In this special weekend re-release, Zibby speaks to New York Times bestselling author Kevin Kwan about Sex and Vanity, a riveting and brilliantly funny comedy of manners that explores privilege, culture, romance, and extravagant fashion!

“With this sparkling confection of a potboiler, Kwan more than delivers on the promises of his title, and he does so with tongue planted firmly in cheek.”—The New York Times

“A summer romp with a satirical sting.”—NPR

“Deliciously modern… drama, diamonds, and satire galore.”—Vanity Fair


Zibby Owens: I had the most fun ever laughing and talking to Kevin Kwan who is the author of Crazy Rich Asians, the international best-selling novel that has been translated into more than thirty languages. Its sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, was released in 2015. Rich People Problems, the final book in the trilogy, followed in 2017. For several weeks in 2018, the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy commanded the top three positions of the New York Times best-seller list, an almost unprecedented single-author trifecta. The film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians became Hollywood’s highest-grossing romantic comedy in over a decade. I thought it was so good. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. Go see it. It’s so funny. In 2018, Kevin was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. His latest book is called Sex and Vanity. I hope you enjoy our conversation. By the way, in parentheses — well, I’m not even going to tell my schools, but think about what your schools say about you, and you can imagine putting yourself in our conversation.

Welcome, Kevin. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” This is such a treat.

Kevin Kwan: It’s really a pleasure to be here.

Zibby: Congratulations. Your next book, Sex and Vanity, is coming out. Are you excited? Do you still get excited after you’ve had three amazing best sellers? Does the excitement die down over time, or not really?

Kevin: No, I really do get excited because each book is like a new baby. Why wouldn’t you be excited by a new baby? You really want to birth it and make sure it gets the right start in life.

Zibby: Is this not the right time to tell you about how I felt when I was about to have my fourth child? No, I’m kidding.

Kevin: Different people might feel differently. For me, it’s a very exciting time. You just never know. Are people bored of reading my books? Are they going to care? Will they want to read it? What will they think? It’s very fraught and very exciting and very stressful all at the same time.

Zibby: Wow. It’s so funny because I’m sure people would just assume that you wouldn’t be nervous at all. Yet you’re just a human being like everybody else. I think that’s one thing is that, as readers, we assume that authors have all this confidence and that every book that comes out will just naturally be a success, but I think that the authors are just so worried about it all the time. It’s continually a surprise to me.

Kevin: Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like everything is an experiment and you just never know what people will think, and this book especially. I’ve gone out on a limb to do something different. I hope readers will come along with me on this ride. It’s quite different from my last three books, but hopefully no less fun.

Zibby: I thought this book was super fun. I am so appreciative that you essentially whisked me off to Capri for the time I was reading it out of the confinement of the quarantine-ish situation. I thought it was great.

Kevin: Yay! Wow, thank you. It’s so great to also be talking to someone that actually read the book. You’d be amazed, like the last person.

Zibby: I read the book. I appreciated all the details and all the rest of it. I wish I could meet somebody who would offer up their hotel room to me next time I get a terrible room in a hotel.

Kevin: You never know. Hope springs eternal. You never know.

Zibby: You never know. We’ll see what happens next time I travel.

Kevin: Just wear the right hat. Wear the right hat, and it’ll happen.

Zibby: Exactly. Whenever you introduce a character, you put in parentheses their entire educational background. That just did not get old. I thought that was so clever and funny and so par for the course. My husband entered into this world from Florida. He was like, “Why does everybody immediately ask and explain why everybody else went to school? That was not a question that we asked growing up. Nobody cared. Here, anyone you meet at a party is like, where’d you go to college? Where’d you go to business school? Where’d you do this?” He was like, “What is going on?”

Kevin: Bingo. This is exactly why I did that. I grew up in suburban Texas. Maybe it was just my friends. We were the most low-achieving people you could possibly imagine. Our dream was to get into the state school. Fast-forward ten years later. I’m in New York. Everyone is just obsessed with their schools, not just their colleges. It goes back to their kindergartens, especially this particular breed of New Yorkers that grew up on the Upper East Side.

Zibby: I would say preschool counts too. I wouldn’t discount preschool.

