Celeste Ng is an American writer and author of three novels. Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, was published in 2017 and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. A television adaptation of the novel, starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, premiered in 2020.
Little Fires Everywhere is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and centers around two families—the mothers of these families especially. One family is upper-middle class with a “typical” suburban structure: a mom, a dad, and four kids; the other is a single mom, Mia, and her daughter, who are newcomers to the town.
In her conversation with Susan, Celeste discusses a flashback to how a young Mia first became interested in photography as a medium.
For more, visit bookexploder.com/episodes/celeste-ng.
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Are you listening to book explode her where others breakdown of passage from their work, to shows how they re I'm russification? Airway pen, I'm susan or lean today, I'm speaking with Celeste ang, author of little fires
beware, little fires everywhere is listings. Second novel. They came out in twenty seventeen.
Was named amazon's best novel of the year. It was in your time
number one best seller and it was turned into a tv, show, starring, reese, witherspoon and carry washington.
Story is set in sugar heights, which is a suburb of cleveland and it centres around two families, really the mothers of these families, especially
One. Family is sort of a quote typical, suburban family, a mom, a dad and for kids
The other is a single mom mia and her daughter, who were newcomers to the town and so Susan. The passage that you and less talk about is kind of
sighed the main story, it's really more have flash back into the backstory if one of the characters,
does this was really an interesting passage talk about because it is about how one of the characters me
who is an artist how she developed her technique,
and a lot of what I was curious about was: how do you develop an idea of how one of your character,
develops as an artist, Sid sort of odin,
a sting doll kind of problem, and it was really interesting to talk to Celeste about how she did that here. Soliciting in conversation with this is my first question is: when did you write this section? I tried to write the book linearly and the book is more
sleep in chronological order, with one exception, which is that there are these two giant chapters of back story in the middle of the book, and I can't
I held off writing this as long as I could. Until I got to the point where I needed to sort of explain to myself how these characters had gotten into this position and how MIA in particular had become this person, because it's right at the point of the book, we're learning about some choices that she made. That or maybe morally question of.
we'll say- and so I told myself well- I'm just gonna write this for myself. Maybe it won't make it in the book, and I wrote these very long sex
and then I felt like they belonged in the book, and I thought can you do that? Can you pause the book and just have about?
e pages of back story in the middle and then
resume where you were before, and I dont know I so I tried to get away with it, and I like to that idea, and I thought well. Let me see if I can try and do that, so I think of the back stories being the hinge where we learn how she became a photographer, how she discovered photography for the first time and when you learn these things about mia
Will you rejoined the main story with its new understanding of who she is and where she comes from and more of a picture of why she does the thinks she's doing right right at the junk shop in town she spotted an old brownie star flex, sitting in the corner of the front window. The camera had lost.
Its flash and next trap, but the shop owner assured her it would work and as soon as mere flipped up the little silver hood and saw the junk shop reflected in blurry miniature in the lens. She wanted it immensely at what point, and why did you decide? She was gonna, be
photographer. Well, I knew that mia was going to be a visual artist of some kind, and photography was one that I kept coming back to partly because
It seems like it would be so objective to an outsider rate. We see photograph. We assume that's what really happened. It was real rain. But if you ve taken photographs,
no that actually you're constantly making choices about what's in the frame was not in the frame. How your changing your perspective, what's in focus. What's not, and I liked the idea that mia might play
Is this very consciously and she might sort of take something that people would assumed to be a truth telling thing and use it for her own purposes? That seem to me to fit really well with her character. With the camera dangling
from two of her mothers, old, silk scarves nodded together. She began to take photos, odd photos to her parents, eyes, rundown houses, breasted out cars, objects discarded on the side of the road. Some people take photographs and then other people take photographs and then they do come.
Hush work or they manipulate them where they change them in some way, and that to me really seem like something that she would love as a person who's interested in transforming herself. One of the interesting things was that you had to invent the art that she was inventing. The photographs were only a vague approximation,
of what she wanted to express and she soon found herself not only altering the prince with everything from ballpoint pen to splashes of laundry detergent, but experimenting with a camera itself, bending its limited range to her desires. So tell me a little bit about the research. You did an I'd love to hear about the choices to make her art the way it turns out in the book
You're, creating the art was really fun and a kind of fun that we don't always get to have in writing. You know we think it's like there's this bolt of inspiring
Then you sit down and you start typing and alone
it for me is sort of more nuts and bolts figuring out. How am I going to get this character from one place to another? How is the plot gonna move forward and creating the art was really fun, so I would read books about the history photography and then I started to look at what artists today were doing to sort of manipulate images and found that the
her artist, doing all kinds of interesting things: slicing images into thin ribbons and kind of bending those that you get a weird three d effect changing
negatives and making prince indifferent surfaces, and then I started thinking about what are all the ino techniques that let me I could use. What would her art be? What is she really interested in as an artist
and what I came up with were images of metamorphosis of change and especially of transformation of one thing being juxtaposed with are being transformed into another.
