Transcript: Julie Murphy and Kevin Kwan

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 2 Episode 10.

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today we’re joined by Julie Murphy, who chose Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, and Kevin Kwan, who picked People Like Us by Dominick Dunne.

JENN:

Julie Murphy is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of YA novels Dumplin’, Puddin’, Ramona Blue, and Side Effects May Vary. When she’s not writing, she can be found reading, traveling, or hunting down the perfect slice of pizza. Before writing full time, she held numerous jobs, such as wedding dress consultant, failed barista, and, ultimately, librarian. The movie adaptation of Dumplin’ will be out in 2018, and the companion novel Puddin’ is out now.

JULIE MURPHY:
My name is Julie Murphy, and Twilight by Stephenie Meyer is my recommended.

The first time I picked up Twilight, I was a senior in college, and college was hard for me to come by. I definitely didn’t go to college right after high school like a lot of people did. I flustered around going to community college for a while, working at the mall for a while. By the time I did go to college, I was taking it really seriously ’cause I was paying my own way there and I was actually going to school for political science research, which was really, I guess, heavy major.

And so I had heard all this buzz about Twilight and I didn’t know what it was. I was like, is this a show on ABC Family? What is this thing?

I don’t understand what this is. I really wasn’t too involved in the world of young adult books outside of Harry Potter, anything like that. And so, I picked up Twilight and it was a couple months before the first movie came out, and I read it in maybe 18 hours. Then, I read it again. Then I read it again, and then I read it again. It was like this constant diet of all of these huge textbooks about the downfall of the Russian Empire, and then Twilight. That’s what was getting me through my last semester of college.

I really wasn’t much of a reader growing up. I don’t know, reading for me was kind of this luxurious type of thing, I guess you could say. I was really raised very blue collar, and I wasn’t exposed to books in the same way maybe lots of other people are. I definitely … I had read Harry Potter and had that swept off my feet feeling with Harry Potter, but it didn’t feel … Twilight, for me, tapped into different emotions than the Harry Potter did. It didn’t feel quite the same.

I see this at a lot of romance minded conventions with these women have these really intense feelings about these books. For me, that was the first time that a book tapped into me having really intense feelings about a romantic connection in a book. Yeah. It was kind of … it was a different experience.

I remember going to see Twilight for the first time at midnight, and that first movie, if it’s on TV, I can’t stop watching it, but it’s awful. Like awful in the best way possible, but I remember sitting in that theater and looking around at all of the different people who were in that theater, and they weren’t the people who I had sat in midnight showings of Lord of The Rings with. They weren’t the people I had sat at midnight showings of a Harry Potter movie with. These were people I never expected to see myself with. Some of them were very much my people, but some of them were middle aged housewives, and some of them were the popular girls who I never imagined would even look in my general direction. It had this really odd unifying factor that I hadn’t seen before.

I don’t want to say I made new friends, but it helped me find people in my life who were reading it, and we renewed our friendship, in a way. My very best friend and I, since seventh grade, delved into Twilight together, and it’s this whole chapter of our friendship. It’s kind of amazing, ’cause it was at this really critical time of our lives when she was graduating from an entirely different university than I was graduating from. And she was about to be engaged and married, and so she’s always been two steps ahead of me in life. Always graduating before me, getting married before me, she’s definitely had kids before me since I don’t have kids.

And so, Twilight was this thing that we could come back to together, and it was our shared thing. Sharing this really, normally, what would be a difficult time when you might find a division in your friendship or something. You might have a difficulty like finding some common ground with your best friend. I don’t know, I’ve been through that before with friends, and I’ve sometimes come out the other end losing that friend. And so, I have to wonder, how much did Twilight keep us together in that time when we had very little in common?

I think that there was something accessible about Twilight that wasn’t accessible in previous books, and I think it got me excited as a reader, but it also got me excited as a writer because for me, Twilight was the first time that I thought that I could maybe write a book. That’s not a knock on Stephenie Meyer by any means. It’s not to say her writing was so second class and I was like, “Oh, if she can do this, I can do this,” but at the same time, Twilight is a book about a sparkling vampire.

