Almost all you need to know for the purpose of traversing this conversation with novelist Celeste Ng is contained therein. Raised in the middle west (Pittsburgh, Cleveland), she attended University of Michigan. Her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, published in the summer of 2014, was well received. Alexander Chee wrote:
“If we know this story, we haven’t seen it yet in American fiction, not until now…Ng has set two tasks in this novel’s doubled heart—to be exciting, and to tell a story bigger than whatever is behind the crime. She does both by turning the nest of familial resentments into at least four smaller, prickly mysteries full of secrets the family members won’t share…What emerges is a deep, heartfelt portrait of a family struggling with its place in history, and a young woman hoping to be the fulfillment of that struggle. This is, in the end, a novel about the burden of being the first of your kind—a burden you do not always survive.”
Celeste and I sat down in my local caffeine emporium and grappled with subjects far and wide—the Washington Redskin controversy, growing up in Cleveland, the University of Michigan, her parents’ view of her career choice, Charles Baxter, parenting, war criminal Dick Cheney, vernacular photography, posterity and much more. We even talk about her novel, Everything I Never Told You.
Robert Birnbaum: Currently there’s a controversy about the Washington Redskins and their name?
Celeste Ng: Yes.
RB: Apparently people–some people, mostly Native Americans–find that [name] offensive.
CN: I don’t think it’s only Native Americans. I think that we’re getting to the point maybe where we’re starting to recognize that it’s not a term that we want to be using lightly. A friend of mine said, “It’s difficult to defend a slur just because you’ve learned to love it.” And I think that’s a good way of thinking about it. I think there’s something to be said for recognizing that this is a term that has a long history to it. And that maybe it’s a term that we don’t want to use as the name of our sports team.
RB: When you say maybe, do you mean maybe or do you mean definitely?CN: I think definitely, but I’m willing to acknowledge that other people might feel differently. Which is where I think the conversation needs to happen. I grew up in Cleveland, and the baseball team there is the Cleveland Indians, and the mascot for a long time (and still technically) is Chief Wahoo, who is this little cartoon red, cherry-red faced–
RB: Which occasionally still appears on hats.
CN: A lot less now, it’s replaced much more by a ‘C’ now, and I think that’s because there is an understanding that it’s worth something to be sensitive to how we portray other people, especially minorities whose rights have gotten trampled on in the past. But I remember when I was in high school, it comes and goes in Cleveland, but there was a wave of debate about whether Chief Wahoo should be retired and replaced with something else.
RB: It is an interesting conversation. I don’t agree with this Washington Redskins tiff. I think it’s a slur if people think it’s a slur, but it’s limited in its use and everybody knows it’s the name of a football team. It is certainly not meant to be a racial slur. I hate to claim ‘political correctness,’ but that seems to dictate the reason for getting rid of this name. And by the way, changing the name is not going to help Native Americans—they continue to be consistently screwed.
CN: Well I agree with that, but I’m a writer, so I believe that words have power and that words have meaning, and I think that it’s difficult to divorce that term, ‘Redskins,’ from the history of its use—
RB: No it’s not, because most people don’t know the history today. It’s an ahistorical term.
CN: I don’t know, I think, though, that would you make the same argument if you were using different terms that we have that are still considered to be slurs?
RB: I wouldn’t mind if the team was called the Washington Yids, and I’m Jewish. In fact I’d enjoy it, ’cause I think Jews are not normally represented in sports teams. [laughs]
CN: But what if the team were called the Washington _____s, which is still a term we have feelings about?
RB: I think that’s OK.
CN: I think it’s reasonable to be concerned about going overboard with political correctness because I certainly think that that does happen. At the same time, though, I think that when there are groups that have had to deal with a lot of discrimination in the past, that being sensitive to their concerns, and if you say this isn’t going to change what happened on the reservation or the situation that you find yourself in socioeconomically, any of that sort of stuff–I don’t think that it’s a pointless gesture to acknowledge those concerns.
RB: Right. Well, think about this–and I think the least cynical person, least skeptical person, will see what Dan Snyder, the owner of the team, did as some kind of a placebo, but he started an American Indian foundation, or a nonprofit foundation, which he claims he will contribute for the welfare of Native Americans. Now, that’s a lot better than the patent office rejecting the name or rejecting the copyright of the name Redskin. So, it seems like the conversation is good because people think about these issues, but changing the name seems a meaningless gesture. It’s a sports team, in a highly monetized sport.
CN: It’s true, but I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. I don’t think that just because the patent office rejected the name of the Redskins, and for whatever implications it has for the name of the team, I don’t think that that means that we now don’t need to do anything else. Just because he started a foundation, which is fantastic, and which is maybe a more meaningful gesture, it doesn’t mean that other gestures also lose their meaning.
RB: My interest in weighing in on this issue is, what’s good for the Native Americans? What can be gained for the Native Americans? Starting a conversation, whatever flimsy basis it rests on, is fine with me. I guarantee you most Americans have no idea how badly the Native Americans were treated, and how badly the US government acted. And in fact you could characterize some of the former US government officials, as genocidal war criminals. So…alright, I got all worked up, I got that out of my system. You’re Vietnamese, yes?
