Of Bunnies and Birds and Apples and Poetry

Ever since I learned to crochet, I’ve always loved discovering and trying new crochet patterns. I’ve made sweaters, afghans, and numerous amigurumi patterns including these:

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Traveling Tu bunny pattern by Doris Yu

Apple and bird patterns by The Wandering Deer

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I had the same love of experimentation back when I first put pen to paper. Case in point: Back in first grade I wrote my first song with a friend.

We don’t wanna play with Jennifer
Jennifer
Jennifer
We don’t wanna play with Jennifer
Because she’s soooo bad.
Yeah!

We don’t wanna
We don’t wanna
We don’t wanna play with Jenn-Jennifer

We don’t wanna
We don’t wanna
We don’t wanna play with Jennifer!

We actually sang this to Jennifer. Yes, I was a brat, I am ashamed to say. Needless to say, this song did not make the Billboard list.

Anyway, besides song writing, over the years I dabbled in other poetic forms (haiku, iambic pentameter even!), and also wrote stage plays and screenplays, short stories, devotionals, graphic novels, novels, newspaper and magazine articles, and product ads. Now, when I say “wrote” the above, I made several failed attempts at some of them. But I at least wanted to try my hand at every form of writing I could, because experimenting was fun. And I netted some sales as a result

So why is it that nowadays, I have steered less toward experimenting and more toward the tried-and-true forms of writing I have done over and over again? I don’t actually expect you to answer that question by the way. I know the answer: fear of rejection. You would think after receiving literally hundreds of them I wouldn’t fear rejection so much. But I realize now how much having a fear-of-rejection mindset has hampered me.

I love how Jill Weatherholt, who is the winner of When in Vanuatu by the way (click here for the interview with the awesome author, Nicki Chen), kept trying to get a story published by Woman’s World. She didn’t let “no” stop her. She kept writing and submitting stories because she loved to do so.

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I want to return to my writing experiments. I’m in the middle of a novel that needs more of my past pioneering spirit.

What about you? Do you like to experiment?

Author photo and cover courtesy of Nicki Chen. Author photo by LifeTouch. Other photos by L. Marie.

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:

Amazon
B&N
Target

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: Tiger Tail Soup

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.

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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.

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Kulangsu

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.

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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.

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Port Vila

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.

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Fujian Province

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.