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On this episode of Unlocking Us

My conversation with Celeste Ng is the first of two episodes on Little Fires Everywhere, where I’ll cover the book and the series. We talk about the writing process, the stories that we tell, and the stories that define us. We also cover how our hometowns shape us, how parenting is a shame minefield, and how we all have the power to mourn moments even while we’re in them. Celeste also fills us in on what she thinks about the series and what it felt like watching Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington create a show from her novel. I love this episode as a reader, as a writer, and as an observer of what it means to be human.

About the guest

Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng is the bestselling author of the novels Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere, both of which have been translated into over 30 languages. Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, was a #1 New York Times bestseller, a #1 Indie Next bestseller, and Amazon’s Best Fiction Book of 2017. It was named a best book of the year by over twenty publications, has spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list, and has been adapted into a limited series for Hulu, starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Celeste’s writing has been featured in the New York Times, The Guardian, and many other publications. Among other honors, she is the recipient of the Pushcart Prize, the Hopwood Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Celeste grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, and earned an AB from Harvard University and an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan).

Show notes

Little Fires Everywhere: A Novel by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere: A Novel by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere is a 2017 novel by American author Celeste Ng. It is her second novel and takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio where Ng grew up. The novel is about two families living in 1990s Shaker Heights who are brought together through their children. Named a Best Book of the Year by: People, The Washington Post, Bustle, Esquire, Southern Living, The Daily Beast, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Audible, Goodreads, Library Reads, Book of the Month, PasteKirkus ReviewsSt. Louis Post-Dispatch, and many more. Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood—and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.

Production by Cadence13


Brené Brown: Hi. I’m Brené Brown and this is Unlocking Us.


BB: Okay, y’all, this is Little Fires Everywhere week. Not just this episode, but this week. We have two episodes. The first one is with Celeste Ng who wrote the book. The second is with Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon who both star in the series on Hulu and executive produced the series. I am a huge fan of this book and a huge fan of the series. So first I talked to Celeste Ng. My favorite bio of hers is really her Twitter bio that just says, “Fiction writer, science nerd, ex-Clevelander, embarrassingly sincere. Novels: Everything I Never Told You, Little Fires Everywhere.” Of course, a bio by a writer. No question. She is actually the author of two novels, Everything I Never Told You, which I’m just starting because of how much I loved Little Fires Everywhere.

BB: Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, and Amazon’s number one Best Book of 2014. It was also named Best Book of the Year by a dozen publications. Little Fires Everywhere was published by Penguin Press in September 2017. It’s also a New York Times bestseller, Amazon number two Best Book and Best Fiction Book of 2017, and it was the winner of several awards. Celeste grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Shaker Heights, Ohio, which as you’ll see in this podcast, I believe Shaker Heights is just one of the main characters of Little Fires Everywhere. God, it’s such a good book and it’s such a good series.

BB: Celeste graduated from Harvard University, she has her MFA from the University of Michigan, and she won the Hopwood Award. Her fiction essays have appeared everywhere: The New York Times, One Story, The Guardian. She’s also a recipient of the Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Tuck in, get your walking shoes on, however you become one with Unlocking Us podcast, and meet Celeste Ng. It’s such a fun conversation. I loved it as a writer, and I loved it as a reader and a watcher.


BB: Thank you, Celeste, for being on Unlocking Us.

Celeste Ng: Thank you so much for having me.

BB: I have a million questions for you. It would be so much more helpful if you could download me into your brain.

CN: [chuckle] We’ll just attach a cable to one end of my head and put the other end in your head and it’ll just go straight across.

BB: I need to see how you think.

CN: I wish I knew because it would certainly make my future writing processes a lot easier if I could figure out how I wrote this novel and my first one, and then try and do it again. What I’m learning is that every project seems to be its own completely different animal, and I feel like I have to start from the ground up in learning what the story is and how the story’s put together, and who the characters are. So, it’s sort of a mystery to me as well. It’s the sort of thing that I think I just learn by doing.

BB: It’s interesting because I guess I’m getting ready to start my maybe sixth or seventh book. I’m turning it in this year, and nothing’s the same and everything’s the same. What’s constant is that it’s a new process and that, I guess experience has taught me, given me some grace that I know I’ll get through it. That’s the only difference.

CN: I think that’s it. Experience has sort of given me faith that it is possible. It’s like the earlier books are proof of concept, but this one is sort of this whole other beast where I’m like, “Okay, so I thought I knew what I was doing there, but actually it goes differently, so we’ll throw that out the window, but I know it’s possible in theory to write a book. I know it’s possible, in theory, to solve these plot problems and these structural problems, I just don’t really remember how it’s done.” And so I feel like I’m still sort of fumbling around as I’m trying to work on the next project. I know I learned something; I just don’t know that it’s directly applicable to what the next thing is. It seems to be the mystery of writing.

BB: So before we get into Little Fires Everywhere, first of all, I gotta tell you, that’s an unforgettable book.

CN: Thank you.

BB: That’s an unforgettable book. One cannot get the dialogue, the scenes, the emotion… I can’t shake it. Sometimes I want to shake it because some of it’s hard as hell, but you can’t shake this book. And I’ve just now ordered your first one, so I’m dying to jump in. Before we get into the book itself, let me talk to you as a writer. I have mad crazy respect for fiction writers. How is that done, exactly? How do you plant seeds that are going to grow into something later that you know you’re going to grab? Is that all intentional?

CN: It’s always intentional, but it doesn’t happen in the order that it happens on the page, I think.

BB: What does that mean?

CN: For me, a lot of what it is is, I think it is a lot like getting to know a person in real life. And so this is where I have huge respect for non-fiction writers, because I go, “How do you make a coherent story out of life, which is inherently messy, which doesn’t always have the neat resonances that we want in fiction, which doesn’t always resolve itself. Where there aren’t always clear cause and effects?” In fiction, I love it because I’m like, “Well, I can just change that.” I can change somebody’s backstory so that their future makes sense. And in non-fiction writing, I’m always amazed at how people manage to explain and pull together the threads of what’s really happened while sticking to the facts. And for me, when I’m writing a character, when I’m writing a plot, I start off maybe the same way that an interviewer would start interviewing a subject. You say, “Okay, what’s your name? What do you do? Where are you from? Where’d you grow up? What’s your job? Do you like your job? How did you get into that job?”

