JACKI LYDEN, host:
The birds have gone in search of the blue direction. The horizon is vertical, vertical and movement fountain-like; and at the limits of vision, shining planets spin. These words from a Persian poet are found in Cuban-born writer Cristina Garcia's new novel, "A Handbook to Luck." Garcia uses the verses to highlight a theme that runs through her book. The theme of aspiration, chance and destiny.
I spoke with Cristina Garcia earlier this week. She told me about the three characters she brings together in her new novel.
Ms. CRISTINA GARCIA (Author, "A Handbook to Luck"): Enrique is - leaves, with his father, from Cuba. His father is this crazy magician and they end up in Las Vegas after a terrible accident made them flee Cuba. Then there's Marta from El Salvador who grows up very poor and peddling old clothes in the capital and comes across the border illegally and ends up in Los Angeles. And then we have the very privileged daughter of an Iranian surgeon in Tehran who ends up coming here to college. And as unlikely as these characters' backgrounds are, in terms of the possibilities for their convergence, they do end up all meeting variously in Los Angeles.
LYDEN: You begin in California with Enrique remembering Havana. You mentioned this accident in which his mother dies doing a magic trick with his magician father. Could you tell us a little bit more about this father?
Ms. GARCIA: He was quite famous in the Caribbean. He would tour the Caribbean for years.
LYDEN: His name is Fernando?
Ms. GARCIA: Fernando Florit and just kind of larger than life, physically and emotionally and in every way, just always enters a room and takes over. He co-opted his wife to work with him for some years and it went swimmingly until she got electrocuted in this terrible aquarium trick they did outdoors in a park. And from then on, he's never the same. He's always trying in one form or another to regain this former glory. Most of which is in his head. And he ends up in Las Vegas, which is where he thinks he can remake himself as a true American but he ends up taking on the guise of a 19th-century Chinese magician instead. So, it's all a clash of cultures and confusion.
LYDEN: What drew you to the Marta character? She eventually becomes a nanny married to a Korean man in Los Angeles.
Ms. GARCIA: Marta - the most direct inspiration for her was this woman who took care of my daughter when she was little. Her name was Anna Granado(ph). She knows all about it. She's read this book. Anyway, she would come in the morning to relieve me to go off to my little office and she would say casually to me, by the way, did I ever tell you the time I shot my first husband in the foot? And I would drop my chocolate - I would stop everything and just listen to her story. And I was spending more and more time listening to her and less and less time in my office. She was that good a storyteller.
LYDEN: Your scenes here, as these people leave San Salvador, leave Tehran, leave Cuba are so vivid that I could almost think that you were present during an act of political violence - a death squad shooting on the plaza in South Salvador which is witnessed by Marta's younger brother or that you had actually gone to the mountains just north of Tehran. Did you, in fact, travel to these places?
Ms. GARCIA: I did spend some time in El Salvador - several weeks, in fact. I went with my daughter and we crisscrossed the country on the back of a flatbed truck. This woman I went with and who was the inspiration for the Marta character - her brother is a trucker. And so we got to see the whole country and talk to people. And hear a lot about the civil war, which is a little unusual because there's a kind of collective amnesia about it - not that people don't remember it, but they don't talk about it very much and it's very uncomfortable.
LYDEN: Enrique turns out to be quite a poker player. And as he and his father, the magician, move to Las Vegas, he spends a lot of time in the casinos and he's constantly rescuing Fernando the magician from financial penury and all his disasters by playing cards and this makes United States think about luck. And he's trying to improve his odds.
Ms. GARCIA: He's very gifted mathematically. In fact, he turns down a scholarship to MIT to care for his father who's always on the brink of ruin. And I think it's a theme that runs throughout the book. You know, what are the odds of this? What if I go left here instead of right? Will my fate change?
I think choice and destiny are always in competition throughout this book and on the minds of all of these characters. And the poker part was just kind of a fun thing to explore. I spent a lot of weekends in Las Vegas in the poker pits.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GARCIA: Learning about the game from these very generous Texans.
LYDEN: So, do you think, Cristina - for these people - is it destiny or is it chance that rules their lives the most?
Ms. GARCIA: Well, I think it's probably a combination of things that are continually wrestling with each other. My Iranian character, Leila's - from her point of view - in her culture, she learns that your fate is written on you forehead from the moment you're born. And so, she fights against it at various points but ultimately succumbs to what she thinks is her predetermined fate.
My other characters are curious about opportunities and luck in a way and they maximize it more to their advantage. But I think it's a combination of opportunity, of pluck, of personality that makes a life. And I think there's certain amount of destiny involved and a great amount of luck.
LYDEN: Is there a Cuban expression for that?
Ms. GARCIA: There's a great Cuban expression, you know more by being old than being the devil.
LYDEN: And what does that mean?
Ms. GARCIA: I think it means that your experiences and how you take advantage of them trumps your nature.
LYDEN: You also bring in things that are just odd, that are just fun. I mean, Enrique and Leila fall in love in Las Vegas. He tries desperately to spirit her away from her destiny, which is to marry another Iranian, by driving her across the desert. Then have a car accident - okay, I believe that - but then suddenly, a door bursts open and they're deluged with monkeys.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GARCIA: Well, yes, they got hit by a truck that was transporting monkeys destined for laboratory experiments in Southern California. I know - I love to push things just a little further. I mean, the car accident, yes. The monkeys? Who knows. I mean, my favorite place to be, fictionally, is really on that border between what's remotely possible and what's really quite impossible. And I think that incident speaks to my own predilections.
LYDEN: Cristina Garcia, thank you very much for speaking with us.
Ms. GARCIA: Thank you so much.
LYDEN: Cristina Garcia's new novel is called "A Handbook to Luck."
That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Debbie Elliot returns next week.