Everything I Never Told You: Author Interview and Giveaway
Today we welcome Celeste Ng to YABC! Celeste's book, Everything I Never Told You, has been released in a gorgeous new paperback edition! Ng's is a novel filled with family, responsibility, culture, and the struggles presented when all three combine. Celeste is sharing a few things with us today in an interview plus a giveaway of her book!
Celeste Ng is the author of the novel Everything I Never Told You. She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere, and she is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize. Currently, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and son. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website at http://celesteng.com or follow her on Twitter: @pronounced_ing.
Now meet Celeste's book.
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.
Let the interview begin in...
Interviewed by Lauren Thoman, YABC Listing Manager.
1. As you know, YABC is a site for YA and children's book readers and authors. While Everything I Never Told You takes place in the '70s and is not technically YA, it includes several teen characters grappling with issues I'm sure are relevant to a lot of our readers today, such as parental expectations, sibling relationships, and the burden of not fitting in among one's peers. How, if at all, did you draw upon your own teen experiences to inform those of your characters, and is there anything in particular that hope teen readers would take away from your novel?
Celeste Ng: I had a pretty good experience as a teen—much better than many teens, I suspect—but I was always very aware of the ways in which I was different. As one of very few Asians in my community, I was always conscious of how Asian I was. But I didn’t speak Cantonese or know much about Chinese culture—so when I went to visit family in San Francisco or in Hong Kong, I was then extremely conscious of how unChinese I was. It was a weird middle ground. And I was a quirky kid who grew into a quirky teen with odd obsessions: miniatures, old TV shows, writing poems. So I tried to draw on that feeling of not quite fitting in. And I hope that in reading the novel, teen readers will start to realize that they’re not alone: that everyone feels like a bit of an outsider, and that that’s okay.
2. Everything I Never Told You is set in the late 1970s, although some parts flash back even earlier. What were your reasons for picking this particular time period?
CN: As I started to get to know the characters and the burdens they were struggling under, the 1970s seemed like a time that highlighted everything most powerfully. In the 1970s, for instance, a mixed-race family would have been much less common—and it would have been even less common in the 1950s, when the parents meet and marry. Similarly, just being Asian American in the Midwest would have been a very, very different experience. And that time seemed particularly poignant for Marilyn, the mother, in particular: I think it must have been a very bittersweet moment for women of her age, who were seeing many opportunities open up for their daughters that they themselves had just missed out on.
3. One of the big things that drew me to your book was the fact that it was about a Chinese-American family, with a Chinese father and a white mother, which mirrors my own family. There aren't a lot of books out there with Chinese-American protagonists, especially an entire family, and I loved how each character was shaped, in part, by their heritage. Can you talk about your approach to writing the Lees, and what details were most important for you to get right in order to make them feel truly authentic?
CN: Thank you—I’m so glad to hear that! I guess you can say I cheated a little, because the Lees don’t express their Chinese heritage in the ways most people expect: they don’t eat Chinese food, they don’t speak Chinese, they don’t follow any specific cultural customs. James, the father, is the only one who really has close ties with Chinese culture, and it was important to me to get the details of a particular Chinese-American experience right, from the “paper sons” in his ancestry to the char siu bao that awake some powerful memories in him. Those were things I knew about from my own personal experience, and places where I feel my own ties to Chinese culture most strongly: family, food, language.
Even more than the specific details, though, I wanted to get the psyche of that particular experience right: the feeling James has that no matter how long he lives in the U.S., he’ll always be seen as a foreigner; the reluctance to talk about his background or painful emotions in an attempt to move past it. In my experience, there’s a lot of subtext in Chinese culture—a lot of things are implied rather than explicitly stated—and that carries over into how the members of this family interact with each other.
4. Everything I Never Told You is told in a shifting third-person point of view. Some scenes stick with one character for their entirety, while others bounce from one perspective to another. You also jump around in time, weaving in flashbacks with the more current narrative. I think it worked beautifully, but it can't have been easy to write. Why did you choose to tell the story this way, and did you use any particular methods or tricks to keep track of your multiple narrators and time periods as you wrote?
