Celeste Ng Interview
By: PP Wong
"Change is always slow, but it starts with conversation, and I’m so glad these conversations are happening. More writers are out there telling their stories and wrestling with the idea of being different in some way, and I hope that trend continues."
Celeste Ng's novel Everything I Never Told You was selected by Amazon.com editors as the #1 Book of the Year. Her beautifully written debut was selected over books by seasoned writers such as Hilary Mantel, Jodi Picoult, Stephen King and Sue Monk Kidd.
In her contemplative interview with BW, Ng talks about the trials she faces as an author and the importance of diversity in literature.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Too many to list, but the one I re-read the most was probably Little House in the Big Woods.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
A housecat. They lead pretty pampered lives and they get to nap a lot.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A laptop and a wifi connection.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Curious. Geeky. Sincere.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
It’s hard to pick just one, but Toni Morrison is up at the top of the list.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
A massive congratulations for having Everything I Never Told You selected as Amazon.com’s best book of 2014! We were thrilled to see an Asian author given so much attention. How has your life changed since being selected?
True story: I found out about the Amazon pick via Twitter—someone tweeted to say “Congrats!” So I definitely didn’t know about it beforehand. I was in a state of shock all week—actually, I still kind of am. It was hugely validating to have the editors at Amazon, who read hundreds of books a year, highlight mine as one of the best. And it’s been a confidence boost for several reasons: it’s an honor for the novel to be chosen, but the Amazon pick also brought the book to many new readers, many of whom have written to tell me that the book resonated with them. Knowing that readers are connecting with the book is really what every writer hopes for.
A lot of debut novelists have stories about facing rejection and wanting to give up writing. Were your experiences similar?
Writing is really a huge act of faith: you have to write your book first, and then hope that someone will want to publish it. I can’t think of another field like that, where you do all the work with little—often no—assurance that the project will ever go anywhere. I worked on this novel for six and a half years, and although I had published some short stories along the way and had a wonderful agent, there were still no guarantees that (1) I’d ever finish the book or (2) that a publisher would want to take it on or (3) that anyone would want to read it once it was published. There just aren’t any guarantees in writing, full stop.
When I put it that way, I wonder why on earth I kept writing this book. And there were definitely many, many times throughout those six and a half years where I was sure I was wasting everyone’s time and money, where I felt like I wasn’t pulling my share in our household finances with my odd side jobs, where I was convinced that I should quit writing and go and get a “real” job, except that I was convinced I wasn’t qualified for anything other than being a waitress—and I am, truth be told, a terrible waitress. But the book had a hold on me, and I suspect most writers would say the same thing. I wrote the book because I couldn’t not write the book, because it was important to me to tell this story. When that happens, it’s harder to give up than to keep going.
Your novel deals with racial prejudices, death and dark family secrets. What inspired you to write this particular story?
Some years ago, my husband told me an anecdote about a boyhood classmate who’d pushed his own little sister into a lake. She was rescued, but that story lingered in my mind. What was that sibling relationship like before—and after? I’m fascinated by the dynamics of families, so I took the real-life incident as a starting point, and it grew into something quite different. This whole family emerged, struggling with their relationship with each other as well as with their places in the outside world.
Everything I Never Told You is a dark novel about dysfunctional family relations. What is it about the dark aspects of human nature that attracts you?
At readings and events, people tend to tell me, “Oh, you seem so nice and so cheerful! You’re not at all what I expected!” I like to think of myself as a kind person and also a generally optimistic person. But I’ve always been drawn to explore the darker impulses of human nature in my writing. Writing about dysfunction is really a form of empathy. It’s a way of trying to understand why people do bad (or painful) things, and of finding the humanness within them, and of not losing sight of that even if you don’t approve—at all—of the way they’re acting. There are lots of good reasons to read, but one of the most powerful for me is being placed in someone else’s skin, and trying to think about what it would be like to be that person. It’s something we all need to do more of in real life.
As an Asian writer, have you found the lack of diversity in the Western publishing world a problem? What do you think can be done to help the situation?
When I was growing up, hardly any of the books I read featured Asian characters—or any non-white characters. My mother made a point of seeking out books with Asians in them, so alongside Laura Ingalls Wilder and Harriet the Spy and Roald Dahl, I also read Bette Bao Lord’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson and Yoshiko Uchida’s Journey to Topaz and many, many books by Lawrence Yep. There are more diverse books being published now, both for adults and for children—but if you look at the statistics, there’s clearly still a problem with lack of diversity in publishing overall.
Organizations like We Need Diverse Books have done a lot to help draw attention to this issue. And I think readers and publishers are starting to see the need for—and the value in—books by diverse authors, featuring diverse characters, and portraying diverse viewpoints. (When I say diverse, I’m speaking not just about race, but also gender, sexual orientation, and cultures—anything that’s different from the default hetero white male.) Change is always slow, but it starts with conversation, and I’m so glad these conversations are happening. More writers are out there telling their stories and wrestling with the idea of being different in some way, and I hope that trend continues.
Some people argue that writing is something that cannot be taught – you’re either a good writer or not. Do you think your MFA in Creative Writing was a helpful endeavour?
For me, the MFA was an invaluable experience. It was the first time I was really taken seriously as a writer—the program at the University of Michigan was fully funded, so it was essentially like being told, “Hey, we think your writing is important, and we’re going to pay you to be here to work on it.” While I was there, I met amazing teachers who are still mentors to me, and my classmates have turned out to be not only trusted first readers and sounding boards but also some of my best friends. (Really—we have attended each other’s weddings and played with each other’s kids.) In workshop, I got to read others’ work that was very different from mine, which encouraged me to take risks in my own work.
