Check This Out: When in Vanuatu


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.

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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.


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:


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.

Check This Out: Pipe Dreams

Many of you in the blogosphere are no strangers to Destiny Allison, whose eponymous blog is so encouraging to many. If you’re a newbie, feel free to stop right here and check out Destiny’s blog. We’ll wait.


You’re back? Good. So you probably know that Destiny’s passion for encouraging the dreams of others isn’t just a pipe dream. (Har har.) Keep reading and you’ll find out why. First, give it up for Destiny, who is here today, and whose book Pipe Dreams is available right now, right here.


Here’s a synopsis:

Beneath the park bench, a young girl cries for help, her voice a cold hand on Vanessa’s throat. “Please,” the girl whispers, a tear trickling down her battered face. The naked girl is desperate, but compassion for the Fallen is never forgiven. Vanessa’s hesitation is her undoing. Unbeknownst to her, Lewis is still haunted by her thick, auburn hair, serious eyes, and mocking laughter. She is the symbol of all he hates and her interaction with the girl is what he needs to gain control of the virus and exact his revenge.

As his plan unfolds, Vanessa is forced to flee. Escaping through the sewer, she finds love, heartbreak, and the red beam of a gun sight dancing on the slick, black wall. That’s when she learns Texas is real. Pipe Dreams is a dystopian novel set in the near future. If gene splicing could merge Margaret Atwood and Suzanne Collins, the resulting author might write this book.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Destiny: 1. I’ve been a professional sculptor, fabricating in steel, for the last 20 years and am transitioning to my first love (writing) because of an injury. 2. My husband and I have six kids between us. 3. I’m pretty deaf, but prefer to read lips instead of wear hearing aids, though I’m not sure how long that will last. I have a tendency to make things up when I don’t understand what people are saying, and that sometimes gets me into trouble, or, at the very least, is cause for side-splitting laughter. 4. There is nothing I love better than walking in the woods with my dogs and my love.

El Space: You are amazing. So, is Pipe Dreams a stand-alone or a series?
Destiny: I have planned it as a series, and book two is already plotted. I’m so excited to start writing it.

El Space: What were the attractions of writing dystopian fiction? How has your experience prepared you to write this novel?
Destiny: I fell in love with dystopia after reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in my teens.


Since then, I’ve read all the classics, and it continues to be one of my favorite genres. I think dystopia is a natural for me, because it is a wonderful way to talk about real societal issues and explore human nature. I’m a closet student of philosophy, and have always been fascinated by people’s motivations and by the way history tends to repeat itself because of innate human traits.

In Pipe Dreams, I didn’t have just one main character. Each of the major players is reacting to a specific situation from their own perspective. Much like in life, truth is a matter of perspective. It is their collective pursuit of often conflicting dreams that creates societal change. I think the same is true about most things. We may not all get what we want, but if we don’t stay true and hold onto our dreams, everything stays the same. We need each other to move us forward.

El Space: What dystopian novels have you read recently that you found inspiring?
Destiny: I’m currently reading Wool and I’m loving it. Hugh Howey has a wonderful voice, and his descriptions are fabulous. I love the way he also explores human nature and reveals that what is on the surface is seldom the truth.


El Space: What do you hope readers will take away by the end of Pipe Dreams?
Destiny: That everyone has a dream and that no matter how far-fetched it is, they have to hold onto it and do what they can to make it come true. Our dreams are what drive our evolution as a society.

El Space: What would you stockpile if the reality of your novel became the reality today? Why?
Destiny: Antibiotics. People are pretty smart and can learn to hunt, gather, etc., but the ability to fight bacteria—especially in an urban setting where natural medicinals are scarce—is a constant challenge.


El Space: You mentioned that you want to donate part of your proceeds toward helping writers. What inspired you to do so?
Destiny: Twenty-five percent of the sales of this book will go to help other authors/artists achieve their dreams. I was really lucky when I first started out and several people gave me the help I needed to take my art to a professional level and help me make a living from it. I’m in a position now to do the same, and I believe in paying it forward.

El Space: That’s wonderful, Destiny. So, what advice do you have for writers about to tackle a dystopian?
Destiny: Create a believable world. When things don’t make sense, it pulls readers out of the story. Really think through how/why your world could happen, then pay attention to human nature. Be honest and real in the emotions your characters would experience.

My heroine, Vanessa, is traumatized. As such, she isn’t particularly stable. Anything can set her off. If she had experienced the trauma she did and didn’t display the erratic behavior she does, not only would readers not believe in her, they wouldn’t be able to identify with her or root for her.

Thanks, Destiny, for hanging out with me on the blog today. I’ve enjoyed our discussion.

And thanks to all who stopped by. Look for Pipe Dreams at Amazon here. If you have questions for Destiny, please comment below.

Medicine image from Book covers from