An Interview with Celeste Ng
Words By Dani Hedlund
What was the inspiration for your new book Little Fires Everywhere?
Shaker Heights was a place that always fascinated me, and I wanted to try to write about it; it’s a city that was planned from the beginning like a utopia. An idea came to mind of a family that plays by the rules and in that way, they embody the community. I envisioned this black sheep who wasn’t going to fit in with her family and therefore she wasn’t going to fit in with the community. This is where the idea for Izzy, the youngest daughter, came from. Of course, the catalyst for everything that happened in my book is a mother and daughter from out of town.
How do you balance a more dramatic angle of writing with writing inches away from the souls of your characters?
For me, writing always starts with character. The big picture ideas stem from them. I dig into what made my character and how that translates into their world. When I am trying to figure out what motivates character, I am digging further down into them. I am trying to get closer and closer to who they are. The themes arise from this digging. Every time I have tried to write something from the theme down, it ends up feeling flat-footed and heavy.
We are taught that in order to write a really good story, the writer must know more about the characters than what falls on the page. Is this true of your characters? Do we only get to see ten percent of them?
I don’t think I know every single detail about my characters, but I do know more than what is on the page. I wrote a lot more than what went into print; I took out parts that I thought I didn’t need. I have other ideas about what these characters do and what they like. I don’t know what shoe size they wear and what color underwear they prefer. If you let me think about it, I could probably come up with those details. My job as the writer is to pare back to the things that you need to know.
You have already mentioned that Shaker Heights is a community that is exceptionally organized and regulated. You have a family that really embodies that sort of regulation, and then a new family arrives. You have these really beautiful images of how they create a bed out of the backseat of their car with a tent over it for privacy. What was it like as a writer to take these huge juxtaposing forces and shove them together?
It was really fun because it became an exercise in “compare and contrast.” Having grown up in this town in a more middle-class home, I would drive to high school passing by beautiful mansions and wonder what it was like inside. To write the novel, I did some spying online in order to get a better look at the really fancy houses. It was a fantasy world.
As a kid, I was always fascinated by survival stories. When I was growing up, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen were really popular. To a certain extent, books like The Little House series also fell into the survival story category. These are books about how you made do with what you had. That really struck me because I was living a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. If I was thrown into the wilderness, how would I Robinson-Crusoe my way out? The real truth is I would probably get eaten by a bear.
There was another book that was really big when I was an adolescent called Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt, who writes a lot of young adult fiction, in which four children are abandoned by their mother. They are trying to find their way to their grandmother’s house but in the meantime, they are also trying to survive. How are they going to stay safe from the people who are trying to harm them? That was one of my favorite books as an early adolescent. It embodies the sort of imagining I was trying to do in which I wanted to balance how two very different groups of people might live and what would happen if those two very different groups of people were thrust together.
A lot of your work seems to focus on adolescence. Why are you drawn to this stage in our growth?
Adolescence represents this weird liminal state between agency and dependency. There are so many things that you ought to be able to do, or you ought to be allowed to do. But a lot of the time, you are not ready or the world will not let you try. When I think back to my teenage years, I definitely thought I was ready to do a lot more than I could. There is something so powerful about that moment in which you are on the cusp of adulthood. When you are a child, you know that you have no control over what’s going on, but you’re not expected to. People take care of you as a child but that has its own frustrations.
When you are an adult, you are supposed to make decisions by yourself but sometimes you can’t; that has its own different frustrations. When you are an adolescent, on one hand people are yelling at you to be responsible, do your homework, and make good choices. At the same time, there is pressure not to have sex and to not get in trouble. So much of adolescence is sussing out what you are supposed to do versus what you are expected to do. Those lines are never going to be the same for anybody. For me, adolescence represents a really fraught period; it is also a period that once we move out of, we almost forget what it’s like. To be both grown up and young is a really powerful place for fiction to come from; people don’t know what they’re doing. I think that is why I keep going back to it.
In your experience, what has been the difference in writing conflicts that stem from adolescence and conflicts that stem from adulthood?
I realized that conflicts that arise from both adolescence and adulthood are actually very close together. As adults, we seem to reenact those things that we were supposed to grow out of in adolescence, just in slightly different circumstances. A lot of that came from my own experience as a theoretical adult: I have a kid; I own a house; I pay a mortgage. There are moments that happen to me at least twice a day when I say to myself “I am supposed to be the adult. I am supposed to know what to do in this situation.” I realized that I don’t feel terribly different now than I did as a teenager. Even now I swing wildly between confidence and feeling deeply over my head. I even see my mom making those swings periodically. Readers will notice that the adults and the teenagers are experiencing the same thing in Little Fires Everywhere. As much as it seems that adults have it under control, maybe they don’t. There is a very small gap between adolescence and adulthood when you realize who is in charge and who is not in charge.
Talk to me about the process of writing this book.