CN: No, Chinese.
RB: You are Chinese–Ng is a Chinese name?
CN: Ng is a Chinese name. You’re maybe thinking of Nguyen, which is N-G-U-Y-E-N, it’s a really common Vietnamese name. My family is Chinese.
RB: That ruins my first question, ’cause I was gonna say, “What’s a Vietnamese woman…have you received any complaints that a Vietnamese woman has written about Chinese–” [laughs] Ok. Um, before I get any further, who are you rooting for in the World Cup? [This conversation took place in June 2014.] Do you care about that?
CN: I’ve been following, but I don’t have enough loyalty to pay attention to that.
RB: No horse in the race, as they say…Were the kids in your novel smarter than their parents?
CN: I don’t know that anyone in the story necessarily gets the stamp of approval of like, yes, you were smarter and you figured it out, you knew what was going on. I think each of them has their own limitations. The parents certainly do a lot of things that I don’t approve of, they all have their blind spots, but the kids do, too.
RB: Well in the kids’ case, that may be excusable…
CN: Maybe, because they’re kids, right? I think you have to see what happens to them when they grow up and see what happens to them when they become parents. I think it’s easy to say when you’re younger, “Oh, ok, well I’m not going to do the same thing my parents did, I’m going to be smarter than that.” And it’s a lot harder when you get older and as everyone seems to, you turn into your parents in one way or another, and you realize why it was that they were doing all the things that they did and why they messed up in all the ways they did. Because even as an adult I think you don’t know what you’re doing, you muddle through a lot of the time.
RB: [laughs] A startling revelation!
CN: I know! I used to think when I was a kid that adults knew what they were doing, and that they knew what was going on, and if there were problems that came up, that they were–they had it.
RB: And that gives you a sense of security out of a need for a sense of security.
CN: Right, and I think children need that. I think it can be really debilitating for children to see adults in their life not be acting like adults, or at least not trying to act like adults, and I think that happens a lot…
RB: That would be more educative than holding onto the fantasy that parents are invincible.
CN: No, I think that’s true, but I think that there’s an age-appropriate time for that lesson. And I think that if you’re a four-year-old child, for example, and you see your parent totally incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs or anything like that, that that can be really destabilizing, whereas I think that if you were maybe ten or eleven or fourteen, you’re maybe more prepared for that. Sort of like how you don’t ask a child who’s five to do a geometric proof. Or, you know, do a lab experiment involving a Bunsen burner. Because they’re not ready for that. You don’t ask them to write a long essay, you ask them to write a couple sentences. But then when they get older, there’s a time when you say, now you’re prepared to think about these things, think more in depth. I think it’s a similar thing.
RB: What were your parents like?
CN: So, both my parents were scientists. My father passed away about ten years ago, but he was a physicist, he worked for NASA doing research. My mom was chemist, so they were both very practical people, very pragmatic people. They were both immigrants; they came from Hong Kong. So I’m first generation, and I think that also encouraged them to be very practical, pragmatic. You accept that there are certain things that you can’t control and you work around. And at the same time it doesn’t mean that you stop trying to go, “OK I want to do this, I want to learn this, I want to fight this fight, or I wanna climb this ladder,” but you, I think you learn to work with what you have. So that’s the kind of people that they really were.
RB: You went to Harvard and Michigan. I didn’t get where you grew up.
CN: I was born outside of Pittsburgh. And then I grew up in Cleveland. On the east side of Cleveland.
RB: Wow. When you tell people, “I grew up in Pittsburgh,” or, “I lived in Cleveland,” what’s their facial reaction?
CN: It depends on the age of the person. [RB laughs] A lot of people who remember Cleveland from the ’70s, tend to make a particular face or they wince a little bit, and they look a little bit sorry, but they’re not sure if it’s ok to say that they’re sorry.
RB: They remember the Randy Newman song.
CN: Yes. Well it depends. There’s another generation of people who, when they think of Cleveland, they think of Major League, with the Randy Newman song in it. Yet, the younger generation thinks of Drew Carey, and The Drew Carey Show, and the “Cleveland Rocks” song. So, there’s kind of a spectrum of reactions to hearing that I’m from Cleveland. It is not glamorous. I think people have certain associations about Cleveland as being rough-and-tumble or being really fallen down. They think of the river being on fire. Or they think of LeBron James now, and all the sports losses that the city has racked up.
RB: So your parents were thrilled when you announced that you were going to be a writer?
CN: They were mostly sort of puzzled. [RB laughs] They were in the sciences, but we read a lot, and they always bought me books. They used to buy me books as rewards for doing well in school. Although, secretly, I think they would have bought those books anyway. We always had a lot of bookshelves in our house, and the books ended up being stuck in sideways from running out of room, two layers of books, one behind each other so you had to remember which books were behind the other. So they were–and my mother still is a reader. And they really brought us up to value just reading and learning. But when I said I was going to be a writer I think they were mostly just a little bit puzzled because it’s so far outside of what they know.
