Transcript: Celeste Ng and Tara Clancy

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 1 Episode 2.

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This episode of Recommended is sponsored by You Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins. An own-voices storyteller, Perkins speaks authentically from her lived experience about race, immigration, and American identity. This rich, multigenerational novel alternates between 5 distinct yet connected teen voices across history to produce an emotionally resonant and eminently relatable narrative.

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by Celeste Ng discussing The Count of Monte Cristo:

CELESTE NG:

This is a book that I’ve probably read maybe 20 or 30 times in my life. …
It’s been an interesting mirror to me as what I hope is my maturity and theoretical adultivity of starting to see the world in a slightly more complicated way every time I come back to it. It’s been this sort of yardstick that I come back to at intervals to sort of see where my own sense of self and sense of the world measure up against this sort of constant thing.

JENN:

And Tara Clancy, talking Richard Price’s The Wanderers:

TARA CLANCY:

I don’t have a writing degree. I didn’t know that you could just sort of write in your authentic voice and that there was value in that until I read this and I went, “Wow.” You know? That made me realize that my voice was missing and also made me realize that I wanted to write in my voice and then that by the way isn’t so easy. But that I wanted to be able to do that. I really set out to write my book after having read The Wanderers.

JENN:

Celeste Ng is the author of the bestselling, multiple award-winning novel Everything I Never Told You. Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, is now available from Penguin Press, and explores family secrets and intrigue in suburban Ohio.

NG:

My name is Celeste Ng, and the Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is my recommended. This is a book that I’ve probably read maybe 20 or 30 times in my life. I picked it up because my sister, who was a bit older than I was, was reading it, and I somehow stole her copy, which is like a little paperback Bantam classic, and I see that she paid a dollar for it, because it’s got that written on the front. The book is a classic of French literature, just a classic in general, I guess. It’s about a guy named Edmond Dantes, who is betrayed by his enemies, and he’s imprisoned in this island prison off the coast of France.

While he’s there, the prisoner in the next cell kind of finds him and teaches him and educates him, and he breaks out of prison after like 14 years and goes back to wreak revenge on the enemies who put him into his prison. He’s got this decades long really intricate plan of revenge, and of course, it doesn’t go exactly the way he expects.

This is a book that I used to take with me whenever I traveled, and every time I went on a trip anywhere with my parents, then when I got older, in high school, with my friends, or in college, I would just bring it with me and I would just reread it over again on every trip that I went on. It’s a book that’s been with me for a long time, since I was about 11, and I still reread it now and again.

One of the things that I love about this book is that the things I like about it have changed at different ages. When I first read it, as an adolescent, I was really into the love stories. Valentine, who is one of the sort of minor characters in the book, and Maximilien, who have this sort of thwarted love affair were my favorites. I remember in French class we had to pick French names, and I picked Valentine, because that was the name of this character that I loved.

I was very into the main love story in which Edmond, the main character, who becomes the Count of Monte Cristo, and his fiance Mercedes, are sort of torn apart by him getting thrown into prison, so that was my favorite for a long time.

Then I got older, and I saw it as this story of power.

It was sort of a power struggle, and this man who was trying to play God, and arranging every sort of little bit of the chess board so that there was only one way that the rest of the game could play out. Then, when I got a little bit older yet, I interpreted it as a story about a man who’s sort of seeing that it’s not possible for a human being to play God, that there are always going to be things that are larger than you. There are always going to be things that you can’t control, and there are always going to be mistakes that you make, and you can’t prevent yourself from making those mistakes.

You know, it’s been an interesting mirror to me as what I hope is my maturity and theoretical adultivity of starting to see the world in a slightly more complicated way every time I come back to it. It’s been this sort of yardstick that I come back to at intervals to sort of see where my own sense of self and sense of the world measure up against this sort of constant thing.
There’s another minor character in there, Eugenie Danglars, who is the daughter of one of the people that the Count is trying to exact revenge on. She runs off with a friend. She’s supposed to marry this kind of rich guy, and she runs off with a friend who’s a woman. She cuts her hair. She dresses in man’s clothing, and she takes on a male name, and they run off together. When they’re discovered, they’re found sleeping in the same bed.

This kind of went over my head, as a kid, and when I got older, I went, “Oh. That’s why she says in there, ‘Oh, I’ve never been interested in marrying any man.'” I was like, “Oh, very, very subtle, Alexandre Dumas.” That, again, sort of, it’s interesting to come back to a book that I’ve read so many times over so many years, and find that I’m understanding it differently, you know? I interpret that relationship differently than I did when I was 12. Obviously, the words are the same, and so what’s changed in that, you know, has to be me. That’s been one of the joys of coming back to this book for so long.