CN: And as you start to know more about them, you start to understand who this person is, and you get a sense of what their story is and what their issues are. You go, “Oh, well, what made you interested in becoming a cattle rancher? That’s a really unusual profession. Oh, well, okay, so your dad taught you a lot about the outdoors. What was your relationship with him like?” And you start to get a sense of what’s formed this person into who they are. And that’s how I think, as every journalist that I’ve talked to explains it, that’s how they get to figure out what the story is. I do the same thing as a fiction writer. I think, “Why would this person do this? Who is this person? What’s their backstory? What are the memories that shaped them?” And only once I’ve written out a lot of that can I then go back and go, “Oh, okay. Your relationship with your father, with your sister, or that thing you didn’t get is going to cause you to do this other thing in the past.”

CN: And I can then sort of go back and revise, and it’s only in the process of revision that I go back and plant the seeds, as you were saying. I’ve gotta sort of see what the whole story is, and then I can go back and put the trail of breadcrumbs in for the reader to follow. The benefit is that for the reader, it looks super seamless, but on my end, it’s very messy and I feel like I’m moving all over the place until it’s done.

BB: So are you going… This is so interesting to me. We’re in COVID right now and so I’m here by myself in my house. But if someone was here, like Lauren, our producer or someone from my team, they’d be like, “Okay, too inside baseball. Stop talking about writing.” But I can’t.

CN: Like, “This is too wonky.” Oh, so she can’t stop you.

BB: No, they can’t stop me because… So, are you saying that you write back and forth and future and past in memory and present while you’re writing these books?

CN: Yeah, I don’t write in the order that the pages are. I’m sure there are writers out there who start at page one and they just move straight through to the end and it’s done. But for me, I’m always moving back and forth. I’m going, “Okay, here’s the character. What happens next? What happens next?” The traditional question of fiction. And then at a certain point, I always find myself going into the past and going, “Well, why did they do that? How did they become this person? What’s the backstory of this gesture or this motion or this action that they did?” And so I’ll go and I’ll write what happened before. And then what happens at the end of my first draft, which is a term I use really loosely, I feel like it’s like I’ve generated a whole bunch of puzzle pieces. And I think most of them go into the finished picture, but I don’t know what the picture is, and some of the pieces that I made maybe actually don’t go in this puzzle at all.

CN: And I have no idea what order they’re supposed to go in, I’ve just generated all these pieces. And then the process of subsequent drafts is figuring out which pieces fit together. What’s the whole picture that I’m making? Maybe these pieces don’t actually belong in this puzzle at all. But what I’m always doing is I’m writing pieces of the story and then I have to figure out how to tell the story once I know what the story is.

Okay. Undergrad at Harvard, right?

CN: Yes.

BB: What did you study?

CN: I studied English. English and American Literature and Language, I think, is the official title of the concentration as they call it at Harvard.

BB: And then MFA?

CN: And then I got an MFA in prose writing at the University of Michigan.

BB: But where did you get the therapeutic experience that you…


BB: No, really. I’m asking you as someone that has a lot of background in that. Where did you get this?

CN: I’ve always been really interested in psychology; I think because I’ve always been really interested in people and what makes them tick. So I took a psychology class when I was in high school. At Shaker Heights High School, you can take Psychology as a senior. It’s sort of an intro level, and I thought it was fascinating. I took some history of psychology classes and things like that as electives when I was in college just to understand. I’ve been to therapy myself, and it’s something that I want to be sort of open about because I feel like there’s still a big stigma around going to see a therapist.

BB: Yeah, totally.

CN: And I actually feel like pretty much everybody would probably benefit from going to see a therapist, and I wish it was something that was universally available. And then in grad school as well, for an elective I took a class in child psychopathology. It was with a friend of mine who wanted to become a child psychologist, and in fact is now a child psychologist. We had to take a class that was not in the English department and that was not in the Writing department, and she said, “Come take this class with me.” And I said, “Okay.” And it was just really interesting to learn about the ways that people tend to think, the ways that what we go through shape who we become, all of that sort of stuff.

CN: So I’ve done some formal learning about it, but a lot of it just comes from observing people, talking to people, thinking about what they’re like. I tend to be an introvert and a shy person myself, and so when I am at a party, my usual mode of operation is to stand off to the side and listen to the conversation and not participate a lot. But I’m constantly listening to what people are saying, reading their signals, trying to figure out who they are. That’s sort of a mode of survival for a shy person to read other people’s emotions.

BB: Completely.

CN: I think a lot of that has helped me sort of figure out why people might behave the way that they behave in fiction.

BB: It’s interesting because I guess I would explain what I do as understanding the connection between how we think, feel and behave, and Little Fires Everywhere was such a master class in that.

CN: Thank you. That means a lot, actually, from someone with your experience.

BB: It was a painful master class at times, and also hopeful at times. So I want to dig into… I could talk to you about the writing piece forever, and I think it’s interesting to the folks who listen, because a lot of us are writers and we’re all storytellers, because humans are meaning-making species. And I think also what you said is really true. I became a pattern hunter around thinking, feeling and behavior as a means of survival; just as someone who wanted to fit in and who didn’t. There’s something deeply accurate and uncovering about the way you write about people. So here’s what my weird plan is. I have all these quotes from your book that freaking did everything from light me on – No pun intended – light me on fire, to make me want to not get out of bed. I want to read them to you, which is always weird to have someone read your work to you.

CN: It’s fun too though, to hear what lines resonate with other people, because sometimes they are the lines that resonated with me when I was writing them, and sometimes they’re lines that I really didn’t expect, and I find this fascinating.

BB: Okay, well, good, I’m glad. Because that’s kind of the plan. Alright, so I think what was hard and true and shocking and revelatory for me about the book, and then later the series on Hulu, there were a couple of things. Perfectionism, motherhood, niceness as a sucky, sorry-ass anti-racism tool. Niceness is just not a tool for anti-racist work.

CN: Yeah. But so often deployed as well.

BB: And so often deployed as that. So let’s take a look. So I’m going to read this from Little Fires Everywhere. “All her life she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly. A breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next like an Olympic torch. Or perhaps to tend to it carefully like an eternal flame, a reminder of light and goodness that would never, could never, set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled, domesticated, happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration. This philosophy had carried her through life, and she had always felt had served her quite well. Of course, she’d had to give up a few things here and there, but she had a beautiful house, a steady job, a loving husband, a brood of healthy and happy children. Surely that was worth the trade.”

CN: And you want me to just talk about the quote and where it came from and…

BB: God bless America. “That passion, like fire, is a dangerous thing.”