RB: Did they know any writers?
CN: They know a lot of people, and my mom did some writing when she was younger, and we have a couple of writers in our family that we’re sort of proud of. Way back, I have a lot of scientists in my family, we have a lot of engineers in our family, but my mother’s–I think her great grandfather–wrote the first English language, English grammar book in Hong Kong. And that was something that our family was always sort of proud of.
RB: The Strunk of Hong Kong?
CN: Something like that, and we’ve been trying to get a copy of it, but it involves actually going to the British library and getting a special pass, and going in and getting the gloves. Um, I feel like they should be able to send us a scan or something like that.
RB: They don’t get–They’re not actually in the 21st century, which may be OK.
CN: So I have to, at some point we actually have to go to London and try to get a copy of this, ’cause we’d really like to see it.
RB: That’s a good excuse to go to London.
CN: We’ll just go to London just for that. We’ve always had a respect in my family for writers. But it just wasn’t something that my parents did a lot of, they didn’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, they read a lot of classics. Dickens and Twain and things like that. Arthur Conan Doyle. So they were a little bit puzzled when I said that I wanted to be a writer. This wasn’t a surprise to them because I had been writing stories and poems since I was very young. But I remember that my original plan had been to get a PhD in English and kind of write fiction on the side. And I had a talk with a mentor of mine who was finishing her PhD, and I think she was maybe a little bit tired of the academic process. And she said, “You know, maybe you should think about an MFA.” And I said, “What is that?” So she explained it to me and I looked into it and I then said to my parents, “Ok, I think I’m going to get an MFA instead of a PhD.” And my Mom–they kinda didn’t say much. And then a couple days later I got an email from my mother. She said “Well, ok, I’ve been talking to my friend who is the chair of the English department [because my mother taught in the chemistry department at Cleveland State University, she knew a lot of faculty members] and he assures me that an MFA is a real degree that will qualify you to teach writing [which she spelt with a capital W] and artsy stuff [which she also capitalized].” So she said, “OK, I feel better.” ‘Cause they come out of a science background where PhD is the terminal degree, and this is what they understood. It was like learning a new language for them.
RB: Yeah, the world of the humanities. You ended up at Michigan—was that your first choice?
CN: Michigan actually was my first choice. I liked the philosophy and ethos of the program. I liked that there was an opportunity to teach. I liked the faculty that were there and their ideas about what a writing workshop should be. I liked also that the focus of the program is not necessarily that you came out with a book that was ready to be submitted to publishers but that you had some time to explore and try to figure out what you were doing, essentially, which is something I felt like I needed. And Michigan was actually my first choice. And I was coordinating with my now husband. He was going to law school and I wanted to go to an MFA program. So we were applying to a bunch of places that had both. And it came down to choosing between going to New York–where we had both gotten into Columbia–and going to Michigan. And he had been waitlisted at Michigan, and I had gotten in. So there was a while where we thought, “OK, we’re going to Columbia.” And then he got in off the waitlist at Michigan and we decided to go there, and it ended up being a really good fit for both of us.RB: Was Charles Baxter on the faculty when you were there?
CN: No, he had just left a few years before. So Peter Ho Davies was the head of the program at the time. And then Eileen Pollack was there (and is still there). And Nicholas Delbanco. And a young writer named Nancy Reisman, who is now at Vanderbilt.
RB: Charlie’s a great one.
CN: He’s fantastic.
RB: Have you met him since?
CN: I have met him. I had also applied to the University of Minnesota, and Charles Baxter actually had called me to admit me to the University of Minnesota. And I really liked him and I liked his work, so I’m sorry not to get a chance to work with him.
RB: Getting back to your novel, it seems to me there’s some space there to–if you’re interested in the continuation of the story, essentially the son, Nath–is that something you might be interested in?
CN: Never say never. Not at this point, I don’t think. I feel like I’ve said what needs to be said about the family for right now. I think that I have an idea of where they go. But, who knows? In the future, maybe they’ll come back to me.
RB: What’s the best part of writing the story, the getting ideas out? Creating characters and inhabiting their world? I don’t know what the other choices are but…
CN: I like the creating characters and digging into their world and figuring out, what makes these people tick? That’s something that I like in real life, too, is getting to know people, and just getting a sense of who they are, and why they do the weird things that they do. That’s what I sort of like. And for me that’s probably like 75% of the writing process, is sitting with the characters, writing about them, trying to figure out what is going on with them and why they’re doing what they do.
RB: Is it possible–is there any character in this slew of characters that you find more admirable or stand out in a way that most of them don’t?
