In Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel Little Fires Everywhere, the city of Shaker Heights stands as vivid a character as the dueling mothers at its center: polished Elena Richardson and mysterious Mia Warren. So, when the 1997-set book was adapted for a Hulu series, Shaker native Ng was on-hand to provide the North Coast bonafides. “One thing I hope makes it is the coffee shop Arabica,” says Ng, who helped scout Los Angeles for Shaker-reminiscent homes. “Everyone else in the world pronounces it uh-rob-ICK-uh, but we say arab-BEE-ca.” Starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington as Elena and Mia, the series premieres in America March 18. We caught up with Ng for a sneak peek.
What were some considerations when you talked about adapting the story for screen?
What I was really concerned with was not that they faithfully reproduce the book beat-for-beat. In my experience, the most successful adaptations aren’t necessarily the most faithful. What I wanted was for them to be true to the spirit of the book and to the characters I created.
How do you feel your process as a writer helped you navigate your first time producing?
I knew the characters and their motivations the best. There’s a flashback episode in this series, where we go back in time and see both Mia and Elena as younger versions of themselves. We see how they became the women they are in the present moment of the show. Those were seeds in the book; in the show, you get to expand and grow those seeds. Elena really needs to be in control. Part of the reason is what she experienced earlier. It’s the same with Mia. I was sort of their Wikipedia for the characters, to fill in who they were.
What were your favorite on-set moments?
The whole thing was like walking into a surreal dream. It was very cool to see trailers with the names of characters I’d imagined on them, to walk onto the set of the house and see that the set designer was so detailed that she’d gotten old [Cleveland] Indians pennants to put behind Bill Richardson’s desk. I also got to do a cameo, which hopefully viewers will find fun, a scene with Reese, Kerry and Rosemarie DeWitt.
What do Washington and Witherspoon bring to these roles?
There’s such a chemistry between them on-screen. I’ve gotten to see early cuts, and the tension between them, it’s so palpable. You have two very powerful, authoritative women. When you have them head-to-head — which I realize doesn’t happen that often on TV, usually there’s one woman and a bunch of men — but you see two women who are almost sparring with each other. They’re trying to figure each other out, but they’re also trying to defend themselves. It’s just sort of magic, honestly, to watch them onscreen together.
They didn’t film the series in Shaker, but how did they capture the feel of the city in other ways?
They really wanted to make sure they were getting it as right as they could. They got Shaker yearbooks and old copies of Shaker Magazine. They actually visited Shaker and looked at some places, and when I was in L.A., I drove around with one of the producers to point out, like, “This house could be in Shaker.” They also did a bunch of scenes with fake snow, and I was really glad they were committing to creating that true snowbelt winter … They also made a very authentic-looking Shaker letterman jacket.
I read a great quote from screenwriter Liz Tigelaar about the show’s adaptation process, where she said, “I feel like she wrote the song and we wrote a really awesome cover.”
I love that she used that analogy, because that’s the same one I’ve come around to. My favorite cover songs are not the ones that sound exactly like the original. But you want to hear sort of the same familiar melody or the same a sort of this quality of the song you like. …When we were doing the adaptation, they kept me involved at every step in the process. I was a little bit of a compass or a tuning fork, where they’d say, “Here’s what we’re thinking of, what do you think?” And I would tell them, “That feels really true to the characters” or “I like that idea because it hits on the other elements of the book.” I got to visit the writers’ room and actually work with them on one of the episodes and pitch ideas. I got to read all of the scripts and give them sort of notes, especially Shaker Heights-specific notes.
How did you know Washington and Witherspoon and their team were the right ones to produce this adaptation?
Their love for the book was so clear. The first person I talked to on Reese’s team was Laura Neustedter, Reese’s producing partner … she said, “I’m giving it to Reese. Please don’t show to anybody else until then! She’s going to read it tonight.” And I was like, “Sure, Reese Witherspoon is going to read my book overnight.” And then she did! She read it in like a day. And when they talked to me about the project, they were so specific that it was the kind of thing that you couldn’t fake even if you wanted to. They would quote specific lines from the book. They talked about the characters as if they were real. And that was when I really knew that they were going to do a good job with this because they loved the book.
What do you hope Shakerites take from the adaptation?
I hope they see it as a loving portrait of them, which is how I meant the book. I wrote it because I wanted to think through what I had gotten from growing up in Shaker Heights, in particular as an Asian woman and as a woman of color. It made me into the person I am in the best possible ways. It made me an idealist, it made me believe that I could change the world. It made me realize how important it is to talk about issues of race, class and culture really overtly. Those are the ideas that I still think of the town embodying. I also hope that they see that this isn’t just a portrait of them. It’s a portrait of where we are as a country, trying to figure out how to deal with our blind spots.