Discoveries: ‘The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook’


The Secret Miracle

The Novelist’s Handbook

Edited by Daniel Alarcon

Henry Holt: 358 pp., $16

“This book is not a how-to,” writes Daniel Alarcon in his introduction. “No such book exists because it cannot be written.” Instead, “The Secret Miracle” is a collection of “round-table interviews” with 54 novelists, inspired by a similar, smaller event that takes place at 826 Valencia, a writers’ center-forum-workshop in San Francisco. The writers answer questions about influences (“What do you look for in a novel?”), about how to get started (“How much do you know about the plot before you begin?”), character and scene (“How much do you draw from your own life when constructing a character?”), revision (“When/how do you show a draft to your trusted readers?”) and much more. Some answers are one word; some writers wax eloquently. The book is an absolute end to loneliness for writers; it’s also the best procrastination -- if you can’t sit down and write the thing, at least read something useful about the process.

In the Shadow

of the Cypress

A Novel

Thomas Steinbeck

Gallery Books: 246 pp., $25

Rich in the history of the Chinese fishermen of the Monterey peninsula, “In the Shadow of the Cypress” begins in 1906 with journal extracts from Stanford marine biologist Charles H. Gilbert. After a Chinese fishing village burns to the ground, an Irish businessman finds a jade giraffe and a small plaque entwined in the roots of an old cypress tree and shows them to Gilbert. The objects are a key to a Chinese claim to the West Coast that predates Columbus. The plaque establishes the arrival of Chinese explorers in 1422: “[T]he treasure fleet commissioned at great expense by Emperor Zhu Di didn’t set sail to steal treasure . . . they brought their own treasure to trade with others.”

The objects disappear; decades later, Gilbert’s papers and photographs of the artifacts are found by Luke, a Stanford student interning at the Monterey Aquarium. A Chinese friend gets involved in searching for them, and Luke is forced to confront the hypocrisy of our relationship with China: “[A]lmost everything we use daily, and depend upon daily, is made in China. And as yet I haven’t seen one Chinese Communist soldier patrolling the streets of Atherton or San Jose. I mean really, why bother spending the time, the expense, and the blood to conquer, when all you have to do is make your opponent a dependent client?”

The Hand That First Held Mine

A Novel

Maggie O’Farrell

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:

330 pp., $25

There goes the time-space continuum again -- the matrix-adding layers to fiction. Take your lawn, for example. This morning, a child played on it. One hundred years ago, a different child played on it. Two stories on the same lawn. Now replace the lawn with your imagination. Characters from a novel came alive there; you made small decisions that involved imagining the future there. The past pokes through with the help of an object -- a rusty piece of pipe, an old toy, a bit of fabric. Everything grinds to a halt.

This is what happens in Maggie O’Farrell’s artful novel. In postwar London, we have a 21-year-old woman, a real firecracker, who meets a charmer, Innes, who falls in love with her and hires her to work at his magazine. But he is already married, and vengeance is on the horizon. In present-day London, a young couple, Ted and Elina, have a baby. Elina almost dies in childbirth -- blood everywhere. Elina and Ted are mired in something, you don’t know what. They grow distant. You fear some curse has been put on them. O’Farrell does not deal in curses, but she is fond of wrinkles in the warp of time and space. Oddly, the places where nothing happens are the places where the most happens. O’Farrell moves just fast enough: Any faster and we would get dizzy, lose the details, stop caring about characters. Someone is going to lose someone; someone else is going to figure out who they really are.

Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.