Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The incomparable Celeste Ng talks about LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE; class, hope and what we think we deserve; why she's political on Twitter and how you can be, too; and best of all, she asks herself 3 most wonderful questions!

How excited am I to host Celeste Ng? She is a master. Her first novel Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, and named a best book of the year by over a dozen publications.  Everything I Never Told You was also the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, the ALA’s Alex Award, and the Medici Book Club Prize, and was a finalist for numerous awards, including the Ohioana Award, the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award, and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.

Her new novel, LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE is perhaps the most wildly anticipated novel of the fall--and with good reason. I'm not the only one stunned by its depiction of families caught up in class, privilege, ownership and secrets. Look at these advance reviews:

 “This incandescent portrait of suburbia and family, creativity, and consumerism burns bright…With her second novel, Ng further proves she's a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in America.” Kirkus Reviews

"A magnificent, multilayered epic that’s perfect for eager readers and destined for major award lists.” Library Journal

What I also love about Celeste is her Twitter presence, which is political, profound, and so, so generous to other writers. I cannot thank you enough for being here, Celeste.

By setting Little Fires Everywhere in Shaker Heights, we know this is a novel about privilege. And you’ve set your own small fire in the novel by focusing on a custody battle. Where did this idea come from?

As in Everything I Never Told you, I was interested in exploring issues of class and race, but this time I wanted to do so from the opposite direction. I was curious about the ways that even the most well-meaning people can still have blind spots and biases.

It’s interesting: we tend to assume a novel isn’t about race or identity if it focuses on white characters, but that assumes whiteness isn’t an identity! I wanted to kind of take a hammer to that idea. The custody battle came to the novel after I had started to sketch out the two families: it brought all the elements I found myself thinking about—race, class, culture, privilege—together.

 In the novel, the custody battle is over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby.( I remember when I wrote a novel about open adoption, I had to hire a media coach to deal with the vitriol that was being hurled at me. “You shouldn’t even be allowed to adopt a puppy,” was one of my least favorite complaints.) But in a way, it’s really a battle about class, race, ideals and ownership, about who deserves what and why. Can you talk about this please?

I love the way you put that—“who deserves what and why.” That’s really the question at the heart of the book. Call it entitlement or call it privilege: it’s all about the idea of who deserves what. Do the McCulloughs deserve to keep the baby because they love her, because they have the resources to provide her a good home, because they couldn’t have children of their own? Conversely, does the baby’s mother deserve to keep her simply because she gave birth to her—even if she made serious mistakes in the past, even if she can’t provide the best possible life for this child? Is what you deserve somehow based on what you’ve done in the past?

That idea of “deserving” is fascinating to me, because it suggests there’s a right way and a wrong way for the world to run, that there’s some kind of merit-based system. Many of the characters in this novel believe they deserve something—based on their expectations of how the world is supposed to work. But of course those expectations are deeply rooted in race and class. Maybe it goes back to the Puritan work ethic: if you work hard, God is supposed to reward you; conversely, if you’re wealthy, it must be because God blessed you and your work. So often we assume that those who don’t have privilege or power have done something wrong or are somehow lesser—and that those who have privilege and power have done something right or are somehow better.

We know intellectually that’s not true, but we’ve been trained to make those correlations. It’s when we have counterexamples—when we’re faced with cases where people aren’t getting what they “deserve”—that we’re forced to reconsider our ideas of how the world works.

Your story lines intersect effortlessly. How do you do this? What kind of writer are you? Do you scribble on legal pads, or only use your trusty computer?

I’ve never been an outliner, but I spent a lot of time thinking about this novel while I was on book tour for Everything I Never Told You. I didn’t have time to write, but I had a lot of time in the car, on airplanes, etc. where I just sat and thought about the characters and the events of the book, so when it came time to actually write it, I had a rough idea of where the book was going to go. I jotted down the major events I knew were going to occur, and I used that as a guideline for what to write next. It was like going on vacation with a very, very general itinerary: I knew where I was headed next, but I still had to figure out what route to take and how long I was going to stay in each location and what I was going to see at each stop.

As for mechanics: I do most of my composing on my laptop, because I can type way faster than I can hand write, and otherwise I tend to lose phrases and ideas. But when I get stuck, or if I’m out and about and get an idea or a line, I write in my notebook. I always have one with me.

I converted to Scrivener just after starting this novel—about 10 writer friends were evangelical about it and finally convinced me to give it a try. I don’t know why I waited. Scrivener is a word-processing program that’s designed for writers, and it made it much easier to manage such a large project—it makes it really easy to move pieces of it around, to make comments on stuff I wanted to fix, and to keep my research, including photos, in the same document. There’s a snapshot feature that lets you save a document and then revert later on if  you change your mind—that made me braver about making big changes, like rewriting sections or reordering things. (Interestingly enough, I almost never do revert!)

