I am so excited to be interviewing Celeste Ng. Celeste is the author is best-selling novels Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You, which were number one and number two Amazon best sellers. A graduate of Harvard University, Celeste received her MFA from the University of Michigan. She's the recipient of the Pushcart Prize, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, the ALA’s Alex Award, and the Medici Book Prize. Native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, she currently lives in Boston.
Hi, Celeste. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Celeste Ng: Thank you so much for having me.
Zibby: I remember meeting you. I don't know if you remember. I came to a literary affairs event in Beverly Hills maybe two years ago, a year ago.
Celeste: I do remember that event because it was one of the most fun events that I've done. It was really memorable.
Zibby: It was great. I remember making sure I was in LA so I could meet you. Now, it’s such a pleasure to be able to interview you on Skype like this.
Celeste: Thank you so much for taking the time.
Zibby: Of course. Lots of questions. I have so much I want to know. First, can we talk about Everything I Never Told You, your first novel?
Zibby: You open the novel with this sentence, “Lydia is dead, but they don't know this yet.” You then go on to illustrate the havoc that this death wreaks on the family, the mom Marilyn, the dad James, siblings Hannah and Nate, when the sixteen-year-old in the family dies. What gave you the idea to write this book? How were you able to so authentically represent this horrific life experience in their family?
Celeste: The seed of Everything I Never Told You came from a story that my husband told me just offhand, a little anecdote from his childhood. He'd had a friend. They had a pond in their backyard. At some point, his friend, when he was a little kid, pushed his younger sister into the lake. She was fine. They pulled her out, friend got in trouble. Everyone was good. For some reason, this stuck in my head. I kept thinking, what was that relationship like between this brother and sister before he decided to push her in? Were they just kids playing around? Was there something more there?
This is the writer’s mind-set. We’re always looking for drama. What was that relationship like afterwards? Did she hold that over her brother for the rest of his life? It got my mind imagining. Of course, the book ended up going in a completely different direction than the real-life story did. I started thinking a lot about what happens to families when there's a favorite in the family and what happens when that center of gravity of the family is taken away, how the rest of the family copes, and how the shape of the family changes. I thought a lot about loss and family relationships that I'd seen or my own family dynamics. The book’s not based on them. What would it be like to lose someone who was the center of your world? That's how the story came about.
Zibby: Interesting. In terms of the family relationships, I know it wasn’t based on your family. I know you've written about, in this New York Times article that was so great, about how your mom loved her Betty Crocker cookbook and yet was this brilliant scientist working in the lab killing rats during the day and the juxtaposition of those two parts of her identity. There's a cookbook that plays a prominent role in your story also. Did you base Marilyn on your mother?
Celeste: I didn't. I'm really fortunate that my mom is a great role model for me. In a lot of ways, she's the opposite of Marilyn. Maybe if my mom had not been as fortunate as she was and had not made the choices that she had made -- someone like my mom who had all this talent and ambition but didn’t get a chance to exercise it could have maybe ended up the way that Marilyn is. She's had these dreams. She's frustrated in the novel. That really is one of the roots of the problems in her family. I did give Marilyn, the mom in my cookbook, my own mother’s real-life Betty Crocker cookbook. It was just too fabulous a detail to not use. It was the cookbook that we had when I was growing up. It was the cookbook that I learned to cook from.
When I was an adult, I looked back. I saw that it had all these little passages telling you what kind of woman you should be and saying things like, “Bake a cake just because you feel good today. Is there anything that gives you more satisfaction than a row of jellies and preserves that you made yourself?” It struck me how hard it would've been to be a woman at the time feeling already like you didn't get to fulfill your potential and having even your cookbook telling you what you were supposed to want and what you were supposed to not want. I took some of those details that I think my mom had to fight against in her life and I gave them to Marilyn as signs of what oppresses her in her time.
Zibby: I loved how you weaved in Marilyn longingly looking at her child’s textbooks about physics and all that really deep-down desire for knowledge that she couldn't figure out how to get in her life.
Celeste: It strikes me because I grew up in one of the first generations where our moms were working. To think about what it would have been like to be one generation older and see your kids get all these opportunities but know that they had come a little bit too late for you, and how heartrending that would be, and to try to put myself in Marilyn’s place and imagine, like you said, how would you try and feed that desire for knowledge? How would you try and make peace with the things that you didn't get to do?