CN: Yeah, I think as Americans, we have this idea about ourselves where we’re like, “You’re supposed to follow your dreams and you’re supposed to be yourself” and so on. And that’s true up to a point. What we tell, especially kids and especially young women now, we’re like, “You can be anything you want to be, just lean in, do all those things.” But the truth is that if you go past a certain point, and it shifts depending on who you are, people will start to go, “Okay, that’s a little too much.” It’s like, “Oh, you’re supposed to be… ”

BB: Too far, too much.

CN: Too far. And I think most women have experienced this in some way. You’re supposed to be confident. Well, not that confident, now you sound bossy. You’re supposed to speak your mind, but now you sound a little shrill. You get this sense, I think, as you become a woman in our society that there’s this very narrow range and you’re supposed to hit right in the middle. And anything below that, you’re not trying hard enough so it’s your fault. And anything that’s a little too much, well, now you’re making people uncomfortable so that’s your fault too. I sort of thought about this bind that Elena Richardson, who’s the viewpoint character in that quote, is sort of thinking about, that she does have these ambitions and yet she’s also sort of been told and feels that maybe she’s not supposed to go too far. You’re supposed to be ambitious, but not too much because that could be dangerous. And you’re supposed to believe in social causes, but you don’t want to be a fanatic, so you want to do it in a very decorous sort of way.

CN: I do think it has a lot to do with her being a product of the suburbs, that she grew up in this suburb, and she was raised in this suburb and she’s got roots there. And it would be true of any suburb that it’s the space where you think you can have it all, where you can be kind of in the middle. You’re close to the city, but you’re not in the city. Because maybe that’s too “urban” in all of its coded meanings. But you’re still close to the city, so you’re not out in the “country”, with all of those coded meetings. The idea that in the suburbs you have space of your own, and yet theoretically you still have neighbors. There’s this idea that in some ways you can have your foot in every sort of territory. You can have the best of all possible worlds and none of the downsides. And none of that is true. But it’s the space where we think we can be moderate, and I think for Elena Richardson, that’s really true, and particularly for Shaker Heights. It’s a place that really, I think, wants to position itself as being idealistic, but moderately so. And so that’s, I think, a lot of the viewpoint. That’s sort of her reason for being, that’s her whole sort of ethos, that passage that you just read.

BB: “Passion, like fire, is a dangerous thing.” All the fire metaphors and analogies… The whole book was smoking. By the time I was done, I was like, “Oh my God, I get it.”

CN: And I have to admit that I didn’t do that consciously in the first draft.

BB: What?

CN: When I gave this manuscript to my agent, it didn’t have a title. And she said, “Great, I think it’s ready to send to your editor, but you need to put a title on it.” And she made me go through the book and list all of the phrases that I thought could work as a title, and so I had about three pages of them. And the one that we settled on was Little Fires Everywhere, and it didn’t strike me until we were going through that list. So the book was basically done at that point. It needed revisions but it was in its basic shape. I didn’t even realize until that point how many fire images there are in the book. That it works really well as a metaphor, not only for the trouble that they’re having, but also for the passions that they have that in some ways can get out of control.

CN: Fire is… Essentially, it’s a tool. It can be something that’s really destructive or it can be something that is really useful and maybe even productive, in that image of the forest fire or the prairie fire that burns everything down and enriches the soil. It is sort of this double-edged sword for all of the characters and their relationship to it. We’re drawn to fires and we also fear them. It just ended up working really well, and now I can’t imagine the book having a different title, but I didn’t realize how many fire metaphors there were in the book. So that’s something for the subconscious, I guess.

BB: Yeah, what’s interesting too is I would say a lot of the prose in the book is flammable. You’re waiting for a spark to hit some of these passages, because you know that it is… I hate to… Everyone who knows me knows I’ll work a metaphor until people start crying, but you are waiting for a spark to hit some of the kindling in these passages, because you’re like, “This is one spark away from an unstoppable place, what’s happening right here.” These microaggressions, these… I don’t even know that you can call them microaggressions that happen in this book. Maybe in the ’90s they were microaggressions, right?

CN: I think so. They’re the sorts of things that you can, again, say are maybe not intended to be aggression, so in that sense they’re microaggressions. But “micro” makes it seem like they’re small, and I know that a lot of people don’t like the term because of that. But I think if we’re defining that as something that is aggressive but isn’t intended to be, the book is full of them. And life is generally full of them. For anybody who’s in a position of less power, you are so aware of the position that you’re in. And people who are in power, by definition, are not aware of the power that they have so often.

BB: There’s a quote from Carl Jung that I came across, I think, when I was getting, during my doctoral work that I had my daughter in the middle of my PhD program, and it was met with very mixed feelings from “Congratulations” to “Gosh, we thought you were going to be somebody.” So it was very mixed.

CN: “Why would you do this to yourself?”

BB: “Why would you do this to yourself?” Yeah. “You really had potential.” And I remember this quote from Carl Jung that we had studied Jungian stuff in some class, and it said, “The greatest tragedy of a child is the unlived life of a parent.” Tell me about that with Mia and Elena. Tell me about your thinking about that. Did you think about that? Maybe not that quote, but that idea.

CN: I did think about that idea. I hadn’t heard that quote, and I like it a lot. And if you’re about to read my first book, I think you’ll see a lot of resonance in that first book as well.

BB: Oh, good.

CN: It’s something that I think about myself. I love my life, I love my son, I cannot imagine life without him. But I think that every parent also goes, “Oh, my life would have been really different, I’m not saying better or worse necessarily, but just different if I had taken a different route, if I had not had a child, if I had had a different child, if any number of things were different, but having a child is a big change in your life.” And I started writing my first novel before I became a mother, and then I finished writing it after I had had my son. And I think that experience really did bring home for me just what a big change in life that was, and just that you always have to give something up in order to get something else. It’s the sort of thing that people… People don’t like to say, “Well, I had to give up X to have my child.” We want to say you can have it all, but the truth is you do have to give up certain things.

CN: And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s not even, certainly not necessarily the wrong thing. Likewise, if you had wanted to go and, I don’t know, become an Arctic explorer, climb Mount Everest, you might have to give up other things like having children. There’s always a trade-off, and it’s something that I think about a lot now that I am a parent. And I am still a daughter, and I see my mother the way that she was when I was younger, and the life that she’s led differently now. I realized why she made some of the decisions that she did, because now I can see things through, closer to her perspective.

