An Interview with Celeste Ng, the 2018 Independent Bookstore Day Ambassador

Celeste Ng, author of the 2014 novel Everything I Never Told You and the 2017 novel Little Fires Everywhereboth New York Times bestsellers, both recipients of multiple awards—has been named the 2018 Ambassador for Independent Bookstore Day, which is being celebrated at indie bookstores across America on Saturday, April 28th. In preparation for this upcoming event, Celeste Ng took time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about the importance of independent bookstores, the upcoming mini-series adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere, and much more. I hope you enjoy this Celeste Ng interview as much as I did.

EM: So how did you get involved with Independent Bookstore Day?

CN: They contacted me and asked me if I was willing to serve as the ambassador, and I was really delighted to because I love independent bookstores. I’ve always loved bookstores, but as I’ve gotten to give readings and see bookstores as I’m traveling, I’ve started to appreciate all of the things indie bookstores do for authors, for readers, and also for the communities that they’re situated in. I was really happy to get a chance to speak up on behalf of indies.

EM: Your newest book Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the town where you grew up. Considering how independent bookstores are such a huge part of what makes a community, do you have any memories of independent bookstores in this town growing up?

CN: When I moved to Shaker Heights—which is where Little Fires Everywhere takes place—I was a teenager and I could move around without my parents, so I was able to discover independent bookstores for the first time. It was sort of like this magical Narnia that I had wandered into. Suddenly there were stores where they would carry all kinds of books, not just the bestsellers, but books that the staff liked. And they could get books for me! So that was a discovery I had when I was an adolescent. There was a bookstore that was fairly near my house called Booksellers. It’s not around anymore, but I used to just go in and browse the shelves, and I discovered so many of my favorite books in that way. And then there was a new and used bookstore that’s still around called Mac’s Backs. I used to go there as a teenager, and I’m so happy it’s still there and thriving.

EM: I’ve talked to a lot of booksellers lately who say independent bookstores are thriving because people want the personalized experience of going to a bookstore where they really trust the seller’s opinions and can get good book recommendations. It seems like people are preferring to either shop at independent bookstores or just buy their books online, and there’s no space in between for the big box bookstore model that used to be popular.

CN: Right. I feel like those are the two main places that people get their books, and they serve really different functions. I don’t fault people for buying books online, because in a lot of places there are no places to buy books. I think a lot of people are recognizing how independent bookstores do a lot for the community as well. I know my bookstore here in Cambridge always has special displays up. There’s a seasonal one, there’s one for books heard on NPR, there’s one that’s what the staff is reading, and you really get a sense of the community, what the community is interested in, the issues that the community is dealing with at any given moment, that you can’t really get from buying online. I think people have started to recognize that’s something these bookstores do.

EM: One of the topics I’m really interested in that is addressed in both of your novels is motherhood, and what it means to be a mother. Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the ’90s, and Everything I Never Told You takes place in the ’70s, so the difference in time period makes us look at how our ideas of motherhood have changed over the years. With motherhood, it seems like we’re only now getting to this place where we’re starting to understand that being a partner and a mother isn’t fulfilling for all women in the way that people once expected it to be. What is your view on the role of motherhood, and has your view of motherhood changed at all since becoming a mother yourself?

CN: I think that’s totally right. I think that we’re even still grappling with that idea that maybe being a partner and a mother isn’t going to be completely fulfilling for all women, even those who love their roles as a parent, who love their roles as a partner. Since I’ve become a mother, I’ve spent my share of time on mommy blogs and on Pinterest planning birthday parties and things like that. And I still find myself thinking, am I doing all the right mom things? Am I going to be the mom who forgot to send my kid in pajamas on pajama day?

There are all these times where I realize, oh, moms are expected to do all these things, and we’re expected to embrace all that, and yet many of us have other jobs and are doing other things. Maybe pajama day isn’t the first thing on our minds all the time. It’s interesting to me to navigate the parts of my life where I’m supposed to be mothering in a particular way, or those times where people expect that of course, as a mom, I’m going to sign up my kids for all these extracurriculars. Or, of course I’m going to spend a lot of time doing art projects with my child. There are a lot of hidden assumptions people have about mothers, even now.

