A Conversation with Helene Wecker about The Golem and the Jinni

“It seemed pretty obvious that if an immigrant golem and an immigrant jinni were going to run into each other in a city in the U.S., it would have to be in NYC. New York is such a fairy tale city already, with all those layers of myth and fantasy and longing. It just felt like a natural fit.”

Helene Wecker interview

What was your inspiration for the story of The Golem and the Jinni? Were you studying Jewish and Arabic mysticism? The Gilded Age? As I read, I found myself wondering a few times if the issue of immigration brought the concept to mind; it’s as if you took the concept of “the Other” to an entirely new level.

The impetus for the book mostly came from the issue of immigration, but on a very personal level. It all started when I was at Columbia University, working on a collection of short stories that combined real-life tales from my own (Jewish) family with my husband’s (Arab American) family. We’ve known each other over half my life now, and over the years I’ve been continually struck by how our families’ coming-to-America experiences have mirrored each other, even though we’re from two different (and, to many, opposing) cultures. I was writing the short stories with an eye to pulling out those similarities, but the collection refused to gel. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of awful. I was complaining to a friend in my workshop about it, and she pointed out something I hadn’t even considered: I was writing these very realist stories, but my first love was sci-fi and fantasy. She challenged me to add an element of fantasy, and see if that changed things. And that’s really where the book took off. It became something entirely different — a fun, fantastical tale — but it allowed me to discuss all my themes of immigration and alienation at the same time. And, as you mentioned, it let me make the concept of “the other” really other. I think that’s one of the things that fantasy does best: it gives us license to blow up these concepts into something larger than life, so we can examine the heck out of them.

Describe the challenge in being faithful to the nature of a golem and a jinni while bringing the characters to life figuratively. That would seem to be a very narrow tightrope to navigate. How did you make Chava and Ahmad realistically complex people?

You’re right, writing the book definitely felt like a high-wire act at times. First, I had to nail down their personalities and abilities — their “rules,” in a sense — and that took a really long time. I think I spent three or four years just on the first third of the book, because I kept having to go back and start over. With the Golem, the problem was making her “human” enough to identify with. In the early drafts, she was way too much of a robot. Finally, I gave her the ability to read others’ fears and desires, and it created more of a connection to the people around her. It means she can understand what they’re feeling, even if she can’t understand why. This frustrates the hell out of her, because she’s a servant by nature and wants to help everyone, and that frustration made her more interesting and sympathetic. With the Jinni, I had to work the problem from the opposite direction. He’s sort of the ultimate free spirit, so the question became, how do I keep him nailed down to earth? That’s why I gave him the iron cuff that keeps him locked in human form. It was a way to force him to act more like a human, and rely on others, even though it goes against his every desire. It took me a while to realize I had to put them in situations that ran against their natural tendencies, that that was where the interesting stuff would happen. Once I figured that out, it became a lot easier to decide how they’d react to a given situation.

The plot of The Golem and the Jinni has so many strands, both in terms of several characters and varying time frames. Did you have the entire story plotted out with outlines, flow charts, and the like before you began writing? Or did additional story lines occur to you as you wrote the main plot line?

At the beginning, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. No plan, no outline, nothing. I was just playing around, inventing characters left and right, adding subplots, tossing in a half-dozen magical items. For the first few years, I didn’t even know who the villain was. But after a while, I realized I had a crazy tentacled monster of a book on my hands, and that it needed some serious taming. So I’d spend a week on an outline, and then after two days of trying to work with it, I’d toss the whole thing out the window. I did this over and over again. Eventually, I pruned the character list, and tossed out a few of my more ridiculous subplots, which made the book much easier to deal with. But even after that, the outline was constantly in flux, all the way through the end of the writing process. Hopefully, it’ll be a little less chaotic next time.

I think The Golem and the Jinni has the most beautiful cover art and design of any book I encountered this year. Were you involved with the design process? Whose idea was it to dye the page edges navy blue? That touch really made the book stand out. Your book looks like the work of a famous author, for whom the publisher was sparing no expense, rather than that of a first-time novelist.

Thank you! Isn’t it gorgeous? I’ve had so many readers tell me they picked it up because of the cover and the blue edges. I had no involvement in the design process, which I’m told is the norm, especially for first-time authors. I was a little frightened when they sent me the mockup pdf, because I’d heard so many stories of authors hating their covers. And in all the years I worked on the book, I never had a clear idea of what the cover should look like. But as soon as I opened the file, I was like, “Of course! How could it be anything else?” As for the blue edges on the first printing, my editor called me a few weeks after they sent me the pdf and said, “We decided we’re giving it blue edges! We’ve never done that before! Isn’t that fantastic?” I was totally bowled over. I felt so lucky that HarperCollins was willing to spend a little more money on it, to give it that extra punch. Though honestly, if the cover hadn’t been so lovely, I don’t think they would’ve done the blue edges. They just look right together. The later printings didn’t have the blue edges, and without them the book looks kind of naked.

So many outstanding “young” writers today have an MFA. What was your experience like in the Columbia MFA program? How did it help you? Certainly, your first novel is remarkably sophisticated and accomplished. Did you begin the book while at Columbia? Or did it come to you later, inspired in part by your time living in New York City?

The MFA experience really was instrumental for me in becoming a better writer, but it’s certainly not for everyone. I decided to get an MFA because I know I do well in a structured academic setting. I follow the rules, I buy all the books, I do my homework, I “excel in classroom participation” (i.e., I’m a total dork). Plus, I felt like I had to make up for lost time. I’d gone straight into the corporate world from college, and languished in the wrong career for seven years. So once I finally got my head on straight, I couldn’t wait to get started, and going for an MFA seemed like the equivalent of a rocket boost. And it was definitely that! I learned more about writing, and about reading as a writer, in those two years than I have in all the years before or since. And it introduced me to a lot of writers who’ve become my friends and colleagues, my lifeline, really. But there was a definite cost. Those bills, my God. I’ll be paying those for a while yet. Plus, there’s the life disruption. If we’d had a kid back then, it would’ve been close to impossible, both money-wise and in time away from family. As for New York being the inspiration for the novel, it certainly helped that I was in New York at the time. But when I was first playing with the idea for the book, it seemed pretty obvious that if an immigrant golem and an immigrant jinni were going to run into each other in a city in the U.S., it would have to be in NYC. Well, or maybe Detroit! But New York is such a fairy tale city already, with all those layers of myth and fantasy and longing. It just felt like a natural fit.



    • Good choice. I tried not to give much of the plot away in my review, as the complex plot is one of the book’s pleasures. It’s also very nicely written, full of wonderfully evocative imagery of 1899 NYC (a time and place I’ve always been fascinated by — as in Caleb Carr’s great thriller, The Alienist). It’s a remarkably assured work for a debut novel. I’m not surprised to learn that she worked on it for several years. Let me know what you think when you get a chance.


      • I’m excited to read it. It has been on my list for way too long — like most books. Your review and interview were wonderful but they will definitely be more meaningful after I read the book! I will be sure to let you know what I think when I’m done!


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