The character-centric writer: Celeste Ng
Author Celeste Ng’s next book tackles motherhood, race and rulesUpdated: Jan 06, 2018 23:13 IST
I’m wedged between aisles of books at the Harvard Bookstore on a rainy Tuesday in October, clutching the hardcover of Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng’s latest. It has only been a week since I finished Everything I Never Told You, the author’s 2014 award-winning debut; wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner. It’s the kind of sensitive, layered story, with nuanced writing that I’ve always aspired to write. So, it is wonderful that I’m here, in a city I haven’t even completed two months in, listening to a writer I know will impact my future writing.
Over the next 40 odd minutes, Ng explains how she balances intuitive writing and elements that need active work. She can’t “see” how bits fall into place without first perfecting the rhythms of the language. Plot, therefore, and the conflict that is essential to drive narratives forward, is something she needs to consciously tackle. She suggests viewing plot through the characters, through their situations and desires, and how to get them to those final points in a narrative arc. She writes pages about characters that don’t make it into the book, but ensures that she really knows them.
The proof is two books that are successfully character-centric and let their decisions push the story along than the other way around. A series of small actions by each individual that influence the ones before, after, and around them, culminating in a result that’s more than just cause and effect. This takes patience, and isn’t exactly what literary thrillers (which is how Ng’s books are promoted by part of the market) are “supposed” to read like. In Everything I Never Told You, the focus is just on one family, and the deliberate interiority of the characters works well. With Little Fires Everywhere, it’s much harder to pull off – yet Ng gracefully leaps over the pit housing the dreaded “sophomore slump” with a poised narrative despite difficult characters, and unresolved situations.
One of her strengths, something that is more obvious in this more ambitious second novel, is the ability to make us understand, if not empathise with every character, even if we may not agree with them or what they stand for. In this new book, she tackles issues like motherhood, race, adoption, belonging, rules without arriving at a consensus of right or wrong. For her, she says, what matters is the why than the what, how, when. Hence her decision to reveal the big climactic event in the first line of both books, so that it’s “out of the way” and readers don’t spend more time fussing over it. That’s why there isn’t an urgency to uncover the reasons for the fire at the Richardson mansion we’re told about in the very first line. There is no police investigation racing against time, or short, punchy chapters with cliffhangers to bait readers. There isn’t even a clear demarcation of whose side we should be on. Ng’s skill is in making it all feel organic, instead of a cop-out. One of the ways she achieves this is by devoting considerable time and effort introducing us to each character. So that when the important choices come along, we better understand their motivations and reasons for doing or not doing what they do. We better understand that it was just one out of many possible paths their stories could have taken.
Celeste chose to set her book in the late 90s because it was a time more conducive to secrets
Writers aren’t any different. Writing is mostly about making choices – why to use one word instead of another, why a character acts this way but not that, why the door of that one house is red and not blue. Some of these choices may not impact the larger picture, but they are a part of the whole, and merely deciding to write a story means that you have chosen it out of all the other possible options.
Ng talks about this too. Her stories have recurring themes and metaphors, and it’s no surprise that she’s routinely asked how much was planned. Certain images inevitably keep surfacing, she says, and she must make the decision of whether they can add depth to the story, and if so, how she can attach a deeper meaning to them. But a large part of writing is also intention. For example, Ng talks about her use of omniscient narrators. Dismissing it as old-fashioned, she says that she needed someone who would know more than all the characters for her narrative to work. Similarly, she chose to set it in the late-90s because it was a time more conducive to secrets without smartphones, social media, or an overwhelming Internet presence.
My mind is still swirling with words and impressions when I approach her table, books in hand. What I’m not expecting is for her to spend so much time genuinely interacting with everyone, as she signs their books. I mention I’m working on a novel, and she asks how it’s going. When I say it’s going slowly, she says something I’m always going to remember. “You never think it’s done, until it’s done.”
From HT Brunch, January 7, 2018
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