Kevin: Definitely. Preschool, yeah. Even your mom, which class she went to for her Lamaze or whatever. It dates back as early as it can possibly date. Snobbery fascinates me in all shapes and forms. I remember one of my first jobs, my coworker’s like, “What school did you go to?” I’m so proud to have gone to a state school. I thought I got a great education, a quality education. I would proudly say that. The looks on their faces, it was so unfathomable to them that I didn’t go to an Ivy League or one of the cool colleges on the East Coast. I just felt this was a really fun way to capture that snobbery of that social number group, number one. Also, I play this game where if you know these schools, if you know this world, even in that parentheses, you can see someone’s whole life story in just those four schools, right?

Zibby: Totally.

Kevin: Then sometimes you’d go, wait, what happened there? Why did she go from this really prestigious prep school to this college? What happened? Then she did this. I really played this game. To me, it’s yet another layer that hopefully lends more richness to each character.

Zibby: It was just such a perfect CliffsNotes version of character description. It was great. There was a quote you had about snobbery, actually, in your recent piece in The Atlantic about the social codes of the very rich. You said you’ve always had “a lifelong fascination with snobbery, that strange, sometimes tragic, often funny dance people take part in to prove they’re richer or smarter or better-stationed than someone else.” Tell me a little more about when this interest in snobbery started. I’ve heard you describe yourself as a total observer at times. Tell me about where that came from.

Kevin: It really began in grade school. I grew up the first eleven years of my life in Singapore. I did not know because I didn’t enroll myself there — my parents put me there apologizing preemptively. I went to this school called ACS which was the snobbiest school in Singapore. It was known that all the snobs went there. I didn’t know that I was going to be classified as one of these little snobs. When I got there, I really realized how quickly there were certain kids that were the alpha kids. Even the teachers would pander to them, even to the point where I would raise my hand to answer a question, no one would ever let me answer a question because I wasn’t special enough. There were four anointed boys that would get to answer every question and prove their brilliance. These four boys came from these key families that were household names on the island. It was so much really start to realize at age six, ah, I see what’s going on here. Then you start to see the kids’ behaviors. It was fascinating because it was so different from how I was, at that point, raised. My father was the most unpretentious person you’d ever meet. His father was an extremely, extremely humble man. I didn’t have this type of energy in my life. To see it for the first time and then to see it blow up and get worse and worse and worse year by year — this was in the early eighties in Singapore where the country was truly prospering by leaps and bounds every year. You’d see it in real time, which kids got invited to the special birthday party. I never got invited to anything.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Kevin: No, it’s totally fine. I didn’t care. When you’re six years old or you’re seven years old, it didn’t matter. I had my whole life. I had my friends. I had my neighborhood. I didn’t care if I didn’t get invited to some random kid’s birthday party, but I would hear about it come Monday, like, oh, my god, we went to so-and-so’s house, and there were all these Roman statues all over the grounds of this enormous mansion. I would hear these stories. Then suddenly, you would see the teachers begin to suck up to this kid that before was just this lovely little kid. He was actually my friend. The teachers all heard about the Roman statues on the grounds of his house, and suddenly he got special treatment. It was interesting. Then coming from that and being plopped down at age eleven to just a normal American middle school was such a shock to the system.

Zibby: I bet.

Kevin: I also noticed in this school, there was a kid who was popular. I didn’t really understand why he was popular. He was nice enough, but he almost had this mystique around him. Everyone was like, oh, my god, this kid, this kid, this kid. I found out that back in grade school his mom drove a Maserati.

Zibby: And that’s all it took.

Kevin: That’s what he’s known for. At that time, that was what he was known for. This is the kid whose mom drove a Maserati. It was fascinating to me from an early age.

Zibby: It’s funny how in Singapore, how the thing that gets the attention are random statues. Yet when you go to Texas, it’s all about the cars. Different cultures. I feel like you should probably write a thank you note to those four boys, though, from your first school to thank them because maybe without them you wouldn’t have written all this stuff and become this massive success. Maybe they deserve some thanks for their outrageous lifestyle.

Kevin: I wish I could remember their names. I really would love to get back in touch with some of those kids and see, where are they now? I left when I was eleven. Sadly, I only kept in touch with one kid, my one best friend. The rest just kind of fell by the wayside.

