It’s been only a week since Hulu premiered the first three episodes of Little Fires Everywhere, and it’s already dominated conversations. That’s because the series adaptation of Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel effectively takes a match to your run-of-the-mill drama. Through textured backstories and marvelously nuanced storylines, it examines how privilege, race, class, and choice impact two families in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Anchored by a pair of electrifying performances from Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, who are also co-executive producers, Little Fires opens with the image of a seemingly perfect family home engulfed in flames before it leads audiences back to where that precious portrait first started to unravel. When the mysterious Mia Warren (Washington) moves to a tiny apartment in Shaker Heights with her teenage daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), they hope they have finally found a place to call home without having to look over their shoulders. Meanwhile, in the same town, Elena Richardson (Witherspoon), a comfortable wife and mother of four, is just as carefully steadying her fragile home to stay aligned with the social structures of their mostly white, upper-class neighborhood.
Neither mother is prepared for the avalanche of fear, animosity, and longing Mia and Pearl’s mere arrival would stir up—especially Elena. “It all starts with the town and how this character is a manifestation of this town,” showrunner Liz Tigelaar tells BAZAAR.com. Ng, who was raised in Shaker Heights, adds that the atmosphere perpetuated a false sense of satisfaction among its residents. “There’s a tendency to pat yourself on the back and go, ‘I’m one of the good ones.’ Then you realize that you actually have the same blind spots as everybody else.”
But Little Fires isn’t only about the lies we tell to feel better about ourselves. It’s also about how they impact our children—especially Pearl and Elena’s daughter Izzy (Megan Stott), who find they’re more attached to each other’s mom than their own. Interrogating what we think we know about ourselves and the world around us, the series barrels toward an explosive custody battle involving a baby once abandoned by fellow resident Bebe Chow (Lu Huang), jolting both Mia’s and Elena’s biases to the surface.
Ng and Tigelaar, who like everyone else right now are cooped up at home with their families, were eager to take a break from #quarantinelife to talk about the personal compromises of becoming mothers, the importance of imagining yourself in someone else’s experience, and tweaking Little Fires for the screen.
Maybe it’s because I’m Black and projected myself into its themes of prejudice, but Celeste, I was convinced the entire time reading Little Fires Everywhere that Mia and Pearl, who are actually white in the book, were of color. So, when it was announced that Kerry is playing Mia, I didn’t bat an eye.
Celeste Ng: I find it interesting so many people also read her as a woman of color. I initially wanted to make her a woman of color. I didn’t, because I didn’t want to make her an Asian woman, because that seemed to tie in with [Bebe’s] adoption storyline. And I didn’t want to pretend like I could imagine fully what a Black woman’s or a Latina’s experience would be in this country.
I was like, okay, I’m going to think of her as a working-class white woman. Because there is so much about class that is also tied into race, when Lauren [Levy Neustadter, co-executive producer] and Reese were thinking of approaching Kerry for this, it felt very natural to me. Liz and the writers’ room really used that as an opportunity to look at moments from the book through the lens of race and how they would play differently if this is a Black woman and a white woman going through this experience.
I do too. The story has so many different layers—including motherhood—that are beautifully woven together. Liz, what made you connect with it?
Liz Tigelaar: I loved the book. There were so many ways in for me. I am an adopted child and a biological mom. I think when you’re adopted, there are these pieces of your past and makeup that are unknown. So, I feel like I’ve always had this natural searching quality in me that has manifested itself in terms of really examining families and wanting to be a part of families.
From a daughter’s perspective, there was the adoptive mother-biological mother debate [between Linda McCullough, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, and Bebe] that pulls you in as you make your way into the story. You have your natural inclination of who you thought was the “mother.” Then that changed as I kept reading. I came to it very much as an adoptive kid like, well, of course, the adoptive parents are the parents. That’s how I feel about my parents. Then I really related to Izzy and Pearl and this idea of connecting with other mother figures and looking for people who feel really like you. When I got to the end of the book, Izzy’s longing was so visceral and palpable. I felt so seen.
I was a teenager in the ‘90s and remember this intense desire to be accepted that’s so apparent in Pearl’s and Izzy’s stories. That carries over into their complex mother-daughter relationships at a time when girls are beginning to explore who they are outside of what their moms have shown them.