Before I came on the podcast, I was thinking about which book I would recommend, and I was really hesitating over this book, because this is a book that I felt I had a lot of things to say about, but I was like, “Well, do I need to recommend this book? This is, it’s a classic. It’s not like Alexandre Dumas needs a plug. I feel like his legacy is pretty set by now, and also, do I need to recommend a book by a canonical old, white guy, you know, an old white guy in the canon?”

Then I thought about it some more, and I remembered something that I hadn’t known when I read the book, which is that Alexandre Dumas actually was not white. He was mixed race. His father was famously a mulatto, as they called him. He was like the mulatto general of the French army. He was one of the first people, he was, I think, the first person of color to become a general in the French Army. He was the son of a black woman who was a slave, and a white French nobleman, and that had affected him his entire life. Then he had passed on a lot of those concerns to his son, who was then Alexandre Dumas.

It’s funny, looking at this copy, it says right in here … Where is this? ” He was born on July 24th, 1802, the son of Napoleon’s famous mulatto general Dumas.” That’s the only thing it says, and then it goes on to talk about the rest of his life.

I was like, “Oh, actually, it would be interesting to reread this book now, with the knowledge that that was the background that Alexandre Dumas came from, and see if there are signs of that in the book, if that in any way was a concern of his while he was writing this book,”

It’s interesting now, because I feel like race is an issue that I think a lot about, and that is very much in our cultural consciousness, to look back at this, which I had always thought of as, you know, canon of Western literature, and think, “Oh, actually, race is a part of that as well,” I mean, just a part of even books that are written by white men, but that, in particular, this is written by someone who is of mixed race, and how does that affect how he wrote it? How does that affect how I read it now?
I have not shared this book with a lot of other people, because I feel like it’s a little bit of a hard sell, in some ways, to say, “Oh, you should read this book. You’re going to have to read it in translation. It’s this old classic. It was written a long time ago. It’s very long. It’s very complicated. You should probably read the abridged version.” You know, that’s not the best way, I feel like, to start off.

I did give this book to my husband, because he always saw me taking it with me on trips, and so at some point, he asked if he could read it, and so he did. I just, I pitched it as a book that was an adventure, but that every time I came back to it, I read something differently in it. That seemed to sell him on it.

JENN:

Thanks again to Celeste Ng for joining us and recommending The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere, published by Penguin Press, is now available wherever books are sold. You can hear more from Celeste at celestng.com.

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Fierce Reads is the exclusive sponsor of this season of Recommended, and they are hosting a huge giveaway for Recommended listeners, so go to FierceReadsRecommended.com to enter for a chance to win a bunch of great books.

Included in that giveaway is today’s featured title, You Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins. Immigration is an important issue in our lives, and this novel beautifully illustrates how difficult it can be to navigate the delicate balance between maintaining a family’s cultural heritage and developing an American identity. Alongside exploring cultural identity, it features female relationships and the universal themes of love, loss, and finding your identity. It’s a timely read, not to mention one that would make a perfect pick for your mother-daughter book club.

You Bring The Distant Near is available now, wherever books are sold.

JENN:

Tara Clancy is a fifth-generation native New Yorker, third-generation bartender, and first-generation author. Her memoir The Clancys of Queens chronicles her childhood and coming of age, and captures the rarely-heard voices of New York’s working-class women.

CLANCY:

My name is Tara Clancy and The Wanderers by Richard Price is my recommended.

I was actually given a copy of another Richard Price book, Lush Life, which had just come out, and I guess this was in the 2000s whereas The Wanderers came out in 1974. It was his most recent book, somebody had given me a copy of it. I was not even a big fiction reader. I was a bartender and I did some artsy stuff and some writing and some things and some performing. But I think my friend basically gave it t tt to me, because the book was set in the Lower East Side where I lived and it took place at the Seventh Precinct where my father had been a police officer. My friend was kind of like, you might like this book. And they were right. I loved the book, and then I went back to the bookstore with this copy and I said, “I want anything written by this guy, Richard Price.”

I was in the Strand, the used bookstore, and so there was just several beat up different titles, and I came across this a seven buck beat up copy of The Wanderers. And I had no idea what it was, and I basically went back the next day to work and I was bartending a day shift and I figured it would be slow.

You know the places that open at 10:00 in the morning and you just have a handful of guys in there at any given time.

I start to read this book, and thank God it was a slow shift, because I was just sucked in, and I think at one point I was basically not making any small talk with customers. I was just given it the old, “What will be.” And I was one handing the book while sliding beers over the bar with my other hand. I was just sucked right in. The reason is just that it felt to me the voice of all of my fathers and my uncles and for better or worse it’s a very intense book. The characters are … It’s sort of partially biographical, it’s about Richard Price’s sort of youth growing up in the 60s in the projects in the Bronx. There’s some harsh language, there’s a lot of racism and the book makes no bones about it. It really captures, it doesn’t filter this time.

