Celeste Ng Loves Independent Bookstores
The author of Little Fires Everywhere helps us prep for Independent Bookstore Day
Everyone I know called their mom after watching Lady Bird. I was sitting right next to mine when I saw it, so a phone call wasn't necessary – we could just glance over and weep in each other's faces. But when I finished reading Little Fires Everywhere on a lunch break at a new job, speed dial was my best friend. Before my tears were dry or the book redeposited in my bag, I was calling my mom, because Celeste Ng had written a book that so generously and precisely captured profound, imperfect motherhood that I needed to tell my mom I loved her and I needed her to read this one immediately.
Celeste Ng inspires this kind of urgent love. Of course she does, or she wouldn't have had a debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, that spent 46 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won the 2014 Amazon Best Book of the Year award, or a second novel, the aforementioned Little Fires Everywhere, which was featured on virtually every 2017 best books list (including mine) and is now primed for a Hulu adaptation with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington at the helm. Little wonder then, that she's been named the Author Ambassador for this year's Independent Bookstore Day (mark your calendar: Saturday, April 28), and what a delight that she took the time to talk to the Chronicle about what sections of a bookstore draw her in and what makes up her TBR shelf.
Austin Chronicle: Did you have an independent bookstore make a big impact on you growing up?
Celeste Ng: To be quite honest, there weren't many independent bookstores when I was growing up, so the bookstores of my early childhood were the B. Dalton and the Waldenbooks in the Century III Mall in Pittsburgh. My parents would take me to the store and let me spend hours there – I'd just sit on the floor and read, and we'd all leave with a stack of books each. So when I got older and made friends with my first independent bookstore – Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. – it was a revelation. An entire store staffed by people who loved books as much as I did, and who would recommend books to their customers? It felt like I had stepped into Narnia.
AC: How do you approach a new bookstore? Are you a magpie for pretty covers, do you make a beeline for a specific genre, or what?
CN: I always look at the front display tables and the staff picks, because in my mind, booksellers read more than anyone – except maybe librarians? – and I love to see what they recommend. Often they're titles I might not have heard of but that I'm likely to enjoy. So I love me a good shelf talker – the more personal, the better! – but I also will always pick up a book with a good cover, no matter where it is in the store. And I almost always end up in the kids' section, too. I buy a lot of books for my 7-year-old, and you can get a great sense of a bookstore's personality based on what the kids' section is like.
AC: I've been so struck by the compassion that underlies the way you write all your characters. Could you speak about where this artistic point of view comes from?
CN: For me, it's really a moral question. I firmly believe that if we don't try to be kind to each other and to make the world better, our existence is pretty sad and pointless. So my fiction is always rooted in an attempt to understand the world, and other people, a little better. A big part of that, in my view, is accepting that we are human and imperfect, but hopefully still trying. This is why much of my work is concerned with accepting nuance, acknowledging and valuing complexity and difference, and trying to communicate clearly despite it all, even if there's always going to be static in transmission. Fiction has the ability to put you inside another person's head and let you think their thoughts, so it's a powerful tool for creating empathy. As for where it came from: I'm the child of immigrants, and my parents raised me to believe that no one gets anywhere without help, and that you're supposed to try to improve the world and pass along the help you get to the next generation. That's the heart of my worldview, so it ends up suffusing my writing, too.
AC: What's your to-read bookshelf look like these days? What books should we all be picking up on Independent Bookstore Day?
CN: My to-read shelf isn't just a shelf, it's a shelf plus seven separate piles of books stacked around my office – I just counted them. And that doesn't even include the books on my nightstand, the books on the floor next to my nightstand because my nightstand is really small, or the books tucked around the house in various places! Which is to say, there are way more books that I long to read than books I can read. A lot of the books are galleys of titles that aren't yet out, but a few that are out or just about to come out: The Story of My Teeth, by Valeria Luiselli; Bluets, by Maggie Nelson; Fire Sermon, by Jamie Quatro; The Talented Ribkins, by Ladee Hubbard; That Kind of Mother, by Rumaan Alam; The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai; and Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li. As for books you should pick up, no one book suits everyone, so how about a few general guidelines instead? Challenge yourself to pick up a book by a woman or LGBTQ or nonbinary person, a book by a person of color, and a book in a genre you don't usually read – whether that's poetry, short stories, memoir, graphic novel, or something else entirely. Think of it as trying a new food – you don't have to finish it if you don't like it, but just take a bite. You might just be surprised.
A Few Things to Do on Independent Bookstore Day in Austin
The Austin Bookstore Crawl: Visit three or more of the 10 particpating stores, complete the scavenger hunt in each one you visit, and post a photo on social media, and you'll be eligible for one of the crawl's three Grand Prizes! www.atxbookstorecrawl.org
BookPeople: Enjoy a special storytime with Xelena González and Adriana M. Garcia and their book, All Around Us (10:30am), and bring a book from home for a white elephant-style book swap (6pm) with snacks, wine, and beer. 603 N. Lamar. www.bookpeople.com
Malvern Books: Help launch a new poetry anthology from Dos Gatos Press, Weaving the Terrain: 100-Word Southwestern Poems, with readings from 19 of the contributors (3pm). 613 W. 29th. www.malvernbooks.com