An Interview with Celeste Ng, Author of Everything I Never Told You

Recently I reviewed Celeste Ng’s luminous debut novel, Everything I Never Told You.
Ms. Ng graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Everything I Never Told You? What was the writing process like?

Celeste Ng Author photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

Celeste Ng
Author photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

CN: For me, stories almost always start with images. In this case, my husband happened to tell me that when he was a kid, he was at a friend’s house when his friend pushed his own little sister into a lake. When my husband told it, it was a funny anecdote—his parents had to come pick him up early, because wow, was his friend in trouble—but for some reason that image of a girl falling into water stuck with me. I am a terrible swimmer myself, so maybe my fear of water had something to do with it. It transformed into something quite different—in the novel, Lydia is a teenager, for one, and it’s not clear how she ended up in the water. But that was the seed that started the story.

I began the novel when I was completing my MFA at the University of Michigan, in the spring of 2006, and I wrote 4 drafts before finishing the book in 2012. So it was a long process, with a lot of changes in between: I finished school, I moved, I had a baby. I like to think that long gestation made for a better novel.

 What led you to choose to set the novel in the 1970s?

Everything I Never Told You_COliverCN: As I got to know these characters, I realized that the 1970s was a time that highlighted all of the struggles they faced. Interracial marriages have become more common now, but in the 1970s—to say nothing of the decades earlier—Marilyn and James would really have turned heads. Asians weren’t as much of a presence yet, either. And Marilyn’s dream of becoming a doctor was much more poignant in that time period—she would have been in college in the 1950s, when medicine would have been a hard path for a woman. It made my heart ache to know her daughter could have that opportunity, but that Marilyn never really would.

I also found that the 1970s allowed a bigger sense of mystery. We have a lot of ways of finding and knowing people now—we can track them by the GPS in their cell phones, or we can look at their browser history and see what websites they were looking at, or check what they posted on Twitter or Facebook for insight into their thoughts. But in the 1970s, of course, there were no cell phones, no internet, no social media. I wanted Lydia’s family to have to face that information void, to have to face a lot of unanswered questions about her life.

The structure of the novel modulates (seemingly) effortlessly between the past and present, between children and parents. How did you arrive at this structure?

CN: The structure took a lot of work. As I said earlier, I went through four drafts of this novel, and every one of them had a major structural change. I tried telling the story in parts—a few chapters when Lydia’s body is discovered, then a few chapters of Marilyn’s past, then a few chapters of James’s—but that broke up the momentum. I tried braiding the different timelines together, but it got confusing. I tried a lot of things! I ended up having to change the viewpoint as well as the structure, using an omniscient narrator to help make connections between past and present. The story itself stayed relatively constant throughout; it just took a long time to figure out how best to tell that story.

Much of the conflict in Everything I Never Told You involves longstanding miscommunication and misperceptions. What’s something you hope readers take from the novel back to their own lives?

CN: I hope readers will finish the book thinking about the ways they might misunderstand people close to them, and about the assumptions they might be making about others. We assume so much, all the time—we fill in a lot of gaps in conversation and relationships. We draw a lot of inferences about what it means when someone calls you or doesn’t, when someone gives you something or doesn’t, when someone comes to your birthday party or your brother’s funeral or your dance recital, or doesn’t. But we don’t always interpret those gestures and words correctly. It’s hard to say to someone, “Wait, what do you actually mean by that?” A lot of times it’s easier to hear things the way you want to hear them than to ask questions and listen.

On your website, you write that you grew up in a family of scientists. How did that influence your writing? When did you first think of becoming a writer?

CN: I always wanted to be a writer, but didn’t think it was an actual job you could do. So I spent most of my childhood and adolescence planning to write “on the side” while I held another job: paleontologist, astronaut, journalist, book editor. By the time I finished college, I was planning to get a Ph.D. in English, teach college literature, and write on the side, when a mentor suggested I think about an MFA instead. I had no idea such a thing even existed. And it wasn’t until years after I finished the MFA that I started thinking writing could be something I could do professionally.

I actually think that growing up in a family of scientists helped me become a better writer.  From my family, I learned a particular scientific mindset: to look closely at things that puzzle you, to find anomalies more revealing than the norms, to think about cause and effect.  Most important, I think science taught me to believe that there is a logic and a system to the universe, and that—if you try hard enough, and look closely enough—you can illuminate at least a small part of it.  All of that feeds into my fiction.  If you look at science in that way, it’s an ideal training ground for a writer.

What’s next on your writing horizon?