CN: And to go, “Okay, well, you needed to get X done, and so that’s why we didn’t do this.” Or, “I needed this, and I see now why you took this job instead of that job.” You start to see just that there’s always a trade-off. And so in both novels, particularly Little Fires Everywhere, I find myself just thinking a lot about what it means to be a mother, and how you reconcile with the things that you got to have or you didn’t get to have, and how much of that ends up being carried forward on to your children, for better or for worse. I don’t think any mother really intends to put those sorts of expectations on her child necessarily, but you can’t help when you’re a parent from having certain expectations of your child, even if they’re very positive. Like, “I want your life to be better than my life” in whatever ways you see better.

BB: Of course.

CN: In theory, that’s probably what every parent would say. But the truth is that you are a different person from your child. Your circumstances are probably going to be quite different from your child’s, and you may not be the best judge of what’s better or worse for your child, and that’s a really hard thing to reconcile with as a parent. I reconcile with that on a daily basis, as I think most parents do. You’re like, “But I think this would be better for you.” And they’re like, “Yes, but I think this thing would be better for me. I think it would be much better if I got to play Minecraft right now than if I did X, Y, and Z chore that you gave me.”

CN: And many, many other situations that are much harder to parse out. You’re like, “What is going to be better for you?” And you don’t know. And you don’t get a do-over. So that’s the terrifying thing about being a parent. And I wrote both books as I worked through this experience of motherhood, and it’s a lot of what I think about, and I’ve been so glad that it resonates with other people. It’s been a reminder of like, “Oh right, we’re all trying to figure this out as best we can.”

BB: Yeah, and it’s interesting because I think I always talk about from my research, parenting is a shame minefield.

 CN: That’s so true.

BB: Yeah, and we’re so shaming to other parents because we’re the most likely to shame others in areas where we feel the most vulnerable to shame.

CN: It’s absolutely true.

BB: So where we feel full of self-worth, we usually don’t judge and shame others. When we’re scared to death that we’re making colossal mistakes, we’re very quick, because embedded in shame and judgment is rank ordering. And so… speaking of parenting, I want to read this quote. Okay. “To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person. Your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her. Layered in her face was the baby she had been, the child she had become, and the adult she would grow up to be. And you saw them all simultaneously like a 3D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.”

CN: Yeah, I think about this every time…

BB: Oh, God.

CN: Every time I look at my son, who is in this phase now where I just feel like about every 30 to 40 minutes, he gets slightly larger. I feel like he’s growing so fast and I keep having to buy new pants for him and things like that. I’m just like, “How are you getting so much bigger so quickly?” But it’s been true all along that you can see them changing and they’re always still your child. And when I look at his face, I see how he is, but I also see the baby that he used to be. And now in the 21st century, I think this is exacerbated by things like… Facebook or Google Photos will be like, “Here’s your memories from seven years ago.” And then out of the blue, a photo from your past will kind of pop into your life, and my child is standing in front of me at age 9, but then he’s also on my phone at age 2. And I can see both of those things superimposed over each other sort of at the same time. It’s that sort of uncanny feeling of looking at him and being able to see all of his past selves kind of lined up on top of each other.

CN: But that’s a lot of what that passage came from, that feeling of seeing my child and trying to appreciate where he is, but also still remembering. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that he was just a little kid. It doesn’t seem like that long ago since he was a baby. And it always irritated me to no end when I was little and my parents or relatives would say, “Oh, you used to be so cute. Do you remember when you were very little you used to do this thing?” And I’m like, “I’m 17” or whatever age I was. And I get it more now, that for them, that time was so compressed. The time that they remembered from when I was five to the time they were speaking to me as a young adult felt probably like the blink of an eye to them. Whereas for me…

BB: Like a moment.

CN: Right. And for me, I’m like, “Why are you still talking about what I was like when I was five? I am a whole grown person now; I am very different.” And of course, the truth is that I still had that person with me, and now I see it from the other point of view. And again, it’s just something that I think about a lot when I see my son and I see him growing. I think about how time is moving differently for me and how I’m going to remember all of those things and the challenge is to hold on to them and remember them, but also not to kind of enforce those on him, not to still treat him like he’s that little kid. It’s, again, a really hard line to walk as a parent.

BB: When I read that passage, it’s… Every time I see my… I wasn’t aware that I was doing it until I read that. I think that’s the beauty of words and good writing, is that it wraps language around something that you’re doing that you’re not aware of, but I do think every time I look at Ellen or Charlie, I see them when I held them, I see them now, and I see them gone. And Ellen’s 20, so she is gone, but she’s with us now during the quarantine. And then when it goes out of my sight, there’s almost like a little mourning every time. You really capture that beautifully.

CN: Yeah. I think, how can there not be that kind of mourning? Because even when things change in ways that you love, even when you’re happy with how they are and you’re excited, you’re still like, “Oh, but I don’t have this other thing anymore.” And they don’t cancel each other out.

BB: They don’t.

CN: It’s not like, “Well, now I have a 20-year-old and that’s great. I’m going to weigh that against having a two-year-old.” You can’t really compare those two things, they’re just different. Nobody tells you this about parenthood, or they tell you and you can’t really conceptualize what it is until you start to go through it.

BB: That’s it.

CN: And then you’re like, “Oh, I see why… ” As soon as I had my son, people kept saying, “Oh, enjoy these days, they’re going to go so fast.” And I’m like, “Really? Because it feels like they’re endless. I have slept about three hours in the past week. This time period will last forever.” You can’t see past that, and it’s only later on that you go, “Oh, I understand what they were trying to tell me.” There’s so much, I think, about life that you can’t really understand until you’ve experienced it in some way, and that’s one of the things that I think writing can do, is it can at least give you a glimpse about what it might be like if you haven’t experienced it. Or if you have, hopefully, like you said, it can articulate that for you, it can kind of crystallize it in a way that then you can hold on to.

BB: Totally. Language gives us a handle, right?

CN: Exactly, yeah.

BB: So this is the other thing that… And I think this will maybe speak to just me, but luckily it’s my podcast, so I get to really just talk about what moves me sometimes, which I love. I’m trying to find the intro because I have so many pages of notes here, but there was a lead-in sentence that said something like… I’m paraphrasing. “As our children grow, we have to get accustomed to less and less touch sometimes.” And then you write… It’s about Pearl, Mia’s daughter, becoming a teenager. And you write, “It’s like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it, to consume it, seeds, core and all.”

CN: That is probably the line that the most readers have called out for me as one that really, really resonated with them.

BB: Really?

