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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.