The American writer Celeste Ng has been shortlisted for her story Every Little Thing. The central question of her story is: “Would it be confusing, or enlightening, to never be able to leave the past behind?” Interview by Sophie Haydock
Where did you draw inspiration from for your story Every Little Thing? Was there a specific initial spark of an idea that developed into this absorbing tale?
In about 2006, I heard a story on National Public Radio about a woman with this type of unusual memory: she could remember any moment of her life from about age 14 onward. I was fascinated, and I wondered what it would be like to live like that. Would it be confusing, or enlightening, to never be able to leave the past behind? The story arose from there.
Did you know where the plot would go before you started writing? Do you care for the fate of characters like the woman in your story and her daughter?
I didn’t know where the plot would go – only that it would focus on generations of mothers and daughters making the same mistakes, over and over again. In this case, it’s their mistakes with men. Once I set the story in the hotel, the girl by the pool just wrote herself into the story, and the parallels between her and the narrator’s daughter started to pull the story together. I’m actually deeply fond of all four of them – Brianna, her mother, Caitlin, and the mysterious girl by the pool.
Are you a planner, when it comes to writing, or do you just see where the story takes you?
It’s a bit like taking a road trip: I need a destination in mind, and a rough idea of which way to head, and then I can get started. But I don’t plan every turn I make along the way, because where would the fun be in that? For me, writing, like a good road trip, is about exploring and unexpected discoveries. And sometimes I don’t even end up where I thought I was headed.
Were there any aspects of the story that didn’t work in the first draft, which you had to resolve? Or does your writing come to you mostly fully formed?
Writing the memories section was difficult – we all have memories that swim back to us, but for the narrator those moments aren’t just remembered, they’re relived. I needed to convey the immediacy and intensity of the narrator’s thoughts, so I used a lot of physical sensations to make them feel consuming and visceral and even disabling to her. And I struggled with the ending, because I wasn’t totally sure what these characters deserved. Should Brianna have interceded? Should she have let things go? I think she got it right, but readers will have to make up their own minds.
How do you describe your style of writing for people who haven’t read your work before?
I write a lot about families and the past – and in particular, about how secrets from the past persist and echo into the present. Ages ago, I wanted to be a poet, and that love of language still permeates in my writing. I write by ear, so I won’t write an awkward sentence if I can help it; it has to sound right. But I won’t write a story that doesn’t have a plot, either; I want you to be swept along by the story, to be unable to resist turning to the next page.
What have been the greatest successes of your career so far?
My first novel, Everything I Never Told You, found an audience right away – it became a New York Times Bestseller, as well as a bestseller overseas, and won a number of awards. I’m still a bit worried it’s all a dream. But the nicest thing, by far, have been the letters readers send me. They’re often startlingly frank and intimate – people tell me that they’re reaching out to estranged parents after reading my novel, or that they’re entering therapy, or that they’re finding the strength to follow their dreams, even in the face of family disapproval. That’s amazing to hear, and the best thing a writer could ask for.
What’s the most influential bit of advice you’ve been given as a writer?
George Saunders wrote about his biggest regrets being failures of kindness, and as both a writer and a human being. I think a lot about the ways we are kind – or fail to be kind – to one another. I’m not sure if you can write a successful story without a good measure of empathy; even when your characters are behaving abhorrently, you still need to try to understand them (if not agree with them).
Is it necessary as an author “to write about what you know”?
Maybe “write what you want to know” is a better way of putting it. You don’t need to “know” it when you start, but you’d better understand it more clearly when you’ve finished. Otherwise, you haven’t grown in the course of writing, which means your work isn’t going to bring any new insights to the reader, either.
Is writing nature or nurture?
The answer to these questions is always “both,” isn’t it? The best analogy I have is that of a swim coach: you can’t teach someone to be a fast swimmer, but you can teach them a basic level of competence, and if they’ve got the talent, you can help them hone their skills to take them farther.
How is the Trump era going to change the creative landscape for authors?
The Trump administration is already trying cut all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is monstrous, but completely in keeping with everything this administration has done so far. It’s hard to think of a group of people less equipped to understand – let alone appreciate – the value of art and creativity. So there will be more financial challenges if the NEA is cut, which will obviously hurt authors, and there will be ripple effects, as well: the NEA helps connect books with readers via many different programs, and all of that will suffer. On the other hand, the response I’ve seen from authors and artists to the Trump campaign has been heartening, a real doubling-down on the value of art and its necessity as a form of protest. I’m not worried art will be silenced – just that it will be a lot harder to make.
Photograph: Kevin Day Photography