Character Study: Celeste Ng at Literati


Celeste Ng

U-M Helen Zell Writers' Program grad Celeste Ng returned to Ann Arbor for her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere.

In Shaker Heights, Ohio, if your lawn reaches a certain height, the city will mow it -- then send you a bill. Your house cannot be the same as any others on your street, but the paint color has to be approved so that it doesn’t clash. Your trash is not placed on the curb for pickup; instead, a small vehicle similar to a golf cart will speed down your driveway, collect your cans, and bring them to the garbage truck on the street. These are some of the quirks Celeste Ng shared at Literati on Friday about her hometown, which is the setting for her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere.

Ng was also sure to highlight the many advantages of the community. Her high school provided a generous amount of funding to arts education, something she learned to appreciate upon discovering how rare that was other places. The community lies outside of Cleveland and also focuses on racial diversity. Ng says that while growing up there the city hovered around half African-American and half white, which made it much more integrated than surrounding areas. Although as an Asian-American, she was still an outlier. So it is in this idyllic but strained setting of progressivism that Ng decided to write about a custody battle over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby, causing a rift in the community in Little Fires Everywhere.

Ng read from the first chapter of her book, then discussed her homecoming to Ann Arbor, a place that shaped her writing. She received her Master of Fine Arts degree at the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan. She was joined after her reading by the school’s director, Douglas Trevor, for a conversation about her work.

The book’s main cast of characters is large, made up of the Richardson family, with four children, and the Warrens, a mother and daughter who become the family’s tenants. With so many characters to juggle, Ng said she tried to make a chart of their relationships, only for it to become so crisscrossed that it stopped being helpful. But multiple audience members, along with Trevor, commended her ability to create multi-dimensional characters, even those who aren't major players in the story.

Trevor also complimented Ng’s ability to keep the plot moving. At that, Ng laughed, then thanked a professor at the school who urged her to focus on keeping the story moving, something she said she did not have a grasp on when beginning her studies. Now when she writes Ng imagines her former professor on her shoulder, reminding her to focus on more than just characters, such as the causes and effects of their actions. This tactic seems to have worked, as the Literati bookseller who introduced the event recounted being unable to put the book down and recommended finishing the book in one sitting -- then immediately beginning it again.

Of course, as a lover of libraries, one of the most thrilling anecdotes Ng shared was that parts of the novel were written at the public library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she now lives. The library is across the street from a high school and Ng described often being there during lunch hour as teens came to use the space. Groups would flirt and joke as they passed by her table and Ng says they helped remind her what it’s like to be a teenager, providing inspiration for the children she was shaping in Little Fires Everywhere. So the next time you’re in the library, remember to look up from your book or computer because you never know what details might spark your imagination.

Katrina Shafer is a desk clerk with the Ann Arbor District Library.

Little Fires Everywhere and “Everything I Never Told You,” Ng’s first novel, are both available from the Ann Arbor District Library.