Phillip Sherman talks with Helene Wecker about incorporating Jewish and Muslim traditions into her debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni.
PS: How did you decide to write a novel about two characters from traditional folklores?
HW: To be honest, it was sort of unintentional! Or at least, it wasn’t my original aim; I didn’t say, “Hey, let’s combine these two folk traditions and see what happens.” The whole thing started with a collection of very realist short stories I was writing, based on incidents from my own family history and my husband’s. I was an MFA student at Columbia at the time, and this was supposed to be my graduate thesis. Except the stories really weren’t very good, for the most part, and I knew it. It was like I was telling these old stories I’d heard a million times, and they sort of lay there on the page. I was complaining about it to a friend in the workshop, who knew what I liked to read, and asked me why I wasn’t doing something fantastical instead of this straight-up realist fiction. And instantly, it was like this side door opened that I hadn’t seen before but had always been there. I thought, what if, instead of the Jewish girl and Arab-American boy who’d been the two characters who threaded through the stories, I swapped in a female golem and a male jinni? To me, those were the most representative folkloric or supernatural characters from each culture, the ones that immediately came to mind and seemed really rich in possibilities. And right away I could see the two of them, a very shy and solemn woman and a passionate, headstrong man. I wrote the first twelve pages that night, and that was the start of the novel. I think I knew from that first day that there was a lot of potential in mixing these two folk traditions, even though the trigger had come about pretty much by accident.
PS: I like this idea of mixing traditions and cultures through playing with folk traditions. What sort of research about these two traditions — the Golem and the Jinni — did you carry out?
HW: I did an awful lot of research, but it was more scattershot than methodical. I went back to the old stories, the traditional tales, and sort of ignored many of the more modern interpretations, especially where golems were concerned. I skipped Marge Piercy’s He, She and It, and Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers, for instance. I think I was scared to read them. I was a really new writer at that point, and Piercy and Ozick were just too intimidating. I felt that any idea I might have about golems would have absolutely no merit compared to theirs. It amounted to a superstition in itself: avert your eyes from the golem books!
PS: How concerned were you, for example, with staying “true” to the tradition?
HW: I was much more willing to play with and alter the traditional depictions of golems than I was with jinn. I think this came down to a feeling of cultural ownership — I’m Jewish, so I can play with it if I want to. Which is why I felt free to ditch the traditional feature of writing “emet” on a golem’s forehead to activate it, and so on. I’ve gotten criticism for that and other trespasses, but less than I’d expected.
I was a lot more concerned about getting the Jinni right. I wanted to be respectful, and not simply have my own way with someone else’s culture. Especially since jinn are still very much a part of Muslim cosmology, and a daily fact of life for many Muslims. But then, once I started looking at my sources — like the Thousand and One Nights, and old books of folktales, and a few scholarly papers — it became clear that there was no one way to write jinn. Every story was different. Some jinn were huge, some were human-sized, some wore animal shapes, some could work metal, some were beautiful, some were demonically ugly, and so on and so on. It drove me nuts for a while, trying to reconcile all the differences. Finally I realized I was going to have to pick and choose. I was a fiction writer, not a cultural anthropologist. This would have to be my version, my own hopefully respectful interpretation. The way forward got a lot easier after that.
PS: What role did gender play in your thinking about these characters?
HW: It played a pretty big role, especially with the Golem. Female golems are few and far between, both in literature and in the old tales. Golems are sometimes presented as genderless, but even those golems are perceived as male, given their physical size and strength. When I started writing my golem, I had to decide how those stereotypically male characteristics would play out in a female character, and how they’d be perceived by those around her. As a result I made her tall and physically imposing, but very hesitant and shy. She’s afraid of others noticing how strong she is — and while this would be true for a male golem as well, it probably wouldn’t be true to the same extent. Because of her gender, she’s under a good number of societal restrictions, and this frustrates her quite a bit. She’s a very physical creature, who’s happiest when she’s working and moving. But a woman can’t walk alone at night, and a woman can’t be a bricklayer or work on the docks, so she’s limited to walking at night only when chaperoned, and working at a bakery, where at least she can stand up and work with her hands.
The Jinni was less of a challenge, gender-wise. His personality is completely in line with society’s male norms. He’s impulsive and cavalier, he likes to seduce, he doesn’t think about consequences. He’s free to wander wherever he likes, at whatever time of day. He takes these privileges completely for granted, and is really clueless about how they affect the Golem. It would be interesting to write about a female jinni (jinniyeh) in 1899 New York, and see how those same characteristics manifest, and what she’d have to do to disguise or account for them.