And so, I was really smitten with this idea that if she could write this book about a sparkling vampire and get an entire world to read these books, maybe I could write a book about one thing that someone might out there want to read. I think that Twilight, this is gonna sound so cheesy, Twilight, for me, awoke two things for me. It awoke a reader in me who could appreciate what was happening and why at the time. But it also awoke this sense of I could maybe do this. This could actually be a thing that I could accomplish.

I had no idea that I wanted to be a writer when I was reading Twilight. I think that before that point, I had taken a stab at every artistic thing I could possibly get my hands on, but for so long as a kid anything that related to writing or reading felt like homework. It never felt like anything that was just for me. I think that … it felt like this with Harry Potter, in a way, but in a really big way, Twilight felt like something that for the first time, it was just for me. It didn’t feel like it was reading time that was beholden to anyone else, it was just my reading time. Yeah, I mean, like I said earlier, I grew up very blue collar. I thought that people who wrote books lived in boxes, and sometimes they do. But for me, I didn’t think that that was ever a feasible career that anyone could do and be taken seriously. And also just pay the bills.

I could sit here for hours and talk to you about the critical discourse surrounding Twilight. I could talk to you about how it’s harmful to women. I could talk to you about the awful parental figures in Twilight. I could talk to you about so many different things, but I will never not be grateful for the person that Twilight made me. I’d have the most incredible experiences in the world because of my writing career. I would like to think that at some point, but I think it would’ve taken a hell of a lot longer, had it not been for Twilight.

I do think that Twilight has informed my writing. Very specifically with Bella’s father, actually. Because that was a relationship that I picked up on in Twilight that meant a lot to me for some reason. I was actually going through a really hard time with my dad at the time, and I think it was another reason why I delved so hard into Twilight. And so, that relationship, I was really smitten with because while Bella’s mom is like this cardboard cutout of a parent, it was really nice to see this very present father figure, even if he as a father figure, goes against a lot of my feminist ideals. It was really nice to see that in a YA book.

I really loved … I think there’s a lot of criticism out there, a lot of fair criticism out there about Bella and how little agency she has and all these different things. It was also nice to see a girl who I very much knew in high school, like a girl who was quiet, a girl who didn’t know what she wanted. And so, I know that now it seems like we’ve had so many Bella’s in the YA world, but it was nice at the time to see this really quiet and shy girl get to live out this sort of fantastical life. That said, I don’t know how much it affected my actual writing except to say that I was very aware of what kind of heroines could get to the guy.

I think that Twilight really shaped what kind of female leads were saving the day, were getting the guy or the girl. And so, I think that when it came time for me to have the chance to publish, I wanted to be aware of that and I wanted to buck against the stereotype that we’d built in YA for so long. I don’t know, it’s hard to say ’cause at the time, there were things that I very much appreciated about it. But the thing is, Twilight was such a huge success, it became this … every little thing about it that could’ve really influenced me in a positive way, we ended up really saturating our market with. It’s kind of … I don’t know. It’s a yes then no kind of question.

I definitely have some failed attempts at a supernatural love story in my archives, without a doubt. But it never … I was never invested enough to continue going. Maybe I’m boring, but there’s just something really awful and wonderful about real life that I am really smitten by. I wish that I could write the paranormal love story of the century. Especially because, I don’t know about everybody else, but I’m ready for a paranormal romance to make a comeback in YA. Give that to me. But I don’t think I’m the person to write it.

JENN:

Thanks again to Julie Murphy for joining us and recommending Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. You can find Puddin’, published by Balzer and Bray, wherever books are sold, and you can find out more about her on juliemurphywrites.com.

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JENN:

Kevin Kwan was born in Singapore, and has called New York’s West Village home since 1995. He is the author of the international bestselling novels Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems, which follow the wealthiest members of Asian high society and their family drama. The movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians will be in theaters on August 15.

