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[This story contains spoilers for Little Fires Everywhere.]
Celeste Ng’s 2017 best-selling novel Little Fires Everywhere begins with a spark of flames — literally.
Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio — a Cleveland suburb — the novel opens with the home of Elena and Bill Richardson being burned to the ground, with the circumstances of the fire’s origin not completely known. Soon readers venture into the world of the elite Richardson family who connect with artist Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl after Mia rents a property owned by the Richardsons, and is employed by them to cook and clean. But tensions rise between the two families when Shaker Heights is divided by a custody battle over an Asian American baby girl, May Ling Chow, between her Chinese immigrant mother and the wealthy white couple hoping to adopt her.
Elena and her husband support their friends, the McCulloughs, while Mia fights for May Ling’s mother Bebe to get her child back. It is during the trial when Elena and Mia’s relationship becomes tense.
At first glance, the two mothers are seen as opposites. Elena is a journalist who abides by order, stability and legacy (her family has been in Shaker Heights for generations), whereas Mia can be considered a free spirt, traveling to various locations with her daughter as she tackles her next art project. But over time, it becomes clear that Elena and Mia are “two poles of the same magnet.” “They’re so often described as like polar opposites. We kind of forget that that means you are two poles of the same magnet,” Ng tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The story derived from Ng’s vision of setting her novel in Shaker Heights, where she lived during the 1990s. The initial assumption of the novel is the town has good intentions, but as the custody battle lingers, it becomes conspicuous that residents are blind to their privilege, and are soon forced to confront their obvious unconscious bias.
“It was a time where we thought we kind of had it all together as a country,” Ng says. “We thought we were post-racial. Although, in retrospect, I’m not totally sure why. We thought it was a ‘girl power’ time and we never had a female secretary or a female military general. We had this sense that the world was kind of figured out…. And of course this is pre-9/11, as we very quickly saw how all these things that we thought were going fine, actually there were all these problems simmering under the surface.”
After the book’s release in 2017, it was clear the unpacking of the underlying problems Ng refers to is what quickly resonated with readers. Through each character and plot line, the story doesn’t shy from tackling themes of racism, sexism, identity, class and motherhood.
“Those conversations, they’re really uncomfortable, but ultimately if they can get us to understand each other better and not necessarily having to agree but you can go, “I see why you did that.” For me that’s really a good thing. You watch the characters kind of either waking up to the things we don’t know or not waking up to the things that you don’t know and you’re kind of cringing because you see it,” Ng explains. “I think that’s the effect hopefully viewers will take away and start going, ‘let me turn my head and check my own blindspot.'”
After its release, the novel found success among readers, spending 48 weeks on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list and over 40 weeks on the paperback list. Little Fires Everywhere was voted the best fiction book by the GoodReads Readers Choice Awards and was named best book by Amazon, Barnes and Noble and NPR. Things took an even bigger turn when the book was selected as a book club pick for Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club in 2017, which Ng says ultimately brought her work to a “different audience.” “People who might not have picked up my book might be willing to give it a try because they trust her taste,” Ng explains.
Ng’s book earned more recognition as showrunner Liz Tigelaar, who worked on the AppleTV+ series The Morning Show, helped bring the story to life onscreen in Hulu’s eight-episode limited series starring Witherspoon and Kerry Washington as Elena and Mia. Ng serves as producer on the series.
Though at large the story can seemingly center on the mystery of Mia’s past and the custody battle, it is the unraveling of the Shaker Heights community that not only impacts the once picture-perfect residents but presents the idea that sometimes disruption is needed for change — something, Ng says, could resonate with the current climate.
“This family realizes that actually there have been all these issues brewing under the surface and I think that’s really the mirror that parallels sort of what we are going through now,” explains Ng.
In a conversation with THR ahead of the show’s premiere, Ng discuss unpacking the novel’s underling themes for screen, what she hopes viewers take away from the story and why the story helps remind people that the “way you see things” may not be “the whole picture.”
What was the process of adapting your book like, especially with taking on a producer role?
It’s been an amazing experience. I’ve been grateful to Reese, Kerry, showrunner Liz Tigelaar, and everyone involved, for letting me be a voice at the table — I always wanted to give any adaptation the space to become its own thing, but I appreciate the amount of involvement and input they’ve allowed me to have. I’ve felt involved every step of the way — I talked with Lauren Neustadter and the producers at Hello Sunshine as they planned, I got to visit the writers room, I read all the scripts and I got to visit the set. At every point, literally every single person from the writers to the camera operators has had a palpable love for and respect for the book. They all seem to get the book and what it’s about — so even when they make tweaks or twists for the adaptation, they feel true to the characters and story I created.