It took about two years to get the book down on paper. I had maybe the first twenty pages done when Everything I Never Told You, my first book, was published. Those pages sat aside while I promoted my first book and then I came back to them afterward. I had thought about Little Fires Everywhere so much while I was on my book tour that when it came to writing, it happened pretty quickly. I wrote down a whole draft, then I went through another revision, and then I picked it apart with my agent.
I realized I had actually been thinking about the book long before I started putting it down on paper. A church in my neighborhood had an electrical fire and it basically burned to the studs. I went to take notes on it because I knew there were going to be fires in my next book. What did it look like? What did it smell like? Out of curiosity I went back and googled the date of that fire. It was in 2009. I had actually been thinking about the book for around six years before it was finished. As much as I want to think this book went faster, the process wasn’t any faster than my first book.
Do you think your first book helped or hindered your ability to write this one?
It definitely added to the pressure, but I think overall it was more of a help than not. I felt a lot of support and love from my publisher, my agent, and my readers. I think a lot of what slowed me down in the first book was the worry that nobody was going to read it. It was a little bit of a confidence boost to know that if I wrote a book once, it was possible to finish another one. Also, I knew some people would want to read my new book. That’s a nice feeling, a motivator.
My writing process for my first book was very convoluted and I didn’t know what I was doing. I rewrote the book in four drafts with very major structural changes. I felt like I had learned something from writing my first book and I tried to set myself a task of writing a book that went in chronological order. I didn’t quite manage either of those things, but I tried to set a goal to avoid the impossible.
You seem to have hit the jackpot with Everything I Never Told You. Does that feel surreal or has it normalized?
It’s completely surreal. There are still moments where I turn to my husband and say “Is it possible that I’m very vividly hallucinating and nobody wants to tell me?” It’s the dream that every writer has; you write a book and it means something to a lot of people. You can’t plan on that happening; I certainly did not. I wrote a good book but I also know there is so much luck involved. If you get hit by the good literary lightning strike, you should pay it forward in as many ways as you can.
Your writing is so visceral because of how you handle verbs; there are certain things that wink out of existence and certain things that blaze. How do you accomplish this beautiful form of writing?
When I started off writing as a kid, what I really wanted to do was be a poet. I still have poems from fifth grade, haikus that we were asked to write. I clearly paged through the thesaurus because I have poems with words like pulchritudinous. I was clearly in love with the language. At a certain point, when I got to high school, my poems became much longer with much more narrative. It became clear to me that I didn’t really have what it took to be a poet; I couldn’t boil things down. Fiction was going to be a better match for me. I still have that love for language and a lot of it is still going into my books and into my prose writing. I don’t see any reason why prose can’t be as beautiful and potent as poetry.
You have a very strong background in short fiction. I remember reading Girls, At Play back in the Pushcart anthology. Many writers seem to master the short form and move on to novels, never looking back. Have you completely broken up with your romance for the short form?
Short fiction will always be a flame of mine. The shape and scope of the short story is completely different. In the lead up to the publication of Little Fires Everywhere, I find myself feeling around for what I want to do next. I want to return to some of the short stories I have sitting half-finished in order to see if maybe now I know how to finish them. As a part of that, I have also been reading a bunch of linked short story collections. They are such a joy for me as a reader because I see the same kind of characters coming through in each story, the same pregnant bar maid, the same people that go to the same restaurant, the same painting. There is a joy in recognition. It would be fun to put together a book comprised of short stories that are each their own yet they exist in the same universe. I have to re-remember how to write a short story; the pacing is different, but I definitely don’t think of them as little warm-up exercises.
Short stories also don’t get the attention they deserve; there is so much good work happening in short fiction that is innovative. It gets so little attention because I think it is very hard to sell a short story. Literary journals are not as accessible as novels; they are hard to find. I am lucky I live in Cambridge where there are a bunch of independent bookstores that carry them. A short story can stand on its own and be as rich and immersive of an experience as the novel. On the other hand, the short story is, to borrow the words of Bret Anthony Johnston, “a demanding form intellectually.” There is something to that, the idea that readers have to make this very big investment at the beginning of the short story and once the story ends, they feel unfulfilled.
What is the one thing you wanted to say with Little Fires Everywhere?
In the broader scheme of things, I measure my success in knowing that my readers were able to take their own meaning from my writing. For this particular book, I wanted to say that so many people try to do what they think is right. Even when they do things that end up being terrible, it often comes out of a place with good intentions. All the characters in Little Fires Everywhere are doing something they think is justified and moral. I wanted this book to be a space for looking at people who seem like villains to us in order to understand how they got to where they are. If we understand how they got to where they are, then we have a better chance connecting with them in some way. There are very few real villains in the world, just like I think there are very few heroes. Most people are trying to do their best. It just happens that the way they view the world is a little bit skewed.