LT: There’s something so beautiful about those two stories, the idea that Pearl covets the way [Elena] mothers and the life she leads. Everything she covets might not be what she covets by the end of the story. And on the other side, you have Izzy, who, through her own coveting of Mia, is really able to understand herself in a new way. [Their relationship] is incredibly substantive, even though it’s short-lived. I think that there are people who can really be life rafts for especially young women at certain times. Then there are people who seem like they’re supporting you, but they’re pulling you down. That’s what these two girls are dealing with.
How did the setting of Shaker Heights, which experienced gentrification in its history, inform these characters and what happens in the story?
CN: When I started writing the book, it came from wanting to write about Shaker Heights as a place that was so formative for me in really good ways but weird ways as well. It made me into an idealist. It made me into a perfectionist. And it made me ask what I could be doing to make the world better. But it also left me with certain blind spots about what the world was going to be like. There’s a tendency to pat yourself on the back and go, “I’m one of the good ones.” Then you realize that you actually have the same blind spots as everybody else. I am fully a part of that system too.
I haven’t lived in Shaker Heights since 1998, but my understanding is that certain things have changed, but other core feelings have stayed the same. In the ’90s, which is the era I know best and wanted to write about, there was a sense of satisfaction as there was in a lot of the country, a feeling like, we still have some work to do, but we’ve got this. We’re the example everybody else should follow. We’re at almost 50-50/white-Black population. And all that was true in some ways. But it didn’t counter all the things that were happening that were not in keeping with the view of themselves that the city wanted to have.
When I was in my junior year, there was a student newspaper on display that published statistics about test-taking and achievements in terms of Black and white students. Black students, for a really valid reason, were very upset. Because when you look at those statistics, it looked like Black students just weren’t doing well, weren’t trying, or were not smart enough. It didn’t look at all the factors, like them being pushed out of the more advanced classes and they walked out. It led to a community-wide conversation. It was a moment when we thought we were doing it right, and yet we have the same problems. The show did a great job of capturing that mindset at that time and showing that it’s not just one character. It’s a pervasive feeling in the community.
Totally. Mia and Pearl moving to the town disrupts their pride and rattles the core belief system. But it is Elena who feels threatened by it and turns that against Mia.
LT: I loved using the town that Celeste set up so well—if Elena were a town, she’d be Shaker, and if Shaker was a person, it would be Elena—and how we could use that to [explore] what it means to have your life planned in order. I think this idea of planning to avert disaster was something that a lot of us in the writers’ room gravitated toward. We really related to Elena in that way and wanted to show that when Mia and Pearl come to town, what is getting disrupted in Elena is something that exists within her. Using the fire metaphor, it’s what flames do you fan, and which do you clamp down? Elena has dimmed something in her in order to live life this way. It’s not Mia; it’s seeing her live an un-snuffed-out life that shows her there is another way to live. That’s what’s causing her so much pain.
I think she has to believe that the way she lives is the way that was encouraged by her mother. So much of this story to me is what we pass down from generation to generation. We were really using the town to show how the beliefs of living in a place like this—which has so much specificity but could also be any place—manifest inside of you. Even Elena’s husband [Joshua Jackson] wants her to stay “raveled.” Because when she unravels it could jeopardize the entire ecosystem they’ve built by questioning it too much. It all starts with the town and how this character is a manifestation of this town.
I think there’s also this echo in Mia that we really try to thread throughout the series. Mia’s mantra is, “Find a way because there’s always another way.” To Elena, that’s like nails on a chalkboard. But to me, that’s the anthem of the piece.
It actually makes me think about how lonely Mia and Elena are. They impose each other’s views on other people. For Elena, it’s Mia. For Mia, it’s Bebe Chow. I think that’s partly to justify their own actions, but also because they don’t want to be alone with them.
LT: Yes, that’s so right. I think that that’s what everybody does in life, right? Wherever you are, you want other people to be in that same place, so you can feel like you’re where you’re supposed to be. That’s why you want other people to be miserable, too, because then you’re all miserable together. [Laughs.]
CN: You’re miserable, but you’re right.
LT: Exactly. It’s about how much choice you have as well. Elena believes she’s had a lot of choices but doesn’t understand how her choices were narrowed in a terrible way. It’s like that line, “You didn’t have to make good choices. You had good choices.” She had a safety net and was handed a rental to make money off. She wasn’t operating at sea level. She was 5,000 feet above sea level, whereas somebody [like Mia] is not even at sea level. She’s under 5,000 feet.
