Jenny Quinlan talks with Helene Wecker on publication day of her debut The Golem and the Jinni
Today marks the publication of The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, an immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology in a story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899. Both must work to create places for themselves in this new world, and develop tentative relationships with the people who surround them. And then, one cold and windy night, their paths happen to meet…
The Golem and the Jinni is garnering lots of pre-publication buzz. Booklist calls it, “A mystical and highly original stroll through the sidewalks of New York.” Helene graciously agreed to sit down with HNS member Jenny Quinlan to answer a few questions about her exciting debut! Without further ado, please join us in welcoming Helene Wecker!
JQ: The Golem and the Jinni is such an imaginative and original tale. What was your inspiration? What led you to write this story?
HW: When I was in grad school, I started working on a collection of short stories about my own Jewish family, and my husband’s Arab-American family. But, not to put too fine a point on it, most of them weren’t very good! They were too close to true life, I think; I didn’t have enough distance from them to do them justice. A friend of mine, who knew what I liked to read, suggested I try throwing in a few fantasy elements, just as an experiment. I decided to replace the man and woman in the stories with a jinni and a golem, and soon the experiment had taken on a life of its own. The two characters very quickly developed their own personalities, and as I wrote, the book became less and less about my husband and myself, and more about these two new people.
JQ: Can you tell us a bit about the research you did to bring your setting and your characters to life? What kind of sources did you use?
HW: I was a student at Columbia University when I started working on the book, so I was lucky enough to have access to the university library. I knew that we’d be leaving New York after my classes were over, so I tried to research as much as I could before we left. I looked up a lot of old newspaper articles in the library’s archives, from newspapers that had gone out of print or that didn’t have online archives. I also found old neighborhood census information that gave me some idea of how many Jewish and Syrian immigrants were living in New York City at the turn of the century.
Once I moved to California, a lot of my research came from online resources. The New York Public Library’s digital archives were instrumental for their photography collections. They let me see for myself what the neighborhoods looked like at the turn of the century – not just the general layout, but the atmosphere as well.
JQ: Did you come across anything that surprised you during your research?
HW: A lot surprised me! I hadn’t known that the vast majority of early Syrian immigrants to the U.S. were Christian, not Muslim, mostly from what’s now Lebanon. I was also surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) at the wide spectrum of Jewish-American belief and expression at the turn of the century, as diverse as what there is now – everything from Socialist atheism to ultra-Orthodox mysticism.
JQ: What kind of challenges did you face in blending the magical with the historical?
HW: You’ve hit on the main challenge right there in your question, with the word blending. I wanted the historical and fantastical elements to meld as seamlessly as possible. I didn’t want it to seem like I’d just read a bunch of historical documents and cultural fables and dumped in the details, without really digesting them or figuring out the ramifications. So I had a lot of threads and layers to keep in mind, all at the same time: What sorts of telling details would really evoke 1899 New York? And what would my two supernatural characters think of those details?
JQ: Were there any scenes in the novel that were particularly difficult for you to write?
HW: Quite a few! The Djinni’s first few scenes in New York were very difficult, because I had to explain what a jinni was, introduce this particular jinni, describe his explosive arrival in Manhattan, and relate his earlier life in the Syrian desert, all in one fell swoop. I rewrote that sequence over and over again, and I’m still not sure I got it right. From a historical perspective, researching the back-story for Schaalman, the Golem’s Polish-Jewish creator, was murder. I learned the hard way that you should avoid writing about 19th century Prussia if at all possible. It’s a total mess!
JQ: Can you describe what a typical day is like in your writing life?
HW: I’m not sure I have a typical day anymore. There’s been a lot of upheaval in my life in the last year or so – we had a baby and moved house, plus I’ve been busy with the run-up to publication, a job in itself. I’m still in reactive mode as a result. Hopefully in the next few months I can get a handle on things and return to a regular writing schedule, because I really do better with a routine. In any case, I’ve been trying to carve out at least two hours of uninterrupted creative time for myself per day. Sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn’t…
JQ: What do you like to read for pleasure?
HW: All sorts of different books. Right now I’m reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and before that I read The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which just won a very well-deserved Pulitzer. Next on my list is The Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan, which is set in a magical version of our 18th century: my introduction to the “flintlock fantasy” genre.
JQ: Are there any authors who have inspired you?
HW: So many! Michael Chabon, Hilary Mantel, Ray Bradbury, Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Kate Atkinson, Kelly Link, Samuel Delany, Naomi Novik, and I.B. Singer, just to name a few…
JQ: What are you working on now?
HW: Good question! I shelved every story idea that I thought up while I was working on the book, so now I need to go back and figure out which ones still sound good to me. I’d love to write another historical novel! It was trying at times, but I got so much inspiration from the research process that I can hardly imagine writing something modern. Where would I get all my ideas??
Helene Wecker grew up in Libertyville, Illinois, a small town north of Chicago, and received her Bachelor’s in English from Carleton College in Minnesota. After graduating, she worked a number of marketing and communications jobs in Minneapolis and Seattle before deciding to return to her first love, fiction writing. Accordingly, she moved to New York to pursue a Master’s in fiction at Columbia University.
She now lives near San Francisco with her husband and daughter. The Golem and the Jinni is her first novel. Visit her online at www.helenewecker.com.
About the contributor: JENNY QUINLAN (aka Jenny Q) is an editor and cover designer specializing in historical fiction and romance. She also reviews novels for the Romantic Historical Fiction Lovers Blog and her own blog, Let Them Read Books.