PS: How did you decide to pursue historical fiction?
HW: It was pretty unintentional, in the same vein as my accidental decision to write about folkloric creatures. Once I had my two main characters, I needed a setting, and it seemed the most likely place for a golem and a jinni to meet would be in New York City. I’m sure that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and other similar books influenced me in this, whether I realized it or not. It also felt like “neutral” territory for them, where they’d be equally at sea, instead of Syria or Poland, where one or the other would have a home field advantage of a sort. And I knew just enough about the history of U.S. immigration to know that the heyday for both Syrian and Eastern European Jewish immigration fell from about 1880 to 1920. I literally picked 1899 because I liked the sound of it: the end of one era, the beginning of another. I made all these decisions in the course of one afternoon, when I thought it was going to be a fun short story I’d work on for a while and then get back to business. Little did I know.
I think of my book as cross-genre, sort of a literary-fantasy-historical hybrid. In bookstores, I’ve seen it shelved in Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Fantasy/Scifi, and honestly I’m pretty proud of that. I knew while I was writing it that it was a hard book to categorize, which seemed like part of the charm: just what the hell is this thing, anyway?
As for historical fiction, I tend to think of it as a sub-genre, instead of a stand-alone. I understand why so many people consider it its own genre, especially since a lot of people read it exclusively. But it seems like if we’ve got Historical Fiction on one side and Scifi/Fantasy on the other, then Fiction is narrowed down to a handful of books happening in the present day with no fantastical elements. Maybe that’s too simplistic a way of looking at it. Whenever we establish genres with boundaries, we inevitably get into this kind of hair-splitting. It’s fun as an intellectual question, trying to figure out where those borders fall, but then you realize that folks are making weighty marketing and business decisions based on what feel like sometimes arbitrary genre classifications. It all gets a little scary. That’s why I feel so lucky that HarperCollins didn’t try to pigeonhole my book, to push it more firmly towards one genre or another. They understood that it was sort of a Frankenstein’s monster, and they appreciated it for exactly that.
PS: What sorts of constraints did the historical setting place on you as an author?
HW: The historical setting placed some pretty huge constraints on me, but they were the kind of constraints that inspired the writing as much as they limited it. I tried to keep the details as historically accurate as possible, though I know I slipped up once or twice. (Or more.) At first it was really hard to keep the language period-friendly, not just the dialogue but the narrative as well. Metaphors and idioms were the hardest. Sometimes it turned out that a particular word or saying really was in circulation back then, but I’d decide it sounded too modern anyway. At times I went too far into historical storytelling mode, and it descended into something that sounded like weird Shakespeare. I did one full edit where I just worked on tone, smoothing everything out and de-ornamenting the language.
PS: What was so compelling about turn of the century New York?
HW: Turn-of-the-century New York started out compelling to me, and got even more so the more I read about it. It was just such a raucous, intense city then, even more so than now, I think. You had this massive influx of immigrants, and neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and Little Syria that were exploding with new arrivals from one year to the next. And of course this came with problems. For one thing, I’m not sure I got across in the book just how dirty the city and the living conditions were, especially in the immigrant neighborhoods. But I was fascinated with how these little cultural pockets were shoved up against each other, block by block. And then there was the Bowery, which got its unholy reputation for a reason. I didn’t move to NYC until the post-Giuliani era, so I never got to see Times Square in all its filthy peephole glory. I thought about that when I was researching the Bowery, the way that so many people complained when they sanitized Times Square, accusing them of destroying a part of the city’s soul. I’m sure they said that about the Bowery too, when they cleaned it up.
PS: Fantastical elements have become very popular in contemporary fiction. The huge success of the Harry Potter series, teenage vampires, and our current obsession with Zombies are but a few highly notable examples. Why do you think modern readers are so draw to these sorts of stories?
HW: I read an interview with Benjamin Percy lately, after his werewolf novel Red Moon came out, where he was asked if he was worried that readers would tire of the crossover novel, of genre elements in fiction. His response was, “Realism is the trend. That’s what people seem to forget.” And he’s absolutely right. If you look at the timeline of purely realist fiction as the dominant mode in literature, compared to the history of human storytelling, it’s sort of a recent bubble. So when people talk about “the rise in the crossover novel,” it’s really just the pendulum swinging back towards normal.
