Celeste Ng: The WD Interview

The former WD reader talks about creating dynamic characters and outlining her sensation, Little Fires Everywhere in this interview from the November/December 2020 issue of Writer's Digest.
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Celeste Ng subscribed to Writer’s Digest when she was 12 or 13 years old.

“For someone that was growing up in the suburbs, a teenage girl, it was this whole window into this world that I had never seen before,” she says. “It was so fantastic to go, Oh, there are people who also care about this. And they’re out there. And they’re writing about it, and they’re talking about it, and I can have this window into their lives, too.”

Fitting, then, that almost three decades later and with two New York Times bestsellers under her belt, the 40-year-old novelist is now on the cover of WD’s 100th Anniversary Edition. For a century, this magazine has sought to provide community to scribes of every stripe, to nurture and empower readers like you to achieve their full writing potential—and Ng herself is one sensational example of how perseverance and craft can transform young storytelling aspirations into boundless success.

A graduate of the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program (which has produced such other acclaimed authors as Jesmyn Ward and Jia Tolentino), Ng’s breakout short story “Girls, At Play” won a 2012 Pushcart Prize. Everything I Never Told You, her debut novel about a family in 1970s Ohio grappling with grief, was deemed a “Notable Book of the Year” by The New York Times Book Review and was Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014. Her 2017 follow-up, Little Fires Everywhere, garnered perhaps even more acclaim, as it was named a top read by such diverse outlets as Goodreads, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, Esquire, and more.

Though she didn’t publish anything new in 2020, this year has been a blockbuster for Ng nonetheless—Little Fires Everywhere was adapted into a Hulu series in March starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington (for which Ng served as an executive producer), and in April she was announced as the recipient of a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship.

While WD originally planned to talk with Ng in person at her home in Cambridge, Mass., the interview was moved to video chat after COVID-19 provoked widespread social distancing measures. Thankfully, the dubious Wi-Fi connection didn’t derail a wide-ranging conversation, which spanned topics from establishing theme to the importance of uplifting other writers.

[Read the outtakes from this interview with Celeste Ng here.]

Family dynamics have been at the center of your first two books, and I read that two ideas you currently have in your head are focused on parent-child relationships as well. What do you think draws you to family as a subject?

Family is really important to me personally. I am fortunate that I have a good relationship with my own nuclear family. I’m in a marriage right now, I have a son, so I have a nuclear family of my own plus the one that raised me. And so I’m always struck by how much family influences who we become. And as a parent now, I feel this real weight and responsibility to try to do right by my child. To try and be a good parent. To try and prepare him as best anybody can for the world that we’re living in. So for me, I feel that family is just a natural subject because it seems to touch every aspect of our personalities and our lives.

As I get older, I find myself rapidly turning into both of my parents in ways that I don’t expect. And I see my sister turning into both our parents in different ways. It strikes me as I’ll say something, and I’ll go, That was my father’s voice coming out of my mouth, and I didn’t realize how much I’d really been listening to what he was saying until that happened. So for me, it’s so fundamental to who you are.

Fiction is always about who you are, and it’s about personality and character. Maybe it’s very Freudian, but for me the root of that always goes back to parents or the lack thereof. How you define yourself in relationship to your parents, or to the parenting that you didn’t get. It’s such a rich subject that I’ll just keep going back to that well, probably for as long as I write.

Some of the themes in your novels—such as challenging upper-middle class white privilege—are the exact sort of topics that would make that segment of your audience squirm. Because in effect, the novel is holding up a mirror. Is that something you were conscious of as you wrote Little Fires Everywhere?

I never go into the project planning on doing any sort of thing like that, so technically it’s a byproduct. But about halfway through, I realized the story I was writing really had to do with class, and privilege, and race. Because those things are so tied up for American society. And I realized that it probably was going to make readers somewhat uncomfortable. But I also hoped that they would be able to feel some empathy coming from the pages as well. That none of these characters—at least to me, as the author—are straight villains. Or straight heroes, for that matter. Even when there are characters who are doing things that we really disapprove of, and we’re cringing as we see it, we also can kind of see why they think that’s the right thing to do.

Celeste Ng Quote from Writer's Digest

For me, that’s always the interesting part of writing—understanding why somebody else did something. Even if you don’t at all agree with it, you go, OK, I see what you were trying to do there. And afterward there may be all kinds of, But …, after that. But in this instance, I hope that if they see Elena Richardson, for example, doing something, they can recognize the problems with what she’s doing. And because she is a little distanced from them, because she’s not them, because I’m not directly speaking to them, hopefully they can see the parallels in their life and hers a little more clearly than they would if it was more of a polemic, directed straight at them.

