In this special episode (a live event for the Streicker Center!), Zibby speaks to New York Times bestselling author Celeste Ng about Our Missing Hearts, a riveting and tender book about a 12-year-old boy’s quest to find his missing mother in a grim, dystopian world. Celeste talks about her book’s most prominent elements: anti-Asian racism, the dangers of political extremism, and the power of stories as conduits of memory. She also describes her writing process, the project she paused (but might bring back to life!), and how she juggles her roles of author and mother. Finally, she answers questions from the audience.


Marjorie Shuster: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Women on the Move. I am Marjorie Shuster, coordinator of literary events here at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center. Today is an exciting day. We are meeting our thirty-sixth author since we began this series. We are so happy that New York Times best-selling author Celeste Ng will be joining us today. Our Missing Hearts was one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. It is absolutely an incredible read. It’s a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick and an Amazon Book of the Month pick. Our moderator today is Zibby Owens, who at this point really needs no introduction. She’s a magazine publisher, a podcaster. She’s written three books and now has a publishing company. That mom does have time to do it all. This will be a terrific conversation. I hope you will all enjoy it. By the way, as always, I’d like to thank the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation for their support of this series. Please write your questions on the chat. We will try to get to as many as we can. Now I’d like to welcome Celeste and Zibby. Good morning, Celeste. Good morning, Zibby.

Celeste Ng: Good morning. Hi.

Zibby Owen: Morning. Thank you, Marjorie.

Marjorie: You’re very welcome. Have a fabulous discussion.

Celeste: Thanks, Marjorie. Hi, Zibby. It’s so nice to see you.

Zibby: It’s so nice to see you too. How’s everything? Congratulations.

Celeste: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Another whirlwind publication for you. Congratulations. It’s fantastic. Well done. For anyone who has not read Our Missing Hearts quite yet, would you mind giving a quick synopsis?

Celeste: Sure. It’s the story of a twelve-year-old boy named Bird. He’s growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’s being raised by just his father. His mother, Margaret, has left the family some years before. The world Bird lives in isn’t exactly our world. It’s our world with the volume turned up a little bit. He’s living in a world that’s really full of fear. The United States has gone through a period of crisis. They’re trying to come out of it. One result is that there’s a lot of anti-Asian hostility. This is a problem for Bird because he’s mixed race. His mother is Chinese American. His father is white. At the beginning of the book, Bird gets a letter from his mother, who he hasn’t seen in some years. It’s actually very mysterious. He’s drawn into a quest to try to find her, to try to understand what happened to his family, and to try to figure out who he is and how to go on in this life.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like this book is so multilayered. There is a commentary on basically everything that’s going on, which is evidenced by your author note at the end on all the many sources that you used, all about things that are going on in the political environment, all the anti-Asian sentiments that has happened of late, nationalism, so much. Also at the center of this whole story is books. I was hoping we could start literal with the book-in-a-book nature of this and the power of books and also what you said in this book, which I found so interesting, that as soon as a book — let me see if I can find the quote. You said, “Behind them, empty bookshelves. Bird has never seen books on them, but there they stand, fossils of a long-gone era. ‘Did you know,’ their teacher explained the year before, ‘that paper books are out of date the instant they’re printed?’ The beginning-of-year welcome talk, all of them sitting crisscross applesauce on the carpet at her feet. ‘That’s how fast the world changes, and our understanding of it too.'” Talk to me about this temporal quality of a book.

Celeste: That’s something that I’ve heard many people say. I am a book person myself, so obviously, I’m a little bit biased against that point of view. I’m guessing by the giant bookshelves behind you — I realize I also have my bookshelves. I think there’s an idea lately that print books — not lately. This idea that print books are out of date or that print books are dying or that books generally are dying, especially in the age of the internet, this book was one way of exploring what I thought about that and of realizing that stories that get passed on really do have a meaning. There is a value in not only the book itself, but in just passing on and remembering those stories. One of the things that’s happening to Bird is that books and certain kinds of stories are being removed from his world, and so there’s a lot of things that he can’t find out, including his own mother’s book. His mother was a poet. He wants to try and find out what her work was as a way of understanding her. Part of the question is, what do we get from stories? What do we get from stories that get passed on? Do they change as time goes on? Maybe that’s even a good thing.

Zibby: It’s true. I feel like it’s also the only way to really capture the people that you love. I feel like Bird is trying so hard to do that, to find these pieces of his mom when he is looking for her. How do you make someone stay alive forever, in a way?

Celeste: Exactly. It’s the stories that we tell about them. I realize that more and more now that I have a kid, but I’m also a daughter. I’m realizing that there are stories about my mother and my parents and the rest of my family that I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out, how do I get those so that I can get them? Then how do I pass them on to my kid? In a way, like you said, that’s who those people are, really. You can know their statistics and their names and their facts and their pictures, but knowing something about who they were, it often comes from story.

Zibby: It’s so true. I feel like Bird is this little detective trying to find his way back and through and decipher all the signs. There’s almost a little, not thriller, but a little bit of a discovery mission going on in this book as well.

Celeste: He thinks of himself, actually, as a character who’s on a quest. One of the things that happens in the book is he remembers a folk tale that his mother had told him. He can’t quite remember how it goes. He remembers a little bit of it. He’s looking for that story. While he’s doing that, he’s thinking of himself as the youngest son of the kingdom who’s going on the quest or the prince who’s going into the castle that hasn’t been touched in years in Sleeping Beauty to try and rediscover all of those things.

