Celeste Ng’s books feature the hallmarks of classic mystery novels—a crime to be solved, a roster of suspects, chilling details that aren’t quite what they seem. Her bestselling debut, Everything I Never Told You, fixates on the strange circumstances surrounding a young woman’s death by drowning; a devastating act of suspected arson rages at the center of her new novel, Little Fires Everywhere. But while standard whodunits build momentum through intricately plotted twists and turns, Ng’s interest lies in the private emotional lives of people. Her novels may be page-turners that push toward a final revelation, but the suspense stems less from the who and the how than the why.
Ng’s interest in that persistent question—why?—helps to explain her attraction to the children’s classic Goodnight Moon. In a conversation for this series, she discussed how the subtle, mysterious illustrations have more in common with Christie and Conan Doyle than you might think, asking the careful reader to provide solutions to a series of confounding puzzles. Ultimately, the book’s structure helps illuminate Ng’s own creative process, the way she uses a central narrative enigma—a drowning, a fire—as an opportunity to uncover her characters’ hidden desires and secret histories.
In Little Fires Everywhere, the unwelcome presence of an itinerant artist and her daughter roils the staid community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, inflaming racial, cultural, and economic tensions that result in a suspicious fire. Ng received an MFA in writing from the University of Michigan; Everything I Never Told You won the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the American Library Association’s Alex Award. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and spoke to me by phone.
Celeste Ng: For the first three years of his life, my son insisted on hearing Goodnight Moon before bedtime. Like most babies, he was not a good sleeper by disposition—but reading seemed to help, and this book specifically became part of his whole wind-down ritual. By now, I have read Goodnight Moon literally over a thousand times. As I read it again and again, I started to wonder: Why is this the book everybody feels a child must have? Why is this the book you’re sent by all your relatives and friends, people who must know you already have a copy—but want to give you another one, just in case?
It’s a very odd book, after all. There is no real story. The story is: The rabbit goes to bed. That’s it. The text is just a list of items, and the artwork has no action in it. And yet, it really does capture something for us. Something more powerful than just pure nostalgia could explain.
If you imagine this book without the words that accompany the pictures, it would be a mystifying work—even a little bit terrifying. It’s creepy that there’s a tiger-skin rug. It’s creepy that there are these yellow and green–striped curtains on the wall. It’s all very surreal, when you think about it. And the more you look at the pictures, the stranger they get. There’s a copy of Goodnight Moon lying on the dresser, for instance, this weird metafictional reference to the very thing we’re reading. There are other allusions to different books by Margaret Wise Brown, too. The picture of a rabbit fishing with a carrot for a baby rabbit comes out of another of her books, The Runaway Bunny—which is itself on the bookshelf pictured here.
Then there’s the portrait that hangs over the bed: three little bears sitting on chairs, with a picture of a cow jumping over the moon in the background. Oddly, the little rabbit has a larger version of the same cow picture in his room. So many of the details have this subtle, almost unnerving strangeness. This is a baby rabbit, so why is there a black office telephone beside his bed? Why is a red balloon floating around? And why is the whispering old lady’s relationship to the child left so deliberately ambiguous?
As my son got older, he wanted to try and explain how the items in the room had gotten there. “Oh,” he’d say, “the balloon is there because maybe this rabbit was just at a birthday party earlier today.” That’s such a natural instinct—our minds are always trying to impose some kind of meaning. We instinctively resist the idea that these are just random objects, a bunch of stuff just lying around a room. Whether it’s a child or adult reader, the impulse is to invent stories that explain how the things in the room connect. We can’t help trying to answer the question why—which, for me, is the fundamental question of fiction.
When I was teaching, many of my students were beginning writers who were nervous about starting a story. To get them going, we’d play a kind of word-association game. I’d ask them to list two people, a location, two objects, an adjective, and an abstraction. I’d write everything on the board, then give them five minutes to try to work everything into the beginning of a story.
Somehow, they’d all be able to dive in right away, and everyone always brought out totally different material from the same details. I think Goodnight Moon works in a similar way: It presents you with a range of ambiguous details, asking you to make connections and supply cause and effect. After all, it’s not one of those baby ABC books that simply lists a bunch of isolated images. Instead, it reveals objects around the room in grouped little sequences—close-ups of the brush, the bowl of mush—before returning us to the larger room again, zooming back out so we can see each item in context. It keeps insisting on that whole, in a way, asking us to integrate the snapshots into some kind of narrative.
