Note: The Celeste Ng event has moved from The King's English to the Wasatch Presbyterian Church, 1626 S. 1700 East. Date and time remain the same.
SALT LAKE CITY — It’s not a spoiler to tell you that in the climax of Celeste Ng’s latest novel, “Little Fires Everywhere,” the Richardsons’ house catches fire.
It may be the ending, but it’s also how the book begins.
That’s because Ng doesn’t want her readers to wonder whether the tension between the two main families in the book will eventually “ignite” (her pun, not ours). She wants them to wonder how.
“How did we get here? That was the interesting question for me,” Ng told the Deseret News in a recent phone interview ahead of her visit to The King's English Bookshop on May 17. “I like to give the reader a sense of where we're going so that they know from the beginning if this is a ride they want to take.”
“Little Fires Everywhere” started with Ng’s desire to write something about her hometown: Shaker Heights, Ohio, the planned community that sits roughly 9 miles east of Cleveland and serves as the book’s setting.
“I came up with the idea of this family who would be like the physical embodiment of the town, and then I tried to figure out what sort of situation would really unsettle them or show them all their blind spots,” Ng said.
That family became the Richardsons: rigid, rule-following Elena Richardson, her husband and their four children.
When free-spirited single mother Mia Warren rents a home from the Richardsons, Mia’s daughter, Pearl, and the four Richardson children strike up friendships.
But tensions begin building between the Warrens and the Richardsons. Those tensions only compound when the two families find themselves on opposite sides of a custody battle between another wealthy Shaker Heights family and a single mother who immigrated to Ohio from China.
The story is getting a small-screen adaptation on Hulu in an eight-episode limited series — which Ng said will begin filming in about six weeks — starring Reese Witherspoon as Elena Richardson and Kerry Washington as Mia Warren.
Ng said she’s been able to read scripts and sit in the writers room for the show and will hopefully get to be there for some filming.
“They're making some tweaks that I love that I think will bring new readers in, and even if you've read the book, you'll enjoy seeing which things are fleshed out more, which things are a little different,” Ng said.
Like Ng’s debut novel — “Everything I Never Told You,” which was set in the '70s — “Little Fires Everywhere" also takes place in a previous decade: the 1990s. It’s the time during which Ng lived in Shaker Heights, and it also provides a good setting for readers to consider attitudes toward race during that decade — for example, Lexie Richardson tells her siblings they’re lucky to live in Shaker Heights because “no one sees race here.”
“The '90s is sort of just far enough away that we can see it with some clarity, but it's also close enough that we remember it,” Ng said. “It forces us to reckon with, well, how far have we actually come? Have we actually changed that much?”
Ng said she believes it’s her job as a novelist to “raise questions for the reader and to unsettle the reader a little bit."
“I feel like that's actually the job of fiction: to sort of get the reader to fine-tune themselves,” Ng said.
While writing “Little Fires Everywhere,” Ng had to reconsider whether she wanted the narrative to read like a statement or a question, as well as her own feelings toward the characters and their actions.
“Even if I think I know what I think about a situation or topic or person, usually I have to look more closely, because if something seems simple, it usually means that I'm missing something,” Ng said. “This is particularly true, I think, in terms of characters with ‘Little Fires Everywhere.’”
Ng is currently writing a third book, one she plans to focus on more fully after she’s done touring for “Little Fires Everywhere.”
She said it will deal with many of the same themes — themes she’ll “probably keep coming back to” — as her first two books: family, race, relationships between parents and children, relationships between women, what we take with us from our history and what we pass on to our children.Comment on this story
As part of a multiracial family herself — Ng’s parents immigrated to Shaker Heights from Hong Kong, while her husband is white — Ng said she’s “always on the lookout” for stories about families like hers, comparing those stories to “a rare bird.”
“Hopefully they’ll become less rare,” she said.
If you go …
What: Celeste Ng's book signing and reading from “Little Fires Everywhere”
When: May 17, 7 p.m.
Where: Wasatch Presbyterian Church, 1626 S. 1700 East
How much: $20, which includes admission and a paperback copy of “Little Fires Everywhere.” A limited number of complimentary student tickets that don’t include a copy of the book are available with student ID on a first-come, first-served basis.