I got that little sort of mental writer click. That's almost an hoof, as happens to you, a sort of silk
Just and then you have to kind of go back and do some therapy on yourself in your writing and figure out. Why, ok? Why does that seem so right to me? What is that? Few, like the right thing,
and I realized. Of course, this makes total sense, because this is a woman who, without giving any big spurs, the book, has kind of reinvented herself there's been a past part of her life and its very different from where she is now and she's very consciously made a break in her life, and I think she's really interested in that idea of whether you can change your is that possible. So even in the passage she's got
these three photographs of birds corpse on the sidewalk. This particular image came because I have a whore
slash, morbid fascination with animals that you find dead in the suburbs because it happened. So often we don't really look at them.
something that I feel like as a human. I shouldn't just turn away from. I should actually kind of look added and sort of appreciate that there are these animals have to share our space, but I imagine
it her as a little girl being interested in this idea of? How is this thing going to change funny thing to be taking a picture of the clerk at the photo matt remarked as he handed over an envelope of prints. That said, had contained three images taken over successive days of a bird's corpse on the sidewalk, and he wondered briefly not for the first time if the right girl was a little touched in the head, we'll be right back with more after this.
Was this particular passage easy to write, challenging to write it can really easily? But I did all of these things in the service of trying to write this passage. I actually got this camera. They ordered it off
today, we had all pictures and family albums from brownie cameras, and I know my sister had one and that camera is gone. So I went.
In for an old one, because it felt really important to have that physical object actually play with it
and so once it had arrived? I was playing with it
I don't think I'd ever had one in my hands before and the one I got has indeed lost it's flash and it has lost its neck strap. So I had to improvise something which is where that detail came from with the camera dangling from two of her mother's old, silk scarves knotted together and one of the things that surprised me was. I didn't, I didn't know how to use the camera. It has this little lid that folds up
and there's what looks like a big magnifying glass on the top, and I couldn't see anything and so then I was going to the internet. It didn't come with an instruction manual because it's so old and I'm googling. How do I use this and I discovered that because it didn't have its neck strap, that's why I didn't know how to use it. The next rep actually holds it against your belly right, and that holds the lens at the right place. So, if you're looking through it up close your eye, you can't see it
you think it was as interesting process of me physic
glee in my house trying to figure out how to use this camera, maybe the same way that mia would have- and I tried taking pictures within it
lot harder than I thought it was going to be because you couldn't
anything with it. You can't focus, you can't fix anything right kind.
You have to kind of set everything up and hope that what you're seeing is what you're gonna get and then you have to, of course, send the photos
He developed and then, after a while, they come back and you see whether what you captured matched what you saw. What was in your mind, I think, there's a nice parallel to
rating process. There too,
you see this sort of abuse.
this new or whatever it is, and I feel
at least when I'm writing it down that I'm basically just kind of hacking. This poor thing to bits and what I end up with, is very loose approximation of what it was that I wanted to get and tell me a little bit about physically. What happens with your writing? Do you write longhand, you outline. Do you just sit down at a computer and
brain storm, I always rate at the laptop, because I can type a lot faster than I can hand rate, and I find that if I may
in writing. I lose things like. I just can't keep up with my brain and that's frustrating to me. So,
If I'm really in the flow of things I'll sit down at the computer. I usually start off by rereading what I did the day before, just to kind of get myself in the flow or to horrify myself and say: oh god, I have to fix that.
and then I'll start typing, and I have a suspicion that I'm constantly sort of writing and then retracing in writing in retracing it's. Like I'm doing the back stitch, we had yeah you that along
I'm going like sewing class, the little scope. Will you go forward a little bit and then you go back over what you did and then you go forward again and back over what you did. I think that's how it is, but you know when you writing, you don't always noticed how much you are racing and how much are changing amateur jumping around yeah. I think the
word manipulation is a very important word through the book, and you mention it here with
me twelve exposures on a role she learned to be careful and composing shots and with no controls, no aperture control, no focus.
