Three years ago, Celeste Ng became a near-instant household name after a single novel, Everything I Never Told You, a quiet literary thriller set in suburban Ohio. It followed a Chinese-American family plagued by racism before and after a mysterious death, and won Amazon’s Book of the Year award over Stephen King and Hilary Mantel.
This week, Ng returns to the New Fiction shelves with a second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, which might be even more personal than her first. Why? It’s set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the affluent “streetcar suburb” of Cleveland where Ng grew up.
Instead of a drowned daughter, the mystery that kindles the first chapter is — you may have guessed — a fire. When artistic, nomadic neighbors move into town and befriend the wealthy Richardson family, tensions escalate into a full-blown crisis.
I recently spoke with Ng via email about mining her memory and coping with high expectations.
Why did you return to your own hometown for this book? What makes Shaker Heights fertile narrative ground?
Like many people, I started to see my hometown differently once I’d moved away. I loved growing up in Shaker Heights and still have fond memories of it, but at the same time, I realized that many of the things I’d seen as “normal” were actually unusual. The fact that the city fined you if you didn’t mow your lawn or if you left your garbage at the curb for collection, for example, or the fact that we had a fairly diverse, integrated population and a race relations group at the high school. Shaker Heights seemed unusual in multiple ways, and I realized it all stemmed from the community’s idealism. That idealism shaped both the city itself and the outlook of the residents, and I was fascinated by it: idealism is inherently at odds with the messiness of human life. The characters and the story just sprang to life from there.
How much did you draw from your memory when establishing details and a sense of place?
Little Fires Everywhere is set at the time when I was in high school, so I drew on memory a fair amount. It was fun to send the teens in the book to the places I remembered from my own teen years — the diner where we ate fries smothered in bacon and cheese, the senior lounge at the high school. But memories are fallible and nostalgia makes things blurry, so once I’d finished the first draft, I did some research to check what I’d written: I went back to my high school to look at the murals and the layout of the school; I looked at maps and newspapers and ads from the time period to make sure I getting things right. The local history librarian at the Shaker Heights Public Library, Meghan Hayes, was a huge help in finding these resources, as well as information that helped flesh out flashbacks to earlier eras in the city.
Was your experience writing this book different from writing your debut? Did you learn anything from the former that helped or informed the latter?
Naively, I’d hoped that writing a second novel would be easier! And it was in some ways, but it was harder in others. With Everything I Never Told You, I wasn’t sure if the novel would ever see the light of day — in fact, I convinced myself to write it by assuring myself that no one would ever read it. With Little Fires Everywhere, I was pretty sure the book would make it out into the world, so I couldn’t fool myself that way; instead, I tried to tell myself that I had the trust of readers and hoped they’d be willing to follow me to this new world. So I was much more aware of the audience in the second novel.
Process-wise, I had no idea what I was doing when I began Everything—I’d never written a project that large before–and I went through four revisions trying to figure out how to structure the story. That novel shifts back and forth in time, and I wrote many of the timelines separately and then wove them together. For Little Fires Everywhere, I set myself the challenge of writing a story that ran chronologically and writing the chapters in order from beginning to end. I didn’t quite manage either of those two things, but at least I had some experience in handling a longer work and I had more practice in moving around in time and splicing in backstory. As with anything, practice doesn’t guarantee success, but it makes everything easier.
Like your first novel, motherhood is a major theme in Little Fires Everywhere. How has motherhood impacted your perspective as a writer?
Having a small child is a great way to get you to slow down and pay attention to the world. Everything is new to them, so they’re always pointing out things we adults tend to miss: “Whoa, look at that huge flower! Wow, that bee is really fuzzy! Look, there’s a shoe on that telephone line!” And the connections that shape adult thoughts haven’t yet settled in their minds — kids don’t have experience in what’s “normal,” so to them the world is brimming with possibilities. That construction vehicle could be a dinosaur. You could open up a door and a tiny elephant could walk out. There’s nothing like walking around with a kid and listening to the things they say to jar your brain out of set thought patterns.
Parenthood has also changed me in some more subtle ways that I didn’t expect. As my son has gotten older, he asks increasingly complicated questions: Why do some people think people with darker skin are less good? Why do people care if a family has two dads? I try to explain these things in age appropriate ways, which often means boiling down to the heart of the matter: because some people are afraid of things that are different, because some people think difference is bad. And these questions tend to lead to existential questions, like what we owe to other people, and why we exist. It’s made me think hard about what I value and what kind of legacy I want to leave behind, and that influences the work.
Are you equal parts excited and anxious about sharing Little Fires Everywhere with readers?
Equal parts is about right — I’m oscillating rapidly between those two feelings multiple times a day! Putting anything you’ve written out into the world is always nerve-wracking — you just hope it will resonate with someone and find its readers. But I’m also excited to have this book out in the world; it’s important to me and I’m proud of it, and I hope it will get people thinking and asking questions. I guess that’s par for the course for a writer, being both anxious to share you work and anxious about sharing it.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Published September 12, 2017
Help the Chicago Review of Books and Arcturus make the literary world more inclusive by becoming a member, patron, or sponsor. Each option comes with its own perks and exclusive content. Click here to learn more.
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.