Zibby: You have this wonderful scene where he’s in a library. Libraries also play a huge role in this book. In the back closet where he discovers a card catalog, which isn’t even described as a card catalog — it’s just like, back in the day, we could pull out these drawers and find things by topic. Then he’s wowed by the vastness. He didn’t realize there could be that many books.

Celeste: I’m a library nerd. I love libraries, as will probably be clear to anybody who reads this book. Of course, Bird has never seen a card catalog, as I think many young people now have not. We have it all in a database, which is great in many ways. One thing that I loved about the card catalog was there’s a sense of how many books there are in the library and that it’s all in there somewhere. You can find it. He has this sudden awakening that there’s so much more knowledge out there than he even knew was possible. It’s essentially a coming-of-age for him, but mentally.

Zibby: The librarians and everybody say, we would never burn books here. We’re just going to make them into pulp and get rid of them and make them in toilet paper, or whatever it is. The way that the information gets — curated is the wrong word — really, banned, essentially, and micromanaged is sort of similar to the way that everybody now can customize their newsfeeds. You can actually get through life with just a sliver of what you choose to read and have a totally different sense of life from someone right next to you who gets all different news and all different inputs. Yet here, they’re trying to make this, with PACT, the standard for everyone. What do you make of that?

Celeste: I think of the story, in some ways, about — Bird is a young person figuring out the context in which he lives. He’s twelve years old, as I said. He is at that age where, for a lot of us, we’re starting to realize that there’s a bigger world out there. It’s around that age I think a lot of times we start to realize, oh, history did not start with me. There’s actually this whole past. Maybe if I learn something about it, it’ll inform something about how I see the world or how I understand it. He’s starting to understand, too, that his parents had a life before him and that maybe they have a life outside of him. I think that’s what happens to a lot of us around that age. I think of this as the zooming out that happens when you start to move from childhood to adulthood. You’re looking through the world, and you think the world is this big. Then you realize that actually, there’s all this other space outside of that little picture frame. In a way, as you’re saying, the idea that you can see all those books or all those stories or all those parts of life outside of just the narrow window you’ve been choosing to look through, I think that’s all the context you need to figure out where you are, who you are, and what kind of person you want to be.

Zibby: It’s so true. Your book touches so much on discrimination also and has some really upsetting moments, one in the pizza shop where the owner decides not to serve the Asian gentleman who walks in. Then they have this moment, which you don’t understand until later, where he says, “He’s one of them,” referring to Bird. Then another, which sounds like it was right by the Streicker Center on the Upper East Side out my window here, where this woman who looks just like Bird’s mom was across the street. He realizes it’s not her. As he’s processing all of these things, a white man comes up and starts just pummeling her until she’s motionless. He just has to stand there shaking. As a reader, I felt the same way, reverberating from the shock of this brazen attack in the open. Tell me about your decision to include violence like that and to really take some things which, horrifically, are in the news and bring them into the story. Obviously, when you tell it as a story, it’s so impactful, much more so than if you just read facts, which goes back, of course, to the book motif.

Celeste: That was something that I really hesitated about. Did I want to include it? Honestly, it’s not something that I want to think about, but it is a part of our reality. I had started this book some years ago, well before the pandemic, well before even the 2016 election. When I started seeing attacks on Asians and Asian Americans, especially after the start of the pandemic, it felt really important to actually look at that and include it. It’s something that I’ve been aware of my whole life as a Chinese American woman, but I think it was something that not everyone was aware of. Suddenly, we started seeing attacks, as you say, in New York in broad daylight, in San Francisco, again in broad daylight, often attacking elderly people, but out in the open. There was an attack in particular that I was thinking of when I was writing the scene that you mention — it took place in New York; it might be one of the ones you’re thinking of — in which a person was just stomped on.

Nobody did anything, which was one of the most horrifying things about it to me, except for the doorman of the building that was outside who came out and closed the door. I thought, oh, if we’re in a space where people can really just look away, then we’ve really turned a corner. That’s a huge, huge problem. In a way, I wanted to include this in the book partly because it is something that I’m seeing and processing in our world, but also because it felt important to ask people to witness, to acknowledge this is happening. If you didn’t know it was happening, now you do. Once you do, what do we do about that? It was a way of saying to people, this is something. As you say, we might skim over it in the news. Sometimes when you see it in a story, it can hit you in an emotional way that makes you engage with it differently.

Zibby: Do you feel like you were able to process some things about this through writing it? I feel like any book where you delve into something horrific that’s happening, whether it’s the Holocaust or the history of anti-Asian sentiment or whatever, there is a way of using the text to sort of work your way through it. Do you feel like that at all, or am I totally off base here?

Celeste: Yes and no. I feel like, in a lot of ways, when I go into a book, it is because there’s something I don’t understand. A lot of times, I don’t even understand what it is that I don’t understand. By the end of the book, I might have a better understanding of it, but at least I feel like I’ve outlined the questions that I’m asking. I’ve outlined the thing that’s puzzling me. Hopefully, I presented those questions to a reader too. Whatever answers they come up with are going to be from them speaking with the book, in a way. I feel like, for me, it’s more that I’ve sort of set an outline around these questions. I’ve articulated them to myself. Now I can think about them a little bit more clearly. I certainly don’t come out at the end going, now I understand this. I understand what happened. That would be a miracle and wonderful. In a way, it’s my way of sharing these questions with other people.

Zibby: That makes sense. Through Bird and also through Sadie, you write about what happens when children are removed, essentially, from their parents and the fact that this is also happening a lot now. Talk to me about that element and also Bird and Sadie’s relationship.