So that’s one of the things I wanted to look at in both of my novels. In the ’70s, what was that like for women who were just starting to get career opportunities and who were getting ready to lead lives that were very different from their mothers’ [lives]? And then in Little Fires Everywhere, it’s the idea that there are different kinds of mothering, and maybe different women are going to end up mothering in different kinds of ways, and maybe different children need different types of mothering. To look at how there shouldn’t be one idea of what a perfect mother is, that’s something I’m interested in personally, and I think that’s how it works its way into the books.

EM: Going back to the fact that the first book takes place in the ’70s and the second takes place in the ’90s, both books cover the issue of racism, which makes me wonder: is your next book is going to talk about racism in 2010? Because obviously racism is still an issue. How do you feel like this conversation about race is evolving over the years? Or is it devolving in some ways?

CN: I think that this past year, for better or for worse, has gotten a lot of people to realize that we’re not in post-racial era. We’re not in a post-sexism era, we’re not in a post-racial era, we’re not really in a post-anything era, except maybe a post-Obama era. But I think people are starting to realize that these issues are still with us, and we’re still wrestling with them. I think this past year has been a wake up call for a lot of people to realize, oh, yeah, this is ongoing work. This is just something that is built into the fabric of our country, and we’re just going to have to keep working at it.

My next book is still in a hazy stage. Although, it’s funny, it is probably going to take place in the 2010s, and it hadn’t occurred to me that I keep jumping 20 years every time. It’s a nice pattern. Maybe the next one will take place in the future. This is good. Now I have a plan for the book after that. But, anyway, my next book will probably touch on the same themes about motherhood and, more broadly, women and roles that are allowed for women. And also issues of race, because these are just things that are for me a big part of the world and something that I think a lot about. These are always the ideas I keep coming back and wrestling with.

EM: I think every writer has their obsessions that they keep going back to in all of his or her writing. And you can’t help that. It’s not like you can write one or two books about a topic and then you’ve said everything you need to say about it.

CN: Right, it’s not like you go, welp, I’m done with that. It’s interesting, because I was talking to a writer friend of mine who’s in a writing group with me, and I said to her, what if I’m just repeating myself and I’m a one trick pony? And she said, what some people might call a one trick pony, other people would call consistency of artistic vision. I thought that was a nice way of putting it.

A lot of people have certain themes that they keep coming back to. Like, Ann Patchett, who is a favorite of mine, is really interested in group dynamics and how loyalties in groups form and change and dissipate over time. When you put it that broadly, her books are not like each other, but they do touch on that theme. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I think even if I did try to write something that had nothing to do with women or race, which are two pretty broad topics, I don’t know how I would do that. I don’t think there’s a way that I could write a buddy cop drama, or something really far from anything I’ve written, that didn’t have pieces of race and gender. Those are parts of the world we live in, and they are things I think about. It all comes into the voice of your writing, and you can’t write about someone else’s voice. You can only write in your own.

EM: One thing I noticed about both of your books is that you seem to like to start off with a bang. Everything I Never Told You starts off with telling us that Lydia is dead. Little Fires Everywhere starts with the house on fire. I feel like a lot of literary fiction shies away from starting with that much drama from the very beginning. Most literary fiction seems to be more of a slow burn, and honestly I kind of just want to say THANK YOU for doing that. Was that a conscious push to create interest in the beginning of your novels, or was that just how it ended up?

CN: It’s funny, because I didn’t even realize I had done that in both books until I started talking to people about the second book. In both cases, that just seemed like the natural place to start the story. Maybe that says something about me and my own attention span than anything else, but I want to know any time that I start a book that we’re going to go somewhere and it’s going to be interesting. And as long as I know we’re going there, I’m totally happy to sit back and let the burn be as slow as it is.

The best analogy I have is, let’s say your friend tells you, “Get in the car. We’re going to go somewhere.” If she doesn’t tell you where you’re going, the entire time you’re driving, you’re going to be peeking out the window, you’re going to be looking around, you’re going to be trying to guess where you’re going. You’re not going to sit back and enjoy the ride. But if your friend says, “Get in. We’re going to have dinner, and then we’re going to go to this concert,” then you know where you’re going and you’re more willing to sit back. You’re not going to worry about what roads you’re taking or whether you’re going to like it when you get there.

