Celeste Ng’s second novel (and second bestseller), Little Fires Everywhere, is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where she grew up. The unique, planned community has regulations on everything from house color to where to set out garbage (behind the house, not the curb). In return for living with extra rules, residents share the amenities: golf course, pool, “unexcelled” schools. And, according to the Indie Bookstore Finder on indiebound.org, there are half a dozen independent bookstores in and around the town.
“Honestly, I will happily spend hours in any place that has tons of books—bookstore, library, you name it—but each independent bookstore has its own personality, which is part of the charm of indies and also part of their value,” says Ng, who as an Author Ambassador for Independent Bookstore Day on April 28 is working with the Independent Bookstore Day crew to plan messages and surprises to encourage support for these local businesses.
Ng, whose first novel, Everything I Never Told You, was Amazon’s 2014 Book Of The Year, recently answered some questions about independent bookstores, miniseries plans for her latest book, and her efforts to unite us all.
BookTrib: What is it about independent bookstores that attracts you as a reader and keeps you as a loyal patron?
Celeste Ng: I like to visit and see what the staff picks are, because booksellers read more than just about anyone, and often find books that might get overlooked. What titles the store puts on their front table tells you a lot about the community you’re in and the issues they’re thinking about. And I like buying books at indies, because I know that most of that money stays in the local community—and of course it also helps keep the bookstore in business, which is good for both readers and writers.
BookTrib: Is there a central hub for Independent Bookstore Day?
CN: The best thing about it is that it’s not just about one store or one “ambassador”—writers all over the country will be visiting their local indies to take part in the festivities. This is really a celebration of a whole ecosystem, which includes all of us: booksellers, writers, and readers.
BookTrib: How can our readers support their local bookstores and indie booksellers everyday, not just on Independent Bookstore Day?
CN: The easiest thing is to shop there! If you’re able to, buy your books locally—it helps keep the store in business, and it supports the local economy. Even shifting just a portion of your book buying will make a difference. Bookstores can usually special order any book that’s in print for you; just ask. You can also attend events at the bookstore: they’re often free, you’ll get to hear an author live, and many bookstores offer a discount on the author’s book during the event.
BookTrib: With your latest book, Little Fires Everywhere, at what point did you decide on the title?
CN: The title came quite late— I’d finished the manuscript and it didn’t have a workable title. My agent suggested I go through the entire book and make a list of any phrases that we might use, and “Little Fires Everywhere” was the one we liked best. The more I thought about it, the more that seemed to speak to the book thematically as well as in terms of plot. Now I can’t imagine another title.
BookTrib: The book’s main characters include a number of mothers in very different circumstances: single, adoptive, and picture perfect. What draws you to the themes of motherhood and family?
CN: I’ve always been interested in stories of family in general and motherhood in particular— I think it’s because family is such a big factor in who we become. We all have families; even those who grow up without families are often shaped by their absence. Usually, we end up either patterning ourselves after our families or forming ourselves in opposition to them, and both paths are interesting to me as a writer.
BookTrib: In the book, Mia Warren, an artist and a single mother with a teenage daughter, disrupts the “perfect” world of the planned community of Shaker Heights. What do we need to learn from the stories of outsiders who are not like everyone else?
CN: I believe that differences are valuable, and thus that it’s important for us to not just tolerate, but to actively include those that are different. Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, and understanding their point of view— even if you don’t share it— is the root of empathy, which is a basic part of humanity. If you don’t bother to try and see the experience of others not like you, and learn from them, your worldview is going to be deeply limited and your ability to interact with the world is going to be pretty deeply hampered.
BookTrib: A court battle ensues between a (Chinese) mother who gave up her baby and wants her back, and the affluent parents who want to adopt her. Is identity more important than privilege?
CN: No, they’re both important— which is why the question is difficult. Both the biological mother and the would-be adoptive parents love the baby in question and have reasons to claim her as their own. And, different readers will certainly have different viewpoints on what happens in the end.
BookTrib: ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ (Amazon’s Best Novel of 2017) is set in the 1990s in a progressive community where a character says, “No one here sees race…skin color doesn’t say anything about who you are.” How do you feel American attitudes about race have changed since then? Were we more innocent then, or just more oblivious?
CN: Both, I’d say. We always want to believe that we’re further along, more enlightened, more evolved than we are. But the truth is that the racial issues— as well as the issues of class, gender, and privilege— that we’re grappling with now have always been present. Whether people honestly didn’t know before, or were just oblivious before, matters less to me right now than what they choose to do in this moment, when these issues are all but impossible to ignore.
BookTrib: Any news to share about Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington’s TV series adaptation of ‘Little Fires Everywhere’?
CN: Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, has optioned the novel for an 8-episode miniseries. She and Kerry Washington will star, with Liz Tigelaar as the screenwriter, and it will be broadcast on Hulu. I’m thrilled— all of them really get the book and I’m looking forward to seeing how they adapt it.
BookTrib: You recently established #smallacts on Twitter as a place for people to share small steps against bigotry, prejudice and divisiveness. What was the response and what are some of these small acts you learned of?
CN: The small acts have been widely varied: calling elected representatives to ask them to support or oppose acts of legislation; writing letters of support to local Islamic centers and synagogues; taking bystander intervention training to learn how to step in when harassment takes place; donating time or money or goods to shelters for the homeless, refugees, women fleeing abuse, and LGBTQ runaways; working to provide sign language interpreters at public events—the list goes on and on. Hearing what other people have done has taught me a lot about different ways to work for inclusion. For example, I tweet a lot, but I’d never thought about including captions for photos that I tweeted. But I’ve since learned that quite a few users use voice-assisted features on the internet— which means the computer or phone will read text, but it can’t describe a photo, unless you caption it!
These are indeed small actions, but when you consider that our president publicly mocked a reporter with a disability, and his administration is working to roll back ADA requirements, they feel like more than gestures. Anything you can do that allows more people to participate in society— and feel valued by it— is important, and those actions have ripple effects. At the very least, they make a statement about the kind of society we want to live in and the kind of country we want to be.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio. She attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, won the Hopwood Award, the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the ALA’s Alex Award and is a 2016 NEA fellow. She lives in Cambridge, MA.