I think we’re drawn to these stories because they appeal to us, not as readers modern or otherwise, but as multifaceted humans. Creatures like werewolves and vampires give us a safe, exciting way to examine the darker aspects of our own natures. We wouldn’t care nearly so much about these creatures if we didn’t feel some sympathy, some identification. Look at vampires: they’re all about the fear of mortality, our obsessions with youth and beauty. We play out our fantasies of living forever through them, we do the “what if?” thing and imagine the consequences. That’s why I get indignant when people dismiss genre work as pure escapism. It’s not an escape so much as a reframing, an externalization of our internal desires and questions.
PS: When you were writing your own work, how did you think about the more fantastical elements?
HW: I did try to keep all this in mind while I was writing the book. At the same time, I had to hold back from making my characters mouthpieces for my own philosophies. In the end, it was all about creating the right setup. I had to design the circumstances that would bring these issues to the fore — both in the construction of the Golem and the Jinni, their “rules” if you will, and in the plot itself — and then figure out how the characters would react organically to the situation. I think that’s why the first third of the book took me about four years to write. I kept going back and changing things, tweaking their abilities and their personalities. I’d hit a problem, and have to reverse-engineer a solution, which would propagate changes backwards and forwards through the book. It really was maddening at times, but very worth it in the end.
PS: Both the Golem and the Jinni have a conflicted relationship when it comes to the religious traditions with which they are associated. The Jinni is flatly dismissive of religious conviction at one point. How did Judaism and Islam as religious traditions inform your thinking about how to shape these two characters, both of whom represent and are alienated from their respective religious cultures?
HW: The Golem was much more shaped by a religious tradition than the Jinni was. Partly, of course, this came out of my own background; I’m a lot more experienced with Judaism than I am with Islam or the various Christianities practiced by the Syrian characters in my book. But it also stemmed directly from their own personalities. I’d always envisioned the Jinni as sort of the ultimate free spirit. That to me suggested a disinclination towards religious belief, which ended up shading towards outright derision at times. The Golem, on the other hand, is a lot more open to the possibility that God exists. The rabbi who takes her in is a very devout man, and she respects his belief and his wisdom. But at the same time, she’s distanced from the Jewish world around her. She’s hiding out in plain sight — she can’t even go to a synagogue for the Sabbath, because she’s worried the tide of emotions will affect her too much. And of course it would be difficult for her to have a meaningful conversation about religion with someone who didn’t know her nature. So aside from the rabbi, the only other person she can really talk to about belief is the Jinni — which, of course, leads to a good deal of arguing.
Here’s an interesting side note regarding the Jinni: Most of the Syrian characters in the book are Arab Christians, either Maronite Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. From what I could tell in my research, there’s a strong Arab Christian belief in jinn, but more as a folk tradition than as a direct part of the religion. They aren’t codified in the faith the way they are in Islam. (Jinn are mentioned often in the Qur’an; there’s even a whole sura about them, “Sura al-Jinn,” which describes the Prophet reciting the Qur’an for an audience of jinn, who decide to convert.) It ended up putting a slightly different spin on the Jinni’s relation to religion. The Golem is a direct result of Jewish tradition; she’s created out of Jewish magic, if you will. But the Jinni doesn’t have an inherited religious tradition to push against. I imagine that he still would’ve rebelled against belief, but it would’ve been just that — a rebellion, which has a much different flavor than indifference and dismissal.
PS: Do you keep to a strict writing schedule?
HW: I kept a writing schedule for most of the time I was working on the book. I had a goal of 1500-2000 words per day, though lots of times I didn’t even come close. Sometimes I’d spend the whole day on research, chasing my own tail in Google searches and article databases. It could be incredibly frustrating. Then HarperCollins bought the book as a partial, and I was given a year to finish it. At that point, it became less about hitting a daily or weekly goal, and more about just writing as fast as I could to meet the deadline. Everything else fell away. I ended up rewriting the ending on extension, three months after the birth of our daughter. It was completely terrifying, though also sort of exhilarating — a big sleepless blur, with a finished book at the end of it.
These days, I’m trying to relearn how to stick to a writing schedule. I’m still in the “marketing and publicity” phase of the publishing cycle, especially now that the paperback’s been released. I also travel a lot more than I used to, which I enjoy, but it tends to throw everything else out of whack. I’m making more of an effort to firewall my writing time and put limits on what I agree to, but it’s still a work in progress.
PS: Is there a possible future for the Golem and the Jinni or are you working on a different project?
HW: I would love to write a sequel, and I’ve got a project in the works that might very well turn into one. I also have a few ideas on the shelf for books set completely outside the GOLEM & JINNI world. Who knows, maybe one or two of them will see the light of day!
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