CN: I don’t know if admirable is the right word, but I have a real fondness for Jack. I think because he, it’s certainly not that he doesn’t have secrets of his own but that he sees everybody a little bit more clearly, I think, than they see themselves. I think all of the members of the family have real blind spots when it comes to each other and also to themselves. And sometimes that’s willful denial and sometimes that’s just ignorance or the discomfort that comes from dealing with things that can be emotionally trying to talk about. And Jack, I think, sees everybody fairly accurately. He recognizes Lydia’s fault right away, which is that she doesn’t know what she wants, that she’s just doing what her family wants. And I think he knows himself fairly well too. He may be hiding things about himself. I don’t want to give away certain plot points, but I think that he at least recognizes himself a little bit more clearly than the other characters do. I think that’s a really hard skill honestly for people to have. To see yourself honestly and to just accept who you are.
RB: I’ll put “hard” in bold type there.
CN: Maybe capitals, too.
RB: I think I share your thoughts about Jack. He certainly was likable. And honesty is in short supply. It also indicated to me that this poor girl was a lot smarter than the rest of her family. Or a lot more in tune with other human beings. She kowtowed to her parents to create this false life. I had a friend of mine from HS visit me recently, and we were talking back and forth for hours, and at one point, out of nowhere he says something like, “Nobody asked me when I was younger if I was happy. Nobody! Why do people ask each other today if you’re happy?” Especially kids. I don’t know if asking a kid that is a kind of tipoff that you have no clue what’s going on with that kid and you want them to sort of waltz the truth…there was a question in there, I know.
CN: There is an implicit question in there. It’s an open question about, “Is life actually about being happy?” And being happy is also different from being actively unhappy. I think that when you’re a kid, I don’t know how much you think about being happy. I think that hopefully if you have reasonable parents and you have enough to eat and have a safe place to live, your default state is not unhappiness. Hopefully, right? And then things that make you unhappy are sort of spikes, right? You didn’t get something you wanted or you fell down or somebody pushed you, right? There are discreet moments of happiness and maybe discreet moments of unhappiness too, and the rest is sort of a default. I think maybe parents especially have a real blind spot when it comes to their kids, because, of course, you want your kid to be happy all the time. Especially if you yourself weren’t happy. Or if you as an adult aren’t happy. You really want that for your kid. And I think that maybe what your friend is talking about now, or part of what your friend is talking about now, is the feeling that we should be giving our kids all of those things. Maybe then recognizing that, you know, you cannot be happy all the time, you cannot have what you want all the time, which is actually a pretty important lesson for kids to learn.
RB: Well let me drag the phrase “age appropriate” out to you. At what point are they supposed to be learning that?
CN: I don’t know.
RB: There are–I don’t know if it’s–there was a phrase for a while bandied about called “tough love,” which sounded to me rather sterile. But there is the notion that you don’t sugar coat life. There’s no reason to. You don’t talk down to a kid. That’s not helpful.
CN: Well I don’t know if there is a particular age that works for everyone, but I think it also depends on the kid and the parent. I think your analogy about not talking down to kids is a good one. I have a three-and-a-half-year-old kid. And I try to–we went through the question phase. Where we get a lot of questions about, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that? What are we going to do next? Why is this person doing that?” And I try and answer as honestly as I can, but in a way that he’s going to understand. And I’m pretty good at guessing what he’s going to understand because I’ve spent a lot of time with him–he’s my kid. You know, so, we haven’t had to deal with a lot of the hard questions like, “What does dead mean?” Or, “Why don’t some people have enough money for food?” Or, “Why is that man asking for coins on the corner?”
RB: He asks those kinds of questions?
CN: Not yet, but I feel like they might be coming. We’ll see. But I feel like then you try and explain as much as you can so they understand at the time, and then you go from there. I feel like there are adults who still don’t know how to answer those questions.
RB: Do you think you’ll still be doing that when your child is fifteen?
CN: Doing what, explaining things in ways he can–
RB: Answering questions very sincerely.
CN: I hope so. I don’t know how much teenagers listen–I don’t think I listened very hard when I was a teenager. But I think a lot of it went in, even if I didn’t process it at the time. And then it comes back to you later and you figure those things out. You weren’t ready to hear them at the time, but they went in and they got stored somewhere in your brain and they came back out. So I would like–I hope so, I hope I’ll still be trying to answer questions honestly.
RB: I had this moment, which is a minor example of that this week, and it got me to thinking about this issue. My teenaged son asked me a minor question about my car, why does my car have three windshield wipers instead of two?
CN: On the front?
RB: Yeah, and I might have said I don’t know. I certainly didn’t give it any thought at the time, I basically dismissed it. Two days later, I’m looking at the windshield wipers and I thought, one, I really didn’t try very hard to answer his question and I feel bad about that, and–
CN: It takes lot of energy!
RB: And I wonder how prevalent that is in the rest of my life. And the rest of our history.