With that said, I don’t think an MFA is essential for a writer. But I do think you need to do that same work— even if you’re not in an official program—if you’re going to develop your craft. You need to learn to read others’ work, to take it apart and figure out how it works like a mechanic working on a car, and to articulate where it is (or isn’t) doing what it’s supposed to do—and why. You need to find readers who get your work and who can give you feedback in ways you can digest, and to learn when to listen to feedback and when to gently ignore it. You need to read widely, and write widely, to stretch your boundaries. And you need to learn to take your writing seriously, as both an art and a job, because no one out there is going to demand that you write except you. Whether you learn these things inside an MFA program or independently really depends on what works best for you—but these are all things that every writer has to learn to do.
In your novel, you pick 1970s Ohio for the setting. What type of research did you do to ensure the setting was depicted in an authentic manner?
I grew up in Ohio, and my childhood wasn’t far removed from the 1970s—in the 1980s, when I was a kid, my town still felt kind of frozen in time, and the ’70s never felt very far away! I grew up with rotary telephones and TVs with UHF dials and plaid furniture and a lot of old cars. Much of the book focuses on the relationships between the family members, so the “research” was primarily about digging into the characters and trying to understand them.
With that said, though, I did do some historical research to get the details right. This is where I’m so happy to be a writer in the Internet era: with the right search terms, you can find almost any information you need, from the Saturday evening TV lineup in 1977 to whether cars had seatbelt-warning chimes in the 1970s. Anyone who’s ever looked something up online knows how easy it is to get sucked down a rabbit hole, so my method is to write the story first, making up details as I go, so that my focus stays on the characters. After the story is more or less in place, I go back and fact-check myself, correcting any anachronisms and putting in more specific historical info where I need it. In an early draft, for example, a character wrote something on a Post-It Note; it turns out Post-Its weren’t invented until the 1980s, so I had to take that out!
Which Asian authors inspire you and what types of genres or stories would you like to see more Asian authors tackling?
Gish Jen is an author whose I admire greatly—she manages to tackle issues of culture and identity so directly, and yet with such a sense of humor. I love everything she writes. Jhumpa Lahiri is another; few people write about belongingness the way she does, or with such sensitivity to nuance. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese was a real eye-opener for me; I don’t read a lot of graphic novels, but he’s converted me! There are plenty more, but that’s just off the top of my head.
I’d love to see more stories that feature Asian characters but that aren’t “about” being Asian, if that makes sense. Stories in which the main characters happen to be Asian but that’s not a crucial aspect of the plot—sort of like the picture book The Snowy Day, in which the main character happens to be a little black boy, but that has no effect on the story. It may take a while before that kind of book can happen. Right now, at least in the U.S., there’s no way that your race can not affect your life in very fundamental ways. Writers of color are often criticized for “making everything about race”—but quite honestly, as most people of color know, race influences everything. Someday, perhaps, our culture will evolve enough so that race matters less, and then we’ll be able to have more stories with Asians (and other people of color) that aren’t about being different.
You have been quoted as saying “Sometimes Taking Things Out Counts as Writing.” Could you expand a bit more on what you meant by this?
I wrote four drafts of this novel before it was sold to a publisher, and each one was radically different. The plot was essentially the same, but it took me a long time to figure out how to tell the story—how to flip back and forth between present and past; whose voices needed to be heard where; which moments were crucial to the story and which could be cut. Over those four drafts, I wrote a lot of passages that ended up getting cut. In one draft, Marilyn (the mother) has to arrange her own mother’s funeral; I originally had almost two whole chapters about how she drove home, how she went to the hospital to identify the body, how she met with the funeral director, the funeral itself, and so on. Eventually, I realized that all of that was scaffolding, and the only really important part was when Marilyn sorted through her mother’s belongings. So forty-odd pages got cut or condensed down to three pages.
But I wouldn’t have had those three pages—or known which thirty-seven pages I needed to cut—if I hadn’t written the whole thing first. I had to write them to get the parts I needed, and then I had to take them back out to make the book stronger. That’s why I say that taking things out sometimes counts as writing.
Halfway through editing your novel, you had a baby. Has motherhood affected how you approach writing?
Before I was a parent, I used to complain about not having enough time to write. Now I don’t know what I was talking about—this is not having time to write! Any working parent, in any profession, knows how hard it is to balance family life and work, and it’s especially hard for writers because we need so much headspace for what we do. It’s hard to just stop thinking about a project when it’s time to make dinner or put your kids to bed—at least, it is for me. So time management, and work-life balance, is a constant struggle for me. If I had an extra 6 hours in every day, I do think I’d get a lot more done.
On the other hand, though, being a parent really is a perspective change. Not necessarily a better one—because many people choose not to have children, and it’s not like their lives aren’t just as full and rich! But a different one. I do see things differently when I experience them with a four-year-old who’s never seen them before. Strawberry picking, making a snowman, even the concept that a bug can be inside the house: he sees it all as new and fascinating, so I see it differently too. And trying to raise a little person makes me think very deeply about what I believe, and what’s important to me. How do I explain why bad things happen sometimes? How do I explain why we should be kind to other people? That kind of self-scrutiny enriches into the writing, too.
What is the next sentence in Celeste Ng’s life?
The paperback edition of my novel will be released on May 12, 2015, in the US, so I’ll be doing a book tour for that with stops in San Diego, LA, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Atlanta, DC, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and maybe a few other places. Everything I Never Told You will also be published in a number of other countries this year and next, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, China, and Taiwan. And I’m just starting to get working on another novel, which I’m hoping won’t take six years to finish. BW