KEVIN KWAN:

My name is Kevin Kwan, and People Like Us by Dominick Dunne is my recommended.

People Like Us is really a satire of 1980s New York’s high society. It interweaves so many overlapping stories. There’s a story of Gus Bailey, who is the narrator of the story, and he basically goes to all these society parties. He’s a reporter and also part of this social set, and he’s also really kind of recovering from the horrific murder of his daughter. You go through that process with him.

It’s also the story of the ultimate social climbers, the Renthals. Elias and Ruby Renthal who arrive in New York. And it’s about how they climb the social stratosphere to the heights of the New York elite. Really, it’s kind of a portrait of New York high society in the late 1980s.

I read People Like Us back when it was originally first published. I think it was 1987 or something like that. There were a lot of great rave reviews coming out about the book at the time, and of course, being a voracious reader, I immediately wanted to read it, as well. I was fascinated by New York at the time, and really wanted to absorb and enjoy this book as much as possible.

How old was I in 1987? I think I was 13 years old. I was a kid stuck in suburban Houston, Texas, dreaming of getting out of my prison, and moving to New York and having a cool fun life.

I think, when I was at that age, I wanted to be a marine biologist. It’s funny, but there was a part of me also that knew I wanted to be living in New York, and kind of … That’s where all the action was. That’s where all the cool things were happening.

I remember at that age, I was already reading Interview Magazine, because I actually … I was on yearbook. It was eighth grade. I was on yearbook at my intermediate school, and Richard Atkinson … I think that was his name … my yearbook teacher, he had a subscription to Interview Magazine, and it was sitting always in the middle of his desk in the classroom, and I would read it and be fascinated by it; by this cool world I was seeing. And of course, I’d been to New York, so I kept on wanting more of that world. I didn’t know that 10, 15 years later, I’d be working at Interview Magazine. Life has taken its really kind of interesting twists.

People Like Us is a book that I will read every, I would say, three or four years. It’s funny. I’ll think about it, and I’ll want to remember a story or something that Dunne referenced, and it’s one of these books that, the minute you start reading, even if you’re in the middle of the book, you get sucked in. It’s addictive. It’s so clever. It’s so fun. And it’s hilarious and wicked. Really, really wicked in the way that he satirizes and skewers this crowd of crazy rich New Yorkers.

Every time I re-read this book, I do have a very different experience, because I’ve lived in New York now 23 years, so my experience of New York, my experience of high society New York and those circles has deepened. I’ve become friends with a lot of the people that Dunne actually writes about in this book, so that’s kind of a strange twist of how my life has gone into bizzaro-land.

What he did, really inspires my own writing, and inspires my novels. It was the first time I read a book where I saw how he wrote his real story, his personal story, and interwove that with fiction, with facts, famous scandals and gossip that are well known, make it into his stories and the way that they do into my stories. I didn’t know that you could do that with books. I didn’t know that you could pick real characters and thinly disguise them and play with their names, and change them in a witty way, so people know who you were talking about, but you won’t get sued.

I think People Like Us was very inspiring in the way that it opened up possibilities for me of how to chronicle a world that I knew. And what I knew, in the way that Dominick Dunne was a insider to New York high society, I knew about Asia. I knew about Asian high society. I knew about the elite circles, the old money circles, the establishment families.
That was why I decided to write my book, because I felt like no one was really talking about contemporary Asia, modern-day Asia. What’s happening now. What is happening now is that Asia’s going through the biggest economic boom in the history of the world. More billionaires are being made every single day in China than anywhere else in the world. I wanted to capture this world, and really show the Asia that I know, and satirize it. And make it a fun, rompy, clever, delicious kind of book that people could be entertained by, but also maybe make them think a little bit.

I think his books were fun, and they were clever, but they also had a lot of heart. There was a social conscience there, where he was able to, even within People Like Us, look at the class divides. The time, in the ’80s, AIDS was still very much the horrific epidemic that it was, and he was able to go there in People Like Us. There was a character who was dying of AIDS, whose mother who’s this very important socialite, is in complete denial that her son is sick. Because she’s in denial that he’s even gay. It’s his way in. He used this frothy elegant world to tell all these different stories about New York society, and he wasn’t afraid to go to the dark places and the dark corners of that. That was, to me, very inspiring.