CN: For me, it speaks to what I’m always thinking about when I’m writing fiction, which is empathy, the ability to imagine yourself into somebody else’s experience. I think that’s what you were speaking of, Candice—the way that both these women project their rationales and codes of ethics and worldviews onto the other is keeping them from seeing where the other woman is. They can’t get out of their personal planetarium of what they’re looking at. I think that that’s one of the things that was true in the book and very visually shown in the series, this idea of having a blind spot and not being able to look at yourself because it’s almost too close to you.
You want someone to automatically agree with you because, like Mia and Elena, you feel very isolated, often due to personal circumstances.
LT: Yeah, absolutely. I think Mia is obviously choicefully isolated, even though we find out more of her backstory. I think there’s something about Elena that I think a lot of people can relate to in terms of how we plod through life checking off lists and doing the things we’re supposed to do every day. We take care of the people we love. We provide. We accommodate. We see our friends. And we feel like we’re happy. Now is such an interesting time in our lives [with the coronavirus pandemic], because we’ve had to do everything from pump to slam on the brakes. It’s going to make us look at everything we do, and why we do it.
CN: I also think the way our society is set up now [presents] a gendered problem. There’s so much that is expected of women, particularly those who have children. You have these things that you are supposed to do and this idea that if you do all of them, you’re doing it right. A lot of times what gets left behind are your own desires, needs, and even a certain amount of critical thinking. Like, wait, do I actually need to do that? Like Liz is saying, this is a time when everybody is suddenly confronting [the questions]: Does that need to get done? What is actually important to me? And what am I going to regret not doing or wishing I hadn’t done? On a much smaller scale, that’s what these characters are dealing with.
LT: Absolutely. In the writers’ room, we talked a lot about a fundamental question with the Richardson family: How devastating would it be if you’ve checked all those boxes—raised the kids to fit in the world and in your life, and even given up parts of your life that you really love to do that, only to find out that your children are not happy? The whole reason why you give of yourself and even give up for yourself is for your children’s happiness. But if you’ve never stopped to examine whether they’re happy, then why do that?
That is great perspective. I’m not a mom, but most of my friends are. And I always think about how much they’ve changed, like how Elena was a liberal feminist before she became a mom and Mia was an ambitious, free-spirited artist. Their worldviews shifted to accommodate where they are now.
LT: I always joke about it [laughs]. My wife always asks, “What do you want for your birthday?” And I'm like, “Brunch.” What I actually mean is brunch, and then [everything that happens] after brunch until the next morning. Because that’s what our pre-child life was like. Brunch, where you could have too many mimosas because you have nothing else to do the rest of the day. The thing about motherhood that is so crazy to me is that it’s like someone coming up to me and saying, “I’m going to take every single thing in your life that you love away”—like brunch, fitting in your clothes, having time for yourself—
CN: The ability to be selfish at all—
LT: Not thinking about food, vacations, trips. And somehow you are going to like this even more. Or, “I'm going to take it all away but you’re going to have something you love.”
CN: It’s almost like Stockholm Syndrome! You're like, once I’ve done this, I don’t want to change back. And it’s like you said, the ultimate justification for so many things you do. Like, I’m going to put up with this because it’s going to make things better for my child. Or, I’m not going to do this because that’s what my child needs.
As Liz said, young daughters must also navigate so much, including their complicated relationships with their moms going through all this. Pearl struggles to fit in as one of the few Black girls in Shaker and tries to assimilate into another family.
CN: Pearl especially suddenly sees a different way of being in the world than she had ever been aware of. She’s like, a mom could be like this, rather than, my mom and my life could be like this instead of like the one that I’ve had. I think that’s such a teenage experience. You grow up with your family and think you’re relatively normal. Then you go out into the world and [realize] there are lots of different ways of being and thinking and doing and [ask yourself], Do I want to stay with what I’ve known or is there something out there that feels more true to me?
Yeah, she is immediately enamored with the Richardsons, and this—however untrue—sense of belonging. She even puts up her blinders when a young Black peer tries to relate to her.
LT: I think Pearl is choicefully oblivious, because she is a smart girl who’s lived in the world with her mom. She knows to put her hands on the dashboard and make them visible when the police come up. I think when Brian [Stevonte Hart] makes these jokes at Elena’s expense—like, “You like rap and basketball too?” Or, “We're both Black so we should of course be friends”—I think her attitude is, I don’t want to engage in this moment because I have a need that’s bigger than whatever yours is for me. I have something I’m getting, and I want to ignore this part of it.
