Interview with Celeste Ng

Posted by Goodreads on September 1, 2017
Author Celeste Ng's 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You, was a New York Times bestseller and named a best book of the year by more than a dozen outlets, including NPR, Buzzfeed, and Amazon.

Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, is about the affluent Richardson family in Shaker Heights, Ohio (Ng's hometown). When Mia, a nomadic photographer, and her teenage daughter, Pearl, move into the Richardsons' rental property, they become entangled in the Richardsons' lives in irreversible ways.

Ng talked to Goodreads interviewer Janet Potter about teen drama, race, Twitter, and the fear of writing about a place you love.

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Goodreads: Both of your books feature teenagers as main characters. The Richardson family has four teenage siblings, each of whom develops a relationship with Pearl, so there are an exponential number of interpersonal dynamics—sort of a web of teen angst. Was that a challenge you were excited about?

Celeste Ng: It was a challenge. I wanted to write about a family that was rooted in this community and have all these different facets shown in these four kids. I used to be jealous of friends of mine who had big families, and you'd go to their house and it seemed like somebody was always coming and going and there were always people around. It just seemed really exiting. So I liked the idea of having that big family dynamic where the kids would pair off in different ways.

One of the things that I was really interested in, in this book in particular, was the sort of ways that those bonds formed and dissolved. I think of them as sort of constellations almost: They connect up in different ways and in different structures, but they also belong to other constellations. I liked that idea that there are all these overlapping webs, and I was interested in how they're forming these alliances with each other.

GR: The book takes place in 1998, and the characters have several discussions about race. The accepted language of talking about race changes so rapidly, and when I was reading those conversations, I thought, "Oh yeah, I remember when that was the vocabulary we used." Especially the phrase "I don't see race"—I remember a time when people said that unironically, not as a punch line. I was curious what it was like setting these discussions in a very specific time.

CN: I was the age of the teenagers in the book (I think I would be Lexie's age exactly), so in some ways it was me going back into my memory and thinking about what were we really thinking about when we were thinking about race. And it was actually something that we were pretty aware of in Shaker Heights. I don't think we were thinking about it with a lot of nuance, but the community was known for being racially progressive and being very open about it. There was actually a student race relationship group that I was in in high school. We would meet weekly and talk about issues about race and peer pressure and things like that, and then we would go a couple times a year and talk to fifth and sixth graders about it and do activities to get that conversation going.

I remember that we were talking particularly about race blindness, we wanted to treat everyone equally, which now we think about it in a slightly different way. If you are not noticing someone's race, then you are overlooking certain parts of their identity that are potentially very important to them. That was the state that we were in at that time. Now we see a distance between where we are now and where we were then.

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GR: There's a custody trial in the book to decide whether a child should be raised by her Chinese biological mother, Bebe, or the McCulloughs—a white couple who have been her guardians since she was an infant. During the trial, Bebe's lawyer (who is Chinese and a parent) questions Mrs. McCullough about whether the baby would be exposed to Chinese culture in their home, including having Chinese children's books or dolls that looked like her. There's a moment where you sort of zoom out 20 years and predict the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement. I was fascinated that you decided to tip your hat to that. What made you want to have that show up in the book?

CN: When I was a kid, my mom sort of presciently was really aware of what we now call "representation." Any time she saw a book by an Asian person—it didn't even have to be a Chinese person—or it was about an Asian person, she would get those books for me. And the same thing with dolls—I remember that she was always looking for Asian dolls for me, and there really weren't any for a long time.

So I put that into the book, and the credit for the coded shout-out to #WeNeedDiverseBooks really goes to my editor. She read that scene and loved it but said, "Would he [the lawyer] really be aware of that at that time?" And I said, "Oh yes." Because if you were a part of it at that time, you knew how hard it was to get a doll that looked like you.