CN: I think it’s really common. I certainly, if I gave the impression that I’m always giving a full, measured answer to every question, that was definitely a misstatement. Sometimes you’re doing something, you’re driving the car. You cannot answer the question about what the lyrics in the song just said. But, I think, you know, it takes a lot of energy to do that, and a lot of time, and sometimes you cannot. I think maybe what’s tricky about that really is not even the times where you go, “Yeah, because…I don’t know.” But when you honestly don’t know the answer to something, and it’s something important, it’s hard to admit that you don’t know, and I think that’s also really valuable–this goes back to what we were talking about in the beginning, the idea that adults don’t know everything. They don’t really have it all figured out.
RB: Well I took this a little step further, and I figured, how am I going to explain to him why I think that is? And I went so far as to think about getting a tape measure. ‘Cause my theory is, it’s because the windshield’s larger. And just sort of playing it out for him. I think that’s another opportunity. You can say, “I don’t know,” but then you can say, “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out.”
CN: Let’s find out! Right.
RB: Look I think what that means, what you’re saying, or the way I interpret it is, that really means just being in the moment.
CN: I think that’s right.
RB: I think that that takes a lot of energy, that’s hard.
CN: It does. ‘Cause it’s much easier to just go, “I don’t know what that was about,” let it go, or ignore it.
RB: So what state do you return to after you’ve paid attention to that? Some fantasy world?
CN: I don’t know if it’s how my mind works. And I’ve only in the past few years started to find out that other people’s minds maybe don’t work that way, that I’m paying attention to a lot of stuff, and I’m just looking at a lot of things, and I’m thinking about them. And I think this is why when I go to bed at night I have to spend a while kind of daydreaming and just processing and thinking and then I have very strange dreams, because I guess maybe my brain is processing all that stuff. And then, you know, there are times when I need to just go and sit outside for a while and kind of…maybe that’s processing time, figuring out all that stuff I’ve been thinking about.
RB: Maybe? I’m convinced it is. It’s also the truism that you’re writing when you’re not writing.
CN: I think that’s right. It think of it as not the best analogy maybe but all of that stuff is in there fermenting and at some point is gonna turn into something.
RB: I wonder if creative people, writers especially because you have to do this, have these kind of conversations, are called upon to explain what that is, when that’s just a wasted activity. Just get onto the writing, forget about the hammers and the saws and the nails.
CN: It’s really difficult to explain how you do what you do if it’s something that you do intuitively. And I think that’s probably true for anybody. If you say to a painter, “Well why did you put this–how did you know you needed to put a little white in there? How did you know you needed to make it go this way? How did you know you needed to use that sized brush?” And it’s very difficult I think to explain what it is you’re doing. I am kind of a big Bob Dylan fan, and somebody recently sent me a link to YouTube videos of Bob Dylan interviews. And there’s one that he was doing an interview for, probably about 1965 or so, so he was just you know, starting to become Bob Dylan. And the interview is asking him these questions, and you could tell that he could, that he barely understood these questions. Things like, “Well, so, you wrote this song, and I heard you say that came to you all at once. How long did it take you to write?” And he said, “About maybe like ten minutes.” And the song was “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” and they said, “Well, how did you do that? How did you know how to write this song?” You could see he just didn’t understand how to answer the question, just “I don’t know, it just came to me, it just happened, and I wrote it down.” And they really tried to push him, like, “How did you know that you needed to write these words?” He just kept saying, “I don’t know, It just happened, I wrote it down.” At a certain point I think your process becomes a mystery even to you. You know, where did that image come from? I don’t know.
RB: Or he never bothered to, was not interested in finding out the how of it. Did you read his Chronicles?
CN: I haven’t read his Chronicles, no.
RB: I thought it was fascinating. His connections were out there. It was a lot of fun, and you could see this wide-ranging mind, you know, pulling disparate things together.
CN: And that’s one of the things that makes him so great. He is a musician, but he’s also a writer, the amount of wordplay that he does, lyrics and all that stuff, shows how wide-ranging his mind is and how interested he is in so many things. And how he’s making connections in ways that you might not think to make those connections. But I understand too the impulse to not look too closely at your own process, because in some ways you worry that’s going to take away the mystery of it. Maybe part of the way it works is that your subconscious is putting these things together, and if you sit there and analyze it, maybe you undo that.
RB: That’s a whole category that I think maybe–Dylan represents a whole category that I think is ignored in the whole narrative arts. Because what he wrote, I was gonna say were three-minute stories, but some of them were seventeen minutes.
CN: Some of them were quite longer than that.
RB: “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” or “Desolation Row.” I was floored. He sort of eased into the longer ballad, but even when he was singing “Masters of War” and “It’s Alright, Ma” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” I mean that stuff was fascinating to me. I still pay attention to people who write really good short-story songs. What is the feeling that you get when you’re writing–when you’re writing well? Tell me about, give me a couple words, adjectives.
