"I didn’t want there to be a clear hero or villain side" — A Conversation with Celeste Ng

Senior Literature Editor Karissa Chen talks to Celeste Ng about her new book, Little Fires Everywhere.
September 8, 2017

Ever since I read Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You (Penguin Books, 2015), I’ve been anticipating her next one. Little Fires Everywhere, due out September 12, 2017, from Penguin Press, does not disappoint. Revolving around two families, the Richardsons and the Warrens, in the idyllic town of Shaker Heights, the book examines class, race, privilege, and the fears and hopes that drive people to take extraordinary actions. After I finished the book, I knew I wanted the opportunity to pick Celeste’s brain about the issues her book had stimulated me to think about. Our conversation, over Skype, covered everything from benevolent liberalism to Charlottesville to writing outside your race to muppets.

—Karissa Chen, ​Senior Literature Editor

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Karissa Chen: The first thing I wanted to ask you was about Shaker Heights. The opening quotes from the book reference the city and immediately frame the book within the setting. So even before we’re aware of any of the drama of the fires that open the book, we have this idea of this place. What led you to choose Shaker Heights as a setting?

Celeste Ng: I grew up in Shaker Heights, this was my hometown. It was a place I loved growing up in and I still love it. It was only when I moved away from Shaker Heights that I realized it was actually atypical. The fact that race had been a big part of the conversation was not a thing that a lot of people had experienced before. I would tell people, “There’s this race relations group in the high school,” and they would go, “You had a race relations group at your high school?” And I was like, “Does everybody not have that?”

Or things like, when it’s Halloween, they run sirens that tell you when to start and when to stop [trick-or-treating]. If you grow up there, this seems normal. A good girlfriend of mine also grew up in Shaker Heights, and we happen to both live in Boston now, and we have little kids. We talked to our husbands, asking them, “When are we supposed to take our kids trick-or-treating? How do we know when it’s time?” And our husbands, who did not grow up in Shaker Heights, were like, “You just go.” “Well, how do you know when it’s time to stop?” “You just stop when it’s dark or when you’re done.” My girlfriend said, “Well, this is just chaos!” We’re so used to those things and think they’re normal.

I really wanted to try to write about that place because I could see it in two ways at the same time. I could see it as my hometown that had these ideals that I loved and I’m still really fond of; and I could also see the parts about it that seemed weird to other people — like how you can’t put your garbage on the curb, or your house has to get inspected twice a year inside and out, or you can’t make your house look like a two-family house on the outside because we don’t want a stigma. I wanted to write about a family that embodied that, and then a family that came from outside who maybe didn’t see all of these things as the positive, idealistic gestures that everyone [else] in the community did, and let them run into each other. So that’s how this story came about.

KC: Shaker Heights does feel like this constructed ideal of American suburbia. On the one hand, the facade is really beautiful, but there’s sort of a Stepford Wives kind of thing about it. In the novel, Elena feels like an embodiment of that — there’s something about her that feels like that sort of upper-middle-class, white, progressive liberal who maybe wants the more unsavory things to be hidden away. I don’t know if you just read Jia Tolentino’s piece in the New Yorker in response to the Charlottesville stuff —

CN: I just bookmarked that this morning!

KC: Well, she has this great quote in there where she says, “Charlottesville was a beautiful town full of good white people who believed in political progress, and if people of color could just hold tight and respect that, we wouldn’t have to make anyone uncomfortable. Everything would be just fine.” When I read that, I thought, "Oh, that kind of feels like where Shaker Heights occupies and what Elena embodies."

CN: Exactly! So much of it is like, “These are my ideals and I believe in them and I’m going to act for them — up to the moment that they make me uncomfortable and, at that point, all bets are off.” I didn’t go into the book planning to write about this but now, because of the political moment we’re in, I’m thinking a lot about the idea that if you just follow the rules, everything will turn out right for you and the world will be perfect. It’s not a far step from that to, “Well, look, if the officer pulls you over, just follow everything he says and you’ll be fine.” There’s a lot of privilege invested in believing that the rules are going to work for you. So much of what I ended up writing about in the book was about that kind of upper-middle-class, white discomfort.

KC: I think Elena's character is interesting because she’s hard to like but, at the same time, I feel like I really understand her. What was your thought process in creating her? Did you go into it thinking, I want this character to embody these things? Do you know people like her?

CN: I’m really glad to hear you say all that. I do know a lot of people like Elena — most of us do. In some ways I’m like Elena myself, even if I don’t want to be.

