Celeste Ng Talks Duplexes, Ohio Writers, and The “Utopian Ideal” Of Shaker Heights

Ng spoke with <i>Cincinnati Magazine</i> by phone ahead of her visit to Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Wednesday, September 20 at 7 p.m. to promote her new book <i> Little Fires Everywhere.</i>

Image courtesy Penguin Press

Shaker Heights, which sits just east of Cleveland, is famously wealthy and fastidiously planned—a suburb on steroids. It’s the perfect material for a novelist, especially if that novelist grew up in Shaker Heights, as Celeste Ng did.

Ng’s wonderful new book, Little Fires Everywhere, tells the intertwined stories of two families: the Richardsons, who are wealthy and well established in Shaker Heights, and the Warrens, who have recently moved and remain on its economic fringes. Ng excels at slipping class markers into her fiction, like the way the Richardson kids at restaurants never say “Could I have . . .?” but “I’ll have . . .” instead. She also reveals how the characters themselves see those markers, and how they see each other. The novel’s plot packs in a house fire, a custody battle, and tons of fun touches from its 1990s setting. But there are also weighty meditations on family, money, and race. It’s a Shaker Heights novel, after all.

Ng spoke with Cincinnati Magazine by phone ahead of her visit to Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Wednesday, September 20 at 7 p.m. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.

How did you research the setting and era for this novel?
A lot of the ephemera of Shaker Heights—the scene setting—came from my memory of living there during that time. I would have been the age of the Richardson kids, and I refreshed my memory by looking at the school’s paper and the yearbook. But for the larger community I did some research, and it helped flesh the town out as a character. I learned a lot about how the community came to be. I didn’t realize how planned it had been from the very beginning and how much the utopian ideal permeated every decision it made. The town went so far as to make people promise to plant flowers but not vegetables. Flowers were pretty, but vegetables implied you didn’t have enough money.

Celeste Ng

Photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

You’ve said before that it was only after you left Shaker Heights that you started to appreciate its upsides and downsides.
A lot of the things I grew up with I thought were totally normal. We didn’t put our garbage on the curb on garbage day. You kept it in the back, and the city had people go get it from there. I didn’t realize how unusual this was until I went to college, where I started to realize that Shaker paid a lot more attention to appearances. The same thing happened with the community’s focus on race—this is a more positive example. Race is very much at the forefront of the discussion, and in fifth or sixth grade the school has racial awareness training. Again, I didn’t realize how uncommon that was. Moving away really showed me both sides of Shaker’s planned mentality. It’s really conscientious and meticulous, both for the silly and for the good.

There’s a lot of focus right now, in the news and in novels, on the working class. But with the Richardsons your novel explores the lives of maybe not the one percent but certainly the five percent. Why did you choose to write about that?
I wanted to write about the way the classes interacted with each other, and I wanted to write about it from the perspective of people who have more. I did that partly because that was the more public face of the community I grew up in, but partly because if you’re talking about a group’s blind spots it’s more helpful to come at it from their perspective first.

One of the best parts of your novel is the way the houses can seem like characters, whether it’s the Richardsons’ six-bedroom estate or the Warrens’ strange duplex. As a novelist, how did you create those homes?
This is where it helped to have grown up in the community. In the course of my research I read books like Distinguished Homes of Shaker Heights. But I also had aunts who lived in two-family houses in Shaker so I knew those houses from the inside. The things I wrote about the two-family houses are true—they’re sort of dressed up to look like one-family homes from the outside. There’s one front door, one mailbox. But then you go inside and there are two separate rentals. I also knew friends who had big, beautiful houses that I now realize were basically mansions. It was just where they lived.

Ohio has produced some amazing fiction writers. Do you have a theory for why that is?
I don’t. It’s an interesting question! There’s this assumption that the middle of the country taps into America as a very general concept. I think that’s a questionable definition of America, and one thing I’ve really found interesting about Ohio is that it’s basically two states in one. You’ve got the big urban areas: Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, these big blue splotches on the map. Then you’ve got small towns and farms and college towns in the rest of the state. To have both of those things scattered all across the state—I wonder if there’s something about having that tension that sort of seeds fiction.

Do you have any favorite Ohio writers?
Toni Morrison is one because she writes about such big things but writes about them with such specificity, with such concrete power. She’s one of the all time greats in my mind. Sherwood Anderson is also a favorite. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of linked short story collections, and many of them—but his Winesburg, Ohio in particular—make the place as much a character as any of the characters are.

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