In high school I took a playwriting class. We had this lovely young teacher. When he was giving us critiques on plays, he’d make this gesture where he’d put his hand in front of his face and he’d go [mimes slowly pulling open hand away from face]. And then he didn’t say anything. And we were all sitting there saying, We don’t know what that means. Eventually, what we determined is he was saying that sometimes, something is so close to you that you can’t see it. And you have to wait for it to fall away.

I think about that gesture a lot. The idea that if something is so close to you, sometimes you really can’t see it very well, and it has to have some distance. So, the fact that [elements of Little Fires Everywhere] might make some readers uncomfortable, for me, means hopefully they’re going to learn something. But the fact that there is a little distance from them, that it’s not exactly about them, means it is easier for them to learn from that character in a productive way. Rather than a defensive way.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Order your copy of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.

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I was reminded of this while watching the TV show. I vacillated between who I was rooting for when it comes to Elena and Mia. That must’ve been a fun challenge to put together.

Yeah! I think they do a great job of doing that in the TV adaptation. Partly because you have these two powerful actresses. But it’s something I really thought about while putting together the book as well. I wanted the reader to feel torn. That makes me sound like a terrible person, but for me, I think the thing that fiction can do most powerfully is hold open a space for nuance and for complication. We are often in the world looking for things to be simple and easy. We want a clear answer. We want black and white. Because frankly, life would be a lot easier if things were just good, or things were just bad. But the truth is, it’s not like that. And one thing fiction can do is make people aware of all that gray space in between.

It sounds like you have a really interesting outlining process—I heard for Everything I Never Told You it involved index cards and color-coded string. Are you a pretty dedicated plotter?

I should clarify that these are all my attempts to try and outline. I don’t know if they were actually successful, though I guess in the end I got where I needed to go. Because I tend to write very organically—I start to think about character. A lot of times I don’t know what the whole story is. I know there is a character who I don’t understand, or a character situation that I don’t understand, and I’m trying to figure them out. Figuring them out is how I write the book, so by the end I know what I’m doing, but at the beginning I had maybe not a clue.

The outlining, for me, is akin to starting with a blank piece of paper and going out on a journey and drawing a map as you go. And realizing part way through, Oops, I forgot to put that stuff in. Or, Oops, this is not matching up to the reality. That’s my way of orienting myself to a place I wasn’t totally familiar with. But what tends to help me, actually, is I write what I’m doing. I write based on the characters, and then I outline what I already wrote. As if somebody else wrote it and I’m just trying to analyze it and figure it out.

When I taught writing, I used to call this “reverse outlining” for my students. For me, that’s helpful because I can step back and figure out what I’m saying in a way that I can’t when I’m writing. You know, writing is always that sort of balance of going with your intuition and your inspiration and letting that romp free.

Then at some point, you also have to bring in the critic: Does this make sense? Does this character follow an arc? Does this story work together? And that’s my way of balancing it. I let the story run first, then I step back and let the inner critic come in and look at what I’ve got and see if it makes sense. Then I stick them back in a box and I let the other one out again.

Many authors power through their drafts, focusing more on momentum than on making things perfect along the way. You polish as you go and reread your prior day’s output before putting down new words. With that approach, how do you maintain forward energy?

It’s an eternal struggle, honestly. I do that partly because I’m a perfectionist by nature. But also because I need to feel a little bit confident. I need to give myself some psyching up before I can jump off into the unknown. I need to feel like I’m standing on somewhat firm ground before I step off into a new direction. And so looking at the production from the day before makes me think, OK, maybe I can work with this. Maybe the ground is not totally squishy. I can stand here while I go somewhere else.

A lot of writers struggle to find time to get it done between day jobs, kids, etc. I know you’ve faced those same challenges, and for a long time only wrote between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. What encouragement or advice would you give to writers who find it challenging to write in the midst of their day-to-day commitments?

I think what I’d say is that there is no right way to do it, and no wrong way to do it. Not everybody has the ability to write every day. There’s all those rules where they say, Just get up an hour earlier! But not everybody can do that for any number of reasons. Not everybody can write every day, which is another piece of advice that’s given. Sometimes you really need to squeeze out a half an hour in the week. What I’d say is that as long as you’re engaging with your writing on a regular basis, tell yourself you’re doing it right.

I hear that—it seems like people put so much pressure on themselves sometimes that it chokes their creativity.

And some people really swear by the “I get up and write 500 words a day and I stop at word 500 whether it’s in the middle of a sentence or not.” And some people work in fits and starts. And I think it goes back a little bit to that idea of productivity we were talking about at the beginning. This idea that we need to be productive and in some ways we only count productivity as you made money or you generate words. And those are really bad metrics for any kind of creative project.