I started with the idea that this was going to be a woman who embodies all of the ideals of this community. But, at the same time, it was really important to me that she not be a villain, that there not be villains in this book — and frankly, that there not be heroes in this book either. That all the characters do things that are questionable — that they sort of know better, yet they do them anyway. I really wanted to make her complicated enough that we could see her and understand her, even if we were like, “Oh no, no, you’re really overstepping your bounds here!” But at the same time you also see where that came from. I wanted to be able to see a little further than each of the characters could see. They can only see through their own perspective, but I wanted us to be able to see around the back of their head. So I hope that’s how she comes across to readers: even if you don’t like her, you see and understand why she does the things she does.

KC:. What I think is so great about your books is that even though they start out feeling like a mystery of what happened, as we go through it, the book becomes less about what happened and becomes more about why. Do you feel like this has always been something you consciously have set out to do in your work?

CN: It is, and I think the reason that I’m drawn to writing fiction in the first place is to get at the inner lives of people. I’m always really fascinated by what makes people act the ways that they do, especially if they’re acting in ways that I don’t like.

When I used to teach, I would call this the "Superman vs. Nazis" problem: If you have Superman, who’s great at everything, has all the powers, and is always on the side of right, this is not an interesting story. And Nazis — they’re just bad all the time (at least, that’s the characterization that we used to agree on). Interesting fiction exists in the complicated space in between those two poles. So if I have a bad character, I’m interested in how they got to this point — because usually people who are doing “bad” things don’t think they are doing bad things, and that fascinates me. There’s all kinds of ways that people rationalize to themselves, or they really think they're doing right, and their actions have these unintended negative consequences. So even if you see characters doing things you feel are definitely bad, I at least want you to understand why. That’s how you calibrate your own moral compass, by getting at why this happened.

KC: There’s a whole thread of the story that focuses on the custody battle for May Ling or Mirabelle, depending on what you want to call her. On one side are her adoptive parents, the McCulloughs, and on the other side is Bebe Chow. As a Chinese American myself, I found that part really hard to read. I’m sure there will be some people who read it who will sympathize with the McCulloughs, and I understand where they’re coming from, but it was hard for me to separate my own feelings about the Chinese immigrant experience and transracial adoption from it. That section where they say, “Well, we cook her Chinese food” — I was like, "Oh, my god..."

CN: It was hard to write about. I think this is something we’re just starting to have a conversation about. Interestingly, I’ve seen two novels recently that also deal with transracial adoption — in those cases, black-white adoption. I think people are starting to realize, “This is more complicated, it’s not just like: You have more money, you don’t have any, so the child goes over there.” There are a lot of things that people are starting to weigh, which I think is a positive sign.

The seed of it was that when I was in high school, I remember a case that the community was divided about where a white couple adopted an Asian baby. I didn’t know the family and didn’t remember the particulars, so I wasn’t able to look up anything about it. I just took that incident, and it seemed to me a flash point where a lot of the themes that I was working with in the book would come together — the questions of race, class, privilege, and all these issues of who gets to mother and who doesn’t — and it clicked on the page. That was the piece I was missing.

I wanted to try and show both sides of the case, because this is a complicated thing. I have opinions; I certainly see where Bebe is coming from, but I also see where the McCulloughs are coming from. They have been parents to this child; that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the automatic fit, but it also doesn’t mean that just because Bebe is the mother, that she is. It’ll be interesting to see what readers think. Whatever side they end up on, I want them to be able to see the complexities on both sides. I don’t know if there's a right answer; so often there isn’t a clear right answer in these cases. I want people to see that there are so many factors that go into this, and whichever side you pick, the child is going to be missing something, unfortunately. People are going to have feelings about it, and I think it’s often going to be related to what shapes them in their own lives. Like with Mrs. Richardson, and all the characters, I didn’t want there to be a clear hero or villain side.

KC: Something I noticed was that we actually don’t go into Bebe’s point of view that often, I think, other than at the very end. We get her story, but it’s filtered through Mia’s knowledge. Was there a conscious decision on why we don’t hear the story from her point of view as much as we do from the other characters?

CN: It wasn’t a totally conscious decision. When I wrote the first draft and then went back to see who wasn’t getting a voice, it seemed that even though we don’t get Bebe’s voice, our natural instincts are to side with the mother. I felt like putting more of her in would tip the book in her direction. In fact, in earlier drafts, my writers’ group felt that the narrator was pushing the reader to side with Bebe. I wanted to take my hand off the scale because it was so powerful.