CN: I don’t know if I can give you adjectives, but I can give you analogies. My dad used to say that he could watch me think when I was a kid. And that he’d watch me study something and then he said that it would be like I would run to my, open up my mental filing cabinet, flick through until I found the folder where related things were, and then I’d take it out and put it in the folder. So I would make connections that way, so I’d always think in analogies. One way of thinking about it is all the pieces are clicking to place. It’s such a cliche, but if you ever actually do a jigsaw puzzle and you’re sitting there–I never did them until I was teaching in graduate school, and we would sit in the student area for our students to come for office hours, and they never showed up, so we’d all be sitting there, and we’d be talking and–
RB: None of them thought it was a good idea to suck up to their teachers?
CN: Hardly any of them came by! You’d think that they would come by. So we’d be sitting–until there was a paper. So we’d be sitting waiting and talking to each other and somebody had put out a jigsaw puzzle just so we had something to do with our hands, because we couldn’t really do a lot of work while we were waiting. And you’d sit there and the satisfaction of looking through–it was like a 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle, huge, and there’d be five of us, six of us working on it, to look around and finally find the piece that you needed, and put it together. And you don’t know what that piece is, it’s something red, but you found these pieces that fit together, and you finally figure out that this is part of this person’s shirt. It’s a little bit like that except that you’re actually creating the pieces as you go along. The feeling like you have pulled something out of the ether and put it together. I guess that’s another way of thinking about it. If you imagine that you are–if you can figure out the right incantation to say, that you can materialize an object on the table in front of you. That’s a very–it sounds like a very conceited thing to say.
RB: You don’t think writers are conceited?
CN: Oh, we definitely are. We definitely are. But we try to sound like we’re not.
RB: Have you written, tried to write a story, tried to write a novel, that you couldn’t, that you had to put down because you couldn’t solve it?
RB: And then what happens to that, whatever you have left?
CN: It sits for a while.
RB: You just don’t throw it away?
CN: No, I keep everything. Literally I’m kind of a pack rat, but I also keep all my files and they sit around, and there have been stories that I have come back to after two, three, four years. In the fall I finally finished this story that I had started off, it must have been in 2005, because at the time Dick Cheney was still Vice President, and that figured into the story. And there’s a little girl in the story who is for some reason obsessed with Dick Cheney. And I started the story when he was the Vice President and that time has passed and he’s no longer the Vice President–
RB: Now he’s just a regular war criminal.
CN: Now he’s just somebody who comes by to criticize things that his administration started.
RB: Can you believe his most recent–he and his daughter–accusing Obama of missing foreign policy objectives, blah blah blah.
CN: I can’t even deal with a lot of the things that get said on cable news. A lot of times what I end up doing is reading the cable news through the filter of the Daily Show, for example, or something that makes it a little easier for me to cope with.
RB: Applying humor to some of this stuff does make it more easy to swallow, palliative or whatever.
CN: It’s true. And I wish that I were a funny writer, because I think that humor is really a great way of getting people to listen to what you’re saying.
RB: Let me read you something that I just came across. “The past leads to the present and beyond. By reading I discovered that art-making was a tradition that was bigger and no bigger than myself. I did not feel crippled by this knowledge. In fact, I was liberated by it. Being an artist meant you were connected to other people–ghosts, who had been as moved by the enterprise of creating as you are now. Evidence of their love was all over the movies and performances and books and dances and music that informed your present so deeply and indelibly. Acts of creation that stirred your imaginings to the point of making you wonder: How do I make this kind of film I want to see? Write the kind of story or poem I want to read? Perform the music, play or dance that is expressive of the artist that I’m meant to be?” The reason I’m reading this to you is that I’m wondering if you have stepped back in your life and had those kinds of thoughts.
CN: I think that’s really saying something about posterity and what you want to leave behind. And you think about when you are not physically present anymore, what portion of you will still stick around? And if I put it that way, I do think that I would like to make something that will continue to be around and make a difference to people. And ask them to think or connect with them in some way when I’m not here. I don’t necessarily believe in an afterlife. And so, in that sense, creating some kind of art, is as close to that as you’re gonna get, is as close to leaving your brain behind in a jar as you’re going to get. When I found out my book was going to be published, a friend of mine was moved to tears, and she said, “I was just thinking [because my son at the time was not more than two years old], I’m thinking about him when he’s older, that it will be amazing for him, and your grandchildren, if you have any, to know that this book is still around.” And I had not thought about that. And certainly was not thinking about grandchildren at that point in my life. But it was a nice way of thinking about it, to think that this is something that you can leave behind. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be Art with a capital A, though. Part of my husband’s family grew up in western New York, in a rural area. And they found old journals, just farm journals, and even to get to go back and read those and find out what their life is like, I think is really valuable.
RB: I think you sort of pointed out what vernacular art is. Which is that unpretentious found snapshots from 1900 that the museum–I can’t remember if it was MOMA or Met–one of them has a collection of 25000-30000 snapshots from the past, which they are now trying to do something with. In fact Maira Kalman published a book called Girls Standing on Lawns, in which maybe 10 of those kinds of photographs show up. Her and Daniel Handler, I don’t wanna say interpret them, but somehow transmogrify them into something else.