Celeste: One of the things that’s happening in this world is there are a series of laws that are intended to increase patriotism. One of the big tenets of the law is that if you’re seen as acting unpatriotic, the government can remove your children, ostensibly to protect them from this unpatriotic view. In this world, that’s often being applied against Chinese Americans and Asian Americans, but then really anybody who dares to speak up on their behalf. This was a thing that I was thinking about from the beginning of the story well before we started to hear about these sorts of things in the news. As a parent, that’s one of the biggest fears that I can imagine myself, is being separated from my child. I had known that this had happened in different times in history. When I started researching it, I realized that it had happened even more than I had understood, obviously going all the way back to enslaved families, but with Native American boarding schools. It was called residential schools where they were supposed to be Americanized. Then of course, when we started seeing news about family separations at the US-Mexico border, it was really startling to see how history was just repeating itself. In a way, I think history was repeating itself because we haven’t really looked back at all of the different times in our past and present that this is still happening.

Zibby: In addition to having all of these themes and really thought-provoking political, geopolitical concepts, there’s also the writing of this book, which is so beautiful. There are a handful of lines, even little sentences, that I underlined. Could I just read a couple if you don’t mind? “He should burn the letter himself. It isn’t safe having anything of hers around.” This is when Bird gets a letter right in the beginning from his mom. “More than this, when he sees his name, his old name, on the envelope, a door inside him creaks open, and a draft sneaks in.” That’s just a beautiful way to say that. That was amazing. This is when there was all this yarn that gets put in a tree as a demonstration. You write, “Something inside Bird cracks and unravels, too, at the sight of something so delicate and intricate destroyed. The dolls tremble trapped in their red net. His skin feels too small for his thoughts.” I love that. These some of my favorites here. This is when his dad is not coming. Oh, I talked about that. There are a few more lines. This one was great. This is also about the libraries. This is about the New York Public Library. Actually, you had a lot of New York-specific references in here, which I appreciated from my perch in New York City.

Celeste: Bird goes to New York. For him, it’s both a fairy-tale land and this land of wonder where anything can happen, which is kind of how I feel about New York a lot of the time as a non-New Yorker. It’s also a world that, it’s bigger than any place that he’s been. He’s never been there. He’s never left Cambridge before. It’s a little bit scary for him too. It’s just a whole new world that he has to figure out how to navigate.

Zibby: Actually, you talked about — this is when you’re up here in the neighborhood. I’ll just read this part too. “In each window, the familiar star-spangled placard, banners advertising the fanciness of what they had, not its cheapness. Higher and higher the cross-streets climb as if he is scaling a ladder.” This is when he’s discovering New York. “50th. 55th. 56th. Men in suits. Men with ties. Men in leather shoes with fringe tassels and smooth soles in which you had no need to run. Long ago, his father had worn shoes like that.” Then you keep going. It says, “A department store the length of an entire block.” I think we’re walking past Bergdorfs at this point. “All sleek, dark granite polished to mirrored gloss as if to say, in this place, even stones shine like stars.” Then you go through apartment buildings. I wanted to get to the Upper East Side women here. Hold on. You said, “Now there are coffee shops, places meant to linger in, billboards for whitening and straightening teeth, hotels with suited bellhops in hats poised just outside. Here, people hold bags not meant to carry, but to be pretty. Dry cleaner after dry cleaner, a neighborhood of silk too delicate to wash. At each door, burly men from the neighborhood watch, stand guard. 75th Street. 76th. Older buildings that wore their age gracefully looking stayed not shabby. Shops labeled gourmet and luxury and vintage. He likes the thought of his mother here in this beautiful place. Blond women in jogging tights puff beside him, ponytails bobbing as they wait for the signal to change. Nannies push sleek strollers, the babies inside sumptuously dressed.” One more line. “He passes stores that make only picture frames, restaurants that serve only salad, shops selling pink shirts embroidered with tiny smiling whales, buildings so tall their tips are invisible even when he cranes his head so far he nearly falls backward. Anything could happen here. Everything does happen here.”

Celeste: It was a little bit of my love letter to New York. Writing it during the pandemic where I wasn’t able to go to New York, I was thinking about all the things in New York that are weird and wonderful. It’s not like a lot of other places. I think it comes out how much I was like, oh, New York. I miss being in New York and just how everything is there. There’s so much.

Zibby: The way that you write about New York, the way you write about motherhood and separation, all of it, the language that you choose to use, you use analogies in times to really — using different elements to describe things. Tell me about your writing methodology and how you come up with things. Do you spend a lot of time on each sentence? Is this honed from classes? Is it from all of your successful work to date? Where does this all come from? Is it just totally natural to you?

Celeste: It’s been a long process. I feel like I’m still sort of honing my voice. I write by ear, honestly. I used to want to be a poet. One of the things that I love is hearing language read aloud. When I’m writing, I’m listening to it in my head. I’m thinking about how it sounds. Sometimes it doesn’t sound quite right. If you were a musician or if you have ever listened to musicians tuning up, there’s a moment where they’re changing the tune, and then you hear it hit the right note. It suddenly sounds right. That’s kind of how writing feels to me a lot of the time. I’m like, it’s not quite right. I don’t really know if it’s sharp or it’s flat, but I’m going to turn it one way. Ooh, there it is. For me, it’s that sense. I write, as I say, by ear. I read aloud a lot. At the same time, I try really hard to imagine what the world is like for my characters. I try really hard to imagine what it might feel like to be in their body, to be, for example, a twelve-year-old who is small and feeling a little overwhelmed but also dazzled by the biggest city that he’s ever been in and more people and more different kinds of people than he’s ever been around. Then I also try to think about, if he hadn’t seen this before, what might it remind him of? My sister used to tell me that I had a mind like a little filing cabinet. Anytime I saw something new, she could see me as a toddler kind of riffling through and looking for something to refer to. In a way, I think that’s sort of how I tried to write Bird as well. He hasn’t seen a lot of these things, as you say. He doesn’t know the words for a lot of these things. He doesn’t know the names of the stores he’s walking by. He doesn’t know the names of the neighborhoods that he’s in. He’s trying to get a handle on them in some way. He doesn’t know what a card catalog is, but he knows it’s a huge piece of furniture. It’s massive and weighty. Nobody could move it. It’s got all these drawers in it. He can describe it even if he can’t name it. In a way, that’s the voice that I wanted to try to get for the book.

