted, until 1:00 in the afternoon.” And so I would do that every day. And then at 1:00 that’s when I actually turned on my phone, began to check my email. I took a lunch break, and the afternoon I would spend sort of dealing with other life work things and things like that. And then I would go back to writing in the evenings.

 

 

Valerie

Did you have this plot already plotted out before you started the book, or did you kind of decide to see where it took you?

 

Kevin

Well, it was a challenge, actually for book two, because I knew how I wanted the book to end, so book three very much is already conceptualized and pretty much written in my head. But, book two was really the bridge between that, and I knew there were certain themes that I wanted to explore and territory that I wanted to explore. I wanted to set the book mainly in mainland China. There was a discovery process in the writing. So, the plot wasn’t set, there was a loose outline, but it did change, quite a bit, as I wrote it.

 

It’s funny what they say, writers… before I really began writing novel seriously writers would always say, “Your characters really start to lead you places. They start to talk back to you, they start to challenge you.” And I never believed that until really began writing myself.

 

Valerie

The book… well both books… explore, as you say, the elite in Asia, the monied in Asia. There’s so many incidences in there which are almost hard to believe, yet they are believable. Is this the world that you occupy or occupied?

 

Kevin

Very much not the case.

 

I would say as a child, yes. I grew up in a privileged background in Singapore, but after moving to the US life became very, very normal. For the past 20 years I’ve lived in New York and working in publishing and design, it’s a pretty normal life. I don’t fly around on private jets, or get chauffeur driven in Rolls Royces or things like that. But, when I did go to Asia I had access to that world, and I would see that world, you know? Just by virtue of the friends and the relatives that I had. I would see that world become more and more extreme year after year.

 

In the late ’80s when I would visit Hong Kong, for example, the friends would be driving Mercedes. In the ’90s they would upgrade to Rolls Royces. You know, and then in the 2000’s they weren’t even there because they were jetting around the world in their private planes.

 

It just got increasingly more decadent.

 

Valerie

Apart from the lavish wealth, you have a keen sense of observation of humans and the kind of things they say, and the kind of things that they do. As you say, you’re quite visual, so even the kind of things they wear and what it says about them.

 

Is that something that you… while you’re in that world do you take notes, or do you just remember this stuff? Or, how did you get all of that detail, because there’s a lot of detail onto the written page?

 

Kevin

First of all I have a photographic memory, so in terms of visual details and remembering themes and occasions and incidents that have happened, I remember that very well. I suppose snippets of conversation have just stayed with me. When someone says something truly outrageous you tend to remember, and then thing with these people are they are saying outrageous things all the time.

 

Yeah, sometimes I would covertly go away and go into a bathroom and say, “I have to write this down now.”

 

In many cases there is real dialogue that I actually have overheard that makes it into the book. But, a lot of times it’s a ballad that’s completely fictionalized based on situations and based on what I think the character might say. And all of course inspired by real personalities.

 

Valerie

I have to say I read it with kind of a smirk on my face, because I’m reading it and I’m thinking, “Oh, I have an Auntie Lillian. How, she lives in Leonie Hill, I know a Methodist pastor called Tony Chi, this is really weird. It was just the most bizarre experience reading this book.

 

Kevin

Well, there really is a Methodist pastor named Tony Chi and he was actually the head of a church in Sydney for many years.

 

Valerie

Oh, I know him! I know his sons, Jonathon and Jeremy.

 

Kevin

Absolutely.

 

Valerie

Oh my god.

 

Kevin

They’re quite famous in Sydney. I mean it’s a very accomplished family, musically and also with their devotion to…

 

Valerie

Do they know that they’re in this book? I must tell them.

 

Kevin

I have no idea if they do. But, Tony Chi was my pastor growing up when I was a child.

 

Valerie

Right, yes.

 

Kevin

And then of course whenever I came to Sydney we would go to his church and visit him.

 

Valerie

Good lord, we’ve probably met.

 

Kevin

Yeah.

 

Valerie

Well, that’s a conversation for after the recording.

 

Kevin

Exactly. But, yeah, there are lots of snippets of real people and real truths that make it into the book, which I think lends it that fun, you know?

