Although the cameo is a delight for fans and careful watchers, the scene encapsulates the tension at the heart of “Little Fires Everywhere.” The book club members are congregating at the house of Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon), a wealthy white woman living in a wealthy, white Ohio suburb. Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), a single mother who rents an apartment from the Richardsons and helps at Elena’s house, looks on.
The women are discussing the “Vagina Monologues,” when Elena makes a point about the importance of motherhood, sparking controversy among the women who don’t have kids. Mia, who’d been putting away dishes, chimes in. “I think Elena is talking about vaginas as a metaphor for our own discomfort with the parts of us that make us most uniquely and primally who we are. Have you really looked at your own?”
If you’ve read the book, then you know “Little Fires Everywhere” is a story about motherhood, class tensions and women seeing themselves for who they really are. It’s a story that was very much informed by Ng’s own life — it’s set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where Ng grew up, and Ng is a mother herself. The series encapsulates all that, with a couple important distinctions. For one, Mia, not marked by race in the book, is a black woman on the show; race, naturally, becomes a larger part of the conversation.
There’s been buzz around the series for months. Now, in the throes of social distancing, there’s no doubt many will tune in. The first three episodes (of eight) dropped on Wednesday. The same day, I caught up with Celeste Ng over the phone.
I won’t give too much more away about what’s in store. I’d suggest watching “Little Fires Everywhere” — and reading it — for yourself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Celeste Ng: Hi Lena, how are you?
Lena Felton: Hi Celeste, I’m doing okay in this crazy time. How about you?
CN: I was going to say, every time I ask that question, I feel the need to qualify it by saying, “Given the state of the world…” That being said, like you, I’m doing okay given that we’re all social distancing from home. I’m at home, my husband’s working from home, my son’s school has been canceled for at least three weeks. It’s been an adjustment, but I’m grateful at least that we have the flexibility to make that work. It’s just such a chaotic time for everybody. How about you?
LF: Same here, working from home. It’s interesting being in journalism, because obviously things have not slowed down for us at all. But I’m hanging in there. It must also be crazy for you to have the show to come out in the midst of it all.
CN: It is, yeah. It has been weird to go about promoting this show when it’s like, okay, the world is actively falling apart and we’re in a pandemic. But also please watch the show. On the other hand, this is a project that hundreds, maybe a thousand, people worked on and need it to do well.
Personally, I’m craving something to take me out of this current world for a moment, and so I’m looking for what books can I read, what music can I listen to, what shows can I binge. If this serves that need for other people, I hope that helps in some ways, too. It’s just an odd time.
LF: Well people were already excited about this show, and now they have the time and space to watch it. What are you currently reading or watching in your own life?
CN: We just finished watching “The Crown,” and we’re trying to figure out what to watch next. I’ve been enjoying that as partly escapist, but it does speak a lot to our time in terms of class and leadership vacuums. That and a lot of kid TV and nature documentaries with my son.
In terms of reading, I’ve got stacks of books. Books I’ve just read recently — one is a book by Kevin Nguyen called “New Waves.” It’s a story about two friends at work — a black woman and a Vietnamese man. And when the black woman dies, he tries to reconstruct her life and realizes that there were so many things he didn’t know about her. And it spoke to this time for me too, when we’re feeling isolated from other people and thinking about how much you can connect with other people. I’ve also got “Little Gods” by Meng Jin, which I can’t wait to dip in to, and Jenny Offill’s “Weather,” which feels like it will be really relevant to the current moment.
LF: For “Little Fires Everywhere,” do you feel like people should read the book before they watch the series?
CN: I’m kind of agnostic about that. For me personally, I often like to read the book before I see the adaptation, just because I’m a book person primarily. But I don’t think that you need to. If you’ve read the book, you’ll go to the show and I think you’ll see the common heart that they both share. But there will be some new things; that was on purpose.
And if you haven’t read the book, you can watch the show and I think you’ll get a sense of where the book goes. But hopefully then those people will read the book and see that there’s a couple degrees of separation, that they’re trying to do different things.