If you read The Custom of the Country, which was written in, don’t quote me, but I think, 1905 or 1906, which was about this amazing social climber Undine Spragg, who was the character that actually inspired one of my characters, Kitty Pong from my novels. Her book, The Custom of the Country, it basically reads like a whole season of Gossip Girl. You could pick it up today, flip open the pages, and begin reading, and it captures a New York of 1905 that seems just like New York of 2018. Just change the names a bit, change the locations a little bit. Actually, don’t even change the locations, just change the dates. And instead of horse carriages, they’re all in their SUV car services. And you have, essentially, the same story.
Dunne really was part of that legacy, I think. He chronicled his age, the late 1980s. The time when all the nouveau society was rising in New York. You had the Trumps at that time. Donald and Ivana were still married. You had all these people like Henry Kravitz and Caroline Rome. It was a fascinating time in New York.

I’m going to reference a quote that he gave back when the book first came out.

They asked him, “How are the rich in New York different from the rich in any other American city?” He said, “The difference is that there’s this need, especially during the Reagan era, among the rich, a need for self-promotion which I’ve never seen in my life. I do think that a lot of them have gone indoors, but then there’s the Trumps’ terrible tacky divorce. I don’t think it’s possible to go any lower. I think they’ve totally ruined themselves.”
It’s interesting that he said this back then. And look where we are today.
I do recommend this book to a lot of people. People are always writing to me, or they ask me at readings, “I love your books so much, what are some other books I can read that are like yours?” This is one of the first books I recommend. And Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country is another one I do recommend. Any form of social satire, to me, is fascinating. Evelyn Waugh, for example, I love recommending his books. Decline and Fall and even Brideshead Revisited, things like that.

But Dunne is much more contemporary, and I think for many people, they can read this and a lot of the stories still ring true, because a lot of the characters he wrote about in these books, that he thinly disguised, are still very much alive. And still very much are at the top of New York high society. It’s interesting for a lot of people, I think, who haven’t read this book, to go back to it, almost like a sort of bible, to sort of understand the past of how these people got to where they are now.

I think, given time, I hope people rediscover this book. I think it’s still being read, but I hope that it really has another renaissance. And you never know, 100 years from now, it could be considered as classic as Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, or A Custom of the Country.

A few years ago, I was able to meet him before he passed away. But I was way too star-struck to say anything to him, so I just … I think I just said, “I love your books.” He looked at me, and he was like, “Thank you.” I think he was curious as to … At the time, I was much younger, like this young Asian kid coming to one of his book signings. You know? On the Upper East Side . I wasn’t the usual target demographic, but he signed his book for me, and I’ll always treasure that.

Then, many years later, Cornelia Guest, who has become a friend of mine, she knew him very well, and she told me, “Dominick would have loved your books.” That is so meaningful to me to hear.

JENN

Thanks again to Kevin Kwan for joining us and recommending People Like Us by Dominick Dunne. You can purchase the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy wherever books are sold, and you can follow him on Twitter at kevinkwanbooks.

JENN:
Next week on Recommended, one author talks about a book that was her everything growing up:

UNNAMED AUTHOR:

And so this all about a test of loyalties. So who is he going to side with? And what will you sacrifice for love, what will you sacrifice for duty. And the pursuit of the highest forms of martial arts. Who will get their hands on this legendary book of martial arts that will supposedly give the possessor of the book unlimited powers and so on and so forth?

It’s got every trope. It’s got every kind of character.

JENN:

Thanks again to our sponsors for making today’s episode possible. If you like what you heard, please take a moment to review and rate us on Apple Podcasts. We love to hear your feedback and it helps other folks to find the show. You can find shownotes at Bookriot.com/recommended, and you can email us at recommended@bookriot.com.