Celeste Ng's new novel is about two families in the heart of America who can't seem to see into each other's hearts. The Richardsons are a happy family with four children. "The soft smells of detergent and cooking and grass mingle in the entryway" of their lovely Ohio home, Ng writes.
Then, Mia Warren and her teenage daughter, Pearl, pull up with everything they own in their Volkswagen Rabbit, and rent the Richardsons' guest house. The two families become enmeshed in each other's lives in all ways. The result is Little Fires Everywhere.
Ng herself is from Shaker Heights, Ohio. "Writing about my hometown is a little bit like writing about a relative," she says. "You see all of the great things about them, you love them dearly, and yet you also know all of their quirks and their foibles."
Ng says the Shaker Heights community is its own character in the book, and like any character, "it's got its strengths, and it's got its weaknesses."
On the community of Shaker Heights
It's a suburb on the east of Cleveland and it's known for being very progressive, very affluent, and very racially diverse, which is actually the reason my parents chose to move there. Every house has a front lawn. The architecture is sort of carefully designed. And the whole community was sort of planned to be — almost a utopia.
On planning to be an integrated community
It was very deliberate. In the '50s I think there was an incident where someone had started an explosion at the house of black professional. And the community really at that point came together and decided that they wanted to try to actively integrate the community. That's an attitude that's continued up to the late '90s — and to now.
On how two families become intertwined because of their children
There are the parents that you're born to, and then there are the parents that you choose, and they're not always the same people. And so, in the novel, the Richardson children are drawn to Mia Warren because she's so different from their mother. She's a little bit of a free spirit — she's a free thinker, she's an artist. And likewise, Mia's daughter Pearl is drawn to Mrs. Richardson who's a pillar of the community. She's very grounded, she's a rule follower. In some ways, they're seeking out things that they don't get from their own mothers.
On Mia, who had previously always been on the move, finding herself sucked in to Shaker Heights
Mia's guiding principle as she's been moving around so much has always been: don't get involved and don't get attached. What happens in this case is she meets someone in Shaker Heights. ...
[She's] a Chinese-American woman, she's an immigrant, she's not very well off, she's a single mother. She feels she's unable to care for her baby and she leaves her baby at a fire house and she's basically given up all her rights to her child. ...
When Mia meets her, this woman has kind of gotten her life together and she kind of wants to get her child back, and, of course, that causes some complications.
On issues of race and class in adoption
One of the reasons that this adoption becomes so contentious is that the baby is a Chinese-American baby and the family that adopts her is a white couple. And this raises all sorts of questions about race — can a white couple raise an Asian-American baby properly? Is she going to be missing out on something? It also raises questions of class — you know, this working-class mother versus this very affluent professional couple in Shaker Heights. And so it touches on a lot of the things that Shaker Heights wants to handle perfectly, and of course it doesn't.
On whether she's hard on the adoptive couple in the book
I tried very hard in writing the book to show that this is a complicated situation. I think that right now our sort of natural sympathies are often with the biological mother. We tend to prioritize that — in not all cases, but in many cases.
Even as little as about 20 years ago, often our sympathies ran in the other direction. There was a case in the early '90s known as Baby Jessica where a baby was adopted and then the birth parents wanted her back and public sympathy at that time was almost completely with the well-off adoptive parents. So I think it does say something about our position — where we are as a society — who we tend to favor.
On whether she intended for readers to identify more with free-spirited Mia Warren than rule-following Mrs. Richardson
That's part of our national spirit. We tend to favor people who go out on their own, who strike out and defy convention. We're not a culture ... that celebrates conformity, or rule-following, or that kind of sacrifice — and there are cultures that are like that.
I think, though, that many of us have a little bit of Mrs. Richardson inside us — I know that I do. And one of the parts of the book that I hope will spark some conversation is sort of looking carefully at ourselves and recognizing the ways in which we might be conformist, or we might be rigidly holding onto things that we need to be flexible about.
Ian Stewart and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited the audio of this interview. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.