A few months ago, when Celeste Ng was on tour for her second novel Little Fires Everywhere, she stopped by our offices to talk. Here's what the Amazon editors knew: 1. that Celeste Ng's new book was great, 2. that we had picked her debut Everything I Never Told You as the Best Book of 2014, and 3. that we were happy to see her and catch up. Here's what we didn't know: how our Best Books of 2017 would sort out.
As it turned out, after all the reading, discussing, and at times arguing, we selected Celeste Ng's latest novel as #2 on our list of the Best Books of 2017. Since #1 is a work of nonfiction (David Grann's wonderful Killers of the Flower Moon, which you can read about here), it turns out that Celeste Ng has again written our favorite novel of the year.
But we didn't know that when we talked to her on her tour. If you want to know what we did talk about, read our interview below.
A Conversation with Celeste Ng
Chris Schluep – First let’s talk about your debut novel (Everything I Never Told You). What was that experience like?
Celeste Ng – It was really surreal. You were one of the really early supporters of that first novel, and that was one of the first moments when I went, oh, somebody a. read the book and then b. liked the book and c. thought someone else might also want to read the book. That was a huge thing for me. As a beginning writer you’re kind of tapping along at your laptop alone in your house, and if anybody wants to read it it’s kind of amazing. So the fact that it seemed to reach so many people and that so many people did respond to it was just really actually kind of humbling.
CS – Was writing the second novel more difficult than writing the first?
CN – It was differently difficult. The actual writing of it came fairly quickly. I finished promoting Everything I Never Told You, I came home from book tour, and I started writing. And the novel got down on paper fairly quickly, in about a year and a half to two years. But I looked back at my notes and I realized that I had been working on it since 2009. In some way or another, I’d been thinking about these characters, so it actually was just about as long as the first novel. I thought that having written one novel I would sort of know how to write the second novel, and I realized that it was a whole new story, whole new structural issues, whole new problems to solve, just a whole different animal.
CN – It’s been really nice to go on tour this time, because the first time there’s this feeling of, you know, nobody knows who I am. And now I’m really touched to get to talk to people who come up and say, I read your first book and it really meant a lot to me, or it opened this up to me, or it helped me with this. That’s something you don’t get very often as a writer. You don’t really get to hear from readers very often, and so it’s really special to get to hear that. And that’s been a really nice feeling of coming full circle.
CS – What was it like to write about Shaker Heights, a place you obviously know well?
CN – It was a little nerve wracking because it’s my hometown, and a little bit like writing about a relative that you know very well, and who you love dearly, and who you want to portray in a good light, but you also want to be honest about their blemishes and their blind spots and all of their little biases. It was really fun to revisit that era. The book is set in the exact same era when I was living there. I would have been in high school at the exact same time as the Richardson kids. And so it was fun to send them to all my old haunts, and then I learned a lot more about the community than I ever knew when I was living there. I learned a lot about its history and its founding and how deep that idealism actually runs in the community.
CS – How much do you plan out a novel before you go in? Do you think of characters first or do you plot it? How does it work?
CN – It always starts with character for me. So I always have an idea of who the characters are going to be, because I’m always trying to write about something I don’t understand, and usually that’s a character who’s doing something that I like to think that I would never do. So writing is the way I try to understand who they are and what led them to that point. I usually need to know approximately where the novel begins and I need to know where I think it’s going to end. I’m not always right, but I need to have sort of a destination to go to before I can start out.
CS – This is a very thematic novel. How much do you think about themes, like parenthood, children, art?
CN – They always sort of arise organically, and from the characters. I started writing about a family that would embody a very rule-oriented, very idealistic, very well-meaning hometown that also had these blind spots, and so that’s how the Richardson family came into being. They sort of embody that ethos. And then I brought in this pair from out of town who are going to cause some disruptions in that kind of nice, tidy suburb. And as the characters started to merge, and as I started to think about the ways they would cause problems for each other, or befriend each other or get tangled up, I kept finding mother/daughter pairings and mother/son pairings, and I realized that that was one of the concerns of the book. So the themes always kind of rise out of the characters as I start to… they’re like little figurines that I put down, and I let them run around and I watch what they do, and I realize what it is that I’m actually interested in.
CS – Do you go back? Do you edit a lot?
CN – I do. I tend to write, and then I go back the next day, and I usually start off the day by rereading what I did the day before. That’s a way to keep the project fresh in my mind, to re-orient myself. And usually what happens is I go, oh, ok, this is not so bad and I can keep going—or I go, oh, this is terrible and I need to go back and take it out. But either way it involves me reworking what I did the previous day. So it’s always a few steps forward, a couple steps back, a few steps forward.
CS – I love the theme about parenthood, and about how we choose parents often who are not our biological parents. When did that theme strike you?
CN – That came through pretty late in the book, because I realized that the Richardson kids were being drawn to Mia, who is their mother’s tenant and their housekeeper, and that Mia’s own daughter is being drawn to the Richardson kids’ mom. And I realized that part of the story was about, like you said, choosing parents—when our own parents aren’t able to see us clearly or give us exactly what we need, a lot of times we find parent figures somewhere else. But I didn’t realize that was happening until I had invented all these characters and I was watching them sort of gravitate toward each other.
CS – When other people review the book they talk about how you’ve evolved as a writer. Do you feel like you’ve evolved as a writer?
CN – I hope so. I hope that writing the first book taught me something about writing a big project. That was one of the things that I was totally new to. I didn’t know how to handle a book that had so many characters. I didn’t know how to write something that was longer than about twenty-five pages. I like to think that I’m dealing with some of the same themes as in the first book—about families, and about parents and their expectations, and about race and class—and taking them a little bit deeper and working on a little bit larger of a canvas so to speak.
CS – When I interviewed you last time, for the first book, I asked you what you’re working on next and you talked about this book. So I will close by asking you what you’re working on next.
CN – I’m impressed that what I was working on last time has actually come to fruition. It doesn’t always happen that way. Right now I have two ideas that are competing for space in my head, and so I’m in the fun stage where I get to kind of follow my whimsy and I get to read books and think maybe that will go into the novel. I get to go to museum exhibits and things like that, and go down internet rabbit holes and see what sticks. But I’m waiting for one of these ideas to get critical mass so that I can actually start putting words on paper.
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