I was also struck by a new element in the series that is not in the book: Mia’s and Izzy’s sexualities. Liz, what were you hoping to explore with that addition?
LT: I felt like there was an element of that when I read Mia’s backstory. Maybe this is my own projection, but I felt there was a utilization of [younger Mia’s friend] Pauline [Anika Noni-Rose] as that life raft for Mia [Tiffany Boone]. And sometimes I think the lines can be very blurry: Is this my mother? Is this my best friend? Am I in love with this person? But I think there can sometimes be this feeling that doesn’t necessarily have to do with romance or sexualization, just an idea that you cannot survive without this person. I felt that with Mia and Pauline.
It seemed so potentially logical to me that Izzy could be somebody who’s closeted in the ’90s Midwest and [I thought about] what that would feel like. [I was] really looking at how diverse and intersectional the landscape of the book is and how it was going to become even more so in an adaptation. I just felt like that was an element that could be so easily embedded and was important to embed. I also thought it would be interesting to show those parallels between Mia and Izzy. Mia is the perfect illustration of someone who doesn’t care about societal boundaries and doesn’t put herself into a box.
I like showing how the relationship between Mia and Izzy was very different between the relationship between Mia and Pauline, based on the time period and ages and who they are. I also thought it was a great way to manifest something in terms of putting the obstacle within Elena and Izzy’s relationship in the present day. There’s this wonderful backstory in the book about Elena’s difficult pregnancy with Izzy. Elena was so protective over Izzy because she was afraid of losing her. There are elements in the book that [made us] think there might be a different version of the story to tell with the way they grapple with each other that could be more of a present-day issue.
We were also rooted in this very real idea that Elena did not want a fourth child and gave up a life she held dear, and how that could manifest toward the child she felt she had to have anyway.
Which present-day issue were you trying to point to?
LT: I still feel like we don’t see that many coming-of-age stories in this way. [We wanted] to look at it through this time period to show that we haven’t come very far from even the language around being gay. In the ’90s, if a kid Izzy’s age was coming out, all they would long for is their parent to tell them, “We love you anyway.” Like, “Oh, thank God they love me anyway, despite this ‘bad’ thing that I am.” It’s the whole, “Hate the sin, not the sinner” thing.
Today you hear that in a totally different way. If somebody said that to me now, I would be like, “Well, thanks a fucking lot.” I also think about the way people say, “I just don't want her to have a hard life”—that implies my life would be harder. But, of course, anybody’s life would be better by being authentically who they are.
You’ve both encouraged readers and viewers to look at this story so panoramically. For instance, it’s easy to vilify Elena with her microaggressions and false progressiveness. But neither the series nor the book has a clear villain or hero. Was that intentional?
CN: For me, writing is never about making an argument or putting in a moral like Aesop’s Fables. Rather than narrowing things down to one clear life lesson, it’s about shading things into nuance. My process is always to start with something that I don’t understand and [ask myself]: How could this person do such a thing? How did this person end up in the situation? The story is answering that question. By the end of the piece, I ideally see that person or situation more clearly and better understand their complications.
In this book, there’s nobody who comes out with totally clean hands. There’s also nobody who is surely a villain that you can’t understand why they are doing the things they did, even if you don’t agree. My goal is to always make you reconsider what you think you know about a person, a situation, and about your own moral standards. I didn’t want there to be a clear answer to whom should get custody of [Bebe’s] baby. I didn’t want there to be a clear person who’s standing there twirling their mustache and another who [has] a halo over their head. I was really happy that the show maintains those complications.
LT: Human beings are not all good or all bad. We are all complicated, messy creatures, and we’re all self-interested creatures. We’re all protective creatures. Two things stand out to me when I think of specifics for that question: These are all deserving, good mothers and there’s no one way to be a good mother. There are certainly ways that society imposes. We’ve thought to explore the idea of how much that is connected to money, because these are mothers of different circumstances and means. We wanted to show that without judgment.
We try to bring realness and a humanity that we are motivated by our own selfish desires. [It was about] taking what’s listed in the book to make you feel empathetic for everybody when you are in their moment with them, so that you are constantly going back and forth. I think what that says is that we don’t have to, in this binary way, put everybody into these categories. It’s such a rich story that gave us so much to tackle in this new way that hopefully gets viewers to wrestle with on their own.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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