Photo by LifeTouch
Today, I’m pleased to welcome back to the blog the fabulous Nicki Chen, who is here to talk about her sophomore novel, When in Vanuatu, published in April 2021 by She Writes Press! Oh yeah!
El Space: What inspired you to write this book?
Nicki: It may seem strange to write a novel inspired by a place, but when we moved to Vanuatu, I was immediately charmed by the country. It was a storybook place. Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Somerset Maugham all wrote stories about the South Seas. James Michener was stationed there when he wrote the story that became South Pacific, the musical and the movie.
Coincidentally, only months before we moved to Vanuatu, I was accepted into the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, motivation enough for me to consider my surroundings as bursting with stories and mystery.
El Space: How did you separate your real-life experiences from your fictional characters’ experiences?
Nicki: I like to keep the setting real and everything else fictional. I had very few photos to rely on for the setting. Before cell phones, I didn’t take many pictures. I did keep a journal, though. I filled it with descriptions of the setting, especially of Vanuatu, a place that was so new and fascinating to me.
Photo by Nicki Chen
My protagonist, Diana, was her own person with her own history, hopes, and problems. She and I did have in common the experience of being expatriates, but every expat’s life is different from that of every other. The December 1989 coup attempt against Philippine president, Cory Aquino, was something else we had in common. Everyone who lived in Manila at that time shared that experience. It wasn’t the first coup attempt, but it was the most serious.
El Space: What did the writing of this novel teach you about your growth as a novelist?
Nicki: When in Vanuatu is so totally different from my first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, that I’m not sure I can compare the experiences as a way to see my growth. I suppose I’m becoming more confident, more able to recognize what’s working and what isn’t.
El Space: What excites you the most as you think of readers diving into your novel? Them seeing the setting through your eye? Meeting your characters? Other?
Nicki: We all like to share. We point out pretty flowers and snow-capped mountains. We hold up photos of our grandchildren. So yes, I am excited to share my novel, both the parts of it that are based on places I’ve been and sights I’ve seen and the fictional characters that have come to seem real to me after spending so many months (years) with them. I hope readers will empathize with my characters and enjoy living for a while in Diana’s skin.
El Space: What authors inspire you?
Nicki: Any talented author is an inspiration. Some of my current favorites: Liane Moriarty, Margaret Atwood, Tana French, Kristen Hannah, Ian McEwan, Jess Walter, Joyce Carol Oates, and Salman Rushdie.
El Space: What will you work on next?
Nicki: I’m working on a collection of short stories now. Once again, they’re set in the South Pacific. It’s a place teeming with stories and the promise of more.
Thank you, Nicki, for being my guest!
Looking for Nicki? Look here:
Looking for When in Vanuatu? Look here:
Meanwhile, enjoy this excerpt!
Ever since Fiji she’d been gazing out at the ocean’s pretty blue surface as though that were all there was to it. She hadn’t given a thought to the real ocean, that deep, deep watery world below her. All those creatures–sharks and turtles, rays and whales and spiky sea urchins–all of them hidden from view. The thought of that huge mysterious world sent a chill up her spine.
Suddenly the plane’s engines changed pitch. Oh my god, she thought, we’re almost there. Almost there, and Vanuatu was as much a mystery to her as was the ocean. Somehow in her rush to move, her single-minded focus on this one solution to her problem, she’d neglected to imagine what it would actually feel like to live on a remote little island in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. She gripped her armrests and stared at the seat in front of her.
“What?” Jay folded a page and put his book away.
He leaned across her lap. “Look. I see something.”
And there it was, a strip of turquoise beyond the ocean’s monotonous blue, surf splashing white on a beach, a fringe of green trees. Their plane dropped lower until they were skimming over a plantation of shiny green coconut palms. Then they were on top of the runway, dusty bushes along the side, a few drying puddles. The plane settled onto a blanket of air, resting for a moment in that zone a few feet from the ground where you seem to be speeding up before you touch down, holding your breath before you land.
“Well, honey,” Jay said, patting her knee as the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac. “Welcome to paradise.”
Like that? Comment below to be entered in the drawing to receive a free copy of this book. One winner will be chosen next week.
Book cover, author photo, and Vanuatu photo courtesy of Nicki Chen. Author photo by LifeTouch. Vanuatu photo taken by Nicki Chen. Other book covers from Goodreads.
I love that excerpt, it really captured the sensation of the plane landing and the thrill of arriving on an island.
Yay! It is a good excerpt! 😄
Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Some landings are more memorable than others.
Great excerpt! Congratulations to Nicki. Thanks for hosting, L. Marie.
I’m so glad to have Nicki on the blog, Jill! I hope you will come on the blog too. 😄
Thank you, Jill. L. Marie is so generous in hosting authors.
Hello, Nicki. How wonderful to live in a place you write about. It actually sounds like paradise. I notice you say: “Before cell phones, I didn’t take many pictures. I did keep a journal, though. I filled it with descriptions of the setting,” Journals are a wonderful resource for authors.
Thanks, L. Marie for hosting a fine author. To be carried by Target and Barnes & Noble as well as Amazon is quite an accomplishment. Brava!
I’m glad to feature Nicki, Marian. Yes, I was impressed by the Target listing too. Soooo cool!
A journal is a great resource, yes!
When I was in college, I took one art class. I still remember one assignment: Sit outside and sketch. It was such an enjoyable afternoon. When you’re sketching or writing in a journal, you notice and enjoy the world around you. I’d better be careful, or I’m going to talk myself into going back to journaling again. Maybe I should.
It’s fun to read your interviews with authors and get to know them better. I like the excerpt from the novel. Thanks for sharing it here.
Glad to do so, Ally. It’s always fun for me. And I especially love that Nicki wrote a book about a place she knows well.
Thank you, Ally. L.Marie does a a real service for authors. I’m glad you like the excerpt.
Congrats Nicki! And L.Marie – another winner of an interview!
(ps-I’ve already won plenty of books from your site, L.Marie so please exempt me from the drawing)
Hi Laura. I’m glad you stopped by and had a look.
Thank you, Laura! So glad you stopped by for a chat. 😀
I love stories that are centred on place-particularly places I’m familiar with. Maybe one day!
I also enjoy stories that are important to the author. I can’t help thinking of Hemingway.
Andy, I’ve always thought that with real in-person travel, I want to go back to the old places and at the same time I want to go someplace new. I don’t know which is better, but they’re both fun. The same thing with reading. I recently read a police procedural by Robert Dugoni set in Seattle not far from where I live. Fun! Now I’m reading ARIADNE, based on a Greek legend, sailing the Aegean and climbing the hills of Naxos. Fun!
I love Orkney-I want to live there. My wife doesn’t-and so I don’t 😂 But to stay connected I often return to George Mackay Brown, all of his fiction and poetry is centred on those islands. All set in different periods of that long Orcadian history.
I also look for something new-when you say you are near to Seattle, do you know of any blogs set there that you’d recommend?
And the kick for an extra point.
Loved the excerpt. Congratulations on the new book and thank you for this interview! Having lived outside the U.S. (in Portugal), I’m a fan of stories of expat life.
Do you think you’ll write a book set in Portugal? (If you have, please correct me.)
Lyn. It’s amazing how many of us former expats there are. It’s an experience you never forget.
just stumbled here – so happy to find anything about books 🙂 goodness you’ve blogged many years!
Thank you for stopping by! Yes, I have posted for eight years now.
Hi da-AL. Nice to meet you. L.Marie and I started blogging at about the same time. I don’t remember how I found her, but when I did, I was surprised to find that we both got our MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts–not at the same time, though. She has been so generous in showcasing the books of fellow writers.