CN: And it makes me so happy because when I was writing it, I was trying to… I think my son… Let’s see, when I was writing that he must have been about five. So he was right at that stage where sometimes he didn’t want to hold my hand, that kind of stage. And I’m like, “This is good. You are supposed to be growing more independent. That’s fine. I like that you want to do things on your own.” And at the same time, I’m like, “You don’t want to hold my hand anymore. You don’t want to snuggle with me anymore. You only want to snuggle with me sometimes.” It was that moment of recognizing that I… I was like, “Oh, I’m going to have to start letting go and it’s just going to be letting go more and more and more as we go along. There’s going to be less and less hand-holding as we go along.” And that’s right, but it still makes me really sad. And I was trying to capture that feeling and I worried that it might seem melodramatic.

BB: No, ma’am.

CN: I’m just really grateful to readers when they tell me that that captured something that they were feeling too, because I feel it even now. I still sometimes get to hold his hand and sometimes he likes to snuggle, but he’s nine and sometimes he’s like… He’s very into privacy now, and he’s like… And because we’re all stuck in the house together during the quarantine, and he can have little FaceTime or Skype play dates with his friends, they set up monopoly boards and they each play on their own board while they’re playing. But he’s like, “Can you go downstairs now so that I can have privacy?” And I’m like, “That’s fine. You’re allowed to have privacy. You should be allowed to talk to your friends. That’s fine.” And I’m also like, “Oh, but my baby. You’re my baby, I don’t want to let go of you.”

CN: So that’s the feeling. And I was really happy that they worked that line into the adaptation. Because for me, it’s one of those universal feelings of motherhood, and it’s one of the few moments where I think the two mothers in this book who are very different in a lot of ways see each other directly for just a second and kind of recognize that they are both going through something similar, and then of course they diverge. I was really happy that they took that line and they managed to work it into the dialogue on the show.

BB: It’s an incredible line. And it’s so funny because Ellen, who’s 20, again quarantining with us, and we’ve been together now 10 or 11 weeks since her spring break got cancelled, whenever that was. And I had told my husband a couple of weeks ago, I was like… Ellen and I were snuggling, and we were laughing, and she was spilling tea with me about what’s going on with her friends and her life, and it was awesome. And I said… Then she just rolled over and she was cuddling with me and I said, “I forgot what it was like to feel the full weight of a child on you.” And I’ll take my 20-year-old, because my son’s going to be 15 this year, starting high school, and that’s not where he is. He’s now a foot taller than me, so he kisses me on the top of the head and he’s like, “Bye, Mom, love you” or whatever. But I forgot the feeling of the full weight of a child on you.

CN: Yeah. There’s a really great passage in, I think it’s The House of Mirth. I went through this phase last year where I was trying to fill in all the gaps of the classics that I had somehow missed in my English major education, and I was reading Edith Wharton who I had never really read a lot of. And there’s a passage that’s one of the best descriptions of holding a baby that I’ve ever read. Lily Bart is holding this person’s baby, and it talks about how the baby kind of wiggles and then suddenly kind of relaxes, and you can feel the whole weight of it kind of melting into you. And when I read that, I remembered, “Oh right, you used to be that small and you used to… ” Just like you said, the whole weight of them, they’re just… They’re completely trusting you in a way that they don’t and can’t when they get a bit older.

BB: No, it’s complete vulnerability.

CN: Yeah. And they’re just like, “Okay, I trust you. I’m yours.” And they kind of relax and melt into your arms. And it’s so striking. You get it for such a narrow window and yet it makes such a big impression and you kind of almost never get that back. It’s kind of lovely that you got to have that again. Even just for a minute.

BB: Oh yeah, it’s great. Just for a minute, I’ll take it. Okay. A couple more questions. So Shaker Heights, where you grew up, which is, I would consider just as a reader, a main character in this book.

CN: Absolutely, yes.

BB: Would you agree?

CN: Yes, absolutely. It was one of the reasons that I wanted to write this novel, actually. When I started thinking about it, I had been away from home for about 10 years, and I was just at that point where I could look back with a little bit of perspective and realize, “Oh, there were all these things about it that were really weird.” A lot of the things that I put into the book, its perfectionism, its emphasis on rules, all those things. And at the same time, I could also recognize, “Oh, there were a lot of things about it that were really pretty amazing and that shaped me into the person that I am.” For example, the fact that race was even something that we tried to talk about. Even if we didn’t have the greatest conversations, the fact that it was something that was even acknowledged. The fact that they were always trying to do better, even if they never totally lived up to their own ideals. That strikes me now as something that’s pretty unusual about a community.

BB: Oh my God, for sure.

CN: And so I wanted to try and write about Shaker Heights as if it were a character, as you said, and show it with all of its faults, but also with all of the things about it that were really admirable. Just to show all sides of it and to give a portrait of it like you would give a portrait of a relative that you know. You want everyone to see the great things about them, you want to acknowledge the things about them that are weird or less than desirable, but you also…

BB: Eccentric, yeah.

CN: Eccentric, right. There’s your kooky aunt or there’s your weird uncle who always smokes those really terrible smelling cigars or whatever. Or as in this era, you have that one uncle who’s always… If he drinks a little too much, he’s probably going to say some things and you just decide when you’re going to argue or not. A lot like that. But you also want people to see the good things about them and the things about them that you see are really admirable, and to just be able to hold both of those things at the same time. And so Shaker Heights, for me, is definitely one of the main characters of the book. It’s part of why I set the book there. I thought about fictionalizing it because it’s scary to write about your hometown. It’s scary to write about a real place because people can then say to you, “That’s not how I experienced it.” And you have to try and get it right. But I didn’t think that I could write it about somewhere else because it was this real place. I think to fictionalize it would have taken away a lot of the character of that place.

BB: There was no question in my mind as I read and I watched that you were writing from the bones, as they would say. That you were… Do you know what I mean? You were writing from the bones on Shaker Heights. A couple of questions. First of all, I gotta say, just what I do as a researcher and social scientist, and I don’t think I ever thought about this before your work, honestly, before this book specifically, that as we try to learn about ourselves and develop more self-awareness, I think it would behoove all of us to think about where we grew up as a character in our own narrative. I don’t think we do that.

BB: But certainly for me, Texas is as strong of an influence in character in my life had it been a grandpa or grandma, maybe even a parent, because Texas raised me in its own ways that I’ve sunk into and loved and hated. So I love, again… Those psychology classes completely paid off because… Really, because understanding place, a sense of place, as a character in our lives, I don’t know if we can do the work we need to do, all of it, without that. The second thing that struck me about… And I’m coming off memory right now because I’ve got all my notes here but I don’t have my copy of the book because I’m moving books to the office, but there were some, I think, real by-laws or marketing material from Shaker Heights in the ’60s or ’70s in the front of your book.