Zibby: Amazing. You said you started this before the pandemic. What was the whole journey with this? Did you start other projects in the meantime? When did you know this was the next book to go and all of that?

Celeste: It really started for me as I was finishing my second novel, Little Fires Everywhere. There’s an artistic mother in that book as well. She’s a visual artist. Her daughter really understands and supports the art she does. She thinks her mother’s work is important. I started to think, what if there was a case where there was a creative parent, and their child just did not fundamentally understand why their parent wanted to do this thing and maybe even saw it as a rival for their attention or for their affection or for their time? That was the idea that I had. I’d always began with a parent-child story. I started tinkering with this idea. That was in late October of 2016. It was very soon thereafter that we started to see a lot of really scary things in our country really coming to the surface. They’d always been there. We saw, of course, the presidential election. We saw the rise of the far right. We saw a huge rise in hate crimes of all kinds and a normalization of an angry jingoism, the sense of us versus them. That started to run into the book. It was weird to pretend that that wasn’t in the story when it was such a big part of life around me. I started thinking about this novel. I realized that it was going to be in a world that wasn’t quite like ours, but that was maybe ours a little bit more so. I didn’t know how to write it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write it. The real world was feeling dystopian enough. I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to write this book, let alone that I knew how to do it.

I did. It’s funny that you ask. I did, actually. I started another book in the meantime. I wrote a whole draft of it, but I kept coming back to this one. I kept coming back to Bird and his mother. I would imagine things, and then they would happen in real life. Things would happen in real life, and it would speak to the novel. I would poke at it for a while. Then I’d put it away in despair. It wasn’t until the pandemic started that I felt like this was the book that I was being called to do, that was calling to me. I’d actually talked to my agent. We’d agreed I was going to work on this other novel. I would deal with Bird and his story sometime after that. It was maybe April, just after everything had shut down. I emailed my agent. I said, “I know I’m supposed to be doing this other project, but I think I need to work on this book. I think I’m wrestling with stuff. I need to figure this out. Please don’t be mad.” She wrote back and said, “I actually was just going to email you the same thing. I feel like this is a book that feels so relevant and so timely.” Even though it’s not about the pandemic, it is about how you live in a world that feels like it’s falling apart and how you parent or try to speak to the next generation in a time of fear. It wasn’t until then that I really turned my full attention to it. I started trying to put together all of the scraps and pieces of the book and came up with what turned into Our Missing Hearts.

Zibby: What happened to the other book?

Celeste: It’s still here. I have the draft. It’s safely stored in my computer. I haven’t been writing lately. I’ve been focused on trying to get this book out into the world with as much care and love as possible. I’ll go back to it at some point. Every book I start is because there’s something that I’m trying to figure out. That book too, I have to go back and look at it and figure out, what is it that was pulling me to that book? For me, the first draft is always about figuring out what questions I’m even asking, figuring out what the story even is. It often takes a while for me after I finish a draft. I’ll go back three months or six months later. Then I have a better sense of, oh, this is what I’m interested in. I’m going to focus on that in my revision. In this case, I’ve got that first draft. It’s just been two years. Hopefully, I’ll go back to it with some clearer eyes.

Zibby: That’s awesome. It’s like a sculptor leaving this thing ready to go. You have a little sheet over it. You’re ready to pull it up.

Celeste: Exactly. A friend of mine who’s also a writer refers to this as the fallow period. If you’re in agriculture, you plant crops, but then you have to let the field sit for a little while to get nutrients back into it to replenish the soil. I like that idea too. It’s growing something. It’s getting ready to grow something bigger. For right now, it just needs to sit and let nutrients soak into it, let all the worms go in and do all of their stuff.

Zibby: I’m trying to write a novel now too. I feel like now I feel better that it’s not just sitting there. There’s actually some stuff going on.

Celeste: I’ll tell you what my analogy is. It’s not quite as nice as the fallow field. I think of it as the compost heap. You throw stuff in there. You don’t know exactly what it’s going to do. At a certain point, it’ll break down. It’ll turn into this wonderful, rich, nutritious thing. It just takes a while. It can’t be rushed. It takes as long as it takes. That’s my rationale. I’m discovering that I seem to take five to six years, at least, to come up with a novel, so maybe that’s just rationalization.

Zibby: I’m going with it. I like it.

Celeste: I remember talking to the poet Elizabeth Rosner. She said our books take as long as they take because it takes us that long to become the people who can write them. I really like that idea a lot too, the idea that it’s not that the book is this thing that’s not coming together. It’s not that you’re not doing the right thing. It’s just that you and the book have to grow and mature and think about each other. Then eventually, it comes together. I like that idea of looking at it a lot. Of course, she’s a poet, so it’s beautifully said.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. That’s great. I know in the acknowledgements you thank your son and how important he is to you and everything. A minute ago, you mentioned, what if a child felt that the mother’s work is sort of competing for attention? Do you ever feel like that with your son, that your work is sort of taking over your life and maybe he wishes that you weren’t doing it?

