CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Novelist Celeste Ng — known for her literary page-turners that disassemble family dynamics, and parse suburban life and attitudes about race in America — can fix anything: leaky faucets, her son’s windup toy, a dishwasher and even her clothes dryer once.
“Mostly, if there is something that has broken, I can at least take it apart and figure out what the problem is,” Ng said during an interview here in Cambridge, where she lives with her husband, a lawyer, and their 8-year-old son.
Now she is turning her preternatural competence to publishing at large. Ng, 38, has become a singular force of literary activism, championing the careers of fellow writers who need a boost.
In addition to tweets in which she vanquishes trolls; shares personal tidbits (plots of dreams, her son’s artwork); and posts political calls to action (this month she joined a group of writers auctioning naming rights to characters in their future novels to raise money for Immigrant Families Together, a volunteer group dedicated to reuniting migrant families); Ng often uses her enormous Twitter influence — 95,000 followers and counting — to amplify the voices of those she thinks deserve to be heard.
Her friend Mira T. Lee, the author of “Everything Here Is Beautiful,” says Ng uses her social media presence to “promote positive change, and to highlight other writers, especially women and writers of color.”
Poised to reach even broader audiences
Ng, whose novels have combined to sell more than 2.25 million copies across all formats, is poised to reach even broader audiences. Her 2014 debut novel “Everything I Never Told You” is headed for the big screen, in a film that will star Julia Roberts. And “Little Fires Everywhere,” developed for television by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, which acquired the rights to the novel months before the book’s 2017 publication, sold in a bidding war to Hulu last spring. Witherspoon and Kerry Washington have teamed up to produce and star in the adaptation.
“Celeste has written a collection of modern women (and men) whose characters embody so many of the struggles and complexities of this time we are living in,” Washington wrote in an email.
Witherspoon, a fan of “Everything I Never Told You,” first heard about “Little Fires Everywhere” — which she called, by email, “an incredible mystery that unravels with real character exploration” — when she met Ng at a cocktail party in Southern California in 2016. She subsequently made “Little Fires Everywhere” her September 2017 book club pick.
Whitney Scharer, a member of Ng’s writing group (the Chunky Monkeys) and the author of the forthcoming debut novel, “The Age of Light,” said that Ng has “hit the literary jackpot.” And she seems determined to share her winnings.
Ng “has acted with the generosity of a patron saint,” says R.O. Kwon, author of “The Incendiaries.” The two writers met at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College, in Vermont, in 2009. She “read my book early and blurbed it, which I know is a significant favor to ask of anyone,” Kwon said.
“I haven’t surveyed exactly who she’s blurbed,” Kwon continued, “but I have especially noticed her name on the books of Asian-American women who are coming out with their first books. And that just seems like a very intentionally generous thing that she’s doing.”
Ng’s strategic benevolence is aimed at promoting her peers, of course, but also at fixing skewed, reductive notions of representation.
“One of my long-standing irritations with the way that we view the world,” she said, “is like, who’s going to be the next Jhumpa Lahiri? Who’s going to be the next Amy Tan? Like there can only be one, and you can only get there by dethroning the person who’s at the top.”
“I definitely don’t want to be the single story of the young, Asian-American woman writer,” she added. “There are lots of other Asian women, even Chinese-American women, who are doing all kinds of stuff that I’m not doing.”
Ng said that her drive to share her good fortune with her peers comes from her own early career uncertainties. “I know something about what it’s like to be an Asian-American woman who’s trying to get her voice out there with a debut novel,” she said. “It can be a hard sell.”
‘I’m going to be a professional crocheter’
Growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio — the setting of “Little Fires Everywhere” — Ng, the daughter of scientists who emigrated from Hong Kong in 1968, always knew, she said, that she wanted to be a writer. Though she always thought it would be “on the side.”
“It wasn’t until I was about 24 that I thought that writing was a thing that you could do as a career. Before that, I saw it as a hobby,” Ng said. “It would be like if somebody had said, ‘I’m going to be a professional crocheter.‘”
The irony is that nearly 20 years ago Ng had a semipro sideline as a crafter. Around 2000 she set up a website to sell her meticulously sculpted clay miniatures to collectors. One of her most unusual commissions? A plucked turkey, its head positioned to dangle off a tiny table.
Ng’s more conventional professional plans shifted after her graduation from Harvard University in 2002. A sobering brush with textbook publishing and an inspiring fiction writing class at the Harvard Extension School clarified Ng’s determination to pursue a writing career. At graduate school at the University of Michigan, she met her agent Julie Barer and left school with most of a short story collection and two nascent chapters of “Everything I Never Told You.”
In the six years between the end of graduate school and the 2012 sale of her first novel, Ng started keeping a color-coded document detailing each time she submitted a story to a literary magazine. She referred to it as the Spreadsheet of Shame. The file is still active but marks an era when Ng was mired in the struggle to tame the multiple timelines and points of view in her first novel.
“There was a period of time where I was like, I am never going to write again,” Ng said. “I hadn’t finished my book when we had our son,” she added. “The first four months were really hard. I was dealing with postpartum depression.”
Then she won a Pushcart Prize for her story “Girls, at Play,” published in the Bellevue Literary Review. “It was this huge boost of confidence. It was a story that I had submitted, and it had been rejected like 17 times.”
‘Is anyone who’s not Asian going to want to read this book?’
After the years Ng spent laboring over “Everything I Never Told You” — part of her fastidious process included making a panoramic chart on the walls of her office with index cards and color-coded string — the sale of her debut moved swiftly: “The whole thing, start to finish, took just under two weeks. I basically thought I was going to throw up the entire time,” she said. The six-figure advance was “10 times more than I expected. That part is sort of like the magic dream-come-true part,” she said, though she still wondered, “Is anyone who’s not Asian going to want to read this book?”
Almost five months after publication Amazon helped provide the answer.
“We picked this book out of relative obscurity and watched with enormous pleasure as it became the mega seller that it is,” said Sara Nelson, the former editorial director at Amazon and now executive editor at Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.
In 2014 Nelson and her editorial team selected Ng’s debut — over Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” — as their pick for the best book of the year. “Everybody who read ‘Everything I Never Told You’ loved it. There was no debate,” Nelson said. The boost from the e-commerce giant launched a promising book into the stratosphere.
In 2017, under the editorial direction of Sarah Harrison Smith, Amazon picked “Little Fires Everywhere” as their No. 2 book of the year, but publishing had already bought into Ng’s vision: “Little Fires Everywhere” sold for seven figures.
‘Will she blurb you?’
As her success has grown so has the currency of her imprimatur.
“My agent and my editor both were like, ‘oh my God you know Celeste,’” Lee said “’That’s so great. And will she blurb you?’ That was one of the first things out of their mouths.” And when Ng’s endorsement did appear on the advanced readers’ edition of “Everything Here Is Beautiful,” Lee said “it was the only thing on the cover that was bolded and in black.”
Ng is wary about overstating her own influence.
“I don’t think that I inspired any of these women to do the great work that they’re doing. I think at most,” she said later by phone talking about her own success, “it was sort of a way of opening up more seats at the table.”