CN: I’m working on another novel that’s actually set in our mutual hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio.  I won’t say too much about it yet, as I’m superstitious about such things. But as you know, Shaker Heights is an interesting place: it’s racially integrated and very well off, yet of course there are still issues of race, class, and culture that affect the city. And it has a lot of quirks, and a real concern with appearance. I always tell people about the garbage collection—how you’re not allowed to bring garbage to the curb, but you have to leave it in the back for the mini garbage-scooters to pick up and ferry to the big garbage truck, so that the front of the street never looks messy.  It’s such a fascinating place, so the new book deals—so far, anyway—with a family living in Shaker, and a mother and daughter who move there from out of town and unintentionally start to shake things up a little bit.

My thanks again to Ms. Ng for her time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Ms. Ng, and Everything I Never Told You, on Ms. Ng’s website, www.celesteng.com. Follow Celeste Ng on Twitter: @pronounced_ing

Bostonians: You have two opportunities in July to hear Celeste Ng read from Everything I Never Told You!

July 23: BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH. 7:00 PM

279 Harvard Street
Brookline MA 02446

July 29: NEWTONVILLE BOOKS. 7:00 PM

10 Langley Road
Newton Centre
Newton, MA 02459

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Recommended Reading: Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

photo (97)I admired so much about Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You*: the seemingly effortless structure that passes seamlessly between decades; the rounded, careful characterizations; the gradual revelation of a loving family’s best-kept secrets.

When I first heard about Everything I Never Told You, I was in equal parts eager and nervous about reading it. Eager because the praise was already coming in, and because I recognized Ms. Ng’s name; we attended the same high school and edited the same high school creative arts magazine (four years apart; we’ve never met). And nervous because, given the book’s opening lines (“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”), I thought that I might be reading something akin to The Lovely Bones, and I wasn’t sure I had the emotional energy in reserve. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried.

Everything I Never Told You is a nuanced portrayal of the ways in which a family copes with a loss both profound and mysterious. It’s also an exploration of how that family came into being, and how the histories of parents shape their children. It’s a novel in which a skillful writer reveals that privates dramas — made of extraordinary-ordinary stuff, no skeletons in the attic — are astonishingly compelling, and astonishingly important.

In their small Ohio town, the Lees stand out as the sole Chinese American family, a distinction that causes difficulties for them, to say the least. James Lee is the son of immigrants (their story, given in brief, is both poignant and gripping, and made me want to hear more about them); Marilyn was raised by her mother and dreamed of becoming a doctor before marriage and motherhood derailed her plans. James respects his wife’s intellect, and did not deliberately keep her from a career; like so many of us, the Lees make their decisions about work and family with practical exigencies in mind and ideal scenarios too far out of reach.

The three Lee children are Nathan (Nath), Lydia, and Hannah. Nath looks forward to leaving for Harvard in the fall; Lydia struggles with her parents’ expectations; and little Hannah is at once nearly invisible and the one who sees best what’s going on around her.

One spring morning in 1977, the Lee family realizes that Lydia is missing. Once her body is recovered, each member of the family starts to look for answers, but their searching reveals just how much has been unspoken among them, and how difficult it will be to knit together an unraveled family.

Ms. Ng’s prose is gorgeous, gliding from character to character in a manner that reminded me of Ian McEwan’s style in, say, Atonement. Here’s one passage I loved:

For the first time, she wishes she were the sort of woman, like her mother, who carried a handkerchief. She would have pressed it to her face and let it filter air, and when she lowered it the cloth would be dirty pink, the color of old bricks. Beside her, Hannah knits her fingers. She would like to worm her hand onto her mother’s lap, but she doesn’t dare. Nor does she dare look at the coffin. Lydia is not inside, she reminds herself, taking a deep breath, only her body–but then where is Lydia herself? Everyone is so still that to the birds floating overhead, she thinks, they must look like a cluster of statues. (60)

I love the detail here, and the way Ms. Ng lights on these two sad figures for just a moment, to give us a sense of what a small moment of loss feels like, how it looks.

Everything I Never Told You is a novel that asks us to examine how we define our own success or happiness, to wonder what it means to belong (in all the senses of the word) and to try mightily to understand each other better. Highly recommended.

Coming Soon: An interview with Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Bostonians: You have two opportunities in July to hear Celeste Ng read from Everything I Never Told You!

July 23: BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH. 7:00 PM

279 Harvard Street
Brookline MA 02446

July 29: NEWTONVILLE BOOKS. 7:00 PM

10 Langley Road
Newton Centre
Newton, MA 02459