Celeste: I think most working parenting feel that way, honestly. My work is important to me. I try to tell him both of those things. It’s something that I learned from my agent. I try to tell him I’m really glad I do my work. I love my work. It’s important to me. I’m good at it. It’s meaningful to me. I do think it makes me a better parent. I try to also tell him, I don’t like being away from you. I’m happy when I get to come home and be with you, and that you are also one of my most important jobs, probably the most important job, but I don’t always say that to him. get too full of himself. I try to be honest with him that I’m a human and that I’m trying to balance things. I used to have this idea that as a parent, and especially a mom — there’s a lot of societal pressures on moms. I used to have this idea that I had to be a superhero. I had to never let it show that I was sweating or struggling in any way. I’ve changed my thinking on that. Especially when it comes to my kid, I want to let him know, hey, sometimes things are hard. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to. I’m doing my best. I’m human. By extension, that also means it’s okay if you feel like there’s too much or you feel like things are hard or all of these things. I want him to know that. I don’t want him to learn that when he’s an adult and he realizes that, actually, it’s really tough to keep all of your balls in the air, which it is when you’re an adult. I’m trying to show him and tell him that we’re all human and that we don’t always know what’s best. We’re trying our best, but maybe we make mistakes. Actually, I think that was a lesson that came into the book as well. A lot of the story is about Bird learning that his mother is also a human and is also fallible and is also struggling but also trying to do her best. I know there were a lot of also’s in there, but I feel like that is part of what I’m trying to say to my kid. It’s usually not either/or. It’s usually both of those things and some other stuff. We’re trying to figure out how to make it all work.

Zibby: Bird’s dad too, that’s another important relationship.

Celeste: Absolutely. I’m really glad you mentioned him. Because I’m a mother, people tend to ask me about the mother-son relationship. It’s a big one, but his father is also there and also trying to do his best and also trying to deal with a situation in which his wife and partner is gone, in which he’s raising a child, and in a world that is really hostile to his son but in ways that he himself maybe hasn’t experienced or doesn’t understand. He’s also trying to do his best.

Zibby: That whole Sisyphean putting back of the books every day and doing all this for his son and if the dining room’s closed, having to make this poor box of mac and cheese.

Celeste: That, honestly, comes from parenting moments I’ve had where you had a plan, and then everything goes sideways. There is a value in being able to say, okay, that was not the plan. We’re going to regroup. We’re going to make the best of things. We’ll try again. To just acknowledge that sometimes things don’t go the way you expected. What are you going to do about it? You keep going.

Zibby: No other choice. I know there are a lot of questions here, so let me go to some of those. Karen is saying, “I thought it was very interesting that the fact that Bird really looked like his mother in the sense that he was of Asian descent was not really focused on right away. Did I not pick up on it, or was that purposeful? I liked the feeling that it was aside from the initial point of Bird.”

Celeste: I think it’s always safe to assume that anything in a book is purposeful. Especially if it feels like it has meaning to you, that meaning is absolutely valid. One of the things that I’ve learned as a Chinese American woman, and particularly one who’s grown up and lives in places where there aren’t very many other East Asians, is that I don’t go around through my day thinking about how I look different to people. I’m just going about my day doing my things. I feel at home. I’ve been lucky enough to feel like I belonged in the places that I’ve lived. That’s a privilege. Not everybody gets to feel that way. It’s only in the moments where someone else will reflect back to me that they see me as other that I become very aware of the fact that I am not white. I’m not thinking of myself as any particular race. I think many people are not, again, until someone else reflects that to you. It can be as simple as the usually innocuous, but not always, question of, “Oh, you’re not from here, are you?” which is immediately a way of just letting them know that they see you in a way that’s maybe different from how you see yourself. It could be something much more hostile, as often, unfortunately, it sometimes is. For Bird, he doesn’t think of himself as other because he knows that this is his home. This is his neighborhood. It’s really only when other people start to reflect that back that he starts to conceive of himself as other. I think that is how it often is for many people. That was how it was for my experience. You’re right. At the beginning, he’s not walking around thinking of himself as someone who is of Asian descent or part Asian descent. It’s only when other people start to make him feel not at home that that suddenly becomes really a thing he’s aware of. It’s a great question.

Zibby: Rich asks, “Did you struggle when writing the attack on the Asian woman as to the race of the attacker? How did you choose the attacker?”

Celeste: I didn’t struggle at all, really. I will say that I saw a comment in the chat about how if you look at videos, people who are attacking Asians are not white. Sometimes that is true, and sometimes it’s not. It is something that I actually wanted to address seeing that it was brought up. I think the larger point is that violence come from a lot of different places. There are a lot of attempts to pit different racial groups against one another by saying, see, it’s this group that’s attacking you. Oh, it’s that group that’s taking all your jobs. One of the things that I think is so important that we talk about is that these groups, all of the groups, Asians, Black Americans, Latinos, we should not be fighting against each other. What we are really struggling against is a system in which anybody who’s not white is considered less than. The same thing when we talk about different ethnic groups being in competition with each other. The thing that we’re actually fighting is not each other. This is not a zero-sum game. We are fighting a system in which this kind of oppression is allowed to exist. In the book, I made the attacker white because it seemed important to acknowledge that that happens sometimes, despite media and other attempts to suggest that it’s only other people of color who are attacking Asians. It’s not true. It sometimes happens, but it’s not. In this case, one of the things I was thinking about is, what’s actually causing this violence? What it is is a system of white supremacy, a system of saying that only white, and particularly Christian and straight people, are the ones. It wasn’t a struggle for me to do that. I feel like that was important to have out there.

