"Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” These are the opening lines to Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. They are not necessarily shocking or revelatory to readers, but instead reveal a central concern that haunts the entire story: the unknown. The novel traffics in secrets — those between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons and brothers and sisters that ultimately threaten to erase a family portrait hung crookedly in the eyes of everyone else in society.
Set primarily in Midwestern Ohio during the late 1970s, Everything I Never Told You deftly examines a mixed-race family before and after a young girl is found drowned in a lake. Ng’s prose, graceful yet powerful, follows the characters as they try to make sense out of a family member’s death and their own grief. Within this narrative is a deeper one, a quietly devastating interrogation of identity and the need to belong.
Ng, who will give a reading at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Thursday at 7 p.m., spoke with me about diversity in diversity, the challenges of writing her first novel and the metaphors to be found in hidden garbage.
This post is the first in an ongoing series of interviews with local and visiting authors.
CityBeat: How did the idea for Everything I Never Told You unfold? Did it turn out to be the same story you thought it would be when you first started writing it?
Celeste Ng: I didn’t expect culture to be such a big part of it. It wasn’t until I started to look at the family. I had an idea about a family tragedy that would happen, and when I started to write about the family I knew that they were a mixed-race family. That was sort of surprising to me.
CB: One thing I enjoyed about the novel was how you took a mystery framework to explore more literary themes of identity and race. Can you talk about that choice of exploring your topics with that aspect of crime/thriller genre?
CN: I never intended to write a mystery or a thriller. What I’ve always been interested in with my fiction is family relationships, and how families react to each other. How parents and children get each other, don’t get each other, drive each other crazy. It’s that idea that introduced that mystery element into it — I wanted to look at how a family might deal with a tragedy.
CB: What kind of research did you do for the novel?
CN: In terms of getting the details right, I grew up in the early ’80s so a lot of things came from memory — the telephone cords and the record player that skips a little, all that sort of stuff. I researched the history of interracial marriage and about how it’s become more common. That’s when I learned that it wasn’t legal in the United States until 1967, which was a real surprise to me. For the characters themselves, I did the kind of research that writers do, which is just digging deeper and deeper into the characters, writing them until I felt like I knew what they would do or say.
CB: Another thing I noticed throughout the book was how adept you were at weaving between past and present tenses. You begin the novel at the middle, with Lydia’s death, and that’s what everything else in the story orbits. Was this challenging?
CN: I’m glad you mentioned that, because it was actually the main thing that I struggled with in writing the novel. I wrote four drafts of the novel, but the story basically stayed the same throughout — what really changed was the structure. The past imbues the present and the present echoes the past, and so I knew that there was a lot in the family’s background that I wanted to explore, and that was part of the story just as much as the story of what happened after Lydia’s death. And so I had to figure out a way to fuse this together so that the reader could see the connections between present and past. It took a lot of experimenting and restructuring and revising.
CB: Why did you set the story in the past, in ’70s Midwestern Ohio? How would the story be different today, with technology and more access to books like yours?
CN: As I was getting to know the family and the issues they were facing, I found the ’70s was a period that encapsulated that. It was a period where women would see their daughters getting opportunities that they themselves had missed out on. I don’t know if this a story that couldn’t happen today. I would like to think so — I think we’ve made a lot of progress — but another thing I researched was how public attitudes toward interracial marriage had been changing, and it was only very recently — I think in 1997 that a majority of people felt OK with interracial marriage, which is kind of mind-blowing to me, because I remember 1997, you know. I would like to think that things would be a lot different for the family now, but a lot of the issues about viewing cultures and balancing personal life and dreams with children — these are still issues that are with us.
CB: Is your recent success validating to you as a writer, and do you think it might change the way you write? Do you feel the need to keep or appeal to a wider audience now that you’ve reached this level of recognition?
CN: That’s a great question. The answer to how it feels to get all of this is probably surreal — that’s the best adjective I can come up with. I work alone, in my house or in the corner in the library and I write these things from my head, not knowing if anyone else will believe them or will ever connect with them, and so to have the book go out into the world and have a lot of people connect with it has been really amazing and kind of mind-blowing. I say to my husband, ‘Is it possible that I am having a very, very vivid waking dream, and I’m just hallucinating this?’ and he very nicely says, ‘It’s possible, but seems unlikely that that’s happening.’ I’m just kind of touched and thrilled, and that sounds very boring and cliché but it’s true. If it’s changing my writing, I don’t know yet. I’ve started to work on another novel but it’s on pause at the moment while I’m on book tour. But I’m thinking about it a lot, and I have to see if it changes my writing style. I like to think that it won’t, but that just having written a book will have taught me something.