Zibby: It’s so funny because I read that you said about yourself that you’re not a creative person. Tell me about that because I would argue that you are a creative person even though obviously I don’t even know you, but just having read your books. Why do you think you’re not creative? You think that all the material just sort of fell from the heavens type of thing?

Kevin: I really think that as a writer, there are some people who can just dream up worlds. People who write sci-fi or fantasy books and even some novelists, especially if they write period pieces set in sixteen century France or whatever, there’s a pure imagination that I just don’t have. My stories all really come from a place of observation. If I can’t see it, if I haven’t been in the story, I haven’t witnessed the situation, I can’t write about it. I can’t just make up a character from nothing, just like I can’t make up a situation from nothing. I’m intensely visual. So much of it comes from my visual memory. In that sense, I feel like I’m not a pure creator. I’m really someone who just remembers and who’s observed. I’m resetting it on the page and retelling what I’ve seen.

Zibby: Does this mean you’ve gone to a wedding like the one you wrote about in Sex and Vanity, the whole week of activities and accompanying dress codes and everything?

Kevin: Absolutely. Totally. It wasn’t that wedding, per se, but I’ve been to weddings like that. I was able to use that departure point and really restyle and make it even more over the top in this book.

Zibby: How did you pick that? You’ve obviously been in lots of different outrageous, awesome situations that you could’ve written about. Why did you pick this format and a wedding like this and these particular characters? How did you arrive at that?

Kevin: Interestingly, with this wedding in particular in Capri, it takes place at Villa Lysis which is one of the most beautiful villas on the planet. It’s now a public museum, so I’ve been there several times. Even my first time going to Villa Lysis and visiting it, the setting is so spectacular. I was like, whoa, this would be a great spot for a party or a wedding. Already, I launched that in my head. This is a book that I’ve been writing in my mind for like ten years. Every time I would go to Capri, I would collect places. I would collect situations. I’d be like, how can I weave this into my story? Definitely, being there, being at this beautiful villa, I could just see a whole wedding take place there. Then a few years later, I made a new friend. She got married at Villa Lysis. She literally had the wedding of her dreams there. It was photographed in Vogue. You can google it. You just google Villa Lysis wedding. You will see her amazing, beautiful wedding. It’s gorgeous what she did and how she transformed the palace. That was another inspiration point, seeing, wow, she really made it happen. In her case, she also helped to pay for a lot of the restoration of the place, which was really great. They were able to build new structures on the property and stuff like that. That was another inspiration point, seeing a real wedding happen there unfold in these beautiful pictures. Then using that and using many other weddings I’ve been to, I kind of cobbled together my dream wedding for this couple. I arrived at this wedding out of so many different inspiration points.

Zibby: I have now googled and I’m looking at all the pictures of the wedding at Villa Lysis while we’re talking. It is unbelievable, oh, my gosh.

Kevin: Are they not? It’s unbelievable. She did it in such a classy way. It was so intimate, so full of love. It’s over the top, but it’s still just exquisite. It’s awesome.

Zibby: This is now on my wish list, is to find somebody I know who will get married here and invite me.

Kevin: Me too. As I told my friend, I was like, “I wish I could get in a time machine and we would’ve met two years earlier and then I would have been invited to your wedding.”

Zibby: Totally. Maybe my kids. Maybe I can start campaigning for a destination wedding here.

Kevin: Yeah, start now.

Zibby: I’ve only got thirty years to work on it.

Kevin: Totally. It’s a beautiful fantasy spot. With all my books, I’m trying to transport people and just give them a really fun ride into a world that’s fantastical and yet rooted enough and grounded enough in reality to where they can actually relate.

Zibby: It’s this whole funny thing in society right now, I feel like, because there’s so much anti-wealth sentiment. Everybody in every article is just down with the wealth like it’s a crime to be a wealthy person. Yet there is obviously this enormous fascination. The proof is in the pudding of your selling bazillion copies of books because people want a piece of it. They want to see it. Yet they have to publicly discount it. I don’t know. What do you make of that whole thing?

