Author Q&A: Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere
(Little Brown, £8.99/Audible £19.99)
Little Fires Everywhere
(Little Brown, £8.99/Audible £19.99)
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned and Elena Richardson is a model citizen. Her principles are challenged by Mia Warren, an artist and single mother with a disregard for the rules and a mysterious past. When a custody battle over a Chinese-American baby erupts in the neighbourhood the women find themselves on opposing sides in a narrative exploring culture, class, motherhood and belonging. Celeste Ng appears at Manchester Literature Festival on 7 October. Big Issue North is proud media partner to MLF (mlf.co.uk).
Little Fires Everywhere is set in the 1990s. How would the story have differed in the present day?
In the present day, it’s much easier to find out about people’s private lives. Between what we share willingly on social media and what we share inadvertently through our digital trails, it can be harder to keep the past a secret or to leave the past behind. And we’re also a bit more jaded now – the idea that we could ever be post-racism or post-sexism seems even more naive now. But some things would be the same: no matter the era, we’ll always have people who want to plan out their lives and people who want to break the rules, and they’ll never see eye to eye.
There seems to be a lack of sympathy towards the adoptive family in the story even though they offer a stable and loving home to their adopted daughter. Is that because of their their lack of cultural sensitivity to her Chinese heritage?
It’s interesting you say that – I don’t find the adoptive family unsympathetic at all. They’ve been caring for Mirabelle/May Ling almost since birth; they love her and, understandably, feel that they are her family. It’s not really the McCulloughs’ fault that they aren’t equipped to keep the baby in touch with her cultural heritage – in fact, what they’re doing is essentially the best they can do, given the time and where they are! In that era, in fact, the usual advice to parents in transracial adoptions was to “assimilate” their adopted children.
The problem, though, is that the McCulloughs won’t admit the baby will lose anything in living with them – the implication being that they have no shortcomings, and that the issue of race and culture is negligible, merely window-dressing. In truth, whether the baby lives with her birth mother or the McCulloughs, she will lose out on something. It’s easier to cast the McCulloughs as the “bad” family and Bebe, the birth mother, as the “good” – or vice versa – but it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Art is a big part of the book. Are you an artist yourself and what are the challenges of writing about something so visual?
I’ve always loved the visual arts, though I’m only a dabbler myself. But I love art museums and art history and making things, and I was able to bring a lot of that experience into the novel. It’s tricky to write about visual art, as a description in words often falls short! So what I’ve tried to do is not only describe but to convey the emotions a viewer might feel when looking at Mia’s art.
The book is very neatly written with no loose ends. Is there a part of you that strives for the type of perfection the inhabitants of Shaker Heights in the book strive for?
It’s funny you say that, because I get notes from readers all the time telling me that the ending doesn’t answer all their questions, and that they want a sequel! However, as a reader I like a novel where the pieces all slowly click together, and where by the end of the book you step back and see the carefully woven whole that’s slowly been built around you – so I try and write that way as well. Maybe it is a Shaker Heights tendency! I fully admit I’m a perfectionist, in part because I grew up there.
Shaker Heights is a real town in Cleveland, Ohio, and where you grew up. It was founded on interesting utopian ideas. Can you tell us a bit about what it’s like to live in a planned community and your assessment of its success?
As a child I didn’t realise it had been a planned town – I only knew that it was a lovely place to grow up. The physical part of the planning is a great success: lots of trees and green space and beautiful houses and quiet, safe streets. The philosophical part – the aim of making a racially harmonious community – is still a work in progress; Shaker Heights has its prejudices and blind spots just as most other towns do. However, they’re committed to talking about these issues, and that was clear even when I was living there. We didn’t always find solutions, but discussing the issues is an important first step.
A major theme of the book is mothers losing or giving up their children. Did you feel a sense of that when giving the story over to TV producers to adapt and are you pleased with the outcome?
I’ve been very fortunate – the producers, cast, and crew of the TV adaptation truly “get” the book, so I trust that whatever they do will be in line with the spirit of the book. They do have some changes planned, which they ran by me – and I loved them. When I agreed to have my work adapted, I very much wanted the adaptation to be something distinct from the novel. I think the best adaptations put a different spin on the source material, like a cover song: same essential melody but very different in sound. So I wanted to give the adaptation space to be its own thing, and I think they’re doing a wonderful job. It’s much easier to let a novel go, I think, than to let a child go!
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