I’m enormously excited to chat with Celeste Ng, an award winning novelist about her second book LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. Set in Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland in the 90’s, everything is planned—from the layout of the winding roads, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. No one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren—an enigmatic artist and single mother—who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter, Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community. When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town—and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.
I was immediately pulled in both by the compelling story, the era it was set in (that was super recognizable to me having come of age in it), but most of all by the multi-generational characters so well drawn I feel like I must have known them at one time in my life or another. Read on…
QL: Celeste, I’d love to start by asking how you could so vividly describe the inner life of a teenager? There are a number of teen characters in the book and reading their plot lines, behaviors and dialogues I was immediately taken back in time and reminded of the whirlwind of emotions and what it felt like to be that age and in high school struggling and searching to find identity and connect.
CN: It’s been a while since I was a teenager (longer than I’d like to admit) but I still remember it vividly. It’s such a formative and fraught time—for better and for worse. In my view it’s one of the most interesting ages to write about, because as a teen, you’re on that border between childhood and adulthood. You’re getting ready to go out into the world on your own, yet you’re still also figuring out how the world works. Plus, teens are often idealistic in a way that adults aren’t—which sometimes means they’re less afraid to take risks.
So a lot of the emotional territory came from thinking back to my own teen years, but I did do research to try and capture the specific experience of being a teen in the late ’90s, when gas was cheap, cell phones barely existed, and the internet was just starting to come into the public consciousness. Being a teen then was very different from being a teen now, though I don’t know which is harder.
QL: While I know this is fiction, you did grow up in Shaker Heights. Were the families and individual characters you created based on people you knew specifically or inspired by the overall community and era you’re writing about? They felt so utterly fleshed out and real with all of their foibles and charms.
CN: None of the characters were based on specific people that I know; they all emerged as I wrote about the community that I knew. As a teen, for example, I wanted to be as cool as Lexie and to date boys like Trip—though the truth is that I was much more like Moody and Pearl, intellectual and shy and frankly, pretty nerdy. But I know a lot of teens like all of them, and I know lots of Mrs. Richardsons and a few Mias as well. Though these characters are very rooted in Shaker Heights, I suspect most of us know people like them, no matter where we grew up.
QL: Issues of race, privilege, and class play a role in this novel. Growing up in that utopian planned community yourself did you feel and experience those issues first-hand or observe them?
CN: I lived in one of the more modest sections of town—we had a smallish 3-bedroom house and a smallish yard. But I knew people who lived in two-family rentals, and people who lived in apartments, and people who lived in giant mansions. Likewise, there was always a mix of races, both at school and in the neighborhood. As a kid, you’re usually aware of those differences: Who has real Keds and who has knockoffs from Payless? Who has a ski tag on their jacket from the weekend? But it’s much easier to parse them out when you’re older, and much easier to see the ways those differences cause tensions and divisions.
QL: The main characters differ in their ideologies and like all humans are flawed. You never seem to pass judgment on them or moralize their reactions or behaviors. It feels like you genuinely like each one for who they are. Is there one character you particularly relate to? Why?
CN: There’s a bit of me in every one of the characters—even Mrs. Richardson. As you said, they all have their positive traits and they’re all flawed, too. Mia is sort of the person I’d like to be: creative, non-judgmental, and incredibly empathetic. But I have a real fondness for the lawyer Ed Lim, who’s a minor character but gets to speak explicitly about issues of race and representation that are very important to me in real life.
QL: You now live in Cambridge Mass. where you attended college. Do you believe that your time in Shaker Heights has impacted your feeling about the other places and communities you have chosen to live in since moving? Do you miss anything particular about Shaker Heights?
CN: Shaker Heights shaped me into who I am, and for better or for worse, in the back of my mind I’ll always be comparing every place I live to Shaker. Right now I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which has a lot of things in common with Shaker Heights: it’s relatively racially diverse and race-conscious, it’s progressive, and the community is largely activist and idealistic. When my husband and I were house-hunting, we looked in a lot of other nearby areas around Boston, but couldn’t see ourselves living there, and I think that’s because we wanted to live in a community like this one. And I adore Cambridge, but so far, no place looks quite like Shaker Heights: the distinctive architecture, the tree-lined streets. I feel homesick for it whenever I visit the town.
QL: This is your second novel. EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, your first novel also has a central focus on multi-generational family dynamics, home, and community. What particularly interests you about these themes?
CN: We’re so profoundly shaped by how we grew up: by our neighborhoods, by our families, by our childhood experiences. When you understand how a person grew up, you can start to see things from their point of view—whether you agree with them or not. So often, we spend our lives trying to avoid our parents’ mistakes, trying to escape our hometowns, or trying to outrun our pasts. But we carry those things with us, whether we want to or not.
QL: What are some of your favorite novels and writers?
CN: There are some books that were formative for me, and which I still return to over and over, both as a reader and as a writer: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy; Beloved by Toni Morrison; Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout; Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett—I recommend those so often I sound like a broken record. More recently, I loved The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies—anything Peter writes is a must-read for me. And Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Euphoria, by Lily King; and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra, are some of my favorite novels of the past few years as well as on my all-time favorites list.
QL: What are your writing habits? Do you have another novel in the works or do you need a little space to recover from one before starting the next?
CN: I have a young son, so right now my writing schedule revolves around him: when he’s at school, I’m writing, or trying to write. Right now I’m mostly focused on book tour stuff for Little Fires Everywhere, but I’m starting to think about the next project—I have two ideas that are competing for space in my brain, and we’ll see which one takes shape first. And I’m trying to finish some short stories that I’ve had half-finished for years—maybe now that I’ve written two novels, I’ll have learned enough to finish those stories at last.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat Celeste.
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