I wanted an American Girl doll so badly when I was 11, but not only were they incredibly expensive, but my mom wouldn't buy one for me because they were all white. When I was about 14 or 15, American Girl put out those dolls you could make to look like you, and there was an Asian one, and my mom actually bought it for me, even though I was a little bit too old for dolls. I think it was that jolt of recognition of, "Oh, there is finally a doll that kind of looks like me." I think it was as much for her as it was for me, that somebody had finally recognized that it was important to get a doll that looks like you.

So I told my editor that this lawyer would absolutely have been aware of that. I felt like I needed to put in there an acknowledgement that he was in some way ahead of the conversation. That he would have been thinking about this even though it wasn't part of the national conversation, so it naturally made sense to allude to the fact that now we are talking about it.

GR: The book is called Little Fires Everywhere and opens with a house fire, but throughout the book there are a lot of mentions of sparks, a light in someone's eye, someone's spirit being burned down to embers. Fire symbolizes the spirit within someone. We see that symbolism used a lot in the "we're all made of stardust" vein, but I was interested in the way that you turned that trope sideways and had the fire that was inside everybody have a dangerous edge to it. There are several instances of characters finally breaking out of their shell and expressing themselves, only to be spiteful or cruel.

CN: This is one of those things that makes me believe in the subconscious mind. When I wrote the first draft of the book, I didn't have a title yet. My agent told me to go through the book and pull out phrases that I thought might work for the title, and the one that we settled on was Little Fires Everywhere, which is right from the beginning of the book.

She really liked it, and I gradually warmed up to it, and now it's difficult to imagine having a different title because I didn't realize until we pulled that out and put it at the top of the page how much fire imagery there was in the book. It had been an unconscious thing. Once we had sold the book and I was doing another round of edits with my editor, I went back to all the moments of "there's that spark in her" or "something catches fire in her," and I wanted to make sure that I had sort of a double-edged sword. So that idea of the fire being both an inspirational thing, a power, but also a destructive thing was kind of in there from the beginning, and I didn't really realize that until we went through the editing process.

GR: A lot of the conflict in the book comes from disputes about the ownership of another person—very literally in a custody battle, but also when people assume emotional ownership of someone. There are a lot of instances of someone assuming that if your connection to someone is strong, you get to make their decisions. Characters pushing back against that ownership drives a lot of the book.

CN: I think the reason I ended up exploring that theme is that it's a universal struggle that comes up a lot in my own life, and in every relationship, the idea that your emotional involvement with someone gives you a say in what they do or what happens to them. I have a young kid about to start first grade. I'm at the point where I'm realizing, "Oh, you have a life that I don't completely understand." He's got all these friends, and they have their own games and jokes. One day I was picking him up from school, and I saw him and one of his friends sitting at the top of the slide having a very intense conversation. And I saw them and thought, "What are they talking about?" I'm never gonna know. To a certain extent that's right because he's going to have experiences I'm not a part of.

I think that's especially true in the parent-child relationship, and that's what happens a lot in the book. But there's also an emotional tug-of-war between the teens, where someone assumes that because they adore someone else, they belong to them. It's a universal struggle that when you love somebody, you want to take care of them and be involved with them, but sometimes what you want is not what they want, and that's when you run into trouble. That's one of the big things in the book that all the characters are struggling with.

GR: Katy asks: I read that it took eight years to write Everything I Never Told You. I wanted to know what was the most surprising change from the initial drafts to publication?

CN: I think the surprise for me was that the basic story line stayed the same. It wasn't exactly that I got it right the first time—I had to do a lot of refining and deep digging into the characters—but that I had an idea of what was going to happen in the book and that that was largely what happened. That was the surprise to me, that what I was wrestling with wasn't getting the story down or figuring out what happens next as much as how to tell it in a way that made sense.

For Little Fires Everywhere the surprise was that it was almost the opposite writing process of the first book. The first book I had the idea of the story, and then I wrote it and rewrote, and I changed the structure dramatically every draft. And with Little Fires Everywhere, I think because I had been thinking about it while I was on book tour, I did a lot of that work in my head, and when it came time to actually write it down, I had a pretty clear idea of what was going to happen, so I never worked from an outline, and the writing of it came quite quickly.

