In Celeste Ng's new novel, "Little Fires Everywhere," a quiet and well-ordered Ohio suburb gets turned upside when a single mother and her daughter move in — and a debate over a transracial adoption splits the town in two.
Ng, also the author of the bestselling novel "Everything I Never Told You," joined Boston Public Radio to discuss the new book and her own experience growing up in the meticulously ordered suburb that inspired it. A partial transcript of the conversation follows.
MARGERY EAGAN: Give people a bigger picture of what you're getting at in "Little Fires Everywhere."
CELESTE NG: "Little Fires Everywhere" takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio, which is a suburb of Cleveland. It's actually my own hometown. It follows two families: one, the Richardsons, who have lived there for several generations, they've got four teenagers, mom and dad, in a typical nuclear suburban family, and they're very much of that community; and then a mother and daughter who come in from out of town and stir up some trouble for them. The complications they cause for each other as the town is sort of split over a transracial adoption, the adoption of a baby. These two families end up on opposite sides and start digging into each others' pasts with disastrous consequences for everybody.
JARED BOWEN: To understand the people of this town, it's great to understand the town. It's fascinating to know you grew up there. Describe for us what it is, how it was planned. It seems ripe for a writer.
NG: Shaker Heights was one of the first planned communities in the United States. It's on the east side of Cleveland, it's a commuter suburb, and it was a great place to grow up. I loved growing up there, and I still have really fond memories of the town. It prides itself on being very idyllic, very beautiful, very progressive, and very racially integrated, and it is all of those things. But the way that they get there is through planning out everything. So for a long time, the city had rules about what colors you could paint your house, so every house would be harmonious — not the same, but harmonious with all the other houses. They had a lot of different rules. There are still rules about how often you have to mow your lawn, how you can't put your garbage at the curb and make the street look messy.
EAGAN: Hold on. So that's really true, what you talked about in the book, if you had more than six inches of lawn, somebody called you or came over?
NG: We definitely went away to Hong Kong one summer to visit family, we were away for about three weeks, and we came back and the city had mowed our lawn, and they had sent us a bill because the lawn had grown too tall, and we couldn't have that. So they mow your lawn and send you a bill because they've done yard work for you.
And the garbage trucks, as I said in the book, it's really true: you're not supposed to put your garbage at the front curb because then the street will look messy on garbage day. You have to keep your garbage in the back of the house, and the city has these very small garbage trucks, about the size of a golf cart, that just zip down every driveway and pick up the garbage in the back and carry it up to the regular garbage truck in the front. So you never see garbage at the front of the house. At the time I thought this was normal, and then I went elsewhere and noticed that not many people do this. ...It was garbage day yesterday where I live, and I was thinking, 'Well, the garbage cans are out on the street — it does look really messy!'
BOWEN: One other element of the planned community that struck me — and this really comes to the surface with two of the characters in your book — is where people of less means, how they have to live. They're almost kind of hidden, in a way.
NG: Yes. It comes from a good place, in a way. The community is very aware of class distinctions, but the way they choose to try and mitigate those distinctions is, in some ways, making people live in, say, a two-family house, who are often renters, pretend that they're not. There are several areas in which there are a lot of duplexes, and the rule is they have to look like a single-family house from the outside. So here in Boston, it's pretty easy to tell if you go to Dorchester or even parts of Cambridge or Somerville, it's easy to tell when it's a two-family house, because often there are two doors. It's easy to tell if it's a triple-decker because you can see that there are three apartments that look exactly like each other above, and sometimes the people who live in those houses don't agree, and the house is painted two different colors, that happens every now and then. In Shaker Heights, the rule is the house has to look like a single-family. There can only be one front door. There can only be one mailbox. There's only one front door light. The two apartments aren't necessarily the same, because from the outside you don't want the house to look like it's been split in half. And so, it comes from this good impulse of saying, 'We don't want people to feel like they're lesser because they're renting or because they can't afford a whole house,' but it's an odd way to solve the problem because it's saying 'We're going to make everyone pretend they're living in a single-family house.' ...
BOWEN: How did you arrive at this concept that you explore in the book, of one family rubbing up against another, and one family really feeling — and, in some regard, made to feel — 'other,' because of where they live, and how they're treated?
NG: It always happens organically for me. I started from wanting to write about this community, because it was so intriguing to me. It was both that it had this progressive inclusiveness and also these blind spots that communities have. I thought, 'Let me think of families who would live there,' and that's how I came up with the Richardsons, who had been there for a long time. They're nuclear, the mother and father are white-collar, well-to-do. Then I thought, 'Well, who is going to come in and stir up trouble for them?' That's when I came up with this other family who, as you said, are the opposite. They move around a lot. She's a single mom. She's an artist, so she doesn't have the most stable of careers, and so on. She's very secretive about who she is, whereas in Shaker Heights and for this other family, roots are such a big thing. As a writer, once you get those two components, you put them together and you see what happens.
Click the audio player above to hear more from Celeste Ng. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.