Check This Out: Tiger Tail Soup

Ni hao and welcome to the blog, where my guest today is the awesome Nicki Chen, whom I met through the blog of that wonderful connector, Jill Weatherholt. Nicki’s here to talk about her novel, Tiger Tail Soup, published by Dog Ear Publising. After Nicki and I talk about her book, I’ll tell you about a giveaway.

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El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Nicki: I like to take walks, so where I live must be a good starting point for walks. I like to dance. Lacking a partner, I turn on the music and dance anyway. I have three daughters and three grandchildren—the youngest grandchild just started first grade; the oldest is a college sophomore. I spent twenty years in the Philippines and Vanuatu as an expat wife/trailing spouse.

El Space: Please tell us about your novel. What inspired you to tell this story?
Nicki: Tiger Tail Soup is the story of a Chinese woman caught up in war. It is set in southeastern China during the Japanese invasion and occupation. My late husband Eugene used to tell me stories about his childhood in China. I thought they were exotic and fascinating. I told him to write them down, but he didn’t. So after he died, I decided to write a novel about that time and include at least what I remembered of some of his stories.

The narrator of Tiger Tail Soup, An Lee, is a young wife and mother. As the novel opens, it’s the spring of 1938. She’s pregnant and wondering why her husband didn’t return from his business trip ten days earlier. Stepping out onto the balcony, she hears bombs exploding in the distance. When her husband finally appears, he has exchanged his suit and tie for the uniform of a Chinese soldier. During the next seven years, An Lee sees her husband again only twice. Left alone, it’s up to her to protect their children, her mother, and her mother-in-law.

For a few years their island, though surrounded by enemy forces, is spared a full-scale invasion, because of its status as an international treaty port. Then on December 7, 1941, the enemy launches a coordinated attack on Pearl Harbor and all the international enclaves in China. In a matter of minutes, the island of Kulangsu becomes occupied territory, and life for the family enters a new, more challenging phase.

Tcitp_d823_kulangsu_settlement_and_amoy_in_the_background

Kulangsu

El Space: What do you want readers to take away through this story?
Nicki: I hope the reader will take away a sense of possibility and hopefulness. We all face challenges and pain; we make mistakes and feel like giving up. But, like An Lee, we can survive and succeed. In a more general sense, I hope Tiger Tail Soup increases the reader’s empathy and understanding of other people. When we read a novel and imagine ourselves alive in another time and place, we escape the narrow confines of our own lives and become someone new.

El Space: What challenges have you faced on the road to publication?
Nicki: The first challenge was in knowing whether my novel was ready to send out into the world and in knowing how to write a good query letter. Finding an agent is such hard work!

But my biggest challenge was the agent I eventually found. She sent my book out to a few publishers, and the responses were positive, but no bites. So she suggested I do a serious revision. I spent a year on the revision and sent it back to her. It’s very good now, she said, but I don’t want to continue representing you. And, by the way, she added, no other agent will want to represent this book since it has already been shopped around, so you should put it away and write your second novel. Find an agent with your second novel and then later also publish the first. I took her advice and put Tiger Tail Soup away for a few years. But one of my daughters became impatient. “Just publish it,” she said. So I did.

El Space: Wow. What an ordeal, Nicki. I’m glad your book is out in the world despite that incident. You’re also a painter. What medium do you favor?
Nicki: When we lived in the Philippines, I studied Chinese brush painting for many years with Professor Chen Bing Sun. First I learned to paint plum blossoms, then bamboo, orchids, and chrysanthemums. Next, I graduated to animals: shrimp, fish, birds, horses, and tigers. After a few years, I did landscapes and people. I have a post that explains the process in more detail.

I also used to do batik painting, an art form that is more appropriate in a tropical country. I used to work in the carport. When you work with melted wax, it’s better to be outside so the fumes can escape. Batik is a reverse process. The artist applies wax to cloth where she wants the color or lack of color to be preserved. Then she dyes the cloth. When it dries, she applies more wax to preserve the new color and dyes the cloth again. Then she repeats the process for the next color.

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Batik paintings copyright © 2014 Nicki Chen

El Space: Quite lovely, Nicki! Also, you graduated from VCFA. What was it like traveling across the world to attend this school?
Nicki: When I studied at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was living in Port Vila, Vanuatu. If you don’t know where that is, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. It’s a small island nation in the South Pacific, not far from Fiji. So, as you can imagine, it was a long trip flying to Vermont twice a year. And whether it was summer or winter, the weather was always more extreme in Vermont. Vanuatu’s weather is perfect almost all year long. I would fly into Burlington, stay overnight in a B&B, and then catch a bus to Montpelier—which, by the way, looks just like a Christmas card in winter.

Port Vila

Port Vila

Each residency was an exciting, jam-packed eleven days. Then I had to fly back to Vanuatu and get busy writing stories to send to my advisor. Since it was the early 1990s, no one did much of anything by email yet. If I wanted to get my packet to my advisor on time each month, I had to send it early. International postal mail from the South Pacific actually did deserve the name snail mail. Also, a computer breakdown could be quite a disaster in such an out-of-the-way place.

El Space: In many venues, the subject of diversity in books has arisen. What advice do you have for aspiring writers on this topic?
Nicki: I haven’t thought about the subject much. I suppose the best thing is to write what you want to write and then search for your audience. If you’re interested in the topic, someone else must be too. I feel that Tiger Tail Soup fills a hole in books about China. The book is set in Amoy—now known as Xiamen—and although Amoy and the surrounding countryside in Fujian Province is the ancestral home of most Southeast Asian Chinese, very little has been written about it.

