Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: Celeste Ng

On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books. This week, we’re talking with literary debutante Celeste Ng, author of One Story issue 86 “What Passes Over.”

Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, begins, “Lydia is dead.” We then follow each of the Lees, a Chinese-American family living in Ohio, as they struggle to understand what happened to Lydia and what led to her death. A beautiful portrait of the complexities between parents and children, brothers and sisters, and husbands and wives, Everything I Never Told You is a family love story you won’t want to miss when it hits stores this June.

Thank you to Celeste for taking the time to sit down and discuss the seed for this story and cupcakes with me.

1. Where were you when you found out Everything I Never Told You was going to be published by Penguin Press and how did you celebrate? 

I was unbelievably lucky and the book went to auction, so I knew when the bids were going to come in.  I was at home when my agent called with the news, and I wish I could say I went right out and celebrated all night. But I literally hung up the phone and ran directly to my son’s preschool to pick him up (a bit late!).  Honestly, having a young toddler at the time helped keep me grounded during that crazy time. I had this great news, but I also had a two-year-old in front of me demanding lunch and a nap—nothing like that to bring you back down to earth. And I couldn’t get a sitter on such short notice, so my husband and I just ended up ordering takeout and cupcakes that evening.  Exciting, no?

2. The first sentence of Everything I Never Told You is: “Lydia is dead.” How did you decide to begin the book this way? What was the seed for this story?

That last sentence didn’t click into place until the last draft. Up until then, every draft had begun, “At first they don’t know where Lydia has gone”—a very different tone, one that withholds information rather than revealing it. But I felt that readers needed that information right up front. Otherwise, the focus is on whether Lydia is alive or dead, when what exactly happened—and why—is really the point of the novel. And I liked the bluntness of the opening, that sense of putting the narrative cards right on the table.

The novel has its roots, very indirectly, in an anecdote my husband told me: when he was a kid, a boy he knew pushed his own little sister into a lake. She was rescued, but I started wondering what it might have been like for her to plunge underwater, what this brother-sister dynamic might have been like (both before and after), and what would have happened in her family if she hadn’t been saved. The story ultimately morphed into something quite different—in the novel, Lydia is a teenager, for one thing—but it all started with that image of a girl falling into deep water.

3. One of my favorite aspects of this book is the complex dynamic between the three children: Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah. Lydia is her parents’ favorite child, yet it seems that Nathan and Hannah not only accept that fact but are actually able to flourish because of it, almost as if they are grateful to Lydia for bearing the brunt of all expectations. Which of the three children is your favorite? Is there one in particular that you identify with?

I empathize with Lydia a great deal, having been a teenage girl once myself, and Nath’s scientific mindset is based on my own, as is his obsession in space: for a large part of my childhood, I dreamed of being an astronaut. But I have a real soft spot for Hannah. Like her, I was the (much) youngest child, and I spent a lot of time listening in on conversations, trying to piece together the lives of my elders. I collected objects that were unwanted by others but that were deeply significant, almost totems, to me.  In fact, I still do. And as a kid I loved finding cozy nooks to hide in—under tables, on window seats behind the curtains, in closets.  She’s probably the character I feel most akin to.

4. Throughout the book, we jump from different characters perspectives as the family grapples with Lydia’s death. I was amazed at how flawless the change in perspective flowed throughout the storyline even with flashbacks. Which perspective/storyline was the most enjoyable for you to write? Which one was the most difficult?

I really enjoyed writing the sections when Marilyn and James met—love stories are fun—and the parts that take place in 1966, when Lydia and Nath are young. It was pure joy to research the details to flesh out those worlds, like watching the news coverage of Gemini 9 and researching old cookbooks (Marilyn’s is based on my mom’s own Betty Crocker).  The most difficult parts, for me, were when Marilyn and James grappled directly with their daughter’s death—especially after my son was born. Writing about parents losing a child became very emotionally difficult, almost viscerally so: sometimes I’d finish writing and need to sneak into my son’s room just to watch him sleep for a while.

5. What are you looking forward to most at the Debutante Ball on May 22nd?

Partying with old friends and meeting other writers I’ve admired from afar (including the other debutantes!).  And dressing up—does anyone have enough opportunities to do that?

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