Your first novel, Everything I Never Told You, which I absolutely loved, was critically acclaimed and made you a household name. Did that great success daunt you as you were writing Little Fires Everywhere? Or did it give you a kind of security that allowed you to take such wonderful writing risks?

Whenever I write, I have to do my best to take off the “reader”/”critic” hat and not think about how the book will be received. Otherwise I tend to get paralyzed, thinking about audience. In order to write Everything I Never Told You, I had to basically tell myself every day that no one would ever read the book, so I should just go ahead and take risks. But in the case of Little Fires Everywhere, I was fairly sure that it would go out into the world—so I tried to spin that anxiety into a plus. I hoped that with Everything I Never Told You, I’d have built enough trust with readers that they’d follow me into this new world and give it a try. I hope I succeeded.

You’re quite a force on twitter, which is absolutely wonderful. Can you talk about #smallacts and why you believe it is so important for each of us to speak out, even when it seems we are not changing things?

When I started on Twitter, I thought I’d try and stick to my “professional” areas: writing and literature. Every now and then I’d speak up about Asian American issues, because they related to my first novel, and because they’re important to me personally for obvious reasons. Then, as my profile rose, I started getting more and more harassment—from people calling me racial slurs to people drawing racist cartoons of me (really) to people threatening me. The rule online is “Don’t feed the trolls”—just like you’re supposed to ignore bullies in grade school. The problem is, bullies and trolls usually don’t go away, and if they do, they just go on to harass someone else. I tried a lot of different techniques and eventually started speaking up about harassment: I would publicly share what they’d said and respond to them briefly—as empathetically as I could—and then I’d block them and get on with my life.

And once I started doing this, a few surprising things happened. First, a number of people contacted me and said, “I get harassed like this too, and I thought I was the only one, and now I feel less alone!” Second, a lot of people said, “I’m using you as an example of how to respond!” And third, a LOT of people said, “I had no idea this even happened, and now I see this is a huge problem.” So I realized that I could have a very small ripple effect in this way, but that the ripples could spread incredibly far. (Actually, I’d learned that technique of dealing with harassment from watching other people online, so really I was just extending their ripples.)

By the time of the 2016 election, I’d begun speaking more publicly about so-called political issues as well, because they mattered so much to me. Like most people of color—and women—my existence is politicized whether I like it or not; these aren’t academic issues. I’m also a child of immigrants, I have a sister with a disability, I’m a mother of a biracial child and would like the earth to still exist when he’s older—the list goes on and on. I felt overwhelmingly disappointed and furious at Trump’s election, and I had to do something. But the only things I could think of to do were small. So I started there. And I hoped that small ripple would spread outward as it had before.

There’s a Zen parable about a man on a beach that’s covered with stranded starfish. He picks one up and throws it into the water, then throws back another, then another. There are hundreds more. Someone passes by and says, “Why are you doing that? There are too many starfish—it won’t make a difference.” The man picks up yet another starfish and throws it back into the water and says, “It made a difference to that one!” That’s kind of how I look at it. We change things on the small scale in an effort to change things on the large scale. Even if the only things we can do are small, they make a difference that ripples outward. Call me an optimist, but I have to believe that to keep going.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I have a bunch of hobbies that I do when I’m not writing—most of them are wordless and all of them involve using my hands. I cook; I plant things in my yard. I crochet—over the last two years I slowly crocheted an afghan that I now like to nap under. I make paintings for my friends, and I recently bought a Remington 5 typewriter and have been typing out my favorite poems on it. I’d like to try pottery next—maybe when I get back from book tour.

I should add that I’m terrible at all these things—except for the cooking, which I’m pretty good at. My crocheting is quite lumpy and my paintings are goofy and my typing is frequently inaccurate and misaligned. But that’s part of what I like about these things. I think what draws me to all of these is the desire for traces of the human hand—the sense that these were made by a person, not a machine, that they’re imperfect and therefore human. I’ve been drawn to handmade things by others for the same reasons—hand-formed sculpture and jewelry, well-loved books and objects, drawings made by my kid. It’s the human touch made visible.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Here are some questions I’ve always wanted to answer in an interview, but no one’s ever asked them, so I’ll ask them myself:

Q: What item of clothing from your childhood would you still wear now, if you could?

A: When I was about 3, I had red patent leather Mary Janes that I called my ruby slippers. I’d take those back in a heartbeat.
Q: What’s a fact very few people know about you?

A: As a pre-teen, I was obsessed with the Pony Express. I have no idea why, but I read every book about it I could get my hands on, and I went to see the end of the Pony Express route in Sacramento, CA.

Q: What’s a guilty pleasure for you?

A: My 6-year-old son recently got into Minecraft, and in helping him figure out how to play, I’ve now gotten into it too. I have my own Minecraft world in my phone and use it as relaxation: I go in and harvest my crops, shear my sheep, and build fancy houses.

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