Zibby: Judy is saying, “For someone who has never read a book by Celeste Ng, which one should be read first?”

Celeste: I would say if you want to read any of them, I would be grateful. Grab the one that speaks to you. They’re very different in some ways. Everything I Never Told You, it’s a family story. It’s a story about one particular nuclear family and some of the struggles that they’re having with each other. Little Fire Everywhere is a story that’s about a community in particular and about some larger social issues. As my editor put it, Our Missing Hearts, maybe in some ways you could see it as the story of a nation. I think that all three of them are dealing with really similar themes. They’re all dealing with questions about what parents pass on to their children or what one generation passes on to the next or finds that it can’t. They’re all dealing with questions of identity and how you see yourself versus how other people see you and how you navigate that space. They’re all dealing with questions of art too. What can art do for us? What can art teach us? What can stories teach us, in particular? If any of those grab you, I hope you’ll like any of them. Grab whichever one you like.

Zibby: Allen asks, “The setting in Cambridge evoked another dystopia set there, The Handmaid’s Tale. Did you choose that setting because of The Handmaid’s Tale, or is it a mere coincidence?”

Celeste: It’s not exactly a coincidence. I set Cambridge because I live in Cambridge right now. It was an area that I knew. I knew in doing that I was also sort of tipping my hat to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is famously set there. Another reason I chose it is that Cambridge is often seen by people who live here and people who don’t live here as a bubble, and particularly a liberal bubble. There’s the idea that these things don’t happen here. That’s just a happy little place where there’s never any discrimination. It’s a utopia. Of course, that’s not true anywhere. Scary things in the past few years is I’ve been walking through Harvard Square, and I’ve seen people run into the street and give a Nazi salute. I wanted, in some ways, to acknowledge that this can happen anywhere. If you see it happening in the novel, you see incidents of discrimination and intolerance happening in the novel, you have to reckon with the fact that, oh, this is in Cambridge. I didn’t think that could happen there. In a way, I hope it gets you thinking that maybe this can happen anywhere because it does.

Zibby: It’s similar to all the anti-Semitism and all of these things happening literally now in the news every day and ramping up.

Celeste: Exactly. I think everybody wants to believe that where they are is better than that or that there is some place that is immune to that. The scary thing, of course, is that there isn’t a place that’s immune to it. We have to look for it everywhere and be aware of it.

Zibby: Barbara comments, “Your writing sings. The beautiful words jump off the page with eagerness to be heard. Thank you.”

Celeste: Thank you for saying that.

Zibby: Michelle asks, “The book really reflects a lot of what we are going through today in our political life. I’m wondering why you didn’t include a pandemic as part of the crisis.”

Celeste: This is a great question. I usually shy away from writing about things that are happening now, in part because I feel just for myself that I need some distance from them. This is why my previous two books take place in the past. Everything I Never Told You takes place in the fifties and the seventies. Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the nineties. I was recently horrified to hear that referred to as historical fiction.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, no. I don’t accept that.

Celeste: In a sense, they’re right. We have some distance from that time. In this case, because I was writing during the pandemic, I didn’t know where it was going. I still don’t know where it’s going. It is still ongoing now. In a way, I don’t feel like I can see it with any clarity. I didn’t want to tie it specifically to this pandemic because my experience is still being shaped. Other people’s experiences are still being shaped. We don’t know what it is yet. Kudos to the writers who have taken it on. I really admire that. I did want to write about the feeling of being in this pandemic as I felt it, which is this sense of pervasive fear. Remember at the beginning of the pandemic, most of us were locked up in our houses. We didn’t know if it was safe to see our friends and neighbors. We couldn’t see them in many cases. We didn’t know what was a threat. We were here. We were wiping down our mail and our groceries. I think most people were doing the same because we just didn’t know where we needed to put our attention, and so everything was threatening. In a sense, that’s how Bird’s world feels for him at a certain point, of just not knowing who you can trust. The pandemic certainly influenced it even though it doesn’t make an appearance in the book, per se. It’s a great question.

Zibby: Laney and Mindy ask, “How did you decide on the name Bird for the character?”

Celeste: That’s a great question. Honestly, I had a friend whose kid nicknamed themselves Bird. I just thought that was a great nickname. Immediately, I started imagining a kid who might be like that, who immediately became very different from my friend’s kid. I asked my friend and her kid if we could use the nickname for this other character. They graciously said yes. I started thinking about the nickname. I just thought it was a sweet name. It suggested a character to me, somebody who was maybe a little bit shy or a little bit reticent, seems skittish and easy to scary away, which I think Bird is. At the same time, birds can also take flight. Birds can also burst into song and be quite noisy when they need to. That felt like another side of his character. I liked the idea that that name encapsulated who he was.

Zibby: Amazing. Christine says, “Hello. I am watching from a reading club in Denmark. We have just read one of your books and talked about it tonight. I am wondering if it is fair to say that the parent-child story is a leitmotif in your novels. Thank you for sharing your thoughts today.”

Celeste: Thank you for saying that. Hi in Denmark. I think that’s true. I think that there are certain themes or topics that writers tend to come back to. For me, I’m realizing one of those things is parents and children, in part because I am in this position where, as I said, I’m a daughter, but I’m also a parent. I’m looking in both of those directions at the same time. The more I parent, the more I start to understand why my parents parented me in certain ways. I’m starting to see what parts of their parenting I really value and how they shaped me. I’m trying to think about how to pass them on. For me, that just seems like such a fundamental and rich relationship. I keep coming back to it in my work.

