Celeste Ng is the author of the novel Everything I Never Told You (June 2014, Penguin Press). She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. Celeste attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, the Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere, and she is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize. Currently she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and son, where she teaches fiction writing at Grub Street and is at work on a second novel and a collection of short stories.
TPP: Describe your novel in ten words or less.
Celeste Ng: A favorite daughter’s sudden death reveals her mixed-race family’s secrets.
TPP: What inspired you to write Everything I Never Told You?
CN: The specifics: my husband told me an anecdote about seeing a girl fall into a lake when he was a kid, and that image stuck with me. I started writing to explore who she was, what her family was like, and how she ended up in the water, and this troubled family emerged.
More generally, though, I’ve always been fascinated by secrets, how they can erode you from within. I wanted to look at what that could do to a family, especially in the wake of a tragedy. When you lose someone, there are often so many unanswered questions—all these unintentional secrets, large and small. You think of all the things you want to ask them, and all the answers they’ll never be able to give you. My father died ten years ago, and I’m still thinking of things I wish I could ask him.
TPP: What do you want readers to take away from your novel?
CN: I hope readers will close the book thinking about what it’s like to be an outsider, to feel different from other people around you in any way. Every character in this book is an outsider in some way, and that can be so isolating. What is fiction for if not to help you imagine your way into someone else’s experience and find connection there?
And I hope readers will leave with an appreciation of how difficult it can be to really communicate with someone, even if—maybe particularly if—you’re very close to them. Sometimes there’s more risk in being honest with the people you care about most; there’s so much more at stake. The title, Everything I Never Told You, works two ways: it refers to the secrets we keep on purpose— the things we hide because we’re frightened or ashamed—but it also speaks to the things we leave unsaid because we don’t realize other people are waiting to hear them. I love you. I miss you. You’re important. It sounds a little cheesy, but those are things we often leave implicit and yet long to hear explicitly.
TPP: What advice can you give aspiring authors? What advice do you wish you would’ve been given?
CN: I wish I’d been told—earlier on—to be kinder to myself when writing. Sometimes you work and work on something and it just doesn’t… take. It’s really hard to put those things in the metaphorical drawer, and really easy to beat yourself up about how you’re not “making progress” (what a slippery concept). But sometimes stories, and even books, just don’t click. There’s no shame in putting them aside. You learn something from everything you write, even if it never sees the light of day. And sometimes, old pieces resurrect themselves in surprising ways. I once started a story about Dick Cheney in 2005, couldn’t get it to work, and set it aside, only to come back in 2013 and finally finish it, in a different form.
Here’s the advice I like to give my students: Read widely—pick up things that you wouldn’t ordinarily. You don’t have to finish, but think of it as tasting a new food to expand your palate. You never know what you’re going to like. The same goes with writing: write widely. Experiment with forms and genres you wouldn’t usually. Again, you don’t have to finish, but you might end up liking it. Trying new things is how you hone in on your own style—actually, that’s kind of good advice for life in general.
TPP: If your novel was made into a film, who could you see cast as the main characters?
CN: I am very, very strongly against yellowface—and there aren’t a lot of Asian actors getting screentime today. So I’d love the film to be a star turn for a bunch of hitherto-unknown Asian and part-Asian actors, catapulting them into the spotlight, especially for the kids! But if I had to cast people we already know: how about Tony Chiu-Wai Leung as James. And maybe Laura Linney as Marilyn—no one else can walk the line between intense passion and slightly-scary obsession like her.
To learn more about Celeste Ng, visit her website.
From Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Celeste Ng, 2014.
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”
Upstairs, Marilyn opens her daughter’s door and sees the bed unslept in: neat hospital corners still pleated beneath the comforter, pillow still fluffed and convex. Nothing seems out of place. Mustard-colored corduroys tangled on the floor, a single rainbow-striped sock. A row of science fair ribbons on the wall, a postcard of Einstein. Lydia’s duffel bag crumpled on the floor of the closet. Lydia’s green bookbag slouched against her desk. Lydia’s bottle of Baby Soft atop the dresser, a sweet, powdery, loved-baby scent still in the air. But no Lydia.
Marilyn closes her eyes. Maybe, when she opens them, Lydia will be there, covers pulled over her head as usual, wisps of hair trailing from beneath. A grumpy lump bundled under the bedspread that she’d somehow missed before. I was in the bathroom, Mom. I went downstairs for some water. I was lying right here all the time. Of course, when she looks, nothing has changed. The closed curtains glow like a blank television screen.
Downstairs, she stops in the doorway of the kitchen, a hand on each side of the frame. Her silence says everything. “I’ll check outside,” she says at last. “Maybe for some reason—” She keeps her gaze trained on the floor as she heads for the front door, as if Lydia’s footprints might be crushed into the hall runner.
Nath says to Hannah, “She was in her room last night. I heard her radio playing. At eleven thirty.” He stops, remembering that he had not said goodnight.
“Can you be kidnapped if you’re sixteen?” Hannah asks. Nath prods at his bowl with a spoon. Cornflakes wilt and sink into clouded milk.
Their mother steps back into the kitchen, and for one glorious fraction of a second Nath sighs with relief: there she is, Lydia, safe and sound. It happens sometimes—their faces are so alike you’d see one in the corner of your eye and mistake her for the other: the same elfish chin and high cheekbones and left-cheek dimple, the same thin-shouldered build. Only the hair color is different, Lydia’s ink-black instead of their mother’s honey-blond. He and Hannah take after their father—once a woman stopped the two of them in the grocery store and asked, “Chinese?” and when they said yes, not wanting to get into halves and wholes, she’d nodded sagely. “I knew it,” she said. “By the eyes.” She’d tugged the corner of each eye outward with a fingertip. But Lydia, defying genetics, somehow has her mother’s blue eyes, and they know this is one more reason she is their mother’s favorite. And their father’s, too.
Then Lydia raises one hand to her brow and becomes his mother again.