September 2017

Celeste Ng

The pleasure of watching it burn

At first glance, Celeste Ng (pronounced “ing”) may look unassuming, but make no mistake, this petite, bright-eyed writer is a veritable fireball. She starts her books with a bang.

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At first glance, Celeste Ng (pronounced “ing”) may look unassuming, but make no mistake, this petite, bright-eyed writer is a veritable fireball. She starts her books with a bang.

Ng’s narratives reveal families plagued by delicately interwoven secrets and misunderstandings that ultimately yield tragedy. Her debut bestseller, Everything I Never Told You (2014), begins with devastating news for a Chinese-American family. Her latest novel, the mesmerizing Little Fires Everywhere, starts with an equally provocative lead: “Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”

“That was fun,” Ng says with a grin, referring to her new novel’s incendiary beginning. “In literary fiction, you don’t often get to have explosions. If you think about action movies, Michael Bay gets to blow everything up. And then there are the quiet indie films, and that’s what literary fiction is. So it was fun to get to do that.”

As we talk on a hot summer morning, Ng sits in the corner of a dark cafe near Harvard University, her alma mater. She lives near Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and soon-to-be 7-year-old son. The initial idea for Little Fires Everywhere was sparked by a church fire in Cambridge in 2009. “That gave me the idea of a literary fire that might burn everything to the ground,” Ng recalls. She speaks crisply and quickly, her mind overflowing with ideas and enthusiasm.

While Everything I Never Told You takes place in 1970s small-town Ohio, Ng sets her latest novel in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy, planned community that prides itself on educational achievement and diversity. Ng spent most of her childhood there, experiencing “that kind of blissful childhood that people think of, where you ride your bike and there are lots of parks and everybody has a front lawn.”

It’s hardly a haven for family arsonists, however.

“I had the idea of a dysfunctional family,” Ng explains. “I started thinking that there’s this one black sheep who is at odds with everything that the family and the community are aligning themselves with. What’s going to happen? How far is that tension going to go?”

Ng’s saga takes place in 1997-98, when Ng herself was a senior in high school, making her the same age as her studious, Yale-bound character, Lexie, the oldest of the four Richardson children. Lexie’s siblings include handsome athlete Trip (a junior); quiet, reflective Moody (a sophomore); and wild Izzy, the fire starter.

Both of Ng’s novels focus on the roles of mothers and daughters and the relationships between the two, but her new book includes a twist. “A lot of times I feel that mothers are supposed to be peacemakers who put out all of the fires,” Ng says, “but in this book, they’re inciting all of the fires.”

At center ring of these mother wars are Mrs. Richardson—a frustrated career woman, local reporter and busybody—and Mia Warren, an artist and single mother who lives hand to mouth and moves into a rental property belonging to the Richardsons. Mia and her teenage daughter, Pearl, soon befriend and infiltrate the Richardson family, with everyone helping to stoke the oncoming firestorm. Ng sees no heroes or villains in the story, just women acting “out of fear of losing their children, especially their daughters.”

The result is a deftly woven plot that examines a multitude of issues, including class, wealth, artistic vision, abortion, race, prejudice and cultural privilege. While all of this could be handled in a heavy-handed way, rest assured that in Ng’s talented hands, the issues arise organically.

“Mothers are supposed to be peacemakers. . . but in this book, they’re inciting all of the fires.”

Ng’s parents, both scientists, emigrated in their early 20s from Hong Kong to the United States, where they married, pursued graduate studies and raised two daughters. The family moved from Pittsburgh to Shaker Heights just before Ng turned 10, when her father began working at NASA’s Lewis Research Center and her mom began teaching chemistry and conducting research at Cleveland State University. The move proved to be transformative for Ng.

“It was the first time that I had been in a place that wasn’t basically completely white, where I was the only nonwhite person,” Ng says. “Before, in my elementary school, there was one black girl, one girl who was Jewish and one Asian girl, who was me.”

A woman ahead of her time, Ng’s mother tried to broaden her daughter’s cultural perspectives through books. “If there was a book that came out in the ’80s or ’90s that has to do with anything in East Asia, I probably had it,” Ng says, laughing.

While race was at the forefront of her first novel, it’s also an important subplot in Little Fires Everywhere, concerning a legal battle between a young Chinese immigrant mom who abandons her baby and a white couple who tries to adopt her child.

Ng, who describes her husband as a “tall white guy,” says she didn’t plan to write about this topic. “But because I’m in a mixed-race marriage and have a biracial child, these issues are just things that are on my mind,” she says. “In Little Fires Everywhere, I wanted to write about it from a different angle. I wanted to show the ways that race is not just an issue for nonwhite people; it’s an issue for everybody.”

As for her next novel, Ng is contemplating two “wildly divergent ideas” and has yet to settle on one. “The best analogy I have is that if you’re walking around a big walled city, you need to keep going around it until you can find a gate. I’m kind of walking around and trying to find where the gate is.”

No doubt she’ll find it, and readers will follow her in.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo credit Kevin Day Photography.

Get the Book

Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere

Penguin Press
ISBN 9780735224292

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