As Americans, I think our culture is very much into productivity—do two things at once, multi-task, have eight tabs open on your computer. And the truth is that writing, like any artistic process, is not straightforward, and you can’t measure it the same way you measure any other form of productivity. We’re not a factory. I think it’s really keeping yourself in that mind frame. This is not something you can measure by money, or word count, or copy sold. That’s not where the value of any of this lies.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Order a copy of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.

Bookshop.org | IndieBound | Amazon

You seem to be an avid reader. How are you able to separate your own work from the things you’re reading?

I guess I don’t in some ways. I usually end up reading something in response to what I’m writing. Sometimes it’s something that is directly related, so I’ll read books because … you know, one of the books I’m writing takes place in a slightly dystopian world. And I’ve never done that before. But for some reason, dystopia is speaking to me right now. [Laughs.] Who knows why. But I’ll go and look at other people’s works.

On my bookshelf I’ve got Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which is not exactly a dystopia, but it’s got an otherworldly element to it. I’ve got The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve got Red Clocks [Leni Zumas] and The Road [Cormac McCarthy], and things like that, because I want to look at how they set up the worlds they’re creating. All of them take place in a world that’s one degree different from ours, or a lot of degrees different than ours. I’m looking at them even though my book will not be like any of those books. I’m trying to learn from them.

Sometimes I’m reading a straight-up research book. Sometimes I’m reading something that’s totally different, as a break, but it ends up speaking to what I’m doing. I’m reading a lot of Agatha Christie right now because I feel like I need a mystery where I know the bad guy gets caught in the end. To feel like it’s going to be OK. But it’s teaching me things about plot that I didn’t recognize. So when I’m reading, what I’m reading and what I’m writing has a really porous barrier. And they end up being influenced by each other. They feed each other rather than sort of blocking each other.

You’re known for your role as a champion of up-and-coming writers. Can you talk a little bit about why you’ve taken on that role of uplifting the voices of others?

Yeah … sorry. I don’t mean to seem flummoxed. It just seems like such an obvious thing to do. I guess maybe it’s not. But I feel like when I was a beginning writer and I was emerging, I was really touched any time a more established writer or even one of my peers would support me or encourage me. It means a lot and I always had this sense that we’re all in it together in the writing community, regardless of what state you’re at.

You know, I love when Margaret Atwood tweets at somebody that they should keep writing. I loved when my teachers would take time to talk with me about my stories or about work-life balance, even when I knew they had their own work to do. I think it’s just always been this sense for me that’s what you should be doing. I think it’s also how my parents raised my sister and me—this idea that you always help other people. That nobody ever gets anywhere by themselves. You got helped even if you didn’t realize you got helped. My father and mother were often fond of reminding me that they did many things for me that I didn’t even notice. But I do really think that’s true.

It’s a very kind of kumbaya thing I’m explaining. I don’t actually think about it that way. I champion other writers because I’m actually excited about what they’re doing. I don’t do it as an act of charity. I’m like, Look what you did, that’s awesome! When I see somebody doing something I think is cool, the first thing I want to do is share it with other people. It’s the equivalent of shoving a book into your friend’s hands and saying, “Read this right now. Stop what you’re doing because we need to talk about it.” So it kind of happened organically. It was never a decision for me. It just always seemed like the thing writers should do. And there are so many writers out there doing amazing things that it’s really easy. Without intending to do it, I end up championing other writers just because their work is awesome.

Your interview is slated for the 100th Anniversary issue of Writer’s Digest. What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

I think the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten is to write what feels important to me. And to not second guess myself about that. When I wrote my first novel, I kept thinking, This is a very small novel. It’s about one family. It’s about a mixed-race family. It’s about Chinese-Americans. I don’t know if anyone is going to want to read this aside from maybe other Chinese-Americans, or maybe other people who are in mixed families.

There is this way that writers often short-circuit what is important to them before they even start writing. If something is important enough to you to write about it, it’s worth your time doing it. Worry about the audience and worry about those things later. The point of writing is not necessarily to publish it or to find the audience, but the point is for you to be figuring out what you’re trying to say in that writing.

As I work on things, I think, Oh, this is just a small domestic story. Then my agent and friends say, “If you write it, and you feel like it’s important, do it.” I think this happens a lot to women also, where we’re being told if it doesn’t involve a war or a monster then it’s a domestic story. It’s small. It’s women’s fiction. And the truth is those are pretty big stories a lot of the time. Stories about families, or about relationships. Those are pretty important, too. So I think if it’s important to you, it’s important enough to keep writing, and that’s the best sort of advice I’ve ever gotten. WD

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