Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel Little Fires Everywhere opens with chaos: a beautiful house is consumed by flames while the beautiful owner watches it burn to the ground. The serene neighborhood of Shaker Heights is the last place you’d expect arson, but as it becomes clear throughout the book, nothing is as it seems, no one is faultless, and everyone has something to hide.
Ng made a splash with her 2014 debut novel Everything I Never Told You, and when Little Fires Everywhere was published, the hardcover edition stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 48 weeks. The paperback has been #1 for the past five weeks. More than two million copies have been sold. What we’re trying to say here is that it’s a really, really, big deal.
Now, the book that no one could put down is a Hulu miniseries, brought to life by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.
If you’re anywhere as bookish and/or nosy as we are, you want all the behind-the-scenes details. So, Abbe Wright, host of The Adaptables podcast, spoke with Celeste Ng all about her novel and its journey to the small screen.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Abbe Wright: What role, if any, did you play in developing the script for the adaptation?
Celeste Ng: For me, the story is really as it is in the book. That’s the only way that I can see it, but I was really excited to get to work with a really wonderful showrunner, Liz Tigelaar, who was brought on board. We talked a little bit about my conception of the characters, what she was thinking about, ways she thought that she might draw out certain aspects of the characters or flesh out some of the storylines that had only been hinted at in the novel. I got to see all the scripts. Liz very generously shared them with me as they were being developed. I got to give notes. I got to sit in in the writer’s room and meet all of the really amazing writers that worked on the show. As they went along, I got to see how they were taking the show and translating it onto the screen. It was a really amazing process.
Because the story is set 30 years ago, we look at it with a bit of distance that we need in order to see clearly.
AW: How did it feel to watch your novel that is so based on the interior lives of women brought to the screen by a team of women?
CN: I was really thrilled that so many of the people on this team were women partly because I consider myself to be a feminist, and I recognize too that we’re working in a landscape where women’s work often isn’t recognized. Women often aren’t given chances to direct things, to produce things, to be showrunners. I was so happy that Hello Sunshine’s mission is to empower women to tell their own stories, and that they really walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Liz Tigelaar, the showrunner, is adopted. She is also a mother, and she brought so much of that experience to the script, to everything she did in the show. Even when she put together the writer’s room, she made sure to bring in not just a person who was adopted, but multiple people who had different experiences with adoption, different routes to parenthood, different black women who had had different experiences growing up. She said in one of her interviews that she feels like everyone she brought in had not just one thing but many things, and I think that was true, actually, of everyone involved in this project.
AW: What scenes in Little Fires Everywhere are you most excited for viewers to see?
CN: A lot of the moments of tension between Mia and Pearl and between Elena Richardson and Izzy. There is something very visceral about the experience of watching a mother and a daughter have a fight that maybe is uncomfortably close to a fight that you and your own mother or you and your own child have had. It also was really wonderful to see the art that they created for the purposes of the TV show. I made up all the art that Mia creates in the novel, and the producers of the show actually got an artist to help create the art that’s shown on screen, and it was just really cool to see what an actual visual artist did with the descriptions of what I had made.
AW: I loved watching the nineties nostalgia pop up on screen. What does the story gain from being set 30 years ago?
CN: Because the story is set 30 years ago, we look at it with a bit of distance that we need in order to see clearly. Sometimes when things are really close to home, we tend to kind of close our eyes or we tend to not see the parallels to our own lives because it’s just it’s too close. But when it’s a little bit farther away we can kind of see oh, yeah, that’s how we were back then. In some ways we’re more able to see the flaws in the characters as well as the things that they’re trying to do that they’re not quite managing, and that allows us a little bit of space for self-reflection. To go oh, how far have we actually come?
AW: Could you talk a little bit about how your novel Little Fires Everywhere explores important questions about race and privilege, and why it’s so necessary to you to explore those issues in your work?
CN: When I realized that I wanted to write about Shaker Heights, I realized that I needed to talk about race and class because those are the issues that the community is really actively trying to address, and yet we don’t really know how to address racial inequality and class inequality. I wanted to just kind of dramatize that in the novel. In the TV show the producers brought the racial aspect right up to the front by casting Kerry Washington, and that was another thing that made me realize that yes, these were the right people to adapt this story because they were going right to the heart of what I wanted to talk about, these questions of how we think that we are egalitarian until it starts to affect our own families, and all of the ways in which we suddenly then throw all of our principles out the window and convince ourselves that we’re still sticking to those principles.
AW: Do you feel like you got to see your story in a new way as it came to life on screen?
CN: When I watched the show, honestly, I was so immersed in the show that it felt like I was just watching a TV show that existed completely independent of me, like it had nothing to do with me even though of course it’s the story that I made. It’s the characters that I made up. It’s the plot that I made up. I was so engrossed that it felt like something that had always existed in the world. I really like the idea that they are taking pieces of what I did and kind of snipping them and collaging them and making them into something slightly different, because that’s a lot like what Mia does in her own art in the book. She takes something, a photograph or a stuffed animal or whatever you may have, and she translates it into something new. An adaptation actually feels really right and fitting for that story.
Follow along with weekly recap podcasts!
Watch the show on Hulu and listen to The Adaptables podcast for weekly recaps. Join Emma and Abbe as they chat with authors, insiders, and Celeste Ng herself, about the makings of a great adaptable, why watching and reading are important self-care rituals, and the many other books and shows they’re bingeing and loving.
Warning: there will be little spoilers everywhere.