Celeste Ng’s second novel is “Little Fires Everywhere,” a layered tale of mothers and daughters. She’ll read from it Monday, Oct. 2, at Elliott Bay Book Co.
Celeste Ng was quite certain nobody would read her debut novel, 2014’s “Everything I Never Told You.” The book, which she began writing while working on her MFA from the University of Michigan, is the elegantly hypnotic tale of a devastated Chinese-American family in 1970s small-town Ohio. On the book’s first page we meet the Lees and learn of their tragedy: Beloved daughter Lydia has drowned in the nearby lake. No one knows why.
“Debut novels are difficult because nobody knows you … they just don’t find a huge audience because that’s how the market works,” said Ng, on the phone from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last week. “The only way I could get myself to finish writing it was to tell myself, ‘No one will ever read this, it will never get published, so you may as well write it down.’ ”
And then the reviews and accolades came pouring in. The book became a New York Times best-seller, was named Amazon’s 2014 Book of the Year, received numerous literary honors, and was sold in more than 20 languages. (And yes, a movie is in development.)
The author of “Everything I Never Told You” and “Little Fires Everywhere” will appear at 7 p.m. Oct. 2 at Elliott Bay Book Co.
“If you had asked me, in your wildest dreams, what do you think your book could do, that would have been it,” said Ng. “It did well critically, did well commercially, connected with readers, and now it’s starting to be taught in colleges and in high schools. I remember being in high school and being in college — those were books that shaped me. It’s very humbling to think that I might be having any kind of influence.”
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Ng took herself back to those high-school years for her second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere,” out this month from Penguin Press. (She’ll read from it Monday, Oct. 2, at Elliott Bay Book Co.) The new book is set in the late 1990s in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights: a time and place Ng — a 1998 graduate of Shaker Heights High School — knows well.
“I really wanted to write about my hometown,” she said, describing the book’s impetus. “I think I had reached a stage where I’d been away long enough, so I could see it with a bit of distance. I loved growing up in Shaker Heights, and I really miss it.”
It was, she said, an unusual place for its diversity, its frank awareness of issues of race (her high school had a race-relationships group), and its careful observance of rules for things like lawn-mowing and garbage pickup.
Thinking about her past, a story began to take shape. “I wanted to write about the community — it’s got such idealism, so at odds with the messiness of the world that we live in,” she said. “I started trying to think about a family that embodied that kind of spirit of the town, and how I could disrupt them.”
That family became the Richardsons, whose warm, spacious home became a haven for teenage Pearl, new in town with her artistic single mother, Mia. Mr. and Mrs. Richardson live in suburban splendor with their four children: Lexie, Moody, Trip and Izzy — the last of whom is the black sheep of the family, the child within whom a strange fire burns.
It’s a haunting, layered story of mothers and daughters, and how they attract and repel each other. There are Mia and her daughter Pearl; the very formal and controlled Mrs. Richardson and her two teenage girls; and Mrs. Richardson’s friend Linda McCullough, who is trying to adopt a Chinese-American baby whose struggling mother would very much like to have her back. The mother roles switch back and forth: Izzy is drawn to arty, independent Mia; Pearl is fascinated by the more conventional Mrs. Richardson.
“It’s kind of a mother/daughter Freaky Friday swap,” said Ng. “Part of that speaks to the idea that there’s the mother you are born to, and there’s the mother that you choose. The one you are born to isn’t always the one who can see you the most clearly. A lot of times you have to get that from outside — you and your mother are actually too much alike. I liked playing with that idea.”
To create the three teenage girls at the center of the story, Ng drew on herself. “I would have been a senior in high school at the time it is set, same age as Lexie,” she said. “They each have a different aspect of my personality. I would have liked to have been as cool as Lexie, but I think I was much more like Izzy and Pearl; I was sort of bookish and a little bit nerdy and kind of quiet, secretly radical but kind of a rebel without a cause, looking for things to express myself in.”
As a teen, Ng said she avidly read poetry (“I really wanted to be a poet, until I realized that I really didn’t have what it took to be a poet”), particularly Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and the plays of Samuel Beckett. She remains a tireless reader of fiction, citing Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” (“I read part of it every year”) and the works of Elizabeth Strout and Toni Morrison as inspirations. Strout’s “Amy and Elizabeth” was “a big influence on ‘Everything I Never Told You’ — that claustrophobic story about a mother and daughter that also casts a wider view out to the whole community they live in.”
For now, she’s relieved, if a little apprehensive, to be sending her second novel out into the world. “It’s been a little bit scary,” Ng confessed. “I’m very much a people pleaser, and the first book had such a devoted and loving following. The response has been so heartfelt that I was hopeful that readers would be willing to follow me into the second world.”
That unexpected success became, she said, a motivator. “I felt like there were readers who were cheering me on, and I was inspired by that.”