CB: In 2010, before publishing your novel, you wrote an essay published in Huffington Post titled “Why I Don’t Want to be the Next Amy Tan.” After publishing the book, have people seen you as the next Amy Tan, or have things changed?
CN: You know what, no one has made that comparison, and I don’t know if that’s because they went and Googled me and they found that and decided not to do it or not. Amy Tan and I are both Chinese-American women writers and we write about families, but we write very different kinds of books. We have different subjects, even if broadly speaking we are writing about the same thing — families. When you get into particulars, we’re very different authors, and so I would rather be compared to Tan in terms of language style and technique, but I don’t think our books are a lot alike. We’ve had different experiences. I’ve been very encouraged in the past few years to see that people have been moving away from that kind of comparison — that there is Amy Tan and then she will be replaced by the next Amy Tan. That there can be diversity within diversity, that there can be lots of Asian American voices, and they can all be somewhat different from each other. That it something that is more possible now that wasn’t even an issue up for discussion a few years ago.
CB: Who are your general influences in storytelling, literary or not?
CN: There are some readers I love to read as a writer to study, but I also read because I love their work. Toni Morrison is one of them — I think she does an amazing job at writing about really big important subjects and always keeping it on a human level and making the writing beautiful. There’s a book called The God of Small Things by an Indian writer named Arundhati Roy, which again I love as a reader and teach from it. I pick it up to find passages I want to give to my students and I just end up reading it at the bookshelf because I love it so much. She handles language in such an amazing way and she moves through time in away that was an inspiration for the book. I looked at that a lot as a touchstone to figure out — how do I weave together past and present? I watch a lot of TV, so I like seeing some of the long form TV shows that have developed over a long season. I’m a huge Downtown Abbey fan — it’s so soapy, but it’s on PBS and so you feel very virtuous when you’re watching it. There’s something about watching characters develop in that long arc in shows like Mad Men or Sopranos. Writers tend to sort of downplay TV as an insulin, but I feel that film and TV do influence the way I tell a story in the way you cut back and forth between characters or in the way that you show things. So that’s an influence for sure.
CB: You mentioned a book you were working on earlier, can you talk more about that project?
CN: I think it’s going to be another family story, set in my hometown of Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. It’s very pretty, there are lots of trees and beautiful houses, and they like it that way. What comes along with all that beauty and trying to be progressive and consciously working to be diverse is that there’s also a lot of focus on appearance and worry about what other people will think. They have these tiny little golf-cart sized garbage trucks that drive down every driveway to pick up the garbage in the back and bring it up to the truck in the front. There’s never garbage in the front, and I feel like that’s really metaphorically rich, that you have to keep your garbage hidden. So I think it’s going to involve a family that’s living in this community and then a mother and daughter come in from outside and have secrets, and about the way those two families get kind of intertwined and tangled.
CB: That whole environment sort of reminds me of Twin Peaks, going back to that TV influence.
CN: Exactly — there are other things too, like you were only allowed to paint your house certain colors so that the entire street could be harmonious aesthetically. They don’t do that anymore, but there’s still a lot of things like that there.
CB: Is there a question you wish someone would ask you about your work that hasn’t been asked yet?
CN: One question I was asked in an interview and then I was sad that they cut it was after being asked if there would be a movie of my book, who would I want to be in it? I can tell you the news that was just made official about a week and a half ago — the film rights have sold to Relativity Media, a studio in L.A. So I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. One of the things that excites me a lot about the fact that the book might become a movie — besides the fact that that’s cool — there would be roles for Asian Americans and mixed Asian actors, and I feel that right now those people are on the sidelines as extras, or maybe the sidekick. And so it would be really cool for someone like John Cho to play James the father. That’s what I’m excited about — the idea that maybe this could be a place where Asian American or mixed Asian actors could get roles, that there would be a spotlight for them.
CB: The whole prospect must be terrifying and wonderful, having your film in someone else’s hands.
CN: It is, but I’m trying to think of it as its own thing. I love film adaptations, and what I love about them the most is when they take the opportunity to make a slightly different thing. It’s like when you cover a song: it’s better when they don’t try to sound exactly like the original. When they do something completely different with it, that’s when I think it’s cool, and so I think of the movie as its own thing. It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s worth it.
Celeste Ng will read at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on June 4 at 7 p.m.