About 5 minutes into my conversation with Celeste Ng, I can’t help myself but to blurt out:
“You just seem so …. NOT melancholic.”
“Well, thank you,” she says and laughs, as she has laughed at a few things before. In fact, she laughs a lot and speaks in a kind of a sing-songy tone that feels both alert and high energy and very comfortable in its own voice skin (phone interviews are notoriously a nightmare, never let anyone tell you otherwise).
“I’d like to think of my self as not melancholic at all,” she continues, “I think I’m a pretty cheerful person, really.” Which, frankly, is the biggest surprise of this interview, thus far. Because, if you read her 2014 book Everything I Never Told You, you wouldn’t expect its author to be so, well, so happy.
The book is at this point, well, a phenomenon. That rare actual literary novel that stayed on the New York Times best seller for almost two years now, on everyone’s “top 10 book of the year ” the year it published, and a nominee for seemingly everything, and the reason why she will be in D.C. on Feb. 23 discussing it at the PEN/Faulkner reading. The book tells the story of a family unmoored by the disappearance of their beloved daughter. “Lydia is dead, they just don’t know it yet,” the opening lines tell us, and the rest of the story follows her American mother, her Asian American father, and her siblings, as they navigate love, loss, home life and 1970s middle America, all of which prove to be treacherous ground.
The novel is smart, unnervingly observant, and deeply human. And very, very, very melancholic.
A lot has changed in Ng’s life since she started writing Everything I Never Told You. She became a mother herself, the book has taken a life of its own, something that still amazes her, and she is now working on her next project. We catch her early one morning before her writing day starts.
Brightest Young Things: What is the day-to-day routine like now that the new novel is in progress?
Celeste Ng: I have a 5-year-old now. So, when he is in preschool, I try and get some writing time in.
I would never tell myself, you have to write 20 pages today or something. But I do try to show up. Read what I wrote, fix things. Whether it is from 8:30 a.m. to noon, or 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. I do try to do it every day.
BYT: What is the new novel about? Does it return to some of the topics of Everything I Never Told You or does it chart a brand new territory?
CN: In some ways it returns to the same place. It actually happens in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, where I grew up, and IT WAS a great place to grow up in. The kind of a progressive suburb that is still very aware of appearances, and at the center is a family with four children and a mother and a daughter move into the neighborhood, and stir things up. So, it deals with some of those topics that I am attracted to: the sibling dynamic, the mother daughter dynamic.
BYT: It is certainly a forever fertile ground. As is Ohio….
CN: There is something about Midwest in general, that has kind of an underdog quality. When you mention to people growing up in Cleveland they bring up the river catching on fire, or LeBron James leaving, they have these references, but no one imagines ending up there. If you told people you were moving to Ohio, they wouldn’t congratulate you. They’d say “OH WHY would you move there?” as if that was something that happened to you and you had to deal with. And it ties well thematically in what I cover, there not being a lot of Asians when I was growing up in Midwest, with being looked at a little differently
BYT: Obviously, a lot has changed too…
CN: Absolutely. The people are maybe still as aware of the differences but they are more accepting of it that what we saw in the 70s and 80s, but the undercurrent is still there. There are maybe no racial slurs anymore, no firecrackers in mailboxes, the distinction is much more subtle. Like, being asked, “Where are you REALLY from?” It makes one feel OTHERED.
BYT: Which to some extent explains why racial perception is an ongoing theme in your storytelling, because it is an ongoing theme in your life
CN: That does seem to be my storytelling place. How we perceive each other. If you watched the Super Bowl this year and watched the half-time show, with Coldplay and Beyonce, and then followed on social media what the reaction to the show was, you’d be amazing how different the perception of it was, depending on who you as an audience member identified with. Even in that case (of mass popular entertainment-ed), it required a mental adjustment by the audience. And it affects my life too. I am in a mixed race marriage myself, and I have a mixed race son….The racial perception interest is probably always going to be there to some extent.
BYT: Everything I Never Told You does deal with that need to both be different and blend in within the same family, within even the same people. You mention Nath understands “the lexicon of their family, the things they could never truly explain to outsiders: that a book or a dress meant more than something to read or something to wear; that attention came with expectations that—like snow—drifted and settled and crushed you with their weight.” Is there a reason that prevents people from just being?
CN: I think this is something that is naturally built in in people, a need for attention and a need to be special and we are always trying to find a balance. You’ll notice that if a news camera shows up, people will line up, they want to be seen. But at the same time they want both to be chosen and not singled out. I think that is an endless struggle within most.
BYT: Speaking of being singled out, is there something that you feel people ask you about too much, and, likewise, is there something you feel you are not asked about often enough?
CN: I am very active on Twitter and one thing that keeps popping up is “How do I balance having a kid and writing?” And I know it should not be as aggravating, but I know no one ever asks a male writer that. Or, any male that.
BYT: This seems to be something that happens often. I just finished reading Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl and she says something similar, “I bet no one ever asked a person in an all male band what is it like to be in an ALL MALE band,” but as a woman you do get asked what it FEELS LIKE to be a woman doing a job all the time….
CN: Exactly. Can you imagine someone asking a presidential candidate: “But you are a father and a grandfather too, how will you balance that with presidency?”
BYT: I was not planning on asking that but I will ask, has motherhood changed the way you write. I know your son was born during your writing of Everything I Never Told You and with your books so often about a dynamic between parents and children, did it change your point of view now that you were coming to it from the other side?
CN: (laughs) It definitely offered a change of perspective. Mainly understanding the weight of being SO responsible for another human being. And what under appreciated work it is. I definitely apologized to my mother for not understanding before. And, from a writing point, I do come from a more balanced place of observing that relationship.
BYT: Speaking of a balanced view, your DC PEN/Faulkner visit this week sees you in conversation with another writer. What are some of the books you’ve been reading yourself recently?
CN: I am midway through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I just started the third book. And it truly struck me, the questions it raises about gender and friendship, seen through the story of these two girls. I definitely have been wanting to talk about it. To anyone. I was in a coffee shop the other day and saw someone reading it and had to come up to them and comment on it. And a very different book but Alexander Chee’s Queen Of The Night is fascinating too. It deals with the question of identity, asks how often can you start over, how many masks can you wear.
BYT: Beautiful, thank you. We’re adding them to our list.
Join the Celeste Ng “Not Waving But Drowning” conversation with John Wray tomorrow, February 23rd at the PEN/Faulkner reading series. Tickets are still available.