Zibby: Joann asks, “What part of the book was the most fun to write? How did you celebrate when you finished your book?”

Celeste: I love this question. This is such a joy-filled question. We usually talk about what’s hard in the book and how hard it was. It is. Writing a book is sometimes very agonizing. I really liked writing the character of Sadie. Sadie is Bird’s friend who’s about his age and similarly has been separated from her parents, just in different circumstances. Sadie was a real joy to write because in some ways, she’s the kind of person a lot of us might like to be. She really takes action. She really refuses to back down on her principles. She makes things happen. She was a joy to write even though she has struggles in her story. Also, I really did enjoy writing the trip through New York. It’s a place that I love, as you can probably tell. I enjoyed writing about libraries too. I grew up going to libraries. I still love them and take my computer to work in them, or did before the pandemic. It was really wonderful to get to celebrate them on the page. As for how I celebrated, I don’t remember specifically, but I’m fairly sure it involved candy. I usually bribe myself through the writing day with the promise of some candy afterwards. When I finished, I probably got myself some candy and had a little treat at the end of the day.

Zibby: We can FedEx to you our hundreds of pieces of Halloween candy if you want to get through your next novel.

Celeste: I know. We have too many in our house. My son somehow came home with a huge pumpkin full of candy. I was like, how is this possible?

Zibby: Our pumpkin even broke. It was that overloaded. The handle just snapped.

Celeste: Oh, wow.

Zibby: I know. It’s not a good look. Anyway, Erin asks, “Warm greetings from the Bulloughs in Cleveland, who are big fans.”

Celeste: Hi.

Zibby: “Just wondering why you write dialogue without quotation marks.”

Celeste: This is a great question. In my previous two books, I have used quotation marks. In this one, I started writing and to my own surprise, I found out that I was not using quotation marks. I will admit that I am usually irritated when there are no quotation marks, so I will apologize to all of you who feel similarly. As a writer, one of the things you have to do is you follow your instincts. Then you pause. You check, why am I doing that? Does it make sense? Does it serve the story I’m telling? I realized that one of the things that I was thinking about is the way that stories get told, not just in books, but literally told in spoken ways, stories around the campfire or bedtime stories or just family stories that people pass on in an oral tradition. One of the things that happens when you’re being literally told a story from someone’s voice is that the voice of the person telling it and the voices of all the people in the story start to blur together. Maybe it’s your mom telling you the story, but you hear your grandmother’s voice through her voice. You hear all those things. There’s a little bit of a dreamy quality to it. There’s a little bit of the sense that the past and the present are kind of overlapping in each other. There’s a little bit of a fairy-tale quality, too, because that’s often how it works in fairy tales and folktales. I wanted the reader to have that same feeling. It’s the feeling that Bird has in the story. He feels a little bit like he’s in a fairy tale. I wanted the reader to have the sense that this almost could be a story that was being told to them as well at some later point in time. The lack of quotation marks fit in with that. It blends the present and the past and the real and the stories that Bird’s feeling.

Zibby: Helen asks, “What writers and books do you read to make you a better writer?”

Celeste: This is a great question. I try to read really widely. I try to challenge myself to read things that I wouldn’t ordinarily pick up because I feel like there’s always something to be learned there. I do read a lot of nonfiction as well as I try to read as much contemporary literary fiction as I can. I try to read nonfiction, in particular about topics that don’t seem relevant to my books but that interest me for some reason, so a lot of science writing. For some reason, it sparks my imagination. It gets me thinking about the world in a different way. Then particularly with this book, I’ve been reading a lot of poetry as well. I love poetry. I think there’s something really amazing in the economy of language and in the way poets can focus your attention on just one moment or one thing or one interaction and then unfold that like it’s an origami box that they’re opening up to take on bigger meaning. I just think poetry is really incredible. It’s a good way to keep my language sharp and fresh.

Zibby: Who knew? Ronnie and Sharon asks, “When you start writing a book, do you know the ending and then develop the book toward that ending, or do you figure out the ending as you are writing? Are you an outliner or a pantser when it comes to writing your novels? Then finally, same question, by the time you’re close to finishing, do you find you change things in the novel as it evolves and possibly move away from where you thought the story would go?”

Celeste: The answer to all those is yes. When I start off with a book, I usually have some idea of where I’m going. I always start with characters and a situation or a person that I just don’t totally understand. I’m trying to figure out how we got into this situation or where it’s going to lead to. In Little Fires Everywhere, I started with, why would somebody burn their house down? for example. I have an idea of where I’m going, but I don’t always end up there. I go in that direction. I say it’s like a road trip. I have a destination in mind, but sometimes along the way, I realize that, actually, I don’t want to go to that place. I want to go to this other place that seems much more interesting, and so there is a lot of discovery along the way. Generally speaking — I’m thinking through the past three books — where the ending was was the right place, but I didn’t take the route I expected to get there. The question about whether I’m an outliner or a pantser, I guess that makes me a pantser, which is a thing writing people say where they mean you’re flying by the seat of your pants. I think that’s where that comes from. What I do is, in the first draft, I guess I follow the seat of my pants. I follow my instincts. I just go wherever the story seems to take me. I do a lot of discovering along the way. It’s in the revisions that I go back and I try to shape the journey and give it a little bit of sense and intentionality and figure out the best way to tell the story now that I know what the story is.

Zibby: Elif asks, “I follow you on Insta. I’m somewhat obsessed with your miniatures. How does this hobby mesh with who you are as a writer and person?”

