Helene Wecker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, brings together two mythical beings from very different cultures—a golem from a Polish shtetl and a jinni from ancient Syria—in teeming turn-of-the-century New York.
Who was harder to write about, the golem or the jinni?
The golem. Since she can hear other people’s thoughts and desires, it’s not just about what’s going on in her head, but what’s going on in other people’s heads and how that affects her. It was a fun challenge, but it was a challenge.
Empathy is not typical of golems. How did you decide to give your main characters some powers traditional in folklore and some not?
The golem’s empathy came about because I was looking for ways to make her more interesting without losing her essential innocence. She enters the world looking like a full-grown woman but having no clue about anything going on. The ability to sense other people’s desires and fears gives her insight, but not understanding. Much of the jinni came from research, which I just ran with.
First encounters between mythical beings and humans are both funny and sad in the novel.
Yes. Immigration tales are about being thrown into a different culture, where some things you expect are the same and some things are completely different, and everything has the power to throw you. You confront your own expectations and prejudices, like looking in a funhouse mirror. I think that’s what folklore figures like golems and jinnis are about: externalized elements of ourselves, blown up into semimonstrous beings.
Was it fun working with such a wide variety of secondary characters?
It was a blast. In fact, I had to slim down my supporting cast. It had gotten completely out of hand.
What did you do to evoke the novel’s settings?
I spent a lot of time online at the New York Public Library Digital Archives. I would look at photos and postcards and even a couple of Edison’s early movies, trying to see New York from the point of view of people new to the city. I also had to be careful with flashbacks to the Syrian Desert. It wasn’t like a Hollywood desert; it was more scrub and rocks and very sandy soil. Doing research was like climbing a mountain: you could only get so far before you had to put another rope on. I’d get to the end of my writing rope and then the research would tie another one on and I could keep going.
Do you envision a sequel?
A sequel would be fun. I don’t think all the juice has been sucked out of these characters. I would also love to write something set during WWI, toward the end of the Belle Epoque, when Romanticism is fading, industry is gaining ground. I don’t think I’m done with the interplay between science and religion. I think there’s a lot of meat on that bone.