 

Valerie

And believability.

 

Kevin

There’s a famous American socialite, for example, that I decided to put in the book. I decided to invite… to put her in the wedding scene. I actually met her when the first book came out. She came to one of my readings and said, “You know, I don’t remember being at a wedding in Singapore. I thought I was losing my mind.” I mean she was teasing me about that.

 

But, it’s funny how the real people have come out of the woodwork and sort of really embrace the book.

 

Valerie

Really? It’s that level of detail though that despite the bizarre excesses make it believable, in my view anyway.

 

Kevin

Yeah.

 

Valerie

What would your advice be to aspiring writers… they’re wanting to get their first novel out there and they’re plagued with that self-doubt, that self-doubt that you just spoke of. What do you think they can do?

 

Kevin

I think writers should really do everything they can to combat the self-doubt. And really with the self-doubt the self-censorship, you know? Because I didn’t intend when I first began writing the book, I didn’t really think of the marketplace, and I wasn’t strategizing about really trying to get it published. I was just trying to tell the story I wanted to.

 

I was able to kind of go wild and take sort of creative license I probably would have if I was approaching the book as a publishing consultant, or as an editor. I really sort of went there in terms of kind of describing the bizarre incidents that happened and really sort of being completely… the brand name diarrhea I call it, that sort of infuses the book. The real me or the professional me would say, “I would never write that, that’s just so distasteful and tacky and vulgar…” and this and that.

 

But in freeing myself to really kind of tap into what I call ‘tap into my crazy,’ you know I think was able to write something that was original, that sort of got the attention of the publishing community. Even the name of the book, Crazy Rich Asians, I really feel that if I haven’t named it that it might still be a manuscript collecting dust on some agent’s pile.

 

Valerie

Yep.

 

What gave you the courage to ‘tap into your crazy’? Because as you say when you have had the experience of producing books and being a publishing consultant or whatever, you know the framework. What gave you the courage to write that?

 

Kevin

I honestly don’t know. I wish I could pinpoint one thing. I think it’s… I think the fact that I was a bit older when I wrote this book also helped. I think if I had been 23 years old and fresh out of my creative writing program I wouldn’t have sort of have been as audacious, you know?

 

With the passage of time and some experience you’re like, “It’s sort of now or never…” “Do you want to be true to your voice or do want to make work to impress others?” I just wanted to write something that I thought would be funny for me, and that would amuse me, and really kind of go into the flights of fancy and really sort of explore the folly to the nth degree, as much as possible.

 

And I think that was a salvation of the book.

 

Valerie

Absolutely.

 

What is your plan now, in terms of are you going to write full time, or are you still keen on doing your design and publishing projects that you did before? What’s the plan now for your career?

 

Kevin

Well, I’m trying to work that out.

 

Frankly, it’s been a three year rollercoaster ride ever since the first book launched. I immediately was touring for that internationally and then I came back to New York and had to write book two under deadline. And book two has just… yeah, was just released a few months ago. So, I’ve been on tour since then promoting that.

 

So, I’m really at a point now where I’m for the first time just sort of having some breathing room, and trying to think, “What’s next?” I do want to write the third book, but I think that’s also contingent on the economics of what happens with book two. I haven’t been signed up to write book three yet. I think with the way publishers work these days they want to see how well your books perform.

 

Valerie

Sure.

 

Kevin

You’re only as good as your next book. I’d like to write book three, but we’ll see what happens.

 

Valerie

Trust me, book two is going to go nuts. It’s fantastic, and I highly recommend that if anyone is interested in a compelling novel that is also laugh out loud funny and is truly unique, because as you say, no one has written in this kind of genre before. Definitely get China Rich Girlfriend.

 

Kevin

Thank you so much for recommending that. I’d recommend that they start with
Crazy Rich Asians, first, it would make a lot more sense.

 

Valerie

Yes, of course. But, as I say it is a standalone book, but interestingly I think I sent my team to about five different bookshops in Sydney and Crazy Rich Asians are sold out. So… from everywhere. But, you know, you can buy it on Kindle. But, yeah, the latest book is China Rich Girlfriend and thank you so much for your time today, Kevin.

 

Kevin

It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.


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