AUTHOR INTERVIEW WITH NICKI CHEN
Nicki Chen is a novelist and blogger from Washington state. Tales of her husband's childhood in China inspired her first novel, Tiger Tale Soup. Her new novel, When in Vanuatu (2020, She Writes Press), was influenced by the couple's expatriate years, including time lived in Manila and the island of Vanuatu.
Nicki talked with Rose City Reader about new new book, historical fiction, and expatriate living:
How did you come to write When in Vanuatu?
My first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, required a lot of research. It was set in China during WWII, a time and place I knew only from stories I’d heard and books I’d read. I thought it was time I wrote a novel about something closer to my own experience. Why not a story about a group of expatriates living in Vanuatu?
The book takes place in Manila and the South Seas island of Vanuatu. Why did you choose to set your novel in these locations? Do you have a personal connection?
My husband and I lived in Vanuatu for three years. It was beautiful and fascinating—the perfect backdrop for a story.
I didn’t settle on Manila until rather late in the process. In fact, I originally wrote a brief section set in Singapore. I was more familiar with Manila, though. My husband, our three daughters, and I lived there for about fifteen years beginning in 1971. Our daughters started nursery school there and went through the grades at the Manila International School. They were in college in the United States during the time of my novel.
Did you know right away, or have an idea, how you were going to end the story? Or did it come to you as you were in the process of writing?
I didn’t decide how to end the story until I was almost there. By then, I knew what would feel right, and I felt that it would work.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
During the process of writing the novel, I kept noticing, little by little, how much our lives and particularly the expatriate experience has changed since 1989-90. We didn’t email then, no social media, no cell phones, no blogging. My protagonist, Diana, had only one way to communicate with her friends and family back in the United States: international air mail and occasional (expensive) phone calls.
I didn’t classify When in Vanuatu as “historical fiction,” but recently I learned that the majority of historians consider history anything that happened twenty or thirty years ago. So I guess my novel qualifies.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
After sharing Diana’s life for 316 pages, I hope readers will have gained a greater understanding of the expat experience and an appreciation for its pleasures and challenges and that they’ll come away filled with tropical dreams.
What is your favorite review or compliment you received about your book?
I like a review by Tegan Tigani of the Queen Anne Book Company. She ended it like this: “It’s ideal for book clubs or anyone who would want to read a modern, feminist Graham Green.” I’m a big fan of book clubs and also of Graham Green stories.
What is your background and how did it lead to writing fiction?
Who knows how a short and early career teaching kindergarten and a later long-term interest in art, particularly Chinese brush painting and batik, led me on a path to that led to writing fiction? But at some point, I developed a real passion for it. Thanks to some wonderful teachers at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I gained the ability to craft a story and succeeded in earning an MFA. I had to travel half-way around the world several times to do it, though.
Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up?
Yes. I loved fairy tales in every form, from Grimm to Hans Christian Andersen, from Walt Disney to the Hansel and Gretel opera. Mom read to me; then I read to my sister. Dad could recite long Robert Service poems. At bedtime he invented stories for us filled with giants and flying carpets.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?
My favorite authors change as time goes by. Some current favorites: Liane Moriarty, Margaret Atwood, Tana French, Kristen Hannah, Ian McEwan, and Jess Walter. Whoops! That’s six. I hope I’m influenced by these talented writers, but I can’t guarantee it.
What are you reading now?
Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian, another favorite author.
You have a terrific website and are also on Facebook and Twitter. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your book?
They’re crucial. Any new product (or book) needs serious marketing if anyone is going to know it exists. For many of us, that marketing will be online. The place to start is having a good website. I recently remodeled mine, and I’m proud if its new look. You’re welcome to visit me at nickichenwrites.com.
We all have our favorite social media. You will find me more often on Facebook. Occasionally I spend too much time on twitter. I’m just beginning to learn my way around Instagram. It seems to be very popular among readers.
Do you have any writing rituals, odd habits, or superstitions?
I sit on a stool in my kitchen and write everything longhand. At the end of the day, I type it up and print it. Then, the following day I do a quick revision before carrying on.
What’s next? Are you working on another book?
Currently I’m working on a collection of short stories set in the South Pacific.
THANK YOU, NICKI!
WHEN IN VANUATU IS AVAILABLE ONLINE.