Helene Wecker is the author of The Golem and the Jinni. This historical fantasy tells the story of two immigrants in New York City in the late 1800’s – a golem, named Chava, and a Jinni, named Ahmad. I had a great time interviewing Helene at the Nebula Awards Weekend.
The Golem and the Jinni takes place in New York and the sense of place is vivid and exciting. What drew you to this place and time, and what inspired you to include the supernatural characters?
The book suggested itself to me after a conversation that I was having with a friend of mine. I was at Columbia at the time and writing some very realist short stories about my family and my husband’s family and our histories. I’m Jewish and he’s Arab-American. A lot our family history involves immigration to America. We both grew up in minority cultures and we both grew up as children and/or grandchildren of immigrants, and that really informed a lot of our lives.
So I was trying to pull this stuff out in these short stories and they really weren’t going very well. My friend pointed out that I was writing in a very realist vein, when most of the stuff that I read for fun is science fiction and fantasy. She said, “That’s where your heart is. Why aren’t you doing that?” So she gave me a challenge to incorporate these family stories with an element of fantasy. So immediately to me that suggested that if I was going to keep the story about immigration, and about these two cultures coming together – why not make it about a golem and a jinni instead of a Jewish girl and an Arab-American boy?
So immediately it felt like an older story to me. It felt like a New York story – like an Ellis Island story. It was that era of immigration, when everything was such a stew. These two are going to bump into each other on a street somewhere – it’s gotta be New York! That’s where everyone was!
I knew about the Jewish Lower East Side. But most of my assumptions weren’t true or were a very broad stereotype. I thought it was Orthodox or like Fiddler on the Roof. But there was every permutation of Judaism there.
I knew almost nothing about Little Syria. I had to start from scratch there. It was a community of Syrian immigrants, almost all of whom were Christian. It had to do with the politics of what was going on in Syria at the time, and there were a lot of Christian missionaries in Syria at the time who would write letters of introduction, so there was an established pathway. It was a much smaller community than the Jewish community, but very thriving. I discovered pretty fast that very few people today have heard of that community. Part of the reason for that was that in the 1930’s the city decided to build [the] Battery Tunnel. And the on-ramp area is where Little Syria was.
I loved the high level of sensory detail in your book, and the heightened sense of place, combined with this focus on character.
That was the hardest part to pull off – what do day-to-day details look like? When I started the book, I thought be a short story and be more of a fairy tale. The feedback I was getting from my writer’s group was that they wanted me to slow it down – they wanted more details. That was when the research got serious, because I had to know how people would have lived their lives, and how would Chava and Ahmad have matched with that.
Will there be a sequel?
I’m working on something that I hope will be a sequel!
Ahmad, the jinni, is by nature amoral, but he learns to care about other people because of Chava. How much of that change can he keep up? Has he really got it together, or will he slip up in the next book?
He gets it together as much as he can, but he has to fight himself every step of the way. He is still by nature amoral in the most pure and innocent sense. He has never had a reason to care about the treatment of others, or to have others figure into your way of looking at things. He’s never been part of a community in which you are expected to care about others and look after their welfare. It doesn’t compute. So by the end he has learned this worldview, but it does not come naturally.
In the second book, even more than in this book, he will have to struggle with wondering, “Am I still a jinni?” It will be fun to explore whether he can keep this up. If he wants to have a long-term relationship with the golem, then that’s something he will have to do. Does he want that conscience riding on his shoulder every day? It’s a line he has to walk.
Was it fun to write Ahmad given that he is so different from yourself?
He was much harder to write than the golem was. I am by nature much very much the “good girl”. People ask me whether I’m more like the golem or the jinni and I’m like, “Are you kidding?” I’m the girl who never cut class, never did what my parents didn’t want me to do when I was a kid, that kind of person. So, writing the jinni’s scenes where he’s sort of reveling, like the seduction scene where he goes to Sophia’s mansion, that was like anathema to me. I really had to work to put myself in his mind, and be like, “OK, he’s going to throw caution to the wind. What does that feel like?” Because I’ve never thrown caution to the wind in my entire life! It felt like more emotional work to put myself in his shoes than to put myself in the golem’s. But it was also fun. It was fun to pretend to be the bad boy – but it was hard to get perspective on whether I was doing it well. I could write about him being supernatural, but writing a playboy – that I had trouble with!
On the popularity of Chava:
Chava seems to win readers hearts much more easily than Ahmed does, and I’m not surprised. She reads to me much more like “us” than he does.
On developing the love story:
That was one of the things I wanted to be very deliberate about. I didn’t want them to be star-crossed lovers at first sight. I wanted their relationship to feel real and complicated and at times, impossible. These two are opposites in so many ways. But there is a powerful draw in that they are each thinking, “This could be the only other person in this city – maybe this world – who has any inkling of what I’m going through”.
So, I knew that I was going to have to structure their relationship somehow, so that is where the “walking once a week” came from. Once I figured that out, then I had to figure out how many conversations that could have that would give a reasonable arc to their relationship. There’s not actually that many scenes of the two if them talking for any extended period of time. I’ve had some critics say that it’s still too few, and I think they are probably right, but that’s how it worked out given the pacing of the story.
They had to argue a lot, and then find common ground. It has to happen relatively quickly, but not so quite so quickly that it feels rushed or melodramatic. It’s a fine balance.
You can read Carrie's review of The Golem and the Jinni, wherein she wrote,
The Golem and the Jinni is a haunting, beautiful historical fantasy. It's not a romance, but it has a love story that sneaks up on you. In a way, the whole book is about learning how to love.