I don’t think there’s a wrong way to do it, and I think that means they did a good job — that the adaptation can stand on its own.
LF: Definitely. I wanted to know what your day-to-day job looked like, being a producer on the show and having a hand in the final product.
CN: I was very lucky in that they kept me involved — I knew what was going on, but I want to give full credit to the writers and producers and actors and cast who were actually doing the work. I got to be one of the voices at the table, which is what I wanted, but honestly I feel like they would’ve been fine without me. I could’ve gone to live in a cave and they would’ve come out with the same amazing project, because they understood what the book was at its core.
So I talked to Liz Tigelaar, the showrunner, before she started writing the pilot; I got to visit the writers’ room when they were breaking one of the episodes. And I got to read the script and visit the set. But again, they did all the work there. All the stuff that happens on the screen is their genius.
LF: It’s so great that it all worked out smoothly.
CN: It is. It definitely was a risk, and I was nervous, because it’s my book; I want it done right. But from my first meetings with Hello Sunshine, Reese [Witherspoon’s] company, and Lauren Neustadter, the producer there, they talked about the book with such passion and such love and such respect that I was like, okay, I can actually trust you. They made it very easy for me to let go.
LF: Shaker Heights is also such a specific place, and it was crucial that they capture it and get it right. How did the process of place-setting work?
CN: So when we found out they were going to film in L.A., I know the production designer did a lot of research into what houses in Shaker actually look like. What they looked on the inside, the architecture — down to the hinges on the doors. I also went with Lauren Neustadter, one of the producers — we went around L.A. and she had me point out, like, okay, that could be a house in Shaker. I honestly didn’t know if it was going to work. Shaker Heights is very specific, and nowhere looks like it. But I think the houses they picked really did look right. It was the same kind of era, they had the same kind of look.
And that level of detail really went down to everything, even the costumes. They made a letter jacket like athletes in school wore. There’s a coffee shop in Shaker Heights — sadly, it’s closed now — that was called Arabica. Everyone else in the world would pronounce it “Arabaca,” but I watched it and said that my only note was that people would have pronounced it “Aarabeeka.” And they recut that line apparently to try to get it right.
LF: Was it nostalgic or strange to see your life like that on the screen?
CN: Both, honestly. It’s strange because of course I know, like, that’s not my high school. But there is such nostalgia. I just watched the first episode yesterday when it dropped, and I was like, oh my god, Lexie is wearing one of those babydoll dresses over the white T-shirt. I totally wore that. And Lizzy’s wearing Doc Martens, which were totally part of my high school uniform. Moody’s got a shell necklace on. There’s that sort of callback that for me reminds me of being a teenager. And hopefully for people who aren’t from that era, it’ll signal to them that it’s a little bit removed from our current time.
LF: Yeah, I loved all those little touches. I was like, okay, this is definitely the ’90s.
CN: Exactly. We’re talking about Snapple. Definitely the ’90s.
LF: In the book and the series, motherhood is just such a big part of the story and what drives everything. I feel like women are going to be watching this and identify with Mia or Elena or maybe aspects of both. Can you talk a bit about how you see those characters as ways of exploring different ways of mothering?
CN: I think on the surface, Mia and Elena seem like they are polar opposites — like they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. But I think as you watch the show, you realize they’re more like flipsides of the same coin. In my mind, they’re less opposites and they’re two actually very similar women who have had different experiences and have therefore taken very different approaches to their lives.
They’re both kind of fanatical in their own way. It’s easy to see it with Elena, because she’s so rigid; she weighs herself and measures her wine. She pours this all into her children. But Mia in her own way is kind of fanatical, because she’s like, my art comes first. And the dedication she has to moving around and saying, that’s the priority. I think maybe the viewer will start to see the parallels that neither of those characters can see.
LF: I’m curious as to how you would describe your own mothering style.