CN: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. I think we notice the effect of where you grew up. I think we notice it in really obvious cases. So for example, I’m a daughter of immigrants, and so the immigrant story is one that we think a lot about. How did it change who you were? How did it shape you if you were born somewhere and then you chose to come somewhere else, or if you were brought there for whatever reason? We understand that that’s going to shape who you are… But it’s not always as obvious, like you say, if it’s something that’s a less dramatic shift.

CN: I started to think about this because my first novel is set in a fictional town in Ohio. And people in Ohio were really excited about it, and they said, “Can you talk to us about how being an Ohioan shaped who you are?” And I had never really thought about that question. A lot of times growing up in Ohio, and particularly in Cleveland in the ’90s, it was not the most exciting place to grow up or the most exciting time to grow up. And generally speaking, we would sort of joke and say, “Well, the reason it formed us is that we really wanted to get out of here. There’s nothing here.” Friends of mine who were from Iowa or Nebraska say, semi-facetiously, “Well, we were shaped by the fact that what we really wanted to do was to escape rural Nebraska.”

CN: And that might be true. A lot of times what you’re shaping yourself against is in opposition to something. But it also… I had to think a lot with this book and with my first book about what it meant to be from Ohio and to be particularly a Chinese American girl living in Ohio. And so, like you said, all of that, I think, really has a huge influence on who I became. And like you said, it’s probably true for everyone to one extent or another. The passage that you said… So the by-laws… The part that I have in the beginning, I don’t know if this what you’re thinking about, there’s two epigraphs at the beginning, and one of them is an advertisement from the creators of the village.

BB: Yes.

CN: That’s one. The other one is from an article in Cosmopolitan where Shaker Heights had been… In 1963, it had been determined to be the wealthiest suburb per capita. And this was before Cosmopolitan became a women’s magazine, it was still just a general interest family magazine, so pre-Helen Gurley Brown era. And they came and they did a profile of the community, and I was amazed in reading it at how much had not changed in a way. The particulars had changed, but the general ethos of the town was the same. The advertisement says, “Whether you buy a home site in the school section, Broad Acres in the Shaker Country Estates, or one of the houses offered by this company in a choice of neighborhoods, your purchase includes facilities for golf, riding, tennis, boating. It includes un-excelled schools, and it includes protection forever against depreciation and unwelcome change.” That was what they were selling. That was the dream that they were selling to people. “Come here, you can have all these things, and it will never change. You will be protected. It will be the same. It will be a little bubble for you.”

BB: So here’s what struck me, and I am a product of the suburbs. I’m the product of an interesting suburb outside of Houston that, I think it was People Magazine featured us our junior year for the highest number of suicides of any suburb.

CN: Oh, wow.

BB: So, affluent, most of the dads worked, the moms stayed at home, the dads rode the freeway to downtown oil. It was oil and gas. But what struck me was the inherent un-winnable tension between the promise of diversity, inclusivity around race, and everything would be pretty, easy, and there would be no conflict. It was, “We’re going to be… ” It was definitely… My read of your book, and tell me if this is true or not, my read of the book was definitely a diversity through color blindness approach. Like, “We’re all the same… We’re all the same-ness.” And so it was as if the promise of Shaker Heights was being lived out through Mia and Elena. Is that true, or is that…

CN: I think that was the goal in the era that I lived there, which was the ’90s. I should clarify that at the beginning… So at the time that this advertisement, at the beginning when it was first written, Shaker Heights, like most other communities, was not thinking about racial diversity. And in fact, they were sort of like, “We are going to have the right kinds of people.” Which was mostly white and Christian people. Not Jews, not people of color and so on. It was until the ’50s that Shaker Heights decided, “We are going to make diversity part of our…

BB: Wait, the ’50s?

CN: The ’50s, yeah. It had been happening all along, but there was an incident that happened in the 1950s where there was the home of a wealthy black lawyer. Somebody put a little firebomb in his garage. And this was a real turning point for the community where they said, “Well, what are we going to do? We are seeing in all the neighborhoods around us segregation happening, we’re seeing white flight happening. How are we going to respond?” And they decided to respond by making diversity sort of the cornerstone of the community, at least in terms of, “We’re going to get everybody to live together, we’re going to integrate the neighborhoods, we’re going to do all of these things.”

CN: It had, before that, not been a focus of them. But starting in the ’50s, it became this sort of racial experiment and people said, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to give subsidies for black families to move into white neighborhoods or for white families to move into black neighborhoods. And that’s how we’re going to encourage integration. We’re going to integrate all the schools and make sure that they’re all kind of blended as well as they can be.” And it was, by the time we got to the ’90s, like you said, this sort of effort to say, “We’re all the same, we’re all equal.” And I remember that being the way that people expressed their racial awareness at the time.

CN: In the ’90s, if you wanted to show that you were racially aware and you were sensitive to race, the way that you said it was, “I don’t see race. Everybody’s the same in my eyes.” And I think that was… At the time, what they meant was, “I will treat people equally.” But now we can also hear how that says, “I’m going to forget about this very large aspect of your identity and of your experience and pretend that it doesn’t matter.” Now we can hear that in a very different light. But at the time, I think that’s my sense of how it was across the country. If you wanted to talk about race, you wanted to do it in a sort way, “It doesn’t matter, race doesn’t matter.”

BB: I think that was the approach.

CN: Yeah. It was that idea that we were going to somehow become post-racial, that race as a concept was something that could only be negative and divisive, and we had to just kind of ignore it. And I think we see that differently now. We see that it’s a lot more complicated than that and you can’t just take race out of the equation and pretend everything else is the same.

BB: I don’t know if you’ve ever read Austin Channing Brown’s work…

CN: No.

BB: But there’s a quote that… She’s an amazing… Does anti-racism work. An amazing writer. There’s a quote that says, “When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare, and that the label ‘racist’ should only be applied to mean-spirited, intentional acts of discrimination.”

CN: Oh, that’s so, so spot on.

BB: It’s crazy, right?

CN: Yeah, I think we’ve seen that a lot in the past three to four years, starting with the run-up to the 2016 election. I think a lot of people who hadn’t been aware of it, because many people were, but a lot of people suddenly became aware that you could be racist without being “mean”. And there was that whole thing of like, “Well, are you calling me a racist?” As if the problem was the name “racist” rather than the thing that you did that actually caused the harm. It’s a hard thing to reconcile, but I think we have to. You have to do that if somebody points out to you that you’re causing harm. You have to put aside your own feelings about being called out on that and try to focus on not causing the harm. And that’s really hard, especially if you’ve never been asked to do it. I have sympathy for that, but I also feel like that’s the work that has to get done, and it’s work that the people who are in power and have privilege have to do. There’s no way around that. People can’t do that work for them.

