Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Review: The Secret Miracle

Rabih made me buy The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook. I'm glad he did.

First off, what a smart book to "write". Ask some of the best novelists in the world some questions about books and writing, then edit all the replies. Voilà, book written.

Daniel Alarcón introduces the book with the story of how his first book almost killed him. That's how I feel working on the fourth draft of my first book. Alarcón also tells a story about how each writer is different than any other writer. When you read The Secret Miracle, you learn how true that it.

I learned lots more. From the writers' replies, I learned something different about each author's personality from what I might surmise reading that author's books. Saša Stanišić kept answering questions the same way I imagined answering, so now I want to read one of his books. In response to the question "How important is humor?", Michael Chabon replied, "Not one bit. Just kidding." Now I want to read one of Chabon's books, too.

I liked questions like "Is there a novel you back to again and again?" The answers to these kinds of questions provided great reading lists. Amy Tan liked Love in the Time of Cholera. So did Michael Chabon. Moby Dick came up several times.

What's not to like about this book? As a writer, I was amused at how other writers approach the craft and and the business of books. I marveled at their rich understanding of novels and writing. As a reader, I found new authors to read and familiar authors I want to revisit. Even better, I skimmed answers to questions that didn't interest me without a pang of guilt. It wasn't like I would miss an important plot point or something.

The first question in the book is "What do you look for in a novel?" I liked Rabih's answer the best:
After reading a great novel, I am not the same person I was before I read it. Now all that stuff we take for granted — great story, great structure, great language — that all makes for a really good novel. But a great novel is not the one that transforms the character but the one that transforms the reader.
I'm glad Rabih made me buy the book.

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