He learned to be creative in the way she manipulated her camera and her seem to me that word has of the magic resonance.
yeah. I think you're right. That is, that aspect of photography that we were getting out before that we think of it. As being this very
honest or very objective. We think about like photo journalism where we're like. Oh well, that's what happened. Here's the proof and
mia immediately from the beginning, I think is interested in how she can kind of fake you out a little bit about how she can make things look different than they actually did. She does it in her photography, obviously in stressing the image changing it, there's one where it sort of a multiple exposure where she she makes a woman look like she's, a spider by changing
the image and having been a multiple exposures of her arms, but she also does sort of manipulate people as well, and so it is a sort of theme and that I
that manipulation also does require a certain creativity. It requires you to be able to
visualize, where you're going and then visualize a more circuitous path to get people to do what it is that you want them to do. Yeah
I mean when I write, I often have a few words that become the sort of undercurrent through the whole book and to me, manipulation was very much that word. That was a bit of a a drum beat through the book, yeah negatively and positively it's about transformation. Manipulation is transformation, and it's an interesting
Im, assuming the roots are having to do with your hand, yeah. It has something to do with the idea of having your hand on it. It is also a question of power and sort of that question is sort of like,
whose ino steering this situation the way that it's gonna go.
That is for me. One of the things that I was consciously trying to explore in this book is that sort of question of power. Interestingly, you could say that that's also the novelists own experience with a book which, as you have your hand in it, your controlling the fates of these imaginary characters. So there is a kind of wonderful, is sort of mega quality to it that elevates the book in an interesting way, since I think so,
books are in some way about the active creation. I think so I remember in grad, school sort of having my mind, blown via a array,
you're saying you know in some ways there's a level of met, a fiction in every piece of fiction to a certain extent, because,
we work of fiction in some way is about the active telling as well as what its telling about as the writer. You are kind of very carefully presenting all the information about these characters and this story to your reader
you can kind of feel in some ways what the writers again
That is an agenda as such a negative connotation in again, suggesting that its manipulating you're that they're trying to get you to do something. But it's true when you're done
the story. There is something that you want, whether it's just to tell the story chronologically, whether it's till quickly, whether is to build suspense
whatever it is, you can tell if the writer is sort of in control of the story. The third
going and that they are very deliberately telling it to you and it's one of the rich
and said I wanted to use an omniscient voice in this book. To give you the sense that there was somebody who was very consciously shaping this picture.
For shaping the story and doling out these pieces of information and the order that they felt you needed them.
to me. It was really wonderful meshing of the act of storytelling with this story. What I think I was thinking about when I wrote this was about the sort of creation of art,
which is always going to be subjective. You might read around what we're showing you, but we are presenting a particular thing: we're composing a scene as much as this photographs and now you're suggesting reading this passage from little fires everywhere.
at the junk shop in town she spotted in old, brownie, star flax sitting in the corner of the front window. The camera had lost its flash and next trap, but the shipowner assured her it would work and as soon as me, I slipped up the little silver hood and saw the junk shop reflected in blurry miniature in the lens she want
it immensely she dipped into the cat shaped bank where she saved her allowance and began to carry the camera everywhere.
nor the manual suggestion that she write the could at company for its helpful book how to make good pictures and went by instinct alone. With the
camera dangling from two of her mothers old, silk scarves nodded together, she began to take photos, odd photos to her parents, eyes, run down. Houses rested out cars objects discarded on the side of the road funny thing to be: taking a pig
drove the clerk at the photo. Matt remarked ass. He handed over an envelope of prince that set. It contains three images taken over successive days of birds corpse on the sidewalk, and he wondered briefly not for the first time. If the right girl was a little touched in the head.
For me, however, the photographs were only a vague approximation of what she wanted to express and she
and found herself not only altering the prince with everything from ballpoint pen to splashes of laundry detergent, but experimenting with a camera itself. Bending its limited range to her desires, the star flex, like all brownies, allowed. No focusing the shuttle cocked automatically to avoid double exposures, which the manual build as a convenience for the amateur. All you had to do was
of that you could do peak into the viewfinder and press the shutter. Instead of holding the camera level against her chest per the instructions me attempted at different angles: nodded her makeshift
traps higher or lower. She draped silk scarves in wax paper over the lens she tried shooting in fog in heavy rain, and the smoke filled lounge of the bowling alley, waste of money,
her mother sniffed when MIA brought home. Yet another envelope of blurred and greeny photos with each roll of film. However,
I begin to understand more and more how a photograph was put together, what it could do and what it could not just how far you could stretch and twist it though she did not know it at the time. All of this was training her to be the photographer. She would become.
with only twelve exposures on a role she learned to be careful, composing, her shots and with no controls, no aperture control, no focus. She learned to be creative in the way she manipulated her camera and her scene.
Little, fires everywhere is available in hard cover paper back and audio books. It was adapted into a limited television series which can wash
You can visit us at, but explode or dot com for more information. This episode was produced by few about
Julia patera susan and myself are production assistant is mary, don't raincoat,
she created the book exploded logo are episode. Our work is by polish action. Can I made the shows theme is book exploded
is a proud member of radio topeka from pr x, a network of independent listener, supported artists on the podcast, find out more at radio topeka dot fm. I'm rishi case your way
and I'm susan orlean thanks for listening
Radio do the.
Transcript generated on 2023-06-16.