Check This Out: When in Vanuatu

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

Website: http://nickichenwrites.com/wordpress/ 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NickiChenAuthor  
Twitter: https://twitter.com/NickiChenAuthor

Looking for When in Vanuatu? Look here:

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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.

“Nothing.”

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.

A Writer’s Process (4)

You’re just in time for another scintillating discussion of a writer’s process. Please help yourself to a bagel as we begin.

If you’re the kind of writer who works on more than one project at a time, this discussion has your name all over it. It certainly has mine! With me is—say it with me—another friend from VCFA—the awesome and wonderful Lori Steel!

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El Space: Welcome, Lori. Please tell the folks out there about yourself.
Lori: Well, let’s see. Most don’t know that I’ve worked as a: dishwasher, waitress, bartender, sub-delivery girl, secretary, hotel room service supervisor, nanny, egg-picker and deer-checker (yes, you read the last two right). I eventually ended up as a teacher and children’s library specialist. I “retired” from the classroom last year after completing my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

El Space: Woot!
Lori: Now I teach creative writing classes at Politics & Prose Bookstore and online for Johns Hopkins University. And, of course, I write.

The UK was home for about seven years. It started as a one-year study-abroad stint at Liverpool University. There, I joined the rowing team, went clubbing, sometimes studied. (My teenagers won’t read this, will they?) and met my husband. We eventually married, moved to Oxford, raised two children, and bought our first home. I continued rowing for Wolfson College—even won the “bumps” race when three months pregnant. Rather apt, don’t you think? Here’s a picture of my oar to prove it. Oh, and I took my first writing class. The rest is history.

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El Space: Impressive! So, what projects are you working on now?
Lori: I’ve recently completed a middle grade historical novel, Finding Lost River. Set in 1960s Appalachia, it’s about 13-year-old Catherine O’Flynn who channels her idol, Johnny Cash, by wearing black to bring some music and light into the dreary town of Dowstan.

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She never expects her Easter break to start with a secret. Instead, Cat finds River, a runaway boy, squatting in her chicken house. She soon becomes caught in the undertow of his story—one of abuse and survival—as River seeps into her skin. Cat’s story is about recognizing the redemptive power of truth and the comfort of family.

At the moment I’m writing a YA verse novel, still untitled. I chose the free-verse structure for this project, because it’s a story that deals with difficult themes. But I’m keeping mum about that one for the time being. It’s still marinating . . . too many cooks, and all that!

I’ve also just finished revisions on two picture books. In Murmur, a starling alights on the bow of a rowboat during a paddle on the loch before flying skyward—and turning into something quite extraordinary.

european-starlingThe bossy Sergeant in my concept picture book, Sandpiper School, gives orders to his Fledges until the GBC (Giant Blue Crab) arrives unexpectedly and his Fledges need to use their newfound skills to save him. I’m also wrapping up revisions for a picture book poetry collection titled Me, Tree, where the varying forms of poetry are all told from a tree’s perspective.

El Space: Sounds great! What do you find helpful as you juggle projects?
Lori: For me, writing picture books, early readers, and poetry is more akin to solving a puzzle. Working at the micro-level needed for these forms—where efficiency of language is paramount—helps me appreciate the value of each syllable, each word, each line. It’s not unusual for me to unlock issues I’m having in my larger WiP when I’m puzzling out a poem or a line of picture book text. Often when I’ve finished one set of novel revisions or find myself at an impasse, I switch gears and pull out smaller pieces. Having said all that, once I’m in the story, that’s it. It’s chocolate fueled, sleepless weeks of drafting and revising . . . until the next impasse!

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El Space: I’m always chocolate fueled, even when I’m not at an impasse! So, what authors inspire you? Why?
Lori: I always find this a tough question! Each author I read inspires me in different ways. But since we’re talking about writing in various forms and genres, how about Katherine Paterson? Her ability to craft picture books, early readers, and middle grade stories with finesse, honesty, and heart is remarkable. Jacob I Have Loved is one of my all-time favorites.

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Kate DiCamillo for sure—every time I reread Because of Winn-Dixie, I glean something new. And just to throw an adult author out there, Ian McEwan because his prose makes my brain tingle.

El Space: What advice do you have for someone working on more than one book project?
Lori: I’ve recently converted to Scrivener to keep track of my writing projects, and wonder how I ever managed without it! The program allows me to go in and out of projects at the scene level, so it’s easy to find where I’ve left off.

Consider joining critique groups that vary in focus. I belong to two different critique groups—one for picture books and one geared more towards MG and YA. Both keep me on regular deadlines, challenging me to produce more work than if I were going it alone. They also force me to write for different audiences. Choose colleagues who will encourage you to break outside your comfort barriers.

Finally, the great thing about working on more than one book project is that it allows you to experiment. Give yourself a challenge: Write a small piece in a genre you’ve never tried before. If you normally write YA, craft a picture book. Read widely and deeply across audiences and genres. Be fearless. The worst that can happen is that you to write something completely unexpected—and that’s not such a bad thing, is it?

Thanks, Lori! Great advice! Now it’s your turn to ask Lori questions about her books and process by commenting below. Thanks for stopping by!

Juggling image from honorcraft.com. Jacob Have I Loved cover from Wikipedia. Starling from cruciality.wordpress.com.