CN: Well I think that’s it. I mean the question of what is art, is something you find meaning in, and that doesn’t necessarily need to be painting or symphony, right? It could be a random snapshot, it could be a piece of paper you’ve found on the ground, but to a certain extent it requires interpretation, and sometimes it’s easy for people to sit and interpret it. We’re used to thinking, we’re sort of culturally trained to think, “OK, here is a book, I bought it in a store, I’m going to sit down and try to find meaning,” right? We’re less culturally inclined to say, “Here is somebody’s like random little post it note that I found left behind at the cafe, I’m gonna sit and make meaning of it.” But someone can do that, and that framing that you’re talking about by Maira Kalman is part of what helps people, encourages people to make meaning out of it. Maybe that’s what helps make art.
RB: I have two questions battling it out in my consciousness right now…about what remains, what is eternal, long lasting…I spoke to a writer recently who surprised me in their assessment of what writer from this era he thought would be the significant, remembered writer 100 years hence. Do you have a writer like that, you think?
CN: Just one?
RB: Well, tell me a few, if you think there are a few. Are you sure though, that there are–
CN: I don’t know, I don’t think I can be in a good position to judge that, because I feel like there’s a lot of important work that’s going on now, but you don’t know what’s gonna stay later on, you know?
RB: At your age, do you think about posterity? Besides this notion that you wanna leave a trail with your writing?
CN: Only a little bit. I don’t think that I think about it necessarily on a personal level. But I do think about it sometimes. If I think about it, I think about it on maybe a larger scale, like, what traditions am I working in? So I’m a woman writer, a Chinese-American writer, I’m an Asian-American writer, you know, there are a lot of different file folders that I could fit into.
RB: You’re a Harvard Writer, a University of Michigan–[laughs]
CN: I’m a mother who writes. You know, so there are a lot of different sort of labels that can go on there, and there are a lot of different traditions that I’m working in. And so I think too–because there are a lot of debates about those things, you know: What are you allowed to write about? What do women writers write? And, how are their productions viewed? A lot of the debates about–what is chick lit? Is this a thing–is this a useful label for us? If a man and a woman write the same novel, will the man’s be regarded as kind of American epic and the woman’s be regarded as a domestic novel? And I think that those are important questions. So I think about them. I don’t have the answers, but I’m aware of them while I’m working.
RB: I think I scanned–somebody from a website that was concerned about women writing, I think you did some kind of interview, and I thought, wow, that’s just really narrow. That’s just a narrowing of the–You’re clearly articulate and intelligent enough to come up with answers to these questions you’ve probably never thought of before. I guess there’s some areas that I’m not curious about. And I guess there are some areas that other people are curious about. Like, um, “What do you use to write with, a pencil or computer?” What do you hope to gain? Do you have a clear interest in talking to people about your work?
CN: I don’t know if I know what you mean by that.
RB: Will you learn anything from this conversation?
CN: I think that I definitely will learn something. I think anytime you talk to people who are really engaged in reading and writing and thinking about that–and all the issues that come with that, whether it’s your own work or somebody else’s, I think you learn a lot from that. Because I write from my own perspective and I read from my own perspective and I read a limited number of things, because of time, right? Everybody will say, I can’t read those things, I can only read a small subset. And any time that your circle in the Venn diagram overlaps with someone else’s, I think it’s useful to be reminded of what else is happening and what other people are thinking about. I think maybe that I gain more from talking about other people’s work than my own, just because I think it’s difficult to be a critic of your own work. And that’s essentially in some ways what you do when you talk about your own work. You try and pick it apart. And as we were saying before, that level of self-scrutiny can be really difficult. I don’t mean difficult like you don’t want to do it but that you don’t have a very clear sense of what you’re doing.
RB: Do you know how to edit yourself? Are you good at editing your own work?
CN: Reasonably good, I think. I think I often have an instinct about what needs to happen. Which is not at all to say that I don’t need other people to help. But in writing this novel, I went through four drafts, and somebody asked me yesterday, “Didn’t you ever just want to stop and just say it’s done?” And I said I absolutely did, but I kind of knew, well, this draft has this problem, this draft has this problem, and then when I gave it to friends of mine who are writers and who are good readers, they would read it and say, “Ok, this is good, this part, not working so much,” or, “This is a question I had.” And it was always the question that I kind of knew deep down inside was a problem.
RB: I did read that you were at work on a novel and a collection of stories. I assume that the stories are just collected from the past, that you’re not writing any new ones for this collection.
CN: Yes. I’m sort of always writing short stories in the back of my head. As it turns out I keep writing stores about parents and children and their relationships. And so most of the short stories that I’ve written and published fall into that theme. And I think that most of them will fit together into a collection, and there will be some more to round out. And yes, I’ve started on a second novel, although it’s sitting kind of patiently–not super patiently. It’s sitting, waiting, poking me periodically. I can always tell when I need to start writing something because it’s like, it’s like it’s an electromagnet and somebody flipped the switch and things start sticking to it. And I know that that’s a sign that I need to go and start working on it. So, I want to get back to it.
