The drama and relationship foibles of trust-fund billionaires make for tremendous fun in Kevin Kwan’s novel Sex and Vanity, which cavorts from an over-the-top wedding in Capri to the streets of New York City. Lydia Look makes it all come alive in the relentlessly entertaining audiobook.
Look, a Los Angeles-based actor, writer and producer who has over a hundred film, TV, theater and voice credits, and who has previously narrated Kwan’s novels China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, brilliantly hops from one character to another, switching accents and attitudes in a dazzling performance. Here she discusses the “infinite magic” of Kwan’s fiction and what it’s like to produce audiobooks during the pandemic.
Tell me a bit about transforming Sex and Vanity into an audiobook. How did you prepare, and what did you most enjoy about the preparation?
It paralleled Lucie’s journey to Capri at the top of the book. Fraught with highs and lows, it was truly memorable. The highs were being asked to do the job and the prepping of the book—that was magical. The lows being that it coincided with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were in complete lockdown and had to revert to recording from home. I spent a great deal of time trying to get supplies to arrive in time in order for my broadcast-quality home studio to be ready for the job, and it was a challenge putting it all together in quarantine lockdown mode, to say the least.
I start by reading the book, then rereading certain passages that strike a chord personally. Then comes the best part—I start getting personal with the characters, in my waking hours and in my dreaming hours. The latter is where all the magic happens, as I live vicariously through them as I sleep.
Prepping the book is no different than filling an empty canvas with color. The more detailed you get, the richer they appear as people. The most enjoyable part was getting up-front and cozy with the wonderful characters in the book and assigning people in my life as them. I have a relationship with every character that I voice, and I love it.
“There is infinite magic to Kevin Kwan’s writing, and he spreads great joy through it.”
The wealthy, globetrotting cast has so many different accents. Tell me about the process of capturing their voices. Was there a character’s voice that proved especially challenging, or perhaps one you enjoyed most?
It was great fun! I’m lucky in life to have grown up and been surrounded with a diverse crowd of people of all colors and creeds that I constantly draw from. They make my imagination rich, and I’m so grateful for it. I cast people in my life as the characters in the book, but they remain anonymous in perpetuity. Casting is top secret! The essence of each character’s unique voice comes from having an intimate relationship with them, and I did with great relish. Each character’s vocal timbre reveals his/her inner truth, and the accompanying accent is a road map of their life experiences in total. Accents betray class and pedigree, and timbre reveals a person’s inner truth.
Like Cecil and George in the book, many of Kevin’s characters are well-heeled travelers that code switch easily between accents depending on the company they’re keeping, and that gave me license to create each character’s unique sound in each different setting. That kept me joyfully engaged and on my tippy toes!
I don’t play favorites with the characters I get to breathe life into, but I am very tender toward Rosemary, as I see many shades of my own dynamic, irrepressible and life-loving mother in her. It would be wonderful to get to play her on screen if I could.
This is the third of Kevin Kwan’s novels that you’ve narrated. What have you learned in the process, about your work and about Kwan’s?
There is a beautiful shorthand that inherently exists between Kevin and I. It’s blossomed and deepened further over the books, and I really cherish it. I’ve also learned that I can never, ever be as fully prepared as I like and to just show up. In narrating Kevin’s books, you have to be fully present, as his words flow fast and his complex and chameleonic characters appear in a blink of an eye, often unpredictably. There is infinite magic to Kevin Kwan’s writing, and he spreads great joy through it. Be warned, he’s highly addictive!
Sex and Vanity is a reimagining of A Room With a View. Did the film adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel influence your performance in any way?
Oh, very much so! Kevin was majorly influenced by the Merchant Ivory film and requested that I revisit the film prior to recording. I was glad to be able to draw from the film’s witty spirit and astute observations of class and pedigree from a brilliant British cast. Watching it again gave me the permission I needed to have fun with the vocal storytelling. Nothing is too much if it’s grounded in truth, and the film displays that in full finery.
Kwan’s footnotes are especially fun, as they offer commentary from a seemingly omniscient narrator. Who is this voice, to you?
They are my favorite, too! I have had the pleasure of voicing them in three books now and always look forward to them. Those wickedly razor-sharp observations crack me up yet deliver a sobering dose of reality check at the same time. Brilliant, really. I never kiss and tell in casting, but I’ll reveal this one due to it’s obviousness. The spirit and essence of the omniscient narrator is Kevin Kwan, of course! But it’s Kevin’s female doppelgänger, Kevina Kwan (pronounced Keh-vee-nah). It was impossible to imagine anyone else in this part.
Kwan’s novels enjoy poking gentle fun at the incredibly wealthy, without ever being unkind. Similarly, your narration finds humor in the events without ever being mean. How do you balance this?
The more incredibly wealthy they are, the more human their foibles are to me. Their everyday cares and concerns are no different than ours. All they have are incredible means in terms of wealth and power, which they use to fix their everyday problems and that don’t always work. Money can’t buy you everything, not for the things that truly matter in life. So I try to find humor in their pathos and brevity in their farce. Besides, it’s impossible to be mean with Kevin’s writing. He spreads joy. It’s pure love.
What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a narrator of audiobooks? What is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to this experience through your reading?
Ignorance. Initially, it was brilliant that I had no hindsight of what was really in store for me, so I had zero fear going in. Also, I have no shame. The microphone gives me permission. I am utterly shameless in front of it. I am blessed with a very good ear and, to quote the Irish nuns that nurtured me in my childhood, “a gift of the gab.” The most rewarding is hearing the character’s truth, when it works, as I breathe life into them. It’s a complete high for me! Yes, I can have fun all by myself. Ahem . . .
What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
It’s hard work! I have so much respect for the craft. When it works, it’s pure elation. When it doesn’t, it is utter devastation. You’re all alone, with a stone-cold mic and only the sound of silence as your scene partner. Narrators are storytellers. I breathe life into the writer’s words and characters and hope to bring you on a journey with me. One hopefully filled with joy and pathos. I pray for a transformative one for the listener. Also, it takes a village to make an audiobook! Big love to my intrepid director Christina Rooney, who guided me expertly, and the wonderful team at Penguin Random House Audio.