BB: No, that’s it. Okay, my last quote that I want to read to you because, oh man, it killed me. This is hard. I have some of this in me, right here. “Rules existed for a reason. If you followed them, you would succeed. If you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”

CN: Yeah, I have a lot of that in me too. That’s why I wrote that. There’s a lot of Elena Richardson in me, and again, that’s sort of the distillation of her essence. I’m kind of a goody-two-shoes by nature in a lot of ways. I was raised to be very obedient and nice and compliant, as many women are. Especially my parents were very much like, “You need to follow the rules and behave yourself.” And I realize now that part of that was because we looked different. We’re people of color, we were in a place where we would stand out, and there was this sense that to do otherwise could be very dangerous, so you had better follow all the rules. Do not put a toe out of line. And that’s true for so many people of color, especially for black people. You can be following all the rules and still get in trouble.

CN: But I feel that, I want to believe that there is this system of right and wrong, and if you just do all the things you’re supposed to do, that you will be fine. And the truth is, obviously that is not true. There are certain people who will be fine if they’re following the rules. And maybe even if they’re not following the rules, they’ll be given the benefit of the doubt. And then there are many people who can be following the rules to the letter, and they will still end up in trouble through no fault of their own. You think about something as simple as you could be a black person driving a car and doing absolutely nothing wrong, and you might still get pulled over. And I honestly don’t know a black person that that hasn’t happened to.

BB: Right.

CN: So it’s not just about race, but it is about that idea in some ways that there is a way that you can keep yourself safe, that you can in some way control how other people are going to perceive you or how other people are going to treat you. And the tough thing is when you realize that that’s not actually true for many people. There isn’t a way that you can protect yourself, you can stay on the right side of things, that you can keep yourself out of trouble, that you can’t always control how people are going to see you or react to you. You can’t always control whether people are going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but we really want to believe that, right?

BB: Oh God, yes. It’s built into us neurobiologically.

CN: And we’ve been talking about this in race, but even just in terms of… I think about relationships and little spats that I have with my husband. He wants to believe… He’s like, “But I did exactly what you told me, and yet for some reason you’re still mad at me because I didn’t do X, Y and Z.” There’s so much that goes unsaid that’s not always, I think, made explicit in any relationship, and you start to recognize how… Fragile is the wrong word, but you start to recognize how much you have to read any situation and adjust your expectations and what we’re doing to what’s in that, regardless of what the rules are. The rules are, I did something wrong, I say sorry, you have to forgive me. And it doesn’t work that way, right?

BB: No, and I think that’s part of the anxiety around the pandemic right now where people are like, “Just give me the rules because I’ll follow them. If you can promise me I can stay safe, that my kids will be safe, that my parents will be safe, just give me the rules. Where are the grown-ups with the rules and the guarantees?”

CN: Right. And we don’t have those grown-ups right now. We’re busily firing them or not listening to them. And to a certain extent, they’re not even sure about the rules. They have their best guess because everyone is figuring it out as they go along. And it’s scary. We would like it to be…

BB: I hate that.

CN: Yeah, we would like to be told, “Oh okay there’s definitely, if we check off these boxes, we will be fine.” And you can’t do that. As in so many things in life, there is no guaranteed outcome with that. And it’s really, really hard. And I say that as somebody who would love… I love having a plan, and I love it when I have a plan and it takes care of all the things and it works. But most of life isn’t like that. You can’t have a plan.

BB: No. That’s why Elena was hard for me to muster some empathy for sometimes, but that part of her I understood because I have it, so I was… So let me ask you a couple quick questions, then I have a 10 question rapid fire to close with. You ready?

CN: Yes.

BB: Let me ask, Okay. Who was your favorite character in Little Fires Everywhere, and who was your least favorite?

CN: Least favorite is hard because my job is that I have to have empathy, but favorite… Izzy was really, really fun to write because she gets to say and do a lot of the things that we’re told you should not say. “You can’t do that. Don’t say that out loud.” Everything that’s supposed to be inside voice, she says in her outside voice, and that was fun to write.

BB: Oh, I love her too. Yeah, who was… Did you struggle with empathy for anyone?

CN: I did. I struggled to have empathy for Elena a lot, even though I am very much like Elena. She does a lot of things in the book that are really unlikeable and that are really difficult. But as the author, my job is to try and understand why she did them, why she thought they were the right thing, even if I go, “Oh, no, honey, that was not the right thing to do.” You have to be able to see why she thought she was doing the right thing. And so that was hard, and it took revisions. My writers’ group would say, “It feels like you have your thumb on the scale a little bit.” And I would go, “Well, that’s not the sense I want. I want people to be able to understand her too.” And so I would have to go back and find ways to generate empathy for her to explain how she ended up the way she is.

BB: What did you think about the adaptation? What do you think about the Hulu special series?

CN: I really loved it. I went into it wanting to give it space for it to be something different. I think that… It’s not supposed to be a copy, it’s supposed to be an adaptation. It’s on the screen, and there are different needs on the screen. I write a lot of internal thought. You can’t do that on the screen, you can’t have a character just sit there. It does not make for gripping television. So, I really liked what they did, and I liked all of the new directions that they would take things. They still felt to me like they were organic to the characters, and yet they got to explore things that I didn’t in the book, I didn’t get to in the book, I hadn’t thought of doing in the book. I really liked them. I don’t know how I got so lucky to have two such amazing actresses as Reese and Kerry. A lot of TV shows, I think you’re lucky to have… There’s one actress and then there’s like five guys. And in this case, to have two actresses who are just amazingly talented, and we like both of them. It reminds us that we have to have some empathy for both of these characters. All of their natural charisma and talent goes to making us like these two women, both of whom do some really morally questionable things.

BB: Yeah.

CN: I thought they did an amazing job with the adaptation. I was really happy.

BB: And it’s interesting too, because I… As a lot of my friends who’ve read and watched, it’s two different experiences, both amazing.

CN: I’m so happy to hear that. That was what I wanted. What I’ve been saying is that if you hear a cover song, you want to hear the same melodies and the same… But it’s the same song. But you want it to be a different experience. You want to hear Nine Inch Nails singing the song and then Johnny Cash singing the song and have two really different interpretations. It’s one of my favorite cover songs, the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt”. And when I heard Johnny Cash is going to do a cover, I was like, “Johnny Cash? ‘The Man in Black’ Johnny Cash? How is that going to work?” But when I heard it, it was a completely different song, and yet it was the same song, and that was the joy of it for me. And that was what I wanted from an adaptation. I wanted them to be different experiences, and I think they succeeded in doing that.

