Celeste Ng is the talk of literary world, a beloved Twitter voice, and she’ll even be coming to screens soon via Hulu’s Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington-starring adaptation of her bestselling novel Little Fires Everywhere.
Ng is also touring for Little Fires Everywhere again, now out in paperback, and she’ll be reading at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church on May 21. We caught up with Ng to talk about her book children, being a booster, and the dark side of niceness.
I talked to Sandra Cisneros a few years ago, and she said The House on Mango Street is like the child that’s going out and earning money for the rest of the family. How do you feel about Little Fires Everywhere as it approaches its two-year anniversary?
(Laughs.) I love that idea! I’m happy that both of my books are going out and doing their own things. And every so often I’ll hear from someone who’s read one, and it’s led them to the other one. And they’ll say, “Oh, I’m reading this one, and I see the similarities,” or “I like this one better, but I still like that one,” and it makes me feel like I’ve got these two grown kids who are out in the world, and every so often they tell me they talked to the other one and they’re doing fine. So I like that analogy a lot.
One thing that I really admire about you is that you’re at this high point in your career, but you also make time to support your fellow writers. You’re a prolific blurber and herald of praise. Why is that important for you?
Part of it is that my parents really raised me to look at the world and say, “How can I be helping other people?” They really impressed on me that nobody gets anywhere by themselves, and I know that that’s been true for me. I look at all aspects of my life and I think, I never would have gotten here if such-and-such teacher hadn’t encouraged me, or I hadn’t happened to meet this person who said a kind word to me, or this person who decided to give me a try at a job I’d never had before.
It’s really important to me to try to make that space for other people. I know that a lot of what I had came basically from luck and kindness, and I want to spread that to other people. There’s a lot of fighting in the world—especially in literature—of trying to get your moment in the spotlight, and I think it can be very lonely to be in the spotlight! And what helped me was seeing other people try to lift people up: collaborating or sincerely boosting other people. That’s the kind of person I want to be.
Something I noticed more during my second read of the book is this insidiousness that lies underneath the different acts of kindness in the book.
(Laughs.) Yeah, there’s always a string attached there.
Absolutely! I’m thinking of Elena’s interaction with her old college roommate, Elizabeth Manwill. How did you go about writing that scene, where kindness is being offered, but there’s an underside to it?
They all started off as pretty honest interactions because that’s how I try to approach people, but then I realized that these characters would have their own agendas. Even when we’re trying our best, there’s always something that we want. So I tried to think about what these characters would really want.
With Elena Richardson talking to Elizabeth Manwill, she wants this thing, but how can she get it? You can do that by being nice and appealing to someone’s better nature, or you can do it by applying this leverage. I would write these passages about them being roommates in college, and then I would look at what I had there and see what the dynamic of their relationship was. Elena had been the leader, and Betsy Manwill tried to pattern herself after her. A lot of those dynamics stay the same a lot of the time—when people know you really well, it’s easy to fall into those patterns. So after writing three or four pages of that, I’d go back and pull out the little moments that would define that relationship and then push them together. So it’s really a process of generating a lot of stuff and then kind of cherry-picking the details that will encapsulate that for the reader.
Some of that comes from my own life, too—there are times when I’ve been asked to feel grateful for something or to do a favor for someone. There was one time when I was being asked to donate to my college, and someone said to me, “Well, remember, you did meet your husband there.” And I don’t think it was meant in that way. But there was this moment. Of course I’m grateful to my college, and I’m glad I met my husband there, but I don’t think that means I need to be perpetually beholden to donating a certain amount. How do you put a value on that? $100? $1,000? How much money is enough for that?
When you try to make it transactional like that, you start to see how fragile that connection is.
Oh! That’s so icky. It makes me sad.
The thing is that I don’t think it was meant in an icky way, but putting it in that transactional framework makes it feel icky. That’s sort of the difference between the real friendships and real love in our lives and the ones where you know there’s a string that a person is holding the end of. There are things you do for people because you want them to be happy, and you don’t want anything back. Right? And that’s rare. It’s a lot rarer, unfortunately, than we want to believe that it is.
Little Fires Everywhere is becoming a TV show for Hulu. What has that experience been like?
So far it’s been really exciting. My husband keeps asking if the possessive feelings are going to start kicking in, and I keep looking around and thinking, actually, no, not yet. Part of that is what we were talking about before: the sense that this project has taken on a life of its own. I’ve been trying to think of the TV series as that, too. I wrote this book, but the TV series is going to be its own thing, and I want to give it the space to develop its own slightly different path.
The other reason is that the group of people that I’m working with—Reese Witherspoon, Lauren Neustadter, Kerry Washington, Liz Tigelaar—I feel like they really get the material on a fundamental level and they understand the characters. So I’m really fortunate to be working with them. Even when they’re like, “Hey, we’re thinking about making this tiny little tweak to the show,” it’s in line with the heart of the book. I really trust them. They’ve been doing a great job of a making a new thing while staying true to the old thing, which is a hard line to walk, and they’re doing it. It’s been fun. I’m not involved in the writing, but I’ve read all the scripts, and I got to send in notes. I get to be one of the voices at the table while letting them take the wheel, which is exactly what I wanted, actually.
I’ll totally understand if you can’t tell me, but we do know that Kerry and Reese are starring in the show. But who’s playing who?
I can tell you! Reese is playing Elena Richardson, and Kerry is playing Mia. It’s funny, because I feel like they haven’t said that, and I feel like they just didn’t say it because they felt like it was obvious—as did I!—but many people have asked about it. It just didn’t occur to me that it would be a question!
It brings up an interesting thing, though. In the book, Mia and Pearl’s race isn’t specified, and I wrote them thinking of them as white characters. Sometimes people ask, “What is their race?” That’s probably the biggest question that I get about the book. People will write me and say, “I thought they were Asian.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s interesting.” They’re… not. And their last name is Warren, which doesn’t really say “Asian” to me. (Laughs.)
I think it’s safe to say you’ve very much avoided the sophomore slump. What’s next for you?
Well, I’m a little worried about—what would it be, the junior year slump? (Laughs.) I’m working on two novels right now, and I’m kind of ping-ponging back and forth and figuring out which one is going to pick up steam and take off. I think they’re kind of both going to involve similar themes as my first two books: parents and children, mothers and children, race and class, feelings of belonging. Those are the themes that I keep coming back to. The next project will be a novel, and I hope it’ll be one of these two. We’ll find out! Right now I’m having a little bit of a hard time getting back to the page.
I’m sure the book tour has been keeping you very busy, too.
It has! And it’s hard for me to give attention to the new thing while I’m still talking about the old thing. This kid needs some extra support right now! (Laughs.) I’ve got to put everything else on hold for a little bit.
Celeste Ng, May 21 at 7 p.m. Tickets $17 (book included). St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 5501 Main Street. More information at brazosbookstore.com.