How did debut author Helene Wecker—who just published her superb fantasy novel The Golem and the Jinni—burst onto the literary scene with such an extraordinary achievement right off the bat? When we asked her that question, the answer only made us shake our heads in further wonder.
“To be honest, this really was the first big project that I worked on. When I jumped out of college, I went straight into the corporate world,” Wecker says by phone from her home near San Francisco.
After seven years of corporate work, the urge to write wouldn’t let up. “I got to a point where I thought, I’m going to really kick myself if I don’t give the writing a fair shot.” So she went back to school: at first, night classes, then Columbia University’s writing program. In the workshop there, she was building a collection of linked short stories about her own family and her husband’s family. “I’m Jewish and he’s Arab-American. But I was too close to that real-life material. When I tried to turn it into fiction, it lost its power over me.”
Then a friend in the workshop gave Wecker the leg up she needed. “My friend said, you’re such a total nerd, you’re always talking about fantasy and sci-fi, you’re always talking about the legitimacy of bringing genre elements into literary fiction. So how come you’re not doing that?”
Wecker's remarkable debut combines two legendary beings from Jewish and Arabian folklore.
It was the right question. On the very same day, the premise for The Golem and the Jinni came to Wecker. Conceived at first as a short story, the idea expanded into a novel over the course of seven years. “It wasn’t just writing the book; it was learning to be a writer,” she recalls. “It went through so many drafts and I learned so much about how to get across what I wanted to say. This book was my crucible for becoming a writer.”
Wecker’s novel is a dream come true for any devoted reader of fantasy (and is sure to make many new ones). Everything about the tale marks it as an immediate classic. The two greatest legendary beings of Jewish and Arabian folklore are brought together in the melting pot of lower Manhattan, at the peak of the immigrant tide a century ago. The book’s fusion of golem and jinni is nothing short of epic, their encounters ever more fraught with powerful emotion and mortal danger both for the creatures themselves, and for all their magnificently varied human relations.
Being so new to writing, Wecker felt intimidated by the thought of looking into the sizable catalogue of modern literary retellings of golem and jinni stories. So she decided to start from scratch, drawing from two beautifully divergent sources: on the one hand, the old, original legends of the golem and jinni; on the other, pop-culture icons like Star Wars, “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica,” where “approaching-human” characters abound. “In a way, I felt like my own golem Chava was almost a cross between Data and Counselor Troi” (of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), Wecker says. “Chava can feel people but not understand them.”
Obvious question: Are the female golem and the male jinni stand-ins for Wecker and her husband? “At about a year into the writing process, the story shed that connection. The characters really became themselves,” she says. Even so, the long gestation period of the novel had its vivid counterpart in the efforts of Wecker and her husband to get pregnant during those same years, fertility treatments and all. “In one of the final editing sessions, I started to realize just how many childless people were in this book, people who wanted to have kids. And I thought, oh come on, was my unconscious really spewing onto the page like that? So I took a couple of them out.”
But Wecker need not have worried about making her story too autobiographical. The internal logic of The Golem and the Jinni is both profound and startlingly unsentimental. Its expressive content feels uncompromisingly truthful, even difficult. The book’s ironic realism—including its intensely vivid portrait of the “grit and squalor” of the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century—comes close to the spirit of fantasy masters Tolkien, Rowling and Clarke.
Another bond between Wecker and this magisterial company is the strong ethical thread running through her tale. In essence, the golem and the jinni are both potentially destructive to humanity. But they evolve through the novel, going against their own natures.
“A conscious angle of the book was this idea of humanizing, and what that means for each of them—in the Pinocchio sense of becoming a real person, but also adapting to society and learning to live with those around you and what that means on a moral level,” she says. “For the jinni, it’s having to learn to accept help, having to learn that his actions have consequences.”
Wecker also reflects on the way her monstrous hero and heroine change and grow together, bringing the process back to its source in her own marriage. But it’s not just because she is a Jewish woman married to an Arab-American man (although that in itself is worthy of a U.N. resolution).
“It’s drawn from my experiences of being in a long-term relationship and growing up with someone,” she says. “You’re not fully formed when you’re 18 or 20. Being together for years and learning to adapt to each other and with each other—that’s a feat of endurance and of empathy, and it’s really, really tough sometimes. That’s what I was trying to bring across. I wanted the golem and the jinni to have a real relationship.” The fact that each of them is the only living being in the world capable of seeing exactly who and what the other one is—that’s terrifying to both of them. And it’s the essence of any true love.
There’s a thrilling spiritual challenge, too, at the heart of Wecker’s tale, embodied in the communion of two creatures from completely different cultural traditions.
“It’s the idea that there could be many truths, all coexisting, none of them negating the others,” she says. “My question is, does that point to something larger? Is each truth a facet of a larger whole? That’s the question I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to answer. But it’s really fun to turn over.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE
Read our review of The Golem and the Jinni.