Zibby: That's tough. I don't mean to spend the whole time talking about Marilyn, but I did find her to be a really fascinating character. Marilyn, who is white, marries James, who you describe in one scene as “the skinny, oriental man waiting next to her at the train station.” This is when they meet Marilyn’s mother. She gives Marilyn advice. She's not down with this relationship and says, “You’ll change your mind. You'll regret it later. Think about your children. Where will you live? You won't fit in anywhere. You'll be sorry for the rest of your life.” Do you think Marilyn does end up feeling sorry about this decision?
Celeste: No. I don't think so at all. I should clarify that the skinny, oriental man waiting next to her at the train station is what Marilyn’s mother sees. That tells you a lot about why she's so sure that this marriage is a bad idea and she's so sure that Marilyn will be sorry for marrying someone so different from her. Marilyn’s mother doesn't really know how to react to her daughter falling in love with someone who is of a different race, has a really different family background. He might as well be an alien to her. Marilyn’s mother is unable to imagine how they could have enough in common.
I don't think Marilyn has quite the same troubles. She doesn't know everything about James, but at the same time, she knows that she loves him. He does love her. For them, that makes it worth trying. For her mother, she just can't imagine stepping outside of her own world in that way. I don't think that Marilyn is sorry. Like in any marriage, they had their difficulties. They find that there are ways that you don't understand the person who you are closest to, who you maybe love the most. That was one of the things that I wanted to explore in the book. That fascinates me. How much can we ever really understand anybody, whether our backgrounds are the same or not? What are all the things that you end up keeping from other people, even your partner in life?
Zibby: Do we need to get your husband in here and see what secrets are brewing? [laughs]
Celeste: It’s interesting because I always think what do people who aren’t writers, how do they process all the things that happens in their lives? When they watch other people or they watch their family members or friends, they're like, you're doing something really different from what I’m doing. How do they make sense of that? For me, it’s on the page. I always wonder how people who aren’t writers, and I guess aren’t therapists, deal with that.
Zibby: I think a lot of people don't deal with it all, frankly. It shows in a lot of their resulting behaviors, unfortunately.
Celeste: Unfortunately, I think that's right. One way that maybe people do deal with it is that books are a safe space in which to encounter new ideas and encounter people doing things that are different from what you would do. That is one of the things that I think fiction does really well. It makes you ask yourself, what if this were my life? How would I feel? It’s a what-if space that, if you want to, you can process that sort of stuff.
Zibby: Maybe also visual mediums. People get really into their shows or things that they can relate to on TV or in the movies where they see elements.
Celeste: Exactly. You feel a connection to a certain character. You watch them process it. You might do what they do. You might not. It’s a way of deciding, what would I want to do?
Zibby: I'm with you. I need to write everything down. I can't even think. I wish I were writing you these questions right now instead of talking. No. [laughs] There's a lot in the book about the sphere of losing your child and now that it’s come to pass, how can you really protect your kids? I felt like it stemmed from that place of anxiety and fear. Did you draw on some of your own relationship with your kids?
Celeste: I did a little bit. I wrote the first drafts of the book before I became a mother. Then I finished the book after I became a mother. I do think that it added a different dimension for me to not just imagine, but to actually feel the terror of something happening to your kid. For most of us, once you have a kid, you will do anything to protect that kid. You will do anything to try and make sure they're happy. You don't always know what that is, which is a hard thing to realize. To really feel that visceral, it’s beautiful but it’s also almost terrifying to know how far you would go to make your child happy and protect your kid. Becoming a mother and then becoming aware of that side of myself where I'd known but now I felt it, was something that I definitely drew on in the last draft of the book to try and make the reader feel that too.
Zibby: My five-year-old daughter asked me last night at dinner, “If you could have three superpowers, but only three” -- you know how kids talk -- “what would they be?” I was like, “Well, could I pick protecting somebody else as one of my superpowers? Would I only get to protect three people?” [laughs] I have four kids. Which kid would I not protect?
Celeste: Which kid do you think is okay to go on their own?
Zibby: Exactly. It’s so funny.
Celeste: It’s true. We don't realize what that feeling is like when you're a kid. You don't realize all the things that your parents are doing. Even the things that drive you crazy or the things that feel to you like oppression are often coming out of a place of love. Being on the other side of that relationship, so to speak, opened that up for me.