BB: You know where the loyalty and the fidelity was to me? To the characters.

CN: Yes, exactly.

BB: Including Shaker Heights, to the characters. So let me ask you this, what was it like when you got the call that this was going to happen?

CN: Completely surreal. I work with a really great film agent, Jason Richman, at UTA. And he was like, “Okay, I’ve sent your novel to Reese Witherspoon’s production partner at Hello Sunshine, Lauren Neustadter, and she really likes it.” We happened to be at brunch, and he was like, “I just got this email and she really likes it, and she said she read it overnight and she’s going to have Reese read it by tomorrow.” And I was like, “Yeah, sure, that’s really going to happen. She’s really going to read this book by tomorrow.” But she did. And the emails that they sent, and then when I got to talk to them on the phone, it was so clear that they had such love for the book and so many points of resonance between the book and their own personal experience in their own lives of the issues that they thought about. And then when they decided to bring Kerry in, it was just one of those moments where I went, “Yeah, I trust them completely. I would be happy to give this to you and let you do with it what you want, because I can see that you’re looking in the same direction that I’m looking in. And so, whatever you end up doing with it, I feel like will be faithful to the heart of the book.” And that really has ended up being true. It’s been a really great experience.

BB: I love that. Are you ready for your rapid fire 10?

CN: Yes. I’m ready.

BB: Okay. Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…

CN: Scary.

BB: Number two. You’re called to be brave, but your fear is real, it’s right caught in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do?

CN: Take a deep breath. Am I doing this right? Is this how I’m supposed to be doing this?

BB: Yes, it’s perfect, yeah.

CN: It’s like word association.

BB: Yeah. Something that people often get wrong about you.

CN: They think that I am a pushover.

BB: Be informed, people. Okay.

CN: There’s such a difference between being nice and being a pushover. I’m very nice, but people sometimes think that they can then push me around and then usually they find out that they’re horribly mistaken.

BB: I love it.

CN: It’s sort of fun. [chuckle]

BB: Yeah. To me, there’s nothing better than when people learn the hard way that kind and fierce can co-exist. I love that.

CN: Exactly.

BB: Okay. Last show that you binged and loved.

CN: We’re bingeing it right now, but we’re bingeing The Great on Hulu with Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, and it’s fantastic. It’s so fun.

BB: Okay. I’m so glad to know that. Okay. Favorite movie.

CN: Oh, just one?

BB: Yeah, just one that you… Just one of your favorite movies, one of your top movies.

CN: Okay, The Philadelphia Story.

BB: Okay. A concert that you’ll never forget.

CN: Sorry, I’m totally blanking because I’m like, “Okay, I have to pick one of all the concerts that I’ve been to.” When I was in college, I went to see Fountains of Wayne play at this tiny, little, grungy basement theater in Boston. And there are many concerts that I’ve been to, but I’ve been thinking about that one because he died recently, and it really brings home this particular moment. And I’m like, “But I saw you and now you’ve died because of this pandemic that’s going on.” So that’s at the top of my mind right now.

BB: That’s fair. Favorite meal. One of your favorite meals.

CN: Oh, anything that my mom has cooked, basically.

BB: If she knows you’re going to come over and she’s going to make something special for you, what would it be?

CN: Oh, she will make her egg rolls, which she usually only makes on family get-togethers. We usually have Thanksgiving and egg rolls and Christmas and egg rolls, and she makes them from scratch and only does it for family occasions, but they’re so good.

BB: Oh my God, that sounds good.

CN: I cannot make them the same way.

BB: That sounds really good. What’s on your nightstand?

CN: A really, really, really giant stack of books, on top of which is On Immunity by Eula Biss, which I’ve been re-reading for reasons that are probably obvious. But it just strikes me how interconnected the concept of health is. You can’t limit that to yourself, it is a community thing that you have to take care of. And it seemed like a good book to re-read at this particular moment in the pandemic.

BB: Sick together or well together, that’s right. Give me a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that brings you joy.

CN: It is probably just goofing around with my son. We have a habit of riffing off of something… Somebody might say any sort of phrase, and we’ll just vary it and make puns and make it sillier, and then make it sillier and keep trying to one up each other until we end up with something that makes absolutely no sense. It’s never planned, it’s just impromptu, but it’s this little unspoken real free game that we play together.

BB: I wish y’all could see the look on her face right now. We’re on Zoom and you could see how much joy just describing it. Okay, last question. What are you deeply grateful for right now?

CN: I’m really deeply grateful for my family, both my extended family, but also my immediate nuclear family. We have been stuck together in the house for about… I think this is 11 weeks now, I’ve kind of lost track. But I’m really grateful that we have a home that’s safe, that we can move our lives into the house, my husband and I can both work remotely, and that we like each other. If I had to be quarantined with people, at least I got to be quarantined with two of my favorite people who honestly still bring me joy. I skipped a Zoom call recently with friends to watch a movie with my husband and my son. And my husband was like, “So you’re not totally sick of us after all this time.” And I was like, “Yeah, not totally. I still want to see you.” So I’m really grateful that I feel pretty lucky that they’re pretty great.

BB: Well, I really appreciate the craft and the art and the work that you’re putting out in the world. Not only did it take me away, it taught me a lot, so I’m grateful for that. So thank you.

CN: Thank you. That is a huge, huge compliment to hear, so thank you. And thank you for your smart questions, too. This was really fun.

BB: You’re welcome.


BB: I hope y’all enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. I just kinda geeked out and I could have done the whole thing on writing and it was interesting because as people on my team listened to it, I was worried that I got too writer on writer around how she threads through detail and how she builds characters, but everyone was like “that was our favorite part.”

If you want to learn more about Celeste, you can visit her website, it’s C-E-L-E-S-T-E-N-G dot com. She’s also on Twitter. Her Twitter handle is @pronounced_ing. Because her last name is spelled N-G and you pronounce it I-N-G, so her Twitter handle is actually @pronounced_ing which is really funny.

You can also always go to the show notes on We’ll give you links to the book, where to find Celeste, where to find more information about both of her books. Alright. You all stay awkward, kind, and brave. I’m doing my damndest. Not easy right now. But don’t give up on people. All we have folks, all we have is each other.

© 2020 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, May 26). Brené and Celeste Ng on Little Fires Everywhere. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13.

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