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Author Talk: April 25, 2013

Helene Wecker’s debut novel, THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI, is a magical tale of cross-cultural love in turn-of-the-century New York. The golem, Chava, was created to seem human only while serving her husband, and the Jinni is a creature whose true magical nature is being supplanted by his fascination with mortals. The two meet by chance, and learn together how to reconcile their cultures and their struggle for independence. In this interview, Wecker discusses what inspired her supernatural twist on a classic immigrant love story, the challenges of making mystical characters seem human (and modeling her Golem on Lt. Commander Data of “Star Trek”), and discovering that people across the centuries have always been wrestling with the same all-too-human issues: faith, identity and love.

Question: How did the idea for your novel originate?

Helene Wecker: When I was a writing student at Columbia, I started writing a series of short stories that combined tales from my family and from my husband’s family. I’m Jewish and he’s Arab American, and so in that sense we come from two different (and, in many eyes, opposing) cultures. But I’ve always been struck by the similarities between our families, the way that certain themes echo between them. We’re both the children of immigrants, with all that entails. As a result my husband and I both grew up in suburban, picket-fence America --- but with the intimate and sometimes uncomfortable burden of another place’s history, and the complications of living as a cultural minority, which affects our relationships with those we love and those we meet.

In any case, I was writing these stories, but I wasn’t having much luck with them. One day I was complaining about it to a friend. She suggested I try something different. She knew I loved stores that used elements of the fantastical, and was surprised I never wrote like that. By the end of the conversation, the seed had been planted. Instead of two families of different cultures meeting and interacting, I now had two supernatural characters: a golem and a jinni. And somehow it seemed likeliest that these two would meet in New York in the late 1800s, when immigrants from Eastern Europe and Syria were coming to America in droves.

Q: When you thought about writing a golem character, did you think about other legends and myths about people being created out of inanimate matter, like the famous Golem of Prague, or Frankenstein’s monster, or even a modern robot?

HW: I certainly wrote the Golem’s character with those stories in mind. In fact, in early drafts she was much closer to something like the Golem of Prague or Frankenstein’s monster. She had less emotion, and less insight into the emotions of others. But it became clear that that wouldn’t do for a main character. So I made her more empathic, more “human,” and brought her closer to the androids and cyborgs of modern science fiction, like the replicants of Blade Runner and Star Trek’s Lt. Commander Data. But I think all these stories have the same sources at heart, and the same central question of what happens when we create life that approaches human but isn’t quite.

Q: How is your Jinni different or similar to those of legend? When you were writing his character, what were you thinking about getting across to the reader?

HW: I started out on less certain footing with the Jinni than with the Golem. I didn’t realize until I started researching the jinn how much they are an everyday truth for many in the modern Middle East and the Muslim world, and I wanted to be respectful of that. But I also realized that a Western audience would be more familiar with the Thousand and One Nights and pop culture versions. In the end, I kept coming back to the idea of a creature created from fire, and how that might translate to his personality: impulsive, passionate, dazzling, dangerous. It struck me that such a creature would have a very hard time camouflaging himself in New York society.

Q: You decided to give your golem and jinni free will and fairly strong-willed personalities, even though they are both bound to masters. How did you come to this decision, and what are the consequences? 

HW: Funny enough, it was never really a decision. I think their strong personalities came about because they’re both bound and limited, and forced to live in a state that isn’t quite natural to either of them. I knew the interesting stuff would happen when they came up against those limitations. As for the consequences, it meant that they’re constantly arguing!

Q: Besides the main characters, who else was the most fun to write?

HW: It’s hard to choose, but I think Saleh was my favorite supporting character to write. He was a huge surprise to me. I was researching Little Syria, and I found an article in the New-York Daily Tribune written in 1892. One of the illustrations was of a man in a turban, sitting in front of a wooden churn. The caption was “An Ice-Cream Seller.” I thought, who is that guy? And suddenly I knew. I wrote his backstory in one long, frenzied session. It felt like an unlooked-for gift. I grew very attached to Saleh --- he’s such a great curmudgeon.

Q: In writing and researching this novel, what most surprised you?

HW: One thing that surprised me quite a bit, and shouldn’t have, was the diversity of Jewish religion and philosophy at the turn of the century. It’s far too easy to think of past peoples as monolithic, and the past as “a simpler time,” when of course it was anything but. I hadn’t realized the extent of the Socialist movement in the Jewish community, or the vehement variety of opinions on the budding Zionist movement. They probably tried to teach me all this at Sunday school, but I was too busy readingDragonlance novels in the back.

Q: What makes your novel relevant today?

HW: Over and over, my research told me that the concerns and dilemmas of 1900s-era New Yorkers would be very familiar to the modern reader. They worried about multiculturalism and globalism, the tensions between science and religion, between tradition and assimilation. It became clear to me that we have always been finding and losing our faiths; we have always struggled to defend or flaunt propriety, to follow or ignore the dictates of our hearts. And apparently folklore and fantasy can still capture the modern reader --- at least, if the continuing proliferation of vampires, werewolves, and the like is any indication. They’re our own all-too human urges and struggles, embodied and made explicit.