So in both of these novels, I started with a bang, as you said, because I wanted to let the reader know, hey, we’re going over there, and if you want to go, cool, come on. And if you don’t want to go over there, that’s totally cool, but now you know you can put the book down.

Actually, Everything I Never Told You started off very differently in its early drafts. It started off with the characters not knowing what happened to Lydia, and the readers also didn’t know what happened to Lydia until about fifty pages in. And eventually as I was working my way through the third revision, a friend of mine said, “Why are you holding back the information that she’s dead? Is it just to create more surprise?” And I thought about it for a while, and I said, “Yeah, I guess that’s it.” And she said, “I think you should put it at the front. I think you should put it in the first chapter.” And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, you know, she’s right. That lets the reader know where we’re going. That keeps the reader from thinking, is she dead? Is she not dead? That’s not a question I want the reader to be thinking about. I want the reader to think, oh she is dead, how did we get there?

Then, to my surprise, I ended up doing a similar move in Little Fires Everywhere, where you know the house in on fire and then you’re reading to find out how you got to that point.

I think maybe this has to do with how we think about genres, because when we think about literary fiction, we think, oh, it’s not supposed to start with a bang, it’s not supposed to give away what happens. But I’m getting the sense from more and more contemporary novels that people are starting to drop hints, so to speak, early on in the book. There will be a hint about what’s going to happen. There are lots of ways in which writers tip their hands in more and less obvious ways, and I’m sort of curious to see if literary fiction starts adopting that more.

EM: I think that would be a good move, honestly. But that’s just my personal taste.

CN: Clearly it’s mine as well. I don’t mean to set myself up as some kind of groundbreaker, but it seems to be that people say, oh it’s such a page-turner, as if that’s a bad thing almost. But don’t you want people to want to turn the pages of your book? Isn’t that what you want to do with a book? It’s never seemed me that you should have to choose between having interesting characters and complex language and also have a story that pulls you along. Again, that’s my personal bias. I’m sure there are other people who would disagree.

EM: Well, they’re not here! So…

CN: Right. They’re not on this call.

EM: I’m very excited, and I’m sure you are as well, that your book Little Fires Everywhere is being adapted into a miniseries on Hulu starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. I have to imagine that it’s kind of strange seeing your book played out on the screen. It’s got to be exciting, but also weird right?

CN: Yeah, I think it will be weird, but I’m looking forward to it. With the film adaptation, it’s going to be its own thing. I actually love adaptations, and what I like about them is that they tell the same story but they do it in their own way. It’s film, so it has its own strengths. From having talked to the producers, and having talked to Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington and the screenwriter, I feel like they get the heart of the book. So I trust them to adapt it and give it little twists as they feel makes sense for TV.

I can’t think of two better actresses to play the part, honestly. Before my novel was even published, I was watching Big Little Lies on HBO, like everyone else in the world was basically. I was watching Reese Witherspoon doing this really great job of playing this really strong, really powerful woman who still has blind spots and makes mistakes. And I said to my husband, “She’s so good at this. It would be amazing if in some parallel universe Reese Witherspoon were to be Mrs. Richardson in my novel.” I was thinking she would do such a good job at this, because there are such similarities, and then somehow this miraculously happened. She was the dream-casting, and it’s not very often that that actually happens, so I feel really fortunate. I’m looking forward to it, pretty unreservedly.

EM: Last question: how are you celebrating Independent Bookstore Day?

CN: I’m sadly not going to be in the country for Independent Bookstore Day, so I’m planning some little surprises for my local independent bookstore. And I’m also encouraging other writers and readers on Twitter and elsewhere to go and participate in all of the parties going on, because this is really a celebration of all the communities. And what better way to celebrate that than to go to the bookstore, have some food, buy some books…there are going to be lots of different activities going on at many different stores, so I’m going to be kind of watching from afar.

EM: Well, thank you so much for talking to me today. This was amazing.

What are your favorite independent bookstores? How will you be celebrating Independent Bookstore Day? Let us know in the comments.

And, if you want to listen to an earlier Celeste Ng interview we did at Book Riot, check out the Recommended podcast featuring Ng.

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