CN: I’m honestly probably somewhere in between: not at all the perfect balance, but sort of vacillating between the two. Those two women, Mia and Elena, are honestly both part of me. I’m a product of Shaker Heights; I’m an anxiety planner. So right now, I’m planning a lot — I’m like, okay, if I plan out all my meals, we’ll be able to make it through the pandemic. So that’s me in a lot of ways, but on the other hand, I’m also a creative person. And I’ve realized that’s something I need to feed or I become an unpleasant person. So even as we’re all working at home, I’m working out with my husband, like, these are the times I’m going to go up to my office or get reading times in.
As a parent, I’m trying to balance both of those things. With my son, it’s like, okay, we’re going to have some structure — because, like me, he needs some structure in his life. So here’s a homeschooling schedule. But then we’re also going to have unstructured free time because I feel like you need both. I’m constantly pendulum-swinging between those two.
LF: And that makes total sense why those characters are the way they are.
CN: Definitely. I think we all have some of both.
LF: I was watching the show this morning, and I have to say, I also love that you have a cameo. It was so great.
CN: Oh, yay. I don’t say a lot about it because I’m always curious if people will spot me, because I love that when I’m watching other things — it’s like, that’s the author.
LF: What was that like, to film that scene?
CN: It was so fun. As someone who works with words, I should think up a better explanation, but it was just really, really fun.
Also, it gave me so much respect for everybody who works on this. I didn’t realize how many people are working on a film set at one time. It gave me a huge amount of respect for how many moving pieces there are, and then also how congenial the set was, honestly, and how many women there were. I said to someone, “There are so many women on this set,” and they were like, “Uh, it’s not always like that, just so you know.”
LF: That sounds like a great workplace environment. I did want to ask, Mia is a black woman in the series, which is not how you wrote her in the book. How do you think that shapes the narrative differently?
CN: I really love that. When Lauren Neustadter and Reese [Witherspoon] came to me and said, “Hey, we’re thinking of casting Kerry Washington,” there was a moment where I thought, okay, that actually gives me a huge amount of trust in you. Because you’re looking at the project in the way that I would hope you would.
As you said, she’s not written as a black woman in the book. Her race isn’t marked. I fully acknowledge that I wrote her thinking of her as a working class white woman, and that was on purpose. I wanted to make her a person of color, because so much of class is tied to race in our country. It made sense to me. But I didn’t want to make her an Asian American woman, because that seemed a little bit too neat when I knew there was going to be an Asian American baby. And I didn’t want to pretend like I could fully imagine and depict a black woman or a Latina woman’s experience.
To hear Reese and Lauren say, we’re going to lean into that instead of pretending that race isn’t here — I was really happy that they were going to be able to explore all these issues about privilege and class and power with that added element of race in a different way than I did in the book.
LF: That did feel like to me — watching the series and having read the book — that there was this whole new conversation happening. I think that’s great, and I think it also speaks to the value of doing both.
CN: I think that’s true, that’s the one thing that if you do watch the series first and then you go back to the book, I think you will think of Mia as a woman of color and specifically a black woman. Which I don’t think is a bad thing. That’s okay, if you’re thinking about those issues as you read. I’m alright with that.
LF: I would love to know what you hope viewers ultimately take away.
CN: Ultimately, it’s the same thing I hope readers take away from the book. I never go in with a lesson or a moral, but what I hope is that by the end of the story, they see all the characters as a little more complicated than they thought they were.
I think that’ll be true of the show, too. Because episode to episode, I think your feelings about those characters are going to switch. You may watch Episode 1 and go, “Ugh, Lexie is so entitled.” And she is. But as you get to later episodes, I think you’ll say, “Oh, I’m seeing different sides of her. I’m seeing how she got to be this person and how she’s fighting to maybe not be that person anymore.” Likewise, I hope you’ll feel that way about every character. I feel like the best thing a work of fiction can do is to see the world as more complex and more nuanced than you thought it was. I hope the show will do that, too.
Beyond that, I hope people will find the show entertaining. I think it’s fun. An early review described it as “soapy,” and my sister-in-law was a little annoyed on my behalf. And I was like, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s like saying a book is a page-turner. Sometimes in the world of literary fiction that’s used as a backhanded compliment, but I want people to be turning my pages. If they’re not turning the pages, it means they put the book down. So I hope they’ll just find the show fun.