I can’t tell you how excited I am about this interview today! It’s not every day that a girl gets to feature the author of the #1 book on Amazon of 2014 so today is incredibly special. I have a feeling that many of you have read Everything I Never Told You and will enjoy hearing the story behind the story on this book.
We read this book in my local book club and I thought a lot about it after I closed it. It dealt with racial tensions that I had not been aware of and also spoke to me because so many of us have things we never tell the people we love and it makes you think about your own family and words that are unspoken.
Everything I Never Told You is a beautiful debut novel and Ng’s descriptive language is such a treat to read. When a family’s daughter goes missing the lives of her family members begin unraveling through Ng’s beautiful storytelling. The reader is taken on a journey from the very beginning of the relationship of the parents and moving through each family member, including Lydia, their missing daughter. Everything I Never Told You is every character’s story that was never told- from the disappointment felt by parents to not fitting in due to their race to what roles they were expected to fill in the family (whether wanted or not).
This is a book that would lend itself well to a book club discussion since it tackles the big issues of parental roles/expectations as well as the heartache of youth and the challenges with fitting in. I think it is important to set expectations though with genres and I did not find this to read like a mystery or thriller, but more of a character-driven piece. This is a beautifully written family drama and for fans of this genre, you will really fall in love with Ng’s storytelling.
This book was featured in our Must-Read List for March!
It is such an honor to have Celeste Ng join me today. If you don’t know how to pronounce her name- check out her Twitter handle (AWESOME!). Now that you know the important stuff, let’s settle in with a cup of coffee and hear more from Celeste about her debut novel.
You open with the death of Lydia in the very opening sentences of the book and then build the story from there. Why did you decide to start with her tragic death and then work your way out in the story?
In earlier drafts, the book began quite differently: “At first, they don’t know where Lydia has gone.” And neither did the reader, until about thirty or forty pages in. What I realized, eventually, was that this pointed the reader in the wrong direction. It prompted the reader to focus on whether Lydia was alive or dead, rather than on what happened within the family to lead to her death.
So in the last draft of the novel, I changed the opening and put Lydia’s fate right up front. Once you know that Lydia is dead, that information colors everything you read afterwards.
Race plays a big part in this novel and, to be honest, I was embarrassingly unaware of racial discrimination among Asians in the 70’s, particularly in the disapproval of the relationship between the white mother (Marilyn) & the Asian father (James) in the Lee family. Was this something that you had heard about, researched, or have you experienced this discrimination firsthand?
Unfortunately, discrimination among Asians isn’t just limited to the 1970s. It still happens today, both overtly and in what we might now call microaggressions: small actions, often not intended as malicious, that remind people of their otherness. With one exception, every moment of racism or racial tension in the novel is something that I or someone I know personally has experiences firsthand. And these moments aren’t rare: every person of color I’ve spoken with has experienced something similar, no matter where they live.
Your book was selected as the #1 book of the ENTIRE YEAR on Amazon in 2014. First, what was it like to find out that your debut novel was selected as this and, secondly, do you feel added pressure to deliver something just as epic in your next book?
Here’s how I found out about the Amazon pick: I was sitting in my living room drinking tea and playing with my son when someone tweeted “Congratulations!” at me. I actually had to tweet back, “On what?!” So the whole experience has been surreal, and I’m very grateful to Amazon’s editorial team for championing the book.
I do feel some pressure to deliver another book that will live up to the response for this first one—how could I not? But honestly, the expectations have an upside as well. Writing is such an uncertain job; you work for years on a single project and hope that when it’s done, someone will read it. Having so many people read and respond to the book makes me more optimistic that people will want to read the next one, too.
The title of your book, Everything I Never Told You, is the anthem of every character in this book as they all have their own secrets and struggles that they can’t seem to share with others. Was there anything you have never shared with someone that you wished you would have and what message do you hope your readers will walk away with from reading this book?
My father passed away unexpectedly over a decade ago, and I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye properly. (None of us did.) I think about that a lot, about what I’d have said if we’d have another chance to talk. And even now, I often think of things that I’d like to share with him—not important things necessarily, just jokes he’d have enjoyed or observations he’d have gotten a kick out of. More than the Big Important Topics, those kind of small things are the glue that holds a relationship together. I guess I hope that readers will close the book thinking about how life is short—and precious—and will make a conscious choice to never take the time they have with loved ones for granted.
As a mom, I really struggled with Marilyn leaving her family behind in this book because she felt she did not get to pursue her own dreams. I will admit, I was actually pretty angry with her as this family hobbled along in her absence. I think being a mom does mean sometimes we have to put our dreams on hold in order to make our family lives work. Did you sympathize with Marilyn? Have you ever had to put anything on hold in your own life because of your family?
It’s totally okay to be angry with Marilyn! (She makes some questionable choices, as do all the other characters.) But you’re right, being a mom, you’re in a constant juggling act trying to balance the needs of your family and your own needs. This is true for any parent, of course, but in today’s world, it’s especially true for mothers.
As a working mom myself, I end up putting my family before my own wants a lot of the time—as do most parents, I think. Sometimes these are small things: maybe I’d rather have chicken one night but I cook spaghetti because that is what my kid will eat. Sometimes they’re larger: for example, I’d love to go on a writing retreat, like the ones at McDowell (where someone brings you your lunch every day while you work!) But that would be a huge strain on my family, so it’s off the table, at least for a while.
And in fact, I’d miss them too much if I were away for so long. That’s the thing that makes it hardest: you’re not just choosing between something you want and something they want, you’re choosing between something you want and something they want that you want too. Your desires get all mixed up with your family’s and it becomes hard to even tell what you yourself want. So yes, I have a lot of sympathy for Marilyn.
What can we expect from you in your next book?
The next book is still very much in draft form, so I won’t say too much about it yet—I’m still working out the details! But it takes place in my hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, and focuses on a family living there and a mother-daughter pair (with some secrets in their past) who move in from out of town, and the ways those two families get entangled and stir up trouble for one another.
If you could tell anyone to read one book right now (other than your own) what would that book be?
Just one? That’s a very hard choice to make. I’d go with The Bluest Eye, because Toni Morrison is one of my all-time favorite authors and that book says so much about race and culture and identity and love, and it’s beautifully written to boot.