Kevin: I think there’s a fascination and a revulsion. I get comments on my Instagram. I see some people, they’re like, “We love the story, but we wished the people weren’t so wealthy.” I’m like, do you really? Would you actually be interested in reading about them if they were just crazy middle-class Asians? That’s a whole other book. That’s very valid, absolutely. Since the beginning of time, people have been fascinated by power and the people who are at the top of the pyramid beginning with stories of the pharaoh that was passed down through gossip, to stories in the bible about the rich and powerful, to Machiavelli, to Shakespeare. Even during the Spanish flu, people were reading Edith Wharton’s book and Henry James’s books and escaping into these worlds. What also is important is that I think for people who are not in that one percent, it’s kind of gratifying to see that these rich people have problems too. There is a universality to the experience. It brings them down, to bring down these characters to have to reckon with the fates and to have to experience the tragedies and the dramas of their lives. I think people are always riveted by that. Certainly in my books, I go to great lengths — I’m not glorifying the wealth. I’m just portraying it as I see it. I’m also revealing that in these worlds there are decent people who understand and who realize that they’re extremely privileged in a world that’s completely full of inequality and who are trying to make a difference.

Zibby: So really, you’re doing a public service. You’re helping out a whole group of people. It’s very nice you, making people more relatable . It’s perfect.

Kevin: I don’t know if you can say that. In Crazy Rich Asians, I really doubled down on the lavish descriptions and the brand name dropping and all of that because that, to me, captured how these people really are. It’s interesting. I would go to Hong Kong. I would meet friends and visit relatives. Everyone is just brand name dropping a mile a minute. They’re fascinated by, what are you wearing? Who made your shoes? Who made your watch? stuff that would never come up in a conversation in the United States. It is a cultural difference over there. It’s not seen as rude to ask, who made your shirt? How much did you pay for it? I wanted to really accurately portray that world. It’s satire. I’m making fun of these people. That’s what a lot of people fail to remember. In this new series, they do come from privilege, but that’s sort of beside the point in many ways. I hope you agree. Lucie isn’t driven by money in any way, shape, or form. She’s got other issues she’s dealing with.

Zibby: Yes, it’s just a backdrop. It’s just one character element, essentially.

Kevin: Yeah, but it’s not her defining element as it is for some people like Eddie in my Crazy Rich Asians series. He’s completely defined by his status symbols and his position and his wealth and his average net worth every day. Whereas Lucie and George and some of the other characters in this book, they totally have completely different values. That’s reflective of where they come from.

Zibby: Maybe there’s more of a relatability factor in that, in that they have normal thoughts and feelings. Maybe it’s easier, almost, to put yourself in their shoes and feel like you’re living this life. I don’t know. Everything was great.

Kevin: Were you sympathetic to their plight?

Zibby: Did you want me to be? Yes, I am sympathetic to their plights. I don’t have anything against any groups of people. You can’t help the family you’re born into. There are wonderful people who have all different levels of wealth. I think that any issues you’re having are your own issues to deal with. Just because you might be more privileged in some ways than others doesn’t mean the pain is any less, the pain of grief or loss. It doesn’t matter what you have. Love and loss and connection, that’s all the same stuff. The outside is just the backdrop for it in a way. That’s my own two cents.

Kevin: I absolutely agree. I think, actually, wealth amplifies that and a lot of time complicates and makes things worse for people.

Zibby: It can, yeah. You’re totally right.

Kevin: It can.

Zibby: Especially because people assume if you are wealthy that nothing should be bothering you ever. That’s not fair, right? Is it? Your characters have things bother them.

Kevin: They sure do. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be interesting. Otherwise, why would you be reading?

Zibby: Totally. Exactly. Tell me a little more about your writing process. How much of this book do you have outlined? I love how you did it by the place of all the events and all of that. Do you have all of that thought out before you start writing? Does it happen as you go? What’s your process like?