China_map_Fujian

Fujian Province

El Space: What are you working on now?
Nicki: A novel set in Vanuatu—another fascinating, relatively unknown part of the world. My main character once again is a woman, but this time she’s a woman hoping to get pregnant.

Nicki, thanks so much for dropping by! You’re welcome, anytime!

Looking for Nicki? You can find her at her blog, Facebook, and Twitter. Tiger Tail Soup can be found at Amazon. But one of you will win a copy of Tiger Tail Soup. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on Monday, September 8.

Fujian map from chinatouristmaps.com. Port Vila photo from Wikipedia. Kulangsu photo from wikisource.org.

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54 thoughts on “Check This Out: Tiger Tail Soup

  1. Listening to Nicki underlines that old saying about how travel broadens the mind.
    I’m glad she published that book. It is good that others can enjoy your shared work, rather than it gather dust waiting for a fickle publisher. It was only through this blog that I learnt what ‘indie author’ meant. Thank you Linda for the interview.

    • Thanks, Andy. I could use a bit of mind-broadening. I haven’t traveled anywhere in awhile. But I hope to someday. 🙂
      Yes it’s nice to know that we have options in re publishing!

    • Hi Andy. It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for your positive comments.

      To that old saying about travel broadening the mind, I’d like to add that living in a foreign country is even better. The best part about living in the Philippines and Vanuatu was getting to know Filipinos and ni-Vanuatu and the way they lived and also living in a truly international community. Traveling for a few weeks is wonderful, but it’s a different experience.

  2. I loved Nicki’s description of what inspired this book and her point that if you’re interested in a topic, someone else might be as well. It can be hard to anticipate what other people will like, but it often feels like if you write what *you* like and do it as well as you can, other people are bound to like what you’ve written, too. Thanks for this great interview!

    • I know what you mean, Laurie. It’s hard to know if a story has broad appeal. But when I think of some of the classic stories that everyone has read, many tell a universal story through the story of a person or one family in one culture. But we can learn a lot from those stories.

    • Hi Lauriel. (What a beautiful name, by the way.) I guess if I’d wanted to choose a popular topic, I could have gone with diet, cooking, celebrity gossip, or romance. But I had to write something I cared about and that would keep my interest for a LONG time.

      I do think that the experiences of civilians during wartime is an under-explored and fascinating topic. Plus, there must be many people whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents fought in WWII, and the part China played in that enormous, terrible war isn’t as well-known as it should be.

  3. Fascinating interview, L. Marie. Thanks for sharing! Nicki, I enjoy your blog and your personal backstory. I’m adding your book to my TBR list!

    • Hi Professor. I agree. Now is a good time for people around the world to learn more about China and its history. I hope my novel will encourage its readers to dig a little deeper. China’s history is fascinating and immense, and the changes that have occurred in the past couple of decades in China are jaw-dropping. They’re all built, however, on its complex history.

      When I was in high school, we could choose whether to study French or Spanish. Students now can study Chinese. Two of my grandchildren are studying Mandarin, one at his high school in Carmel, IN; the other at her college in Princeton.

  4. Pingback: Check This Out: Tiger Tail Soup on El Space–The Blog of L. Marie | TIGER TAIL SOUP

  5. Loved the interview, and the book sounds fascinating! I’m a huge fan of historical fiction set in places around the world, and I’m glad that you, Nicki, took matters into your own hands rather than waiting for some large corporate publisher to not bring the book out because the market would possibly be too small.

    • Hi Lyn. It’s nice to meet you.

      I, too, like historical fiction. I used to wonder why I preferred it to straight history. But when I started writing my novel, I began to realize that it had something to do with the little everyday things the historian doesn’t bother with that a writer of historical fiction has to get right. For example, in my research, I found that the number one movie in China while they were in the midst of a brutal war was Gone with the Wind. Perfect! I could send my protagonist to the movies. And then, of course, it’s more fun to look at things from a personal point of view. The facts about foot-binding, for example, don’t mean as much until you follow a character who has to cope with the effects.

  6. Great interview, ladies! It so nice to learn more about Nicki. I love that her book was inspired by her husband’s stories and that she chose not to put the book to rest in a drawer. Her book is one of many on my multiplying list to be read.

  7. Wonderful interview, Nicki! Good questions and answers.

    And I ADORE those batiks of yours ~> I’ve seen a few of your paintings before, but not your batiks. Just gorgeous!

  8. This is a wonderful interview, Linda! Thank you so much for featuring Nicki! She is an interesting person, I can’t wait to read her book, and she has inspired and encouraged me with her story of getting published! 🙂

  9. Very cool. I love learning more about people living in different cultures and their perspectives on the major wars that shaped the 20th century. It sounds like you must have developed a great love and sympathy for the people of China. 🙂

    • Hi ReGi, my neighbor to the north. When I count my blessings, living overseas and having so many friends from all over the world is right there at the top of the list along with the thirty years I spent with my late husband. He loved both the country of his birth (China) and his adopted country (USA), and I share that love. I really enjoyed researching WWII in China and writing Tiger Tail Soup.

  10. What a fascinating woman! I love the story about how she went about writing the book based on her husband’s stories. 🙂 Nicki, good for you for publishing your book against your agent’s advice! Thanks, Linda for introducing me to Nicki. 🙂

    • It’s nice to meet you, brickhousechick. Thanks for your comments. I can’t take all the credit for taking the plunge and getting my book published. My daughter gave me the push–the fast-moving daughter, the one who jumps from idea to action in a split second, who when she was younger could barely keep it together when I was ten minutes late picking her up from her piano lesson. Everyone needs such a daughter. At least I do.

  11. Thanks, Stephanie. Sometimes I miss painting. Some people may be able to do both things, but I’m too slow. So I just remind myself that painting was something I used to do.

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