KC: I think the effect for me of not having Bebe’s point of view as often was that it highlighted how marginalized she was in this whole debate. People are having conversations about it around her, but she isn't actually included in the conversation in the same way that the McCulloughs are.

CN: I think that’s right. And there’s the one character in the book who’s really centered but doesn’t get any viewpoint at all, and that’s Mirabelle/May Ling. That was deliberate because, logistically, she is a baby, but at the same time, it feels appropriate, because she’s treated almost like an object by the people in the book.

KC: I’m going to shift a little bit broader. You, yourself are Chinese American, and yet in your books you don’t only write about Chinese-American characters. How conscious are you about writing outside of your skin and is there a difference in the way you feel about writing about white people versus writing about Chinese characters?

CN: It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time and of which I’m becoming increasingly more conscious. When I started off, I never wrote about Chinese characters.

Part of it was that when I read as a kid, there were never many of Chinese characters, so I had the sense that those weren’t the people that stories happened to. My mom worked really hard to try to give me literature that had Asian characters in them, so they didn’t even have to be Chinese. But that meant that I didn’t always identify directly with the Asian characters that I did see because they didn’t feel like my stories. I had books by Katherine Patterson, who writes a lot about Japan, and they’re great books, but that’s not me. I didn’t identify with that. There were also a lot of stories about new immigrants and coming to America. I’m a first-generation American, so while I could see echoes of my family in there, nothing in there was me. So that's part of what what led me to [initially] write about white people.

The second thing was that I worried that if I wrote about Chinese Americans, I would be put in a kind of category like, “These are the only things you’re allowed to write about; stay in this little area.” So my gut reaction was, “I’m going to stay way away from that box.” Obviously, by the time I got to my first novel, Everything I Never Told You, I had decided differently. But I was, frankly, more nervous about writing that because I felt like an imposter. I’m a Chinese American, but I don’t speak Cantonese and I didn’t grow up around a lot of Asian people. My cheat for writing about it was to remind myself I can’t write the Chinese American experience — I don’t think there is such a thing — but I’m going to write about what it might be like to have one foot in two cultures. That's much more how I felt myself growing up in Ohio without a lot of Asian people. Similarly with Little Fires Everywhere, I was very aware that I was not writing Asian characters. In fact, I’ve been to a couple of cocktail parties where people have asked, “Your second book is coming out — is it also about Asian people?” I know what they mean but, at the same time, I don’t know how to answer that question. So I wanted to approach some of those issues — of being pulled into two different worlds — from the opposite direction: rather than from the inside out, from the outside in.

If you grew up in a community where your group is marginalized, you have to know the dominant group pretty well. I didn’t have to do a lot of careful study to know what the Richardsons might have in their house or to know how they might act in a restaurant; I already knew. I was actually much more cautious about writing about Bebe because, while I also know something about what her life has been like (I have family who’ve worked as wait staff, etc.), I wanted to be careful not to perpetuate certain stereotypes. It’s like standing on a balancing board, constantly shifting my weight back and forth to hit the right balance. I hope I hit it, but it’s something I’m really aware of, especially with recent discussions on who’s allowed to write what.

KC: As a writer myself, I feel that burden of representation. I have to get it right, I have to make sure there’s no bad Chinese people because then everyone will think Chinese people are bad.

CN: I’ve been trying to think about it as race-conscious writing, which then is something that white writers need to be aware of, too. [The idea that you have] to write about white characters in a way that is also aware of all the stereotypes and privileges that come along with that. The number of books that have come out in the last 10 years that have been about rich white people — it’s one thing when they’re written deliberately to investigate that kind of character, but a lot of times it treats whiteness as the default. We have to get away from the idea that certain writers need to write about their race and that the white characters are the default. 

Frankly, I felt freer to write about non-Asian characters and put them at the front in this novel because I had already written a book about Asian characters. Like I had in some ways — I didn’t plan it this way — proved my bonafides. [My readers] already know that this is a thing that I’m aware of, so if you come to this book, hopefully you don’t throw it out after the first two pages because the only people who show up are white people and one black kid.

KC: In some ways, it’s unfair that that’s a thought process you’ve had because there’s no way that a white writer would ever have thought, "Well, I need to get my street cred first."

CN: Exactly. And it shouldn’t have to be that way. I would like to think that, if this novel had been my first novel, it would have been received as openly and warmly as the first novel.