Zibby: I try to tell them sometimes, “I'm doing this because I love you.” They're like, “Whatever.” [laughs]
Celeste: “If you love me, why are you making me eat this broccoli?”
Zibby: “If you love me, you'd give me screen time more often.”
Celeste: “If you love me, you would buy me this ice cream.” That's it. You can know that at a certain point. At a certain point, you switch from knowing it to actually feeling it. It’s a big shift.
Zibby: Totally. You also deal with a mother’s loss, that same kind of feeling and issue, a lot in Little Fires Everywhere. You have the loss between Izzy and Mrs. Richardson. You have the McCullough’s loss, baby’s loss, Lexie’s loss. I might be mispronouncing these. I felt like it was another vehicle you used to illustrate this. How did you come up with the idea for Little Fires Everywhere? Was that one of the central themes you wanted to tackle?
Celeste: One of the interesting things I'm learning about writing another book and now as I work on my third, is you start to learn all of your own obsessions that maybe you weren’t aware of. The idea for Little Fires Everywhere really came from wanting to write about my hometown. I grew up in Shaker Heights, which is where the book is based. I had the experience of growing up there, thinking this is just like everywhere else. This is totally normal. When I had been away from home for about ten years -- I went away for college and then went out on my own -- looking back with a little more perspective and realizing, actually, there were some things about that place that were really strange and unusual. There were also things about it that were really wonderful, that I did not recognize and appreciate when I was living there. You get both sides of that. I really wanted to write about this community that was wonderful and a great place to grow up but also infuriating in other ways and had all of these complexities.
I made this family that would embody that city. That was the Richardsons, the archetypal, perfect family that follows the rules, picture perfect. Then I introduced this other family, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl, who were the opposite of that. When you put those two elements together, the story happens. I realized as I started to investigate these characters that I was also really interested in exploring this relationship between mothers and daughters and the ways that you feel like you ought to be the closest people. You ought to know each other the best. In some ways, you do. Sometimes, you're so close to each other that you can't see each other clearly and you're the worst person to try and understand or sympathize with your mother or your daughter. That paradox is something that just fascinates me. It may end up showing up in the next books too. We’ll see.
Zibby: Can you tell us what your next book is about?
Celeste: I'm ping-ponging between two ideas right now. I'm trying to see which one of them is going to pull ahead and grab my attention more. Both of them are going to deal with mothers and children again and the ways that parents try and protect their children, but that children don't always understand that. Parents don't always understand their children. This is a well that I probably am going to keep going back to for some time. It’s such a human dilemma.
Zibby: You have a lot of interested drinkers from that well. People are thirsty for that, seriously.
Celeste: I think so too. It’s such an important relationship. It’s one of the most fundamental ones. Yet it is also one of the most confusing and infuriating and complicated ones. It’s an eternal one too. There are always going to be parents. There are always going to be children. Probably, cave people were also confused by their children. The cave teenagers were probably confused by their parents. It’s still the same now.
Zibby: They're trying to sort it out by writing on the walls in their caves.
Celeste: “I don't understand why I had to draw this horse. You just don't understand.”
Zibby: [laughs] That's really funny. I loved what you said, by the way, in this essay you wrote -- this was a long time ago -- called “Stranger Than Fact: Why We Need Fiction in a World of Memoirs.” You wrote, “You don't question a memoir; you believe it’s true when you pick it up. But you are told from the beginning that fiction is untrue. It depends on its power to convince you in spite of this knowledge, and that belief, when it comes, is a complete transformation.” I love that idea. You're trying to convince people to believe what is actually false. Tell me more about the allure of fiction writing for you. How did you get into it? What do you love about it?
Celeste: I'd always been interested in stories. I was a really early reader. I was the kid who always was off in the corner with her nose stuck in a book. I was really lucky that my parents encouraged that, actually. They were both big readers. My sister’s a big reader. I was always interested in making up stories. Basically as soon as I started reading, I wanted to make up my own stories. Partly, it’s fun. There's a joy. You're playing a little mental trick on people. You're spinning this world. Part of the fun of it is that you know it doesn't exist. What I started to realize as I got older is that even though this is a made-up story, it’s getting at something that feels really real. Like I was saying, for me, that's a way of processing the world. I have a good friend who’s also a writer. She's referred to fiction writing as life-editing. She says that in life, events don't happen neatly. You don't always know why it happens. There's not always a clear reason. There's not always a clear lesson.