In this way, the book teaches you that you have to look twice. You’re shown a page with just the mouse on it, for instance, and then you begin to notice the way the mouse moves freely throughout the room. From there, you start to notice other changes that occur as the story unfolds—the hands are moving on the clock, the moon changes positions in the sky. That motion is part of what makes the illustrations so affecting. I loved math and science growing up, and it reminds me of what we did in calculus: When you take a derivative, you’re looking at the change between two points. That’s what makes a story, too—our sense of the way something changes over time.
In my own work, when I start off writing a scene, I don’t know which physical details are going to turn out to be meaningful. But, inevitably, certain images will stand out—you start to decide which ones are important as you go. When I’ve put an image in and it seems to be working, that's always a sign to me that I should go back and ask myself what it is about that image that grabbed me, and whether I can dig deeper into that, make it mean something more. In my first book, Everything I Never Told You, I noticed that eggs kept coming up. So I asked myself: Can I use those eggs again somewhere else? I started to think about the way eggs are fragile, but are also very nutritious, all these sorts of things. The appearance of eggs led to a larger thematic exploration, not the other way around. For me, images are where I start digging around to find the meaning.
One of the most fun things for me, as a writer, is when readers ask questions like: “Oh, I noticed that you have a lot of water and baptism imagery in your book. Did you do that on purpose?” Usually, the answer is that I didn’t do it on purpose at the beginning—but then once I realized I was doing it, I tried to use that to make an artistic point. I don’t really buy into Freudian psychology, but this is one example where I almost do. You feel like there are these connections your brain is making that you’re not aware of until you see it happen on the page.
I once heard Michael Byers—one of the professors at the University of Michigan, where I did my MFA—say that at a certain point, the book starts to be a collaborator with you. It’s almost like it starts to tell you how to write itself. I love the idea that, at a certain point, the book starts coming into tune, begins to resonate with itself. Part of what you do is you kind of listen for the note you’re hitting, as you try and find ways to bring the whole thing into resonance.
Everything I Never Told You was a book that really grew out of one image: I knew at the beginning that the main character, Lydia, was going to drown in this lake. Part of my job was to find out how she ended up there, like tracing a ball of yarn backwards. I made progress by trying to establish cause and effect: Lydia had these problems with her mother. But why? Well, her mother was always pressuring her. But why was her mother always pressuring her? Well, because she didn’t get to do these things when she was young. That makes the writing process sound very orderly, but it was actually an extremely messy and un-orderly process; I was very inefficient about it. I ended up moving past Lydia’s relationship with her siblings and parents into her parents’ relationship with each other, and their relationship with their own parents. I ended up writing histories of the parents’ lives, the stories of their childhoods, whole chapters that are no longer in the book. That was how I figured out the underlying dynamics at play between the characters, but ultimately the reader didn’t need to see all that material. In fact, the book is better off without those details spelled out so explicitly.
One of the things I like so much about Goodnight Moon is the way it leaves room for ambiguity. I wonder if one of the reasons that this book remained so popular, is that it exists in a kind of sweet spot: It gives you enough guidance to feel secure so that you’re not totally adrift. And yet, it also leaves enough space for you to make connections, to start to fill things in for yourself. It doesn’t try to give you a specific story. There’s no explanation of where the balloon came from, or why the phone is there. It provides a space to let your mind organize the details as it will.
I used to do my best writing really late at night. Where I was a little sleepy, and it was really quiet, and no one was emailing me. And everyone was else was asleep. I would write between 10:30 at night and maybe 2 in the morning. There was something about it where it was almost like I was getting ready to dream. As if my more rational, analytical self were almost napping. So much of writing is about finding ways to trick yourself into letting go, ways to lull that analytical part of your mind to sleep, and just plunge in—like that exercise I did with my students. It’s about just seeing where you end up, allowing yourself the freedom to put down a bunch of details, making connections your analytical self might throw out.
So it was a big transition to make once I had my son, because I really couldn’t write between 10:30 p.m. and 2 a.m. anymore. So I try to write in the morning now. It’s difficult if I get sucked into email, because it burns off the morning-ness, the dream-like quality of attention that’s still present when you first wake up. And when it’s gone, it's gone. I think that’s why so many writers get up, have their coffee, and get straight to work. They can’t speak to anyone, they can’t talk to their partners. They’ve learned they’ve got to go straight to their desk, or else they’ll lose that dream logic.
It can be scary to surrender to that more subconscious way of thinking, just the way it can be scary for a child to surrender to sleep. It’s unnerving to be unmoored like that. But maybe that’s why my son and countless other children have found Goodnight Moon so comforting. Maybe it’s because it mirrors that in-between state before sleep begins, when you finally let your mind wander, freely, from one thought to the next.