Kevin: I’m the messiest, most haphazard writer you can possibly meet. It’s like I’m handling this big muddy block and I’m slowly just chipping away at it until it becomes something that I want to look at. I don’t really outline at all. I have an idea and I write, actually, chronologically. It just keeps building. I can’t skip from chapter to chapter. I can’t write something three chapters down. I really tell the story as it evolves. Once I set an idea, the characters really take over as the dialogue that comes out and the situations that happen. Because I write so quickly, I almost am in a trance state when I write. I always write, I let it all come out. Then the next morning, I’ll go back and read it. Every day I go back, and I go, wait a minute, what happened? Who wrote this? I really see that in many, many of my chapters and scenes, especially with the crazier characters that will express themselves. It’s like, I don’t know where this came from, but okay, let’s go with it because this now changes the situation. Let’s just go there. I’m very, very experimental and haphazard in what I do. I can’t imagine writing an outline and having to commit to a structure. That’s just not how I work.

Zibby: How long did this book take to write?

Kevin: It actually took four months.

Zibby: Wow, that’s fast.

Kevin: This is the fastest book I’ve written. I think a lot of it was because I was given a break in between a TV project to really have some time to write a novel. I really wanted to maximize the time. This is all pre-COVID. Had I known that this would happen, I would’ve been like, give me a year and let me do half of this while I’m socially isolating. It worked out the way it did. I’m totally glad I — yeah.

Zibby: Sometimes too much time can be sort of a devil you have to work against as well. It’s like that whole expression, give a busy person something to do and you’ll get it done.

Kevin: Absolutely. It happened when it had to happen. I was worried at first I wouldn’t have enough time and it would be too haphazard and end up being just vastly . I turned in my final draft right before we all went into lockdown. I’m glad I did because I don’t know if I would be able to channel that kind of joy in these times. I think if I was still writing it when we went into lockdown and when the pandemic was first happening, it would probably have a very different ending. It’d probably be a lot darker because you are affected by what’s happening in the world.

Zibby: But now we need the joy in this book more than ever. It could not be a more welcome distraction from the current state of the world. It’s the perfect antidote at this exact moment.

Kevin: I really hope so. That’s really all I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to heal through laughter.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love that.

Kevin: It’s the best medicine, as they say.

Zibby: Are you already working on another book, or no? It sounds like no, but you must be.

Kevin: The minute I finished and handed in the manuscript, I had to start back on this TV series that I’ve been developing. I’m back in TV land writing a script every day. It’s a whole different process because it’s collaborative. I’m working with a whole team of writers. That’s the new adventure for the moment.

Zibby: That’s exciting. Very cool. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Kevin: I always say don’t be afraid to really take a chance and let your freak flag fly, seriously. That’s what I did. I wrote a book called Crazy Rich Asians about these crazy people. I wrote stuff that I, in my normal life, would never write. Even as someone who’s studied creative writing, I used to write these very composed, very minimalist essays and poems and stuff like that. Here, this is just this crazy mess of a book that I think people really respond to because I was able to really tap into this very authentic weirdo that’s in me. If I tried to over-craft it, if I tried to turn in too polished a thing that appealed to a certain demographic — I think a lot of times people try to write what they think other people want to read. I think that’s really, really self-destructive. Just write for yourself. Write and express your real voice and your real story. Tell it like you want to tell it. Don’t think about how it’s going to be received. I really didn’t. I didn’t intend for my book to even be published. I was just going to write them and self-publish and share them with a few friends that know me well, so I felt like I was in a safe space and I could really go there and write these strange stories that have nothing to do with my everyday life.

Zibby: And then look what happened.

Kevin: Look what happened, yeah. That’s my encouragement to people. Dare to be original. Dare to tell the truth, your own truth.

Zibby: I love it. Kevin, thank you. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” That was so fun.

Kevin: This was really, really so fun. I hope everyone’s doing well and people will find a little bit of peace and calm from reading, whether it’s my books or someone else’s books. I know I’ve been reading more than I ever have read in the last four months. I’ve been reading a lot more fiction because I need that escape too.

Zibby: Me too. I’m right there with you.

Kevin: Now I have to ration my news every day so I don’t get too mad in the mornings. Then I go to sleep every night reading a good piece a fiction.

Zibby: I feel like that’s the recipe for surviving these times.

Kevin: Exactly. Best of luck.

Zibby: You too.

Kevin: Thank you so much. It’s been a lot of fun.

Zibby: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Buh-bye.

Kevin: Bye.


SEX AND VANITY by Kevin Kwan

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