Interview by Alisha Ramos and Tyler Calder
If you’ve been keeping up with our #GNIreads book club (and even if you haven’t!), Celeste Ng is probably a familiar name. She’s the author of one of the year’s most popular books, Little Fires Everywhere, and the Amazon Book of the Year, *Everything I Never Told You*, before it. Celeste’s exploration of race, progressivism, order, and family in *Little Fires Everywhere has completely captivated us over the past month. We sat down with her to gain some more glimpses into how she got her start and her views on self-care.*
Life & Career
Let’s start from the beginning. When did you realized you loved writing? Growing up, did you know this is what you wanted to do? I was an early reader and writer. My mom claims I started reading at age 2, but all I know is that I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t know how to read. So I’ve always loved books and reading, and I used to write books with my friends, or write plays and make my cousins perform them. When I got to middle school, I’d submit poems and stories to teen literary magazines. At the time I didn’t think writing was something that I could do as a job, but I knew I wanted it to be a part of my life.
We read that it took six years to create your successful debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. How did your writing process evolve when writing Little Fires Everywhere?
Writing Little Fires Everywhere took about a year and a half, but that’s just the actual putting words on paper. I had actually been thinking about this story, and these characters, for years prior, while I was finishing Everything I Never Told You, in fact. So the total time it took from idea to completion was about the same (or, I hate to admit it, a little bit longer), but I did more of the work in my head and in my notebook, rather than on the page.
Why was it important for you to tell this particular story?
I’d been away from home for about 10 years, and I was starting to look back on my adolescence and the community where I grew up in a different light. I wanted to look at the ways that even a community that is extremely well-intentioned and progressive still has blind spots. That’s an idea I think about a lot, that we are all human and we all have flaws, and that pretending we don’t have flaws is usually a recipe for disaster, while acknowledging our flaws—and the ways they cue us to do better might be the only way to survive.
The book is set in the town where you grew up, Shaker Heights. Was there a research phase in writing the book, or did it all come back to you from memory? What was it like revisiting pieces of your childhood?
A lot of it came from memory. I’d have been in high school at the same time as the teens in the book, so I got to send them to places I remembered, and put the viewpoints and slang from my own teen years into their mouths. Then I went back and checked my work, so to speak, by looking at old yearbooks, copies of the school newspaper from those years, and so on. (This is where local history librarians rock.) It was both fun and a little disquieting, looking back to see what I remembered 20 years out versus what things had actually been like – which edges in my memories had been sharpened up and which had been blunted.
Were you surprised to learn anything about yourself while writing the book?
I didn’t know a lot about the history of the town or the Shakers for whom it’s named, only the basics. I didn’t realize how deeply the reverence for order and rules ran. It was part of the origins of the city, and a huge part of the beliefs of the Shakers who had owned the land before the city was built. And I was startled to realize how deeply it’s ingrained in me, too. At heart, I’m fundamentally an Order Muppet.
What is inspiring you right now, in either your writing process or in life in general?
My women friends, especially the women artists. This is not to discount my male friends or the men out there, but I’m seeing a huge swell of genius-level artistic work rising from women in particular right now – often spurred on by fury at what’s happening in our world, and it’s one of the good things coming out of this terrible political period. That encourages me to get to work and keep pushing boundaries, as well.
What advice would you give other aspiring female authors?
Read a lot, write a lot. Read other women. Support other women – read their work, share their work, champion their successes, try and create opportunities for them. We’re in this together and it’s not a zero-sum game.
What does self-care mean to you at this moment in your life?
Holding onto beauty and joy where I can find it, and sharing those moments when I can. We need it to keep going. Stepping away from social media and the news when I need to and remembering that being “in a bubble” isn’t always a bad thing; sometimes the bubble is the place where you go to regroup.
Any self-care advice for writers, authors, and creatives in particular?
Reading poetry has really helped me—always, but over the past year in particular. The best poems distill feelings and thoughts into exactly the right words, and they’re both small enough to hold in your head and rich enough to merit rereading again and again and again. Find whatever does that for you – it might be poems, or it might be music, or visual art, or dance, or anything, but find it and feed yourself with it.
What are you reading right now?
I’m about to start The Incendiaries, by Reese Okyong Kwon.
Okay, time for a fun question: We read that you’re a social media junkie. Who are your favorite accounts to follow on either Twitter or Instagram that make you laugh or bring joy?
How much space do we have?
- @duchessgoldblat is a Twitter treasure. Anyone who’s a friend of the Duchess is a friend of mine. (If you ever find out who she is, please do not tell me.)
- @foodstiny posts videos of people making tiny, REAL foods—like frying up cheerio-sized donuts or grilling a penny-sized hamburger. It’s extremely soothing.
- @sickofwolves is definitely not a wolf pretending to be a human but it makes me laugh every time it tweets.
- I already adored @lin_manuel for his work but his Twitter account picks me up, dusts off my knees, and sets me back on my feet every time I think I cannot take one more damn day.
- @fluffsociety is great for when you need a cute animal video as a distraction.
- @deletedwiki reminds me that people are weird and that weirdness is often funny and that sometimes trying to categorize knowledge is a Sisyphean task.
- @NYTMinusContext is as brilliant as it is hilarious.
- @sketchesbyboze is a very particular blend of book-loving nerdery, but it’s right up my alley.
Shall I go on?