RB: What’s stopping you? Current publicity things? Your child? Summer vacation?
CN: A lot of it is getting ready for the publication of this book. I get to come and talk to people like you, I get to do interviews–
RB: Wait a minute, there’s no one like me.
CN: [laughs] Well, I get to talk to people who aspire to be like you.
RB: No, that’s also true, there’s no one who aspires to be like me. [both laugh]
CN: So apparently there’s a time thing, there are certain things that I need to do, to promote the book, ’cause I do want to help spread the word. I think that’s part of what authors now have to do.
RB: And now are obliged to do.
CN: It’s also, I think, brain space. That it’s thinking about this first book. And so some of my brain is just occupied and thinking about it and answering the questions that people have about it. It’s like when you’re working on your computer and it says, “You don’t have enough RAM. You need more processing memory.”
RB: That never happens with your mind, I don’t think, because we’re allegedly, we only use 10% of our capabilities.
CN: It’s a little bit of what we were talking about before, right? Where we said, you’re thinking about all these things and then you need some down time to have processing time. There’s a back log.
RB: I don’t have much science behind this, it’s sort of anecdotal, personal experience, but I’m of the feeling we never–I don’t wanna get finicky about the word ‘forget,’ but that everything that ever occurred in your life is there in that cloud of consciousness, and you don’t always have a trigger to retrieve it, but occasionally you will see evidence of that everything because something triggers a recollection that you have no reason to have recalled.
CN: I think I kind of subscribe to that theory too. It’s very Freudian in a way, that your subconscious is always processing this stuff. But I think that more things make an impression on us than we realize at the time. And so even if you don’t remember the specific thing that happened, you remember how you felt about it, or you remember a sensation.
RB: Or smell.
CN: Exactly, some kind of physical sensation I feel like we remember a lot. Smell is a great example. You smell something and it it immediately takes–you know, and you don’t know exactly where, but your mind knows, but you can’t put it into words, there’s something ineffable about it. The same with songs, too. I think that happens a lot. You hear a little snatch of music, and it reminds you of something, but maybe you don’t know what. Or you remember the song but you don’t know where you heard it, but it evokes a feeling in you. I think that we’re a lot more impressionable than we think we are.
RB: I agree with that. I think also a big change taking place is the sort of the exponential increase in velocity of the things that happen to people now. The a-to-b is a lot shorter in duration now. Think about this, you’re aware of what high frequency trading is? I think those kind of things happen to us on a psychological level, we’re about to think of something, and somehow your mind races ahead of that thought and presents you with something else, you know? Unless that’s the definition of insanity, I don’t know. What do you aspire for your child?
CN: I want him to find something that he is really excited by, or passionate about, or stimulated by, however you want to phrase that. And find some way to make that part of his life. Whether it’s his profession or hobby or whatever it is. Because I think you need that. I feel like I know a lot of people who, they lead perfectly good lives, they pay the pills and they have good families but they didn’t get a chance to do something that they wanted, whether it was to play the guitar or to write a book. I teach at Grub Street downtown, and so I get a wide range of students. I get a lot of students who come in and say, you know, “I’m about to retire, or I’m towards the end of career, and I’ve always wanted to write a short story.” And my attitude is basically, “That is fantastic. Come on in. It’s not too late.” And I’m glad that those are people who, if that’s something they’ve always wanted to do, are actually doing it, and are taking steps to do it. So that’s something that I hope for my son, that he’ll find something that he’s excited about, first of all. Because a lot of people don’t ever find something that they’re really passionate about. And then that he finds some way to make that part of his life. I think that’s a reasonable expectation.
RB: That’s, of course, suggestive of the great wave of disappointment that rides through most people’s lives. That they certainly try to make the best of it. But people who are able to achieve a connection between expectation and fulfillment, is not very large. But again you’re right, there’s not necessarily unhappiness, it’s just not happiness. What is writing to you? A career, profession, hobby, calling, obsession?
RB: Good answer, OK–[laughs]
CN: Well I guess, to a certain extent all of those things. It used to be a hobby, when I was a kid, and I got to write little stories and poems in school. And it was a hobby–a secret hobby, little dalliance that I would do when I was in college and supposed to be writing my papers and instead was writing poetry and trying to write short stories, and only recently have I started to think of it as a profession, that I might be able to make even a portion of my living out of writing, teaching writing, any of that, only recently has that started to seem like a possibility. And at the same time, I think that if I weren’t getting paid, I would still be writing. So in that sense, what is it? Is it a–I guess you could call it a calling, you might as well call it a tick, something that I’m compelled to do whether I like it or not.
RB: Compulsion, a bad habit. That is a dirty little secret for a lot of people, that they would do what they’re getting paid for even if they weren’t getting paid for it.
CN: Yeah, it’s like you shouldn’t tell people that because maybe they will stop paying you.
RB: “What’s wrong with you?” Exactly. Well, Celeste, thank you very much.
CN: Thank you so much.