When writing Little Fires Everywhere, did you ever envision it being adapted as a series versus film?
When I’m writing, I try never to think about the book being published, let alone being adapted. Thinking about how it’s going to be received is often the kiss of death for a story — I start second-guessing myself and I can never finish. So finishing a story is always the first step; everything that comes after, from publication to adaptation, is whipped cream and cherries on top. That said, I’m thrilled that it’s being adapted as a series specifically — I think that’s the right form to bring it to the screen. What I’m learning is that for a feature film, you have to condense; in a series, you have six to 10 hours of screen time, which gives you more space for nuance and character development. In this case, because there’s such a complicated storyline and there are so many characters, having a series felt like the right form.
The adaptation stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, who have both expressed how big of fans they were of your story. How did you feel when you learned they loved your book?
Both Reese and Kerry are such readers, which means they bring a genuine appreciation for the novel to the adaptation — and I’m so grateful for that. Even as the series will have some changes from the book — it’s a different form, after all! —they’ve been so respectful of the work and of me, and I think that’s because they were readers (and fans) first. Reese suggested casting Kerry early on, and I loved the idea. I’ve long been a fan of Kerry’s, of course, but I also loved the idea of making Mia a black woman, and of focusing some of the questions about race and class that the novel raises, through casting Kerry. It was a genius casting and as soon as I heard it, I was on board.
Though the book takes place in the 1990s, the story can still resonate with today’s climate as issues regarding racism, sexism, identity, class and motherhood still exist.
I set the book in the ’90s because that was the era of Shaker Heights that I lived in. It made sense to set the story there because in my memory, it was a time where we thought we kind of had it all together as a country. We thought we were post-racial. Although, in retrospect, I’m not totally sure why. We thought it was a “girl power” time and we never had a female secretary or a female military general. We had this sense that the world was kind of figured out…. And of course this is pre-9/11, as we very quickly saw how all these things that we thought were going fine, actually there were all these problems simmering under the surface.
Readers and viewers get to learn the backstories of Mia and Elena and see tensions build in their relationship, but the story never seems to direct the audience to favor a certain side. What would you hope people take away from their relationship?
In the novel, I didn’t want the reader to come away thinking, “Oh this is the hero and this is the villain.” I wanted them to see that actually it’s very complicated and that the person that they maybe were first sympathetic to has another side to them and other things that maybe they question. At first they thought, they could think, “I totally don’t understand why she would do that.” They don’t like her and don’t agree with her. You will come around and see her in a more complex way. And I think this show does such a good job of doing that. I think actually with every character developed over the show. You see that your perception of them changes.
They’re so often described as like polar opposites. We kind of forget that that means you are two poles of the same magnet, which means that you’re pushing the other half of you away. This is not going to go anywhere. That’s part of what makes their dynamics so complicated. And Reese and Kerry did such a great job and I think showing you all the little shifts in every scene they’re in together.
When the book was first released it resonated with a lot of readers for its underlying messages, but do you think the reaction will be stronger now with the series given how many are speaking out against such issues as women’s rights, race and identity?
I mean it’s obviously still a process and we still have a long way to go, but I feel like people are becoming more open about talking about these things. For a long time we just kind of all agreed to not talk about it. Those conversations, they’re really uncomfortable, but ultimately if they can get us to understand each other better and not necessarily having to agree but you can go, “I see why you did that.” For me that’s really a good thing. You watch the characters kind of either waking up to the things we don’t know or not waking up to the things that you don’t know and you’re kind of cringing because you see it. I think that’s the effect hopefully viewers will take away and start going, “let me turn my head and check my own blindspot.”
What do you hope people take away from this story and these characters?
Just recognizing that the way you see things maybe is not the whole picture. That’s always what I aim for as a fiction writer. And I think the TV show does a great job of sort of doing that visually.
Following the success of the Little Fires Everywhere book and now with the recognition it has received from the series, does this make you feel any pressure for your next story to be something readers will enjoy just as much?
I always feel that pressure, but it comes as much from inside me as from outside. Of course I want my readers to enjoy my next book — but as an artist I also want to challenge myself, and push myself into new territory. That means exploring new stories and new characters, and I hope readers will trust me and come along to wherever I go next.
Do you have any new books in the works and would you even explore the producer role in any other projects?
I’m working on my next novel, which is a slow process but one I’m excited about. I think my main form will always be fiction — and likely novels — but I do love exploring new ways to tell stories, including on film, so never say never, I guess.
Little Fires Everywhere is available to stream on Hulu now.
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