CN: The novel went through four drafts, and the story stayed essentially the same: what I was struggling with was the structure. I wanted to look at how past and future reverberate with one another, so I tried a lot of different ways of telling the story so you could see how they intertwine. I tried many different story structures, and even more ways to try and keep track of everything. I wrote important scenes on index cards, pinned them to my wall, and connected them with string to show the different storylines. I color-coded by narrator. I made reverse-outlines of the novel. Just before I started writing the final draft, I drew a crazy diagram of the book to remind myself of how the pieces logically fit together. There has to be an easier way, but I didn’t find it! Maybe for the next book...
5. Between the historical setting and the difficult subject matter, I'm sure you had to do quite a bit of research for Everything I Never Told You. Did that present a challenge for you, or are you a person who loves to research? What other challenges did you face while writing this story?
CN: I love research, because so often reality is stranger than anything I can make up. For this book, most of the research came from digging into the characters and fleshing them out as people—and enough of the 1970s carried over into my childhood that I could furnish much of the setting from memory. I grew up with rotary phones with long cords, record players with scratchy needles, stick shift cars, all of that! But I did research some of the period details. I watched YouTube videos of the Gemini 9 space mission, for instance, and I combed through old TV schedules to find out what would have been airing nights.
6. Which character was the easiest for you to write? And which was the most difficult?
CN: Hannah was probably the easiest for me to write, because she’s the most like me. She has a lot of my mannerisms—I, too, hid under furniture to eavesdrop on my family as a kid!—and her role in the story is kind of like mine as the author: she’s trying to figure out everyone’s stories and put them together into a cohesive narrative. Jack, too, was a joy to write: he’s the most perceptive of all the characters, and he sees everyone a bit more clearly than they can see themselves. I have a real soft spot for both of those characters.
The hardest to write was probably Lydia. She does a lot of things that we, the readers, don’t approve of. And she lashes out at the people she loves in a few places, too. She’s a very secretive person—she buries all of her feelings deep—so while writing her, I really had to dig to figure out what she was thinking and feeling. It sounds funny to talk about a character that way, but I think of getting to know my characters like getting to know someone in person: some people are right upfront with how they’re feeling and hide nothing, and in ten minutes you know their whole history and their opinions on everything. Other people are much more reserved, and you need to really spend time with them before they open up.
7. How did you first come up with the idea for Everything I Never Told You? And can you tell us a little bit about what you're working on now?
The very first seed of the plot came from an anecdote my husband happened to tell me: when he was about 8, he was at a friend’s house and his friend pushed his own little sister into a pond at the back of their house. She was fine, but I kept thinking about what their relationship was like before that—and how this incident might have changed it afterwards!—and the story grew and evolved from that image of a girl falling into the water.
I’m slowly getting back into writing mode, so I’m still figuring out the next novel! I won’t say too much as it’s bound to change, but it takes place in my hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio—a suburb of Cleveland that’s very lovely, very progressive, and fairly diverse. It focuses on a family living in Shaker Heights and a mother and daughter who come from out of town, and the ways these two families get entangled with each other.
8. What were your favorite books when you were Lydia's and Nath's ages?
When I was a teenager, I was reading a lot of classics in school for the first time—Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Flies,Things Fall Apart—and I remember being absolutely floored by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, too. On my own, I read a lot of poetry—Anne Sexton’s Transformations and Complete Poems, as well as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, were big influences. (And now I feel very trite!)
9. What are you currently reading?
On my nightstand right now are Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi; and a bunch of ARCs that I’ve been enjoying: Still Life Las Vegas by James Sie, The Hundred Year Flood by Matthew Salesses, and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.
Everything I Never Told You
By: Celeste Ng
Paperback Release Date: May 12, 2015
Three winners will receive a paperback copy of Everything I Never Told You. US and Canada only.
Entering is simple, just fill out the entry form below. During this giveaway, Celeste has a question for entrants. Here is the question they'll be answering in the comments below for extra entries: How many drafts of the story did Celeste go through before using shifting point of views?
*Click the Rafflecopter link to enter the giveaway*