GR: Tiffany asks: I love your published work, and you have a lot of meaningful things to say on Twitter as well. I'm wondering if you carve out time for social media separate from your writing time? Is it a reward after writing? Does it ever interfere with your writing?

CN: The real answer is I don't handle it as well as I probably should handle it. Because I'm a writer and because I work at home or at the library, I don't have an office, I don't have coworkers. I have friends I talk with and text with, but I'm not around people as much. For me, Twitter is sort of like the office watercooler; it's where I see what people are talking about, get new ideas, ask for help, bounce ideas off people. I use it mostly as breaks for when I'm writing.

If the writing is going the way it's supposed to go, I write for a while and every 20 or 30 minutes I get a five-minute break. On some other days, which is a lot of days, I'm not as disciplined as that and I'm on Twitter more than I should be. But it's turned out to be an interesting place to go and be in a conversation, to see what people are talking about and get new ideas in my head. Maybe I'm rationalizing, but I like to think that a lot of the time I spend on Twitter is feeding my work in some way.

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GR: Andy asks: What's the one thing you were the most scared of writing about but did anyway?

CN: I was really nervous about writing about my hometown. First, because I think when you write about a real place that other people know, there's a chance that you're going to get things factually wrong, which I'm sure I did in the book. I'm sure I'm going to get a lot of emails from people who know Shaker Heights, saying, "You said it was South Woodland Boulevard but it's actually South Woodland Road" or "There's no such house number on this street," and they're going to be right.

The other reason that I was nervous is because it's a real place that does exist. People are going to have their own impressions of it that are different than my impressions of it. People are going to be understandably sensitive about this place that they have a love for. I wanted to write about it honestly but also convey the things about it that are wonderful. I loved growing up there, and I still love it, and every time I go back to Cleveland, I go there just to visit. I wanted to get that balance right. I don't know that I did; that will have to be for readers to decide.

It's sort of like writing about a family member you love dearly but you know has certain quirks or shortcomings that you want to portray accurately, but at the same time you want people to like them the way you do. It felt really important to the story that I realized I was trying to tell that I actually talk about this particular community and not some generic suburb, but this particular community that comes out of this idealist root and has this particular ethos and mentality. There are a lot of communities that are like that, but I haven't found other places that are Shaker Heights. I don't think the story could have been set anywhere else.

GR: What's your writing process?

CN: The daily writing process right now is shaped around the school day because I'm a parent, so my son goes to school and I write when he's at school. I basically have six hours to get all my work done, and then I go get him. That's made me be much more disciplined—I get up, I have breakfast, I have a cup of tea, and then I sit down at my desk and try to get something done. I usually try to read over what I did the day before. Usually that's enough to trick myself into continuing. And I try to at least look at it every day even if I don't write something.

The larger-scale writing process is to try and write little pieces as I can think of them. Sometimes they're not consecutive, but I'll have an idea for a scene, so I'll write it down. Then to come back and put all those puzzle pieces together in a way that makes sense. So there's a lot of rearranging and rewriting for me as I go through.

GR: What were some of your favorite books growing up?

CN: My mom was really into classic literature, so I read a lot of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I've probably read each of those 20, 30, maybe 40 times. I read a lot of classic British literature because my mom grew up in the British school system, so I read The Secret Garden and A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy and Five Little Peppers and Little Women.

But then, when I got to choose more of what I read, I loved Lloyd Alexander, The Chronicles of Prydain series, and the Vesper Holly adventures, where there's this strong teenage girl heroine who's always saving the day, and she's always smart and she always knows what she's doing. I loved The Wizard of Oz series, I loved The Chronicles of Narnia. I loved books about worlds that were quite different than mine. I didn't really get into more realistic fiction until I was a teenager. I always liked the books that were about finding secret doors to a secret world or times that were really different than mine.