My first novel was just as much something that I wanted to explore — I don’t want to denigrate it in any way. But I feel like people will read the second novel because they know my first novel, and that’s an interesting position to be in. [The perception is], “Oh, you’re a writer who writes about Asian people, that sort of clash of cultures, and because I know that race is one of your concerns, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt in this new novel, or I’m going to come to it with a certain filter on, expecting that you’re going to get to this topic at a certain point.” That’s probably true for any second novel, that your first novel is a comparison point for the second. I feel like I’m talking about race more explicitly in the second novel, but I’m coming at it sideways. I’ll be curious to see what people think about that.

KC: I had this thought when I was first reading the second book that the Richardsons are the kind of people who insist that they are color blind. Actually, at first I thought that the Warrens were maybe people of color, because of Elena’s attitude towards them as if she's this benevolent person helping out the sad, marginalized people. It turns out that they're not, but there was a point where I was wondered... Is she just being purposefully color blind? I don’t know why I got that sense, and I wondered if I would have thought that if you were a white writer.

CN: And we read books that way, right? Even I do it. I try to stop myself, but I often wonder, where’s the character who’s the analogue for the author? It’s both natural and something I’m trying to work against. You're actually not the first person to tell me you wondered if the Warrens were people of color because the way Mrs. Richardson treats them is similarly patronizing to the way she treats other people. I think part of it comes from me and part of it comes from the first book.

When I started writing Little Fires Everywhere, I thought, “Are [the Warrens] the people of color in the book?” Pretty quickly, I decided they weren’t. But what you said about Mrs. Richardson is exactly right, and I wanted to look at the ways in which that attitude about race, that aggressive benevolence that is really well-intentioned but often patronizing, often also gets extended to all kinds of other systematic disadvantages.

KC: Speaking of, I was curious if there was a specific character in that book that you feel you’re most like?

CN: This one is hard because I feel like I put a chunk of my personality into each one of the characters. I’m very much an Order Muppet. There’s this theory that all Muppets are either Order Muppets or Chaos Muppets; Bert is an Order Muppet and Ernie is a Chaos Muppet. I’m definitely an Order Muppet, so that part of me feeds into Mrs. Richardson.

But, at the same time, I like to poke rules a little and see how stable they are and I think that’s a part of me that went into Mia. [I think that a part of me went into] each of the kids — I really wanted to be as cool as Lexie and I definitely was not; Trip is sort of like the boys I had crushes on when I was in high school. I was much more like Moody and Pearl: I was kind of dorky, kind of quiet, I was off to the side. Yet I also had this sort of inner, barely concealed irritation — that’s come out much more in my life now! — and that's definitely where Izzy came from. So, in Little Fires Everywhere, I feel like I’m all of the characters in different aspects. That’s cheating in answering your question, but is the honest truth.

KC: Last year or two years ago, I remember reading articles about how scientific data shows that reading novels makes you more empathetic. I wonder if that’s a reason why you don’t feel like you have to defend your point of view. Because you’re not going into it with your defense mechanisms up. You’re invested in a character or story and, in that process, it’s like getting to know a person before knowing their political views.

CN: I think that’s exactly right. Some people can do that in real life — they get to know a person and when they learn that person is gay or an immigrant, they think, “Well, I already know you, so it’s okay.” Maybe another way to look at it is that by labeling the story very clearly as “fiction,” it allows people to maintain a distance and see things more clearly.

In high school, I took a playwriting class and sometimes our teacher would do this (holds her palm close to her face and then moves it away). We eventually realized that what he meant was that you can’t see a thing clearly if it’s too close to you. But when it’s moved away and you have some distance, you can see it much more clearly. In some ways, fiction allows you to have that distance — you can think, “That’s not me,” and you can see the characters clearly: “I’m not Mrs. Richardson, I don’t live in Shaker Heights, I don’t do these things, many things about us are different” — but you can start to see parallels. So, in some ways fiction, allows you to have that arm’s length understanding of people that you can’t always get in a witness account.

KC: Okay, I have three more questions for you. The first is, what are you working on now?

CN: I have two ideas that are fighting for space inside my head right now, and they’re both very similar to each other and also very different.

They’re both stories about parents and children and all the ramifications of that. Actually, both of them have mixed-race characters. It’s something I think a lot about as the mom of a biracial kid and as somebody in an interracial marriage. But I haven’t found the kind of entry point to these stories yet, so I haven’t put a lot on paper. I’m not being coy — I’m still trying to figure out what these stories are about. So I’m kind of awkwardly ping-ponging between those two things right now. I’m in the fallow stage where I’m reading a lot of different people’s books and trying to learn about a lot of different stuff. I’m waiting for stuff to kind of crystalize.