In fiction, you can rearrange things to make sense out of what happens to you in the world. That's a really human instinct, that we try and understand the world through narrative. If something happens to you, especially something terrible, someone dies, you go, why did this happen? If you can understand what the cause and effect were, you at least have an understanding. There's a reason that it happened. You can learn something from it. Otherwise, life just feels really random. For me, one of the joys of fiction is that you can kind of arrange things in life. You can look at life and make a story out of it and find some meaning in it in a way that as it’s happening, it’s not always clear what's going on or what you're supposed to take from this. In fiction, you can do that. It’s a really powerful thing.
Zibby: What's your process like once you get the germ of an idea for a story?
Celeste: I tend to start writing from things that I don't understand. What usually draws me into a story is when someone is doing something and I don't understand how they became this person or why they would think this was a good idea. For me, the process of writing is then trying to understand how did they become this kind of person? What led them to do this? How did we get into this situation? How did this girl drown in a lake? Why would this girl burn down her family’s house? I tend to go at that through character.
I approach getting to know my characters like you might approach getting to know a new friend. You start off saying, where'd you grow up? What's your job? What do you like to do for fun? What TV shows are you watching? Oh, you like that? What do you like about Russian Doll? As you get to know them more, you start to understand how they were formed and what they think. You start saying, are you close with your parents? Oh, how come you're not close with your mom? You get a sense of what their issues are. Once you know that, you know how they would react to different situations. That's where the story takes on a life of its own. Once I know the characters well enough to know what they would do, it’s almost a matter of letting them go in the story and just seeing how it plays out.
Zibby: Once you develop the character, do you have an outline for the twists and turns of the plot? Do you have it all in front of you? Are you a visual-type person? What does your desk look like? How do you do it, actually?
Celeste: I wish I had it all written in front of me. What I actually do is I spend a lot of time writing pages that never make it into the book. I’ll write from a character’s point of view, what her memories were, or what her side of the story is, or how she feels about these people, or how she experienced it, or all kinds of stuff that lets me know what's important about this story for her. I’ll do that for a bunch of the different characters. After I've written, it might be a hundred pages that nobody ever really gets to see, I know what the important parts are. Then I can go back and actually say here's the important part for her point of view and the important part from his point of view and take out the highlights, essentially.
Around my desk right now as I'm looking, it’s mostly motivational things that are reminding me to keep going. Up until recently, I had a map of Shaker Heights where Little Fires Everywhere is set just for my reference. I would need to refer to street names. Sometimes, I have poems up. I have little notes that my friends have sent me and things like that. After I've written the draft, that’s when I get a little bit more methodical about it. After I've written the draft, I will print it out. Then I’ll make an outline from what I've already written. I don't outline first and then follow that as a recipe, which seems like actually it would be a lot smarter. I wish my brain worked that way.
Zibby: I'm glad to come with ideas. I'm only here to help.
Celeste: I wish I could do that. For me, what tends to happen is if I write the outline first, the book loses all of its surprise. I need to be surprised or else the reader isn't. Instead, I write this incredibly long, messy draft. Then I look at it and I make an outline of what I wrote. I look at what I did. Then I can see which parts are important and which parts maybe don't need to be there. I can cut those out. I go about it backwards in that way. It’s like feeling my way through a dark room.
Zibby: It’s kind of like when you take a million pictures of an event. Then you can go back and craft the album at the end.
Celeste: That's exactly what it is. You don't always know which shots are going to be the ones that say something. As you're in the moment of the event, you're taking pictures. You're trying to catch as much as you can. If it’s a wedding, we think there's going to be a great event at the cake cutting. Who knows? Maybe there will be a moment where you catch two little kids who are dancing and having a great time, and you didn't know that was going to be the case. Only afterwards can you go back and find that was the moment I want to remember.
Zibby: You were in an MFA program. What did you take away that maybe you've used to help you write these books, if anything? Hopefully, something. [laughs]
Celeste: I got a lot from my MFA program. It’s not for everybody. For me, it was really helpful. One of the really big things was just taking my writing seriously. It was the first time that anybody had ever said to me, “We think what you're doing is important. We think you should keep doing it. We’re going to give you time and resources to let you work on that.” That was a big thing psychologically for me. Before that, I'd always thought writing was just this weird hobby that was on the side and it wasn’t possible to do that as a job. It was maybe even a waste of time. That was a really big thing. Another thing that I got from it was finding a group of writers who are good readers for my work, and who are now life-long friends, but also, we read each other's stories. We can give each other feedback. I learned how to listen to those people. When they say, “I don't understand what's happening. Why does she do this?” -- it’s hard to take criticism, especially early on -- when it’s somebody who you know understands your work and loves it, they make the stories better. It was a really good experience to learn how to take other people's feedback and work into my own work. You don't have to do it alone.