GR: What's the last book you read that you loved?

CN: I really did love the book Girl in Snow, which came out recently. It's being billed as a thriller, but it didn't strike me as that; it struck me as more of a psychological study. It starts off with the death of a teenage girl. I think that's why it came into my Twitter feed because people were like, "Oh, you wrote a book about a teenage girl." But it's completely different, and it's less about the death of the girl and more about how her life affected three people in her community—the police officer investigating her, a boy who had this deep crush on her, and a girl who was her frenemy. It's really about that way that their perceptions of her were really different from who she was and how in a lot of ways their perceptions of her were what shaped their relationships to her. It's a debut novel, but I couldn't believe it. I read the first few pages and thought, "Well, this girl can write."

Comments Showing 1-11 of 11 (11 new)

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message 1: by Julia (last edited Sep 21, 2017 09:30AM) (new)

Julia Sobral I would be curious to know what Celeste Ng thinks on a personal level about (view spoiler)

message 2: by Tanya (new)

Tanya Jeal do you have tips on marketing my own book?

message 3: by Emily (new)

Emily Tanya wrote: "do you have tips on marketing my own book?"

We recommend checking out our Authors & Advertisters Blog for helpful tips and tricks for marketing your book both on and off Goodreads.

message 4: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Mejia Adding this to my to-read list!!

message 5: by Mariah (new)

Mariah Interesting that she read Laura Ingalls Wilder when there is so much racism in Little House on the Prairie. Before reading it to children be sure and research how to use it as a teachable text.
Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children is an older text that I used in reviewing books when my kids were small and I just found a website addressing Little House on the Prairie when reading with children.

message 6: by Purabi (new)

Purabi Loved the interview and I am marking Little Fires Everywhere as To Read. Thank you Goodreads and Celeste Ng for your insightful comments. Coming from India to set up home in Canada I tried hard to teach my kids to converse in our mother-tongue (Bengali). My effort paid off - so I can understand Celeste Ng's mother's beliefs.

message 7: by Raghupathi (new)

Raghupathi Celestie., really i liked the simple language., great and good thought.Raghu-Bangalore-India

message 8: by Peggy (new)

Peggy Tan My children's father is Chinese raised in the Philippines. I was so concerned that they not think they were only Irish and Welsh that I insisted we go to the Philippines for visits in spite of the money it cost. When my kids were young adults, they decided that everything they knew about being Chinese, they learned from me. I thought it was a nice compliment. Their father was a busy physician and did not spend much time talking to them about family.

message 9: by Leah (new)

Leah Gilmour Thank you for sharing the books you enjoyed as a teen - I am always looking for suggestions for my girls. As for dolls of different races, the French doll maker Corolle has had dolls of various races for as long as I can remember. I think the French because they have had colonies in Viet Nam, a presence in the Middle East and various countries in Africa etc are very attuned to racial awareness. I live in Ottawa, the Canadian Capital and my children have attended french schools. My husband and I chose to send our children to French school because we wanted them to be bilingual but also because the French school are often extremely diverse - not only for colour but for religious representation. My children were often a part of the minority as half Scottish, 1/4 French and 1/4 Spanish. They are aware of colour and religion but don't think of it! None of this matters - they are more concerned with wether a person is genuine.

message 10: by Cybil (new)

Cybil I loved this book and thinking back on it keep revisiting Ng's quote from the interview above: "It's a universal struggle that comes up a lot in my own life, and in every relationship, the idea that your emotional involvement with someone gives you a say in what they do or what happens to them."

message 11: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Baker I want to tell Ng that I too am working on a cozy mystery where the setting is the very township that I live in in central Indiana. However, I will recreate it in the image I would like to see it, if I were to have a hand in recreating it. this alone takes away some of the fear of not getting anything incorrect because it is a recreation in my mind.
jenny Stanley-Baker, author of Birth of A Pirate

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