KC: That’s exciting! Maybe we’ll get two books out of you, then.

CN: The other thing I'm doing is going back to some short fiction I’ve been working on, trying to finish some stories I’ve had sitting around. That’s a much more tangible goal.

KC: What advice do you have for young, Asian-American writers?

CN: The broad advice is the same advice I’d give to any writer: read a lot, read stuff outside of what you think is your wheelhouse, write a lot outside of what you think you write about. For Asian American writers, I feel like the best advice I can give is to imagine having a pair of binoculars that allow you to see two things at the same time.

On the one hand, write the stories that you want to write, the things that move you. So, if you’re an Asian writer and you’re writing about characters that are not Asian, do that. Don’t be pressured by others’ expectations — like, “Since you’re Asian, we need you to write an Asian girl or we’re not going to be able to sell it.” That kind of expectation to be told what to write about is paralyzing for any writer. So that’s the one-eye lens.

The other lens, so to speak, is the flipside of that: Think about how you identify and how your identity informs your writing. Because it’s going to inform your writing, even if you’re an Asian-American writer and you’re writing about a lot of white, suburban people. Take Rumaan Alam's Rich and Pretty: A Novel (Ecco, 2017). He’s an Indian-American, gay man living in New York, and he wrote about two white women and their life-long friendship, and he pulled it off. And while this is clearly not about him — there’s no stand-in where you say, "That’s Rumaan on the page" — his perspective as an Indian American, a person of color, a gay man, and a father and partner influence how he looks at those characters.

So even as you’re writing what you want to, think about what your identity is and how it’s going to inform your writing. It’s going to, whatever you write about. I feel like this is especially important for Asian-American writers (and other writers of color) because there are so many expectations about what we’re supposed to be talking about and how we’re supposed to be handling those topics: Where are the ghosts in your story, and where’s the bamboo, all of that. You have to hold both of those things as you work.

KC: I think you’re a really good role model for that. It seems like you’re attempting to do both of those things. You’re not doing the total disavowal, but you’re also not letting yourself be boxed in. That’s why the first time I read your first book, I was just so grateful. As an Asian-American woman, I want to see more books like that — and I think we are seeing more books like that.

CN: I think we are, too, and I’m so happy. I couldn’t write a book that was the next The Joy Luck Club (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1989), because, well, first, a) Amy Tan already wrote the Joy Luck Club, and b) I don’t feel like I know enough about Chinese culture, even if we say there is such a monolithic thing.

I grew up eating hamburgers as well as stir-fry, but I don’t speak the language, I didn’t grow up in that community. I am perpetually confused when there are Chinese rituals I’m supposed to be doing. So I had to figure out what felt like an honest space for me, and that’s where I’m trying to wedge myself in. That space is going to be different for everybody. But it’s hard to resist that kind of pressure to be representational, as if you’re here for all Asians. Asian people have come up to me on book tour (with the best of intentions), saying, “We’re so proud of you! You are out there for all of us Asians!” And my response is, "Don’t say that, I’m not, I can’t be that person!" I know what they mean, but at the same time I resist it. It’s only solved by having more of us out there.

KC: What are some books that you’re excited about?

CN: This is my favorite question because I get to talk about books that are coming out!

I’m currently reading Jennifer Egan’s new book, Manhattan Beach (Scribner, October 2017). I really like her work and I'm excited that I managed to snag an advance reading copy — she’s been a literary idol of mine since A Visit from the Goon Squad (Anchor, 2011) and before that.

For some reason I’ve also been reading a lot of linked short story collections, maybe because I’m thinking about short stories. Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More (Grove Press, 2014), which is a collection broadly about a woman having an affair but also reconciling from that affair. Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno (Hogarth, 2016), which is a series of interlinked stories and is fantastic. Fen (Graywolf Press, 2017) by Daisy Johnson, who is a British writer. I read one of her short stories and then I got the collection. They’re not linked but they take place in the same universe.

I’m also really excited about Eleanor Henderson’s novel The Twelve-Mile Straight (HarperCollins), which comes out on the same date as my book in September. I’m planning on taking her advance reading copy with me on book tour so I have something to read. And another book that I read recently that I really liked is Girl in Snow (Simon & Schuster, 2017) by Danya Kukafka. It’s being billed as a thriller, but it’s really a story about a girl who dies and how her community responds, about their perception of who she was — which, of course, is not the same thing as who she was. Obviously, this is a subject of interest to me.


Karissa Chen


Karissa Chen is Editor-in-Chief of Hyphen magazine. She also serves as the Senior Literature Editor.