Katie Tobin

Nicola Dinan on her debut novel, Bellies

Bellies, Nicola DinanDoubleday, pp. 336, £14.99.


First of all, I just wanted to talk a bit about how things are going for you. I know you’re already adapting Bellies into a screenplay and are at a third draft stage with your second novel, Disappoint Me. It must be a bit of a whirlwind, what has all of this been like for you?

It’s been exciting, actually! Bellies has given me the opportunity to write full-time, and I think as a younger writer still in my twenties that’s a huge privilege to be able to do. So, I think it was important to me off the back of writing Bellies to start the second novel, and that’s because I wanted to use this very precious time that I felt very lucky to have because I know how much I can anticipate how much pressure I would feel writing a second book once the first had come out and had received feedback and reviews and how stressful that would be.

It’s been really lovely writing Disappoint Me feeling free of the additional challenges of a published first novel already. Even with Bellies being at a pre-publication stage, there’s already so much pressure of a second book not being able to live up to the feeling of the first. I can only imagine how much harder that would have been of I’d waited.

What was it like developing your novel with the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course?

What it really is is an opportunity to meet other contemporaries who are writing novels and aspiring novelists. I think being a novelist is quite an isolating profession and it’s also quite an isolating dream. Whilst lots of other people want to write a book, it’s hard to connect and find other people who are actually in that process. So, I did the course in 2021, and it was very valuable. Not that you need a course like that to give you the confidence to call yourself a writer, but I felt able to call myself one before I even had the first draft finished, and I think that’s quite a powerful thing.

A lot of people approach writing thinking: “Okay, well, I have to have this short story published in this journal”, although I don’t think that’s a very helpful mindset to have. And doing the Faber course gave me the confidence to finish the novel.

I’m also really interested in your move from the world of law into literature. What was that like for you, and how did Bellies come about?

I think in life, I’ve sort of been a serial quitter. I went to university to study biology and then ended up specialising in the history and philosophy of science. I then moved onto law and then found I couldn’t do law very well either, and it’s sort of been that way with me and various streams of academia since I was younger. Although I can still do those things well, I found myself feeling stuck, and the only thing that has stuck with me from when I was younger was writing. There’s always been a love for it; it was never that I always wanted to be an author, but it was that I’d always just enjoyed the creatively written word.

But, at the same time, I’m really grateful for having done science and law as it’s had such an influence on the way that I write. I write relatively succinct and precise sentences that maybe hit an emotion with relatively sparse words. And I do think that the focus of something like science or law has helped to fine tune that, so I’ll always look back on that experience quite fondly, even though sometimes I wonder whether I should have done writing the entire time.

I’m really interested in what the process of adapting Bellies to screen is like, especially as one of the most compelling things about Bellies is the interiority of Tom and Ming. I particularly loved the really vivid stream of consciousness style in her early chapters. Could you talk a bit about the processes of creating a distinctive voice for both of them? 

You have to externalise so much of the novel which is internal, sometimes that’s through facial expressions and sometimes that’s through movement. But ultimately, there’s only so much you can do.

When it comes to the feelings the characters are experiencing, there’s a level of trust you have to bestow onto the people who are working on the project. You have to trust your actors and directors and other people who are going to collaborate and bring your work to life and communicate the internal voices. As a writer, that’s something I find kind of scary. When you’re writing a novel, you’re a total puppeteer of the world, crafting what the characters are feeling, what their role is. There comes a point where you release the novel into the world, and it gets transformed into something else that you have to relinquish your role as the ultimate creator and allow other people to bring those aspects to life.

It is challenging, but it’s also a necessary part of the process.

And finally, one of the things I loved most was how you afford Ming and Tom a lot of room for growth. It’s a very candid novel in that sense, particularly with how fallible but also relatable both characters felt. Within fiction, I think there’s sometimes an impulse to paint marginalised characters as virtuous or perfect, and I loved how you went against that impulse. Could you talk about your intentions with that?

It just didn’t make sense to me to as there’s a level to which I don’t think characters can be relatable if they’re not fallible. I can think of few things more dehumanising than, say, having a trans character who is this perfect person – it’s so limiting in the way that we view those groups of people. The reality is, going through the torment that people in marginalised groups often do can result in behaviour that is difficult, so I think it’s necessary to create fallible characters in order to humanise them.


Nicola Dinan grew up in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, and now lives in London. Bellies, her debut, was shortlisted for the Mo Siewcharran Prize. Nicola is a graduate of the Faber Academy Writing-a-Novel course. Her work has appeared in Huck, i-D, Paper, Necessary Fiction and elsewhere.

To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry. 

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.