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.

Check This Out: The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo!

Ahoy there, mateys! Glad I am ye stopped by today. With me on the blog is the awesome Steve Bramucci, who is here to talk about his middle grade adventure novel, The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! ’Twas illustrated by Arree Chung, and then published by Bloomsbury on August 1. For a synopsis, go here.

 

Steve is represented by Sara Crowe. In a few minutes, I’ll tell ye all about a giveaway for The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! But first, let’s have a chat with Steve!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Steve: Random facts? Book related facts? Important life facts? Orangutan facts? I’ll try one of each!
1. Even though I write about exotic food, my all-time favorite meal is just rotini overloaded with parmesan cheese. It was my favorite as a boy and the draw of “flavor nostalgia” still gets me at least once per week. I was traveling around the world a few years ago and missed pasta with parmesan so badly that I had a friend bring me some Kraft parmesan when we met up in Cambodia.


2. The first page of The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo!in which the narrator introduces himselfremains virtually unchanged from its very first incarnation, written during a break at an SCBWI conference. Everything else has changed drastically from those early days.
3. My dad died two weeks after the book sold.

El Space: So sorry. You have my condolences.
Steve: He was such an amazing guy that I’ve always worried I won’t be able to measure up to his legacy. That, really, is the theme of the book: One boy’s longing to impress his parents and step out of their giant shadows.

4. Orangutans are a truly astounding species and critically endangered due to habitat encroachment. A portion of my proceeds from the book go here. Anyone who decides they want to donate to that charity, or any other orangutan initiative, can email me on my website for some free Danger Gang swag!

El Space: Awesome! You wear a lot of hats, including managing editor at Uproxx, and you’ve written travel articles for many publications. How did you come to write children’s books?
Steve: I’m actually surprised that more travel writers don’t start writing for kids. Travel is basically the real life incarnation of our childhood fantasies about adulthoodthe way that we thought adulthood would feel when we were young. For me, travel writing is the chance to live out my boyhood adventure dreams, and writing this book was right in line with that.

Photo credit: Jake Anderson

The journey to writing for kids was actually a little longer than me just pivoting all at once. I’ve been telling pirate stories to kids at schools and events near my home for more than a decade now, I’ve been involved in SCBWI, and even written another, unsold, novel. It wasn’t until I went to the Vermont College of Fine Arts that all the pieces congealed.

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El Space: The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo reminds me of the fun of adventure stories like the Indiana Jones moviesat least the earlier onesand The Goonies. What was the inspiration behind it? How did your main character, Ronald Zupan, come to be? Why was a pet cobra an ideal pet for him?
Steve: I definitely wanted the book to feel pulp-y, like an old-timey serial. The Indiana Jones connection was obviously intentional and you can see that in the way the book is packaged. Semi-side note: For me, modern technology rarely serves adventure, so Ronald and his friends sort of exist in a vague pre-tech era (50s? 40s?). You won’t see cell phones or computers or… I actually made great efforts to avoid mentioning any plastic objects all together.

The Goonies is a huge reference point too. I love stories where the basic pitch is: “Kids go on an adventure and learn stuff along the way. Also, there are mean bad guys with bad oral hygiene.” Bloomsbury calls the book Indiana Jones meets Lemony Snicket which is the most flattering “blank meets blank” analogy I could ever hope to receive.

As for the cobra, there are a few big reasons:
• I’m highly allergic to cats and house dogs, so I always had reptiles as pets. My dad would take me to a farm and let me keep whatever snakes I could catch.
• Indiana Jones hates snakes and I love them, so I wanted to give that massive series a little poke in the ribs by having Ronald be a snake lover.
• Ronald would never have an ordinary pet, so the choice feels very natural for the character.
• But mostly, it just came to me and people laughed. When I read something and people laugh, I suddenly become very attached to that bit.

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El Space: Are you a pantser or a plotter? What’s your writing process?
Steve: I’d say I’m … a little of both. I’ll outline, but if some idea strikes me, I’m quick to ditch my notes. I’ll follow whims without much convincing. I also don’t outline before the first major turning point. I like to keep the early pages moving and full of that electric energy.

In this series, Ronald and I are so similar in mindset that most of the time I just have to ask: “What would I do next in this situation?” By following that thought process, I manage to get Ronald in a lot of trouble.

El Space: You’ve traveled extensively. Of the places you’ve visited, which is/are your favorite place/places to return to again and again? Why?
Steve: I get asked the “favorite place” question a lot and my answer hasn’t changed in a long time now: Madagascar is my #1 place on earth. It’s just … for the adventure traveler, it’s really perfect: Affordable, exciting, not over-touristed, and unique, with incredibly kind people and a fascinating local culture. Also, the whole mini-continent has a rich pirate history and, as you know, I love pirates.

As for a place to return to, I’m going to say the American Southwest. It’s just so iconic, so different from citified-America, so full of sprawling landscapes and potential for adventure. Every few years I go to Canyon de Chelly and ride Navajo ponies through the canyon for a few days. That’s one of my favorite shorter trips on earth.

El Space: You’re going around the world, but can only take three things besides a passport. What would you take and why?
Steve: Objects? A surfboard, an iPod without internet capability, and a good bookmaybe a compendium of Twain or a copy of The Princess Bride. With that set up, I could travel for a year without much complaint.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Steve: I’m finishing the edits on The Danger Gang and the Isle of Feral Beasts right now!

Thanks, Steve, for being my guest!

Where in the internet world is Steve Bramucci? You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Uproxx.

The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo can be found at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell’s. But one of you will find a copy of it at your doorstep—or tablet if you prefer—simply by commenting. Winner will be announced on August 14.

Photos and book cover courtesy of Steve Bramucci, with the exception of the Canyon de Chelly photo, which is found at galleryhip.com, the rotini photo, which is from 34st.com., and The Princess Bride book cover, which is from Goodreads. The Goonies movie poster from movieposter.com. Pirate from clipartlord.com.