Bay Area writer Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni, a historical fantasy about two folkloric figures immigrating to New York at the dawn of the 20th century, has delighted critics in the wake of its release this week. Wecker talked about the book ahead of her very first public reading at The Booksmith in San Francisco on Thursday, April 25.
This is an immigrant story, and there’s never been a time in America when there wasn’t a public debate about immigration. How did that affect your book?
I guess for me it was about the complexities of living between worlds. Whoever you are, someone in your family dealt with being torn between two worlds and having an outsider’s perspective. And these characters are the ultimate outsiders. And you know, I realized at one point, they’re both undocumented immigrants.
For some reason when I read the concept I expected the golem to be the man and the jinni to be the woman.
Golems usually look like men and they’re for protection and heavy labor, so we have this image of a big, hulking brute male figure. But the story came from my husband’s family and mine: Rather than a story about a Jewish woman and an Arab-American man, I ended up writing about a golem and a jinni. So my golem was a woman.
Are the characters you and your husband, then?
In the first year or two I struggled with that. Once I turned them into these creatures, they slowly stopped being about my husband or myself and came into their own. I realized I was going to have to let go of it being about our families at all.
You moved to the East Bay in the middle of writing this. Did leaving your setting change your approach to the material?
It meant I did a lot more online than I would have. Thank God the New York Public Library has their photo archive. I spent so long combing through for photos to find out not just what particular city blocks looked like, but what did they feel like? The New York Times archive was phenomenal for finding out how people talked about issues back then; the tone was much more erudite and droll [than today].
With all that research, there must have been good stuff you didn’t get to use. What’s one example?
The golem works in a Jewish bakery on the Lower East Side, and when I got to the spring I thought, what does a Jewish bakery do during Passover, when you’re not supposed to have any leavening? I looked it up: Some owners choose to sell their bakery to a gentile for a week. They get a rabbi to draw up a contract for a small sum of money, and at the end of the week it transfers back.
How did the book get picked up by HarperCollins?
At Columbia University [where Wecker earned her master’s in fine arts] they had an agent/student mixer. The MFA version of a junior high dance. One agent was intrigued, and he kept in touch. I feel like I was in his back pocket for a while.
This took seven years to write. Did you ever get discouraged?
Absolutely. There was a point five years in where I had gotten three quarters of the way through and I realized it needed a major rewrite. I was underemployed and working crazy hours on this book, and there was a day I just sat around going, what am I going to do now?
What was the problem?
The golem was not a very engaging character. She was like a robot, and that can be interesting for a while, but not for the length that this book was going to be. She needed something more. At the time, she did not have her ability to read people's desires. [That addition] made her a little more tragic.
San Francisco is also a great city for immigrant stories. Do you want to write anything set here?
I’d love to. I’ve gotten very myopic over the years and need to get out and read more tales of old San Francisco. If your readers want to suggest some, I’d love to hear them.
Helene Wecker will be at The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St, April 25 at 7:30 PM. The Golem and the Jinni is available at The Booksmith and on Amazon.com.