About The Author
Helene Wecker grew up near Chicago, and received her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University in New York. After a dozen years of moving around between both coasts and the Midwest, she now lives near San Francisco with her husband and daughter.
The Golem and the Djinni, her first novel, portrays the unlikely alliance forged between Chava, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic, and Ahmad, a djinni, trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, until he is accidentally released by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop at the turn of the 20th century. Blending historical detail with the mystical traditions of two cultures, this is a satisfying blend of magical realism, action and romance.
We talked to Helene about the enduring appeal of the mythical golem and the djinni, the joys of writing about bad behaviour and why New York seems to amplify loneliness.
Questions & Answers
What made you think of mixing an East European mythical character - the Golem - with the Arabian Djinni?
The idea came from a conversation with a friend at Columbia University, when I was in graduate school. I was writing a set of linked short stories, based on tales from my own family history (I'm Jewish) and my husband's (he's Arab American). Only problem was, the stories weren't good enough, and I knew it. They didn't have much energy, and just sort of lay there on the page. Looking back, I think I was too familiar with the details; they felt like worn retellings, instead of something I was discovering anew. I complained about it to a friend of mine in my workshop, basically saying 'What on earth am I going to do?' She knew my reading habits, and asked me why I was writing in this very realist style, instead of something closer to the sci-fi and fantasy that I loved to read. It made a lightbulb go off: of course! So I swapped my Jewish girl and Arab-American boy for two fantastical creatures, taken from the folklore of each culture. The rest of the novel fell out from there.
Why do you think these two have endured and remained so potent?
Like the best of our imagined monsters, golems and djinn address specific questions about human nature. In creating them, we take a worrisome aspect of ourselves, blow it up larger than life, and set it loose to wreak all sorts of havoc. With golems, it's the perennial question of what happens when we try to create life that approaches human but isn't quite. What's lost in that gap? What's gained, if anything? It's the Frankenstein story, or Blade Runner or Battlestar Galactica, or any number of tales of robots run amok. The djinn, on the other hand, are tricksters. They're passionate, confounding, and unseen. We use them to frighten ourselves, but also to explain our own worst impulses: our raw appetites, our capacity for mischief. They're kind of like faeries and vampires - off somewhere secret, and having a lot more fun than we are.
What research did you have to do for your portrait of America at the turn of the 20th century, especially the Jewish and Syrian quarters of New York?
I spent a long time on the research. I knew very little about 1899 New York when I started, except for some vague, sepia-toned impressions from movies and the like. First I read a number of books on New York written at the turn of the century, like Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives and Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Then I dug into the more contemporary, scholarly research. Little Syria was hardest, because there wasn't all that much in English, certainly when compared to the cubic yards of books you can find about the Jewish Lower East Side. Thankfully a number of Arab-American historians are beginning to tackle the subject. I leaned heavily on the New York Public Library Digital Archives for maps and photographs of the city, as well as the Tenement Museum website for descriptions of the old tenement apartments.
You've taken on some weighty themes - free will, the nature of humanity, the immigrant experience and the nature of belief. How many of these were present from the outset, or did you let the two main characters take you where they would?
Certainly I meant to write about the immigrant experience from the beginning. That was the driving force behind those original short stories, the mirroring I'd always seen between my two families and their experiences in coming to America. And I've always been interested in the question of belief, especially in how we tend to create a false dichotomy between religion and science, one that's very unfair to both. As for free will, and the nature of humanity in general, I think those arose from the constraints I put on my two main characters. The Golem is limited by her nature. She has free will, but only to a point. Whereas the Djinni was once the definition of a free spirit, but now he's stuck in New York in human form. Once I'd created these limitations, it seemed only natural that this would be what they'd talk about, this maddening thing they had in common. And of course they'd argue about human nature as well, in their observations and theories about the confounding people they have to live with.
Writing about characters that are not-quite-human must have been great fun. Which parts of their stories or particular qualities did you most enjoy engaging with?
The Djinni was a lot of fun to write, especially when he was letting himself be a scoundrel. Of course a little bad behaviour goes a long way, especially if you want the reader to retain some sympathy for the character; but I had a good time walking that line, trying to decide just how much he could get away with. There's a scene in the first half of the book when he puts himself in mortal danger for the sheer thrill of it. I loved writing that scene, because it was so heartfelt and so purely him, and something I would never, ever do. The Golem was more of a challenge, because she can hear the fears and desires of the people around her. I had to take that into account in every scene: who was she with, or even just near? What would they be thinking, how might that distract or influence her? The trick was to make it work to my advantage, and tease out some aspect of her character through an 'interaction' with someone, even if they didn't physically interact. It felt very satisfying whenever I managed to pull that off.
You'd written short stories before this. What was the transition to a full novel like?
At the time, writing the book felt wholly different than writing a short story, but now I wonder whether that was only because the stakes were so much higher. Really, the elements were all the same as in a short story -- the research, the writing, the tinkering and refiguring and second-guessing, the impossibility of writing a good ending the first time around. Only the scope of the project changed, and the amount of endurance it required. I'm not usually stubborn, but I had to learn to be, just to keep from giving up. Sometimes it felt ludicrous that I could have written so much without being done yet. There's a truism I like, that writing a book is like having a baby. You have no idea how much work it's going to be, and that's probably for the best.
Loneliness seems to lie at the heart of both the human and the mythical characters, especially in the New York parts of the story. Did you feel that life at that time and place was a particularly lonely affair or is at the root of the human (and indeed mythical) condition?
I think loneliness is indeed at the heart of the human condition - though to me 'loneliness' encompasses a wide spectrum, and includes the joy of solitude, as well as the puzzle (thrilling and infuriating) of never quite figuring out someone you love. But you're right, New York definitely adds its own dimension of loneliness. It's more the place than the time, I think. I adore New York, but it amplifies loneliness the same way it amplifies everything else. You're crammed in among a sea of strangers, never alone but rarely connecting. I was back there recently, after years of living in a friendly little California suburb, and it was very jarring. I realized I had to stop smiling at people on the street. It marked me immediately as a gawking newbie, a 'greenhorn' as they used to say.
The need to create is strong in both the Golem and the Djinni, themselves created beings, whereas the pursuit of knowledge seems to lead to danger. Is this an idea inherent in some of the oldest stories?
Absolutely, all the way back to Pandora and her box. Of course, the alternative to pursuing knowledge is to live in ignorance, which is worse. One of the morals of those old stories was that knowledge has to grow in pace with wisdom, and a large degree of humility. That's a lesson that's eluded a few of the characters in my book.
Are you looking back in time and/or to other timeless stories for your next book?
I'm honestly not certain! I'm very interested in the mid-1910s, the years leading up to the U.S. entering the Great War. I'd love to write a novel that's set then. But I'd also like to create something in a more contemporary time, or perhaps a completely invented time and place - if only to free myself for the burden of research, just once!