Celeste: This is a big question. I’ve been thinking about this. If any of you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I post pictures of miniatures that I make or sometimes that I get from other places. Haven’t been a lot yet. I’ve been on book tour, but I have a lot of plans for miniatures that I plan to do once I hunker down for the fall. The miniatures will be back. I’ve been into miniatures since I was a kid. I had a dollhouse, which I stole from my sister and then just started making things for. It’s always been something that I loved. I used to do it as sort of a side hobby/side business for a while. I would make miniature foods. I used to think it had nothing to do with my writing. It was actually a thing I did as a break from grad school work or college work or now from drafting. I was like, it doesn’t have to do with words. It’s great. I can think about it. Maybe they are related on a deep level. One thing I love about making miniatures in particular is that you have to observe really closely. You have to really look at something, what its shape is, what its texture is, how it’s put together. Then you think about how to recreate that. That’s not that dissimilar from what you do as a writer. In some ways, you have to observe really closely. You have to pay attention. In a way, paying attention is sort of what we want out of books. We want it to direct our attention towards something and really make us look. Maybe that’s the deep-rooted psychological overlap between those two things.

Zibby: I’ll go with that. We’ll take that.

Celeste: Also, little things are just cool. It’s fun.

Zibby: Little things are cool. We’ve done most of these. Let’s try from Jade. “Hi, Celeste. I have one question about why you designed the story of Chinese characters of a slave, a cat, and Margaret’s last name, Miu.” Or Me-ow? How do you pronounce it? “How did you find the inspiration? Why did you have these in the book?”

Celeste: There’s a section in the novel in which Bird’s father, who’s a linguist, breaks down the etymology of a couple of Chinese characters. Oh, good. Thank you for the visual. You can see in there. I don’t speak Chinese. One of the things I’ve been doing as a result is to try to learn Cantonese in particular, which is my family’s language. It is really hard. It’s really hard. I feel like this is going to be a lifelong learning process. One thing that helps me is learning the characters. My dad was really interested in this before he passed away, in figuring out the roots of Chinese characters. To those of us who don’t know a lot about Chinese, it might just look like a bunch of squiggles or a picture. Some of them are. There are actually parts of the character that you can look at and you can figure out what the meaning is or hints about the etymology the same way if you look at, for example, romance language you can figure out what the Latin roots are. Then you get a sense of what the word might mean. I’ve been learning about that just for my own education. I learned about the word for cat, which is one of the words that’s in there — then it connects to this last name — and the different ways that people think that the character evolved in different ways. That those pieces of the word could suggest different connotations of those words, I thought that was really fascinating. Because one of the folktales at the center of the story has to do with cats, it felt almost like a cosmic thing that I was thinking about these stories and I was thinking about these words, and they kind of dovetailed together in the story. That’s how it came about.

Zibby: I love that your dad was interested in etymology. Then of course, you have Bird’s dad starting that same thing with dissecting all the words.

Celeste: In a sense, too, that’s me. I’m sure my son, should he get older and read the book, will be like, oh, yeah, that’s my mom. She’s always trying to explain to me how words relate to each other.

Zibby: Last question from Christine. “It seems you like your characters to dig out knowledge they do not know yet or clear secrets. Is it understood correctly?”

Celeste: I think that’s true. When I’m writing a book, I’m trying to figure out things that I don’t understand. I think that when we go to books, we’re hoping to have some kind of learning. It might not be facts. It might be emotional learning. I think those are the stories that we tend to want to have because stories are how we make meaning out of the world. For most of us, they help us understand things, whether it’s ourselves, whether it’s how other people work, whether it’s relationships, all of that. I’m really drawn, you’re right, to stories in which characters are trying very hard to understand something about themselves or their world that’s been hidden to them. The story is how they get it. It’s a great question.

Zibby: My last question is, when you’re not thinking analytically and deeply about your characters and your stories and all of this stuff, what do you like to do to just relax and kick back?

Celeste: This is a great question. I’ve already been outed as a miniatures — I love to do a lot of things that don’t involve words, honestly. I do a lot of crafts. I knit and crochet. I cook. I garden. I play video games with my kid. I loved video games, actually, even before he was around, so I’m happy that he likes them now too. I watch TV. I read. I do all the things that people do. I do like to make things. When I really want to relax, I will go and make something, whether it is a pie or whether it is planting bulbs in my garden, which I need to do later this week before it frosts, or knitting something. If I’m making something, I’m usually pretty happy.

Zibby: Wonderful. Celeste, thank you so much. Marjorie and the Streicker Center, thank you.

Celeste: Zibby, thank you so much. Thank you, Marjorie. Thank you to the Streicker Center. Thank you to all of you who have tuned in. It’s really a pleasure to get to talk with you.

Marjorie: Thank you. I’d like to add my thanks to both of you. That was just the most inspiring and interesting and wonderful interview. It was really terrific. We are going to leave the Zoom open for about two minutes because we are selling your book, and people are buying and buying, as they should because if you’ve not read this, you really must.

Celeste: Thank you for that.

Marjorie: The other thing is, if you do miss it on our link there, just call the Streicker Center. Certainly, we’d be happy to supply the book. Zibby, thank you. Celeste, thank you. Everybody who’s watching, next week at this time we have Lynda Cohen Loigman and Jean Meltzer, which will be fun as well. Thank you, everybody.

Celeste: Thank you all again so much. Thank you again. Thank you again to everybody who’s out there joining and reading.

Marjorie: Thank you, Celeste. Keep writing.


OUR MISSING HEARTS: A Novel by Celeste Ng

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