For me, it was just this real version of my father and my uncle, but I had never seen the likes of that before in a book. It kind of brought me back to being a kid. When I was a kid, I used to try eavesdrop on my father and my uncle, because they told the best stories ever. And they would gather around these tiny little kitchens in Queens, overfilled ashtray, pyramid of empty beer cans would be forming on a summer hot day and they would just sit in there and they would tell stories. And they were these raunchy amazing stories. I would try to eavesdrop on them, and inevitably I was always caught and I was always shooed out. My father would say, “This isn’t for kid ears. Get back outside to play.” And I would pout and I’d leave and I’d tried this a million times when I was a kid. And so reading this book was like getting to stay in the kitchen.

As much as I loved this book for what was in it, I was sort of equally struck by what wasn’t and that was the voice of New York’s working class women. I was like, wait a minute. This is amazing, this is really gives me a real sense of what my father’s young life was like, and it’s about a group of guys. But as soon as I was done, wait a minute. There’s no female characters in here. Come to think of it, have I read anything about characters like my mother, like my grandmother. I went back to the same bookstore when I finished The Wanderers, and I went to a clerk and I held up my copy of The Wanderers and I said, “I want to read something just like this but by a woman.” And I could watch the wheels turning in the clerk’s head, time froze and we both kind of just stood there staring at each other and then all of a sudden he said, “Me too. Yeah. It doesn’t exist.” I was just like, “Wow. Well, what do you mean?”

This book was written in 1974 and this was whatever, the mid 2000s. I’m like, “What do you mean in all that time there’s been nothing.” And we started brainstorming. What was the last sort of working class New York woman that wrote a book kind of about us? And we gathered up all these other clerks, and then like random customers in the store. Well, wait a minute … everybody wanted to out book nerd each other, like surely I’ll come up with the answer. We all ultimately agreed and usually people get this after I talk about it for a while, but basically the last book was a Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

And that book is this year 73 years old, which is more than my mother’s lifetime. I stopped and I went, “Oh my God.” My mother has never appeared in a book in her life. That voice really has been silenced.

Somehow this book … between reading The Wanderers and then realizing that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at 73 years old was our last representation, those two things kind of combined made me decide to write my book.

I don’t have a writing degree. I didn’t know that you could just sort of write in your authentic voice and that there was value in that until I read this and I went, “Wow.” You know? That made me realize that my voice was missing and also made me realize that I wanted to write in my voice and then that by the way isn’t so easy. But that I wanted to be able to do that. I really set out to write my book after having read The Wanderers.

Because I always feel like I am a kind of a relic. Right? There’s a working class New York is disappearing and so I feel like this is a good place to start. If you really want to understand my ancestors and my father’s generation, and the people who are left, and the people who I’m a product of. And then sort of realize that the women’s voices are missing you can go to this book. You know? I definitely do recommend it. Although, again, it’s harsh. It’s harsh. It’s a book that really … it shocks people. I think a lot of it feels fairly true and you get the sense from Richard Price sort of pretty autobiographical.

I reread it a million times. It’s one of those books that I always keep around when I’m writing. You know? I don’t know if other people do this, but when I’m writing I sort of have some books. And when I hit a moment of block or whatever, I’ll just pick a chapter. Like I said, this book is kind of … it could almost be a collection of stories. I’ll just pick a chapter and reread it. Yes. Definitely. I read it I don’t know how many times. We couldn’t calculate it.

I went to a screening, they screen it like once a year at a little art house theater near me in New York City, and I went and I saw it. And Richard Price was there, and I totally geeked out. And I’ve met him before because I host The Moth main stage show and I told a lot of stories on The Moth and Richard Price has told a lot of stories on The Moth. And I’ve met him at a Moth event, but I saw him again at this screening of The Wanderers, and I go up to him and I’m always, “Mr. Price, your book changed my life.” And he’s like, “Clancy, I know. You’ve talked about it before.”

JENN:

Thanks again to Tara Clancy for recommending The Wanderers by Richard Price. Her memoir The Clancys of Queens, published by Broadway Books, is now available in paperback wherever books are sold. You can hear more from Clancy on Twitter at TaraClancyNYC.

JENN:

Thanks to Fierce Reads for sponsoring the show on behalf of You Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins. Be sure to check out the Recommended Season 1 giveaway at FierceReadsRecommended.com.

Next week on Recommended, we’re talking one nonfiction read and one dark and twisted fairytale:

UNNAMED AUTHOR:

The cover is this beautiful painting, kind of in the style of a Victorian painting of a horse. And it’s supposed to be like that, but it’s a picture of a person who’s wearing a bridle and is posing sort of like a horse would in this very sort of bucolic environment. And I looked at it, I was just like, “What the hell is this? It’s so disturbing.”