By David Canfield
March 23, 2018 at 10:00 AM EDT
Kevin Day

When Celeste Ng watched Big Little Lies last spring, she conjured up a fantasy. Glued to the HBO adaptation, she was in awe of its faithful yet distinct take on Liane Moriarty’s original novel, and wished the same for her new book, Little Fires Everywhere. “Halfway through the series I turned to [my husband] and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if somehow, in some crazy universe, Reese Witherspoon read my book, optioned it, and then starred in it?’ ” she recalls to EW.

It was a pipe dream at the time. But a lot can happen in a year.

Indeed, Ng’s “crazy universe” has become reality: Not only is Witherspoon producing and starring (alongside Kerry Washington) in Hulu’s series adaptation of Little Fires, but a film based on Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, is also in the works with producer Michael De Luca (The Social Network). After optioning Little Fires, Witherspoon called it “ingenious,” adding that the book fits into her effort “to shine a light on female-driven stories…rooted in inspiration, emotion, and truth.”

Penguin (2)

It’s the culmination of a string of smashing successes Ng, 37, has experienced recently. Released last September, Little Fires has spent 25 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. (Everything spent 46 weeks there in 2014.) Her work strikes a magical balance between the literary and the book-club-ready. Her novels tackle the intricacies of mother-daughter relationships and the pivotal roles that race and class play in American life. But they’re not polemical — merely reflective of the author’s artistic philosophy, which is, “The political is personal, and the personal is political.” With Little Fires, Ng tested that philosophy on herself.

The novel is set in ‘90s Shaker Heights, Ohio, the community she grew up in. Its sheen of progressive idealism shaped Ng into someone who believed in making the world a better place. But as she wrote Little Fires, which centers on an idealized (white) matriarch named Elena Richardson and traces the custody battle over an Asian-American baby girl, her conception of the suburb transformed. “I was trying to look back both at how I had grown up in that community and what that era had been like to grow up in,” she says, referring to the “post-racial” ethos of the Clinton era. She came to terms with how Shaker Heights had fallen short of its own ideals — a notion dramatized in the book via the violent torching of the idyllic Richardson home, and the whodunit that follows.

Communicating urgent ideas in a timeless, even breezy fashion is a skill Ng developed through her embrace of life and all of its idiosyncrasies. She’s an active voice on Twitter and says she’s prone to falling into “pits of despair” due to the volatile political climate. But Ng takes solace in her Twitter community and its strange, interactive experience — a reclusive novelist she’s not. To speak with Ng is to realize precisely how she’s emerged as the novelist of the moment. The pulse of our collective day-to-day filters into her worldview and her work. “Being engaged has helped my writing feel more connected to the world, but also just feel more human,” she explains. “The viral tweets that go around, where people show funny things that their parents have said or ridiculous things their dog is doing — that reminds me how interesting people are.”

Reese Witherspoon/Twitter

But it’s not every day that a story committed to, say, the nuances of transracial adoption becomes a best-selling phenomenon. It’s Ng’s flawed, funny, and fully imagined characters — and the prescient conversations sparked by their deeply relatable behavior — that have really hit a nerve. “I honestly don’t know why [Little Fires] has resonated,” she says, humbly. “But for a long time now, there’s been an appetite for these kinds of stories.”

It’s been a whirlwind since Ng first imagined entering that “crazy universe” that has become her reality and now, at long last, she has a bit of time for reflection, but she is at a loss when asked to describe how it feels. “Surreal is the only word I can come up with,” she admits. “It’s a dream come true.”