Golem and Jinni Meet in Helene Wecker’s Debut Novel
When a woman made of clay and a man of fire meet in the immigrant neighborhoods of turn-of-the-century New York will sparks ignite? The clay golem arrives from Poland without a master into a Jewish neighborhood and is taken under the wing of a kindly rabbi, who calls her Chala. The fiery jinni emerges in human form from captivity in a copper flask in the shop of a Syrian tinsmith, who dubs him Amad. Both mentors try to keep the true nature of their strange wards from becoming known and try to school them in human ways. A peculiar man with mysterious powers on a compulsive quest who cares not who might be harmed in the process is but one more of the fascinating characters populating Helene Wecker’s debut novel of history and fantasy, titled The Golem and the Jinni.
"It was a long and winding road!" |
AUTHORLINK: How did you ever come up with the idea of combining a golem, jinni, wizard and diverse immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York into one story?
WECKER: It was a long and winding road! But it really started when I was working on a group of short stories about my family and my husband’s family. I’m Jewish, and he’s Arab American, and we’re both the children of relatively recent immigrants. So I really wanted to write about the personal repercussions of immigration, the way it changes you—issues of language and culture, and feeling caught between worlds, and so on. But the stories weren’t going very well, and a friend of mine, who knew my geeky reading habits, suggested I toss in an element of fantasy or folklore. So that really was the impetus. Once I’d replaced my Jewish girl and Arab-American boy with a golem and a jinni, I had to give them a plot and a setting. Hence the wizard, and the immigrant neighborhoods of New York.
AUTHORLINK: Your golem and your jinni are quite different than their counterparts in many other stories. How did their characters develop? Did you research their folklore traditions?
WECKER: I did a good deal of research at the beginning of the process, into all the old stories and myths. Then I had to decide what to use, what to discard, and what to invent. Golems aren’t usually very smart, and they’re almost always male, and I wanted mine to be both smart and female! So in that sense, I was on mostly new ground with her, though I definitely kept her destructive nature. The Jinni was a little easier to wrap my mind around. He’s got a simpler personality, in a sense – he’s driven mostly by his own desires, and doesn’t second-guess himself very often. But that made him difficult to write sometimes, because it would be far too easy to go overboard, and turn the reader against him. I wanted him to be sympathetic, as well as incorrigible.
AUTHORLINK: Did you first know how you wanted the characters (Chava, Ahmad, Saleh, Schaalman and others) to impact each other and then figure out their backstory or did their history come first?
WECKER: Their “origin stories,” with the Jinni coming out of the flask and the Golem’s master dying on the way to America, made it pretty much unaltered from the first draft to the published book. But the rest of it changed constantly. As the Golem and the Jinni took on their own personalities, I started to realize that they were polar opposites in a few ways, and I found that fascinating. So I tinkered with their personalities to bring this out a little more.
AUTHORLINK: What research did you do to build an image of the multi-cultural details of the New York of that era?
WECKER: I spent a lot of time in libraries and online archives! I was at Columbia University the first year I worked on this, so I had access to the university library, and could photocopy to my heart’s desire. I grabbed maps, census data, articles on microfilm, anything I thought I might need. I read a number of books on the Lower East Side and Little Syria, and turn-of-the-century New York in general. The New York Public Library online photo archive was an immense help, as was the Tenement Museum website.
". . . but I was very lucky in how it all came about."|
AUTHORLINK: Agents and publishers are often reluctant to take on a long novel by an unproven author. Did you run into any of this?
WECKER: No, but I was very lucky in how it all came about. I met my agent (Sam Stoloff at Frances Goldin Literary Agency) when I was still a grad student at Columbia. We kept in touch over the years, and occasionally I would show him what I’d written and he’d make comments and suggestions. Eventually, once enough of the book was finished, I signed with him, and he took it to auction, where HarperCollins bought it. I realize that as far as these things go, I had just about the easiest ride possible, and I actually feel kind of guilty about it.
". . . it’s about throwing into sharp relief the dilemmas and the struggles that we all face. . ."|
AUTHORLINK: What do you think the golem and the jinni can teach us about what it means to be human?
WECKER: In my mind, the Golem and the Jinni represent two different viewpoints on a number of human struggles – between tradition and self-determination, and between following one’s passions and existing solely to serve others. Simply because of their natures, they need to be constantly asking these questions of themselves, just to learn how to exist in the human world. And in the course of the story, both begin to realize that neither of them has the ultimate answer. They’re both struggling for balance, between the dictates of their natures and those of the society they have to live in. So I guess that for me, it’s about throwing into sharp relief the dilemmas and the struggles that we all face, at one time or another, and our eternal quest for some sort of balance, or resting point, that I for one never quite seem to reach.
|About Helene Wecker:|
Helene Wecker is Jewish, and her husband’s family is Syrian, giving her a unique perspective on these two culture’s mystical traditions and the immigrant experiences of both groups. Her fiction has appeared in the online magazine Joyland, and she has read from her stories at the KGB Bar in Manhattan and the Barbershop Reading Series in San Francisco. She received a B.A. from Carleton College in Minnesota and an M.F.A. from Columbia University in New York. A Chicago-area native who’s made her home in Minneapolis, Seattle, and New York, she now lives near San Francisco, CA with her husband and daughter. THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI is her first novel. *For more on Helene Wecker and her writing visit: http://www.helenewecker.com/.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.