Zibby: You said you had motivational notes on your desk. Do you find it hard to keep going sometimes? Is it hard? It’s a solitary endeavor. You go about it your own way.
Celeste: It is. It’s really hard. Most of the time, I'm sitting alone in my office. I'm working on this thing. I hope someone will read it. I hope it will mean something to them. For a long time, it’s just me and these people that I made up in my head. I definitely still have moments even now where I'm like, oh god, I cannot do this. I need to go and get an actual job, except that I have no actual skills. I'm a terrible waitress. I would not be able to make it through med school. I have no marketable skills. I'm looking up at what I have here. I have a cross-stich that somebody sent me of a Colson Whitehead quote. “Be Kind. Make Art. Fight Power,” just reminders that this thing that feels like a crazy, ridiculous endeavor is actually worth doing. Maybe it will mean something to people. It’s not just me wasting my time and everybody else's by spinning fairy tales. It hopefully can open something up for people in some way. It can give them new ideas or can ask them questions that are important. That's the goal for me.
Zibby: I feel like you achieved the goal. Your books have been number one and number two Amazon best sellers. You've had so many prizes and success. How does it feel to go from sitting in your office to then going all over the country on tour and having people from everywhere talking about what's so private in your mind now?
Celeste: It’s very surreal. Honestly, I'm still sitting here in my office by myself. I'm still me. I write things and I still go, is anyone going to want to read this? It’s not a given. It’s also been really gratifying and really honestly humbling when I hear from readers when I go to a book event, or I get an email from a reader, or a letter where they say that this book meant something to them. It reflected something of their lives back to them. It illuminated something about their families or their friends or their children. It’s really powerful. Like I said, it’s really humbling to have somebody say, you know what? This made me think about my relationship with my mom in a different way. This made me think about how I want to raise my kids. What is it that I think is important? It made me start asking myself those questions. That's maybe the best compliment that a writer could ever have.
Zibby: Are either of these being made into TV or movies?
Celeste: They are. They're both being adapted for film, actually. Everything I Never Told You is being adapted into a feature film. Julia Roberts is attached to star as Marilyn. I'm really excited. I'm learning about the film process. It’s a very long and complicated process that involves a lot of moving pieces. I'm really hopeful that'll come together. I'm thrilled that somebody that I admire greatly also wants to bring this to a new adaptation. Little Fires Everywhere is being adapted as a limited TV series by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Reese Witherspoon is going to star as Elena Richardson. Kerry Washington is going to star as Mia Warren. I think they’ve just moved into production as of right now. They’ve got the scripts. I've gotten to see the scripts. They're doing an amazing job. It’s really faithful to the characters and the spirit of the book. It’s adding some new things for TV. Even people who've read the book before hopefully will see a new spin on the TV show. It’s like a cover of a song that you have. You're like, [indiscernible] this song, but there's something new. This is cool. I'm really excited. I've been really fortunate that all the people that I've been working with on both these projects seem to get the heart of the books. They're doing an amazing job.
Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I can't wait to watch them both. Congratulations. That's awesome. To close, what advice do you have to aspiring writers?
Celeste: Read a lot. It’s such a cliché, but it’s really true. That's how you figure out what stories are important to you. You read a lot. Even if you don't think you're going to like it, try it out. If you don't like it, it’s like a new food. Take a taste. If you don't like it, you don't have to eat the rest. Then write a lot. Try writing a lot of the different styles, a lot of different forms. That's how you figure out what your voice is. Write the things that scare you. Write the things that obsess you. Write the things that bewilder you. Those are the stories that you need to write. Those are the stories that only you can write.
Zibby: Amazing. Thank you so much. I could talk to you all day. I don't want to take more of your time. Good luck with the writing, the rest of today. I’ll be thinkin’ of you there at your desk. [laughs]
Celeste: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Zibby: Of course. Thank you. Take care.