Liz Tigelaar knows the way to an author’s heart. When I ask the showrunner what drew her to my book Little Fires Everywhere, her answer is immediate and enthusiastic: “Everything!”
In the novel, which Tigelaar adapted for a series of the same name, the immaculate suburban life of Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) is turned inside out when single mom Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) arrives in picture-perfect Shaker Heights, Ohio. Their teenage children form unlikely friendships—and romances—but when a custody battle divides the town, things between the two mothers become…heated.
“It’s a story of race and class and motherhood—the struggles of motherhood, how you covet other mothers’ lives,” Tigelaar says. “I’m a relatively new mom. I’m also an adopted child, and I struggled with infertility. It all resonated with me on such a deep level.” Tigelaar sought out screenwriters with similar connections to the material as she put together her exceptionally diverse writers’ room. “I wanted the room to be a reflection of the characters in the book,” she explains. “We’re telling stories about white women, black women, and an Asian woman who’s an immigrant. We needed voices who could draw on their own life experiences in shaping the show.” But racial makeup was only one aspect of that diversity. Among the writers were “five mothers, one father, three adoptees, writers in interracial marriages, writers with mixed-race children, daughters raised by single parents,” Tigelaar recalls. “We even had two writers who grew up in Ohio.”
The series stays true to the plot and themes of the novel, with a few twists—most obviously, perhaps, being the casting of Kerry Washington as Mia. “Mia’s race wasn’t indicated in the book,” Tigelaar points out. “But in the show, I knew I was starting with Kerry. It made us really scrutinize key moments in the book—like Elena asking Mia to clean her house. We got to go even deeper and do even more with what was already there.”
This approach explains why I haven’t felt nervous—or protective—as the novel’s author. The changes Tigelaar and her team have made to the book match the spirit of the characters I imagined. In fact, this was Tigelaar’s guiding principle: “Our goal, first and foremost, was to honor the book, if not the plot, beat for beat. The field of it, the characters, the themes. Always returning to the central core questions that the book is asking. We use this book as our bible, our road map.” (She’s not kidding—when I visited the set, many cast and crew members carried copies of the novel, the pages bristling with Post-it flags.)
One of the biggest challenges? Creating a Cleveland winter in L.A. “Whenever we had to shoot snow, it was always like a hundred degrees in Pasadena,” Tigelaar says with a laugh. The snow may be fake, but Tigelaar hopes the emotions the show evokes will be very real. At a key moment in the finale, rebel teen Izzy (Megan Stott) gives a primal scream. While filming, Tigelaar admits that she screamed, too. “I was so in it. And then I was like, ‘Oh my God, did I just scream?’ ” Here’s to viewers feeling the same way.
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of ELLE.
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