Please welcome Helene Wecker to The Qwillery as part of the 2013 Debut Author Challenge Guest Blogs. The Golem and the Jinni, Helene's debut, will be published on April 23, 2013.
On Accidentally Writing a Historical Fantasy
I didn't mean to write a fantastical novel about 1890s New York. It just sort of happened.
At first I didn't even have a setting. The characters just appeared in my mind, free of context. A golem, a clay creature of Jewish folklore, built to be a rich man's wife. A jinni, a fiery Arabian being, trapped in a flask for a thousand years. They arrived simultaneously, sort of peering at each other, trying to figure each other out. And then they turned to me. All right, they said, what do you plan to do with us?
I gave it some thought. I wanted to tell a story about the American immigrant experience, and the profound changes that come with life in a new country. I'd been working on a bunch of short stories about my own immigrant family, and my husband's. The stories were so-so, to put it kindly. They needed a spark. They needed something. And frankly, I was growing a little tired of quiet domestic realism. When a friend suggested I add a fantastical element—that's the stuff you love to read, so why don't you write like that?—I could feel my brain grab onto the idea, like a double cheeseburger in the hands of a starving man. Almost immediately the Golem and the Jinni sprang to life: the Golem stolid and curious, the Jinni mercurial and impatient.
So, how would they arrive in America? What setting would fit them best? Suddenly New York loomed large in my mind: the raucous, polyglot city, an explosion of peoples and cultures. It was an enticing canvas, and a little intimidating.
Next came the time period. When could these two characters, one Eastern European Jewish and one Syrian, have actually met each other in New York?
A quick trip to the library told me what I needed to know: The Venn diagram of Jewish and Syrian immigration to the U.S. intersected from the 1890s to the 1920s. The Jewish Lower East Side was already in full swing by the 1890s, but it wasn't until nearly the turn of the century that Little Syria, in what's now New York's Financial District, was a true neighborhood of its own.
Well, there it is, I thought. Late 1890s Manhattan. Better get to work.
Keep in mind that I thought I was writing another short story. In its first conception, this story was going to span a hundred years. (I think about it now, and oh, do I laugh.) My supernatural characters would live their separate lives, and every five or ten years they'd wave at each other from across the street, or maybe exchange a few words in a park. I had in mind something like Dream's once-a-century meetings with Hob Gadling in Neil Gaiman's Sandman: they would be each other's points of constancy in an ever-changing world.
I dashed off twelve pages and brought them to my writing workshop. This is interesting, they said. But slow down. Put more on the page. The details are the fun part.
So I tried to slow down, and flesh things out. But research made me impatient. I had no time, dammit! I had a story to write! So for a while, I got by on Google hit-and-runs. The rest of the details I glossed over, the writing equivalent of Vaseline on a camera lens. I gave the next installment to my workshop, and waited anxiously for their opinion.
What they said was, Stop sidestepping the details. Oh, and you know this is a novel, right? Because it's totally a novel.
And of course they were right.
So back to the library I went—and this time I stayed there for a year. I researched everything. How common were pocket-watches in the 1890s? How about indoor plumbing? What did a tenement apartment look like? How much did it cost to ride the Elevated from the Lower East Side to Central Park? What was it really like to arrive at Ellis Island?
I'd poke at a gap in my knowledge, and watch it turn into a sinkhole. The Syrians who emigrated to the United States in the 1890s weren't Muslim, as I'd assumed—they were mostly Maronite Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, two Christian denominations I knew next to nothing about. That was about a month of research right there. I started delving into Polish history for a character's backstory, and got lost in a thicket of peasant uprisings and redrawn borders and breakaway city-states. (Never, ever write about Polish history if you can avoid it. Trust me on this.) I spent days researching ancient caravan routes for an extended flashback, and then ended up cutting the whole thing. I ordered a back issue of a Catholic magazine because it had an article I needed—and soon I was getting donation requests from every missionary group and charity in the country.
Then something unexpected started to happen. Instead of just filling in holes, the research began to steer the story. At one point I learned that women in the 1890s weren't supposed to go out by themselves after dark, or they'd risk being mistaken for a prostitute. And here I had two main characters, one male and one female, who didn't need to sleep. So why not make the Golem rely on the Jinni to be her nighttime chaperone, to keep her from the appearance of impropriety? Soon my characters made a pact: one night a week, they would go out walking together. And just like that, the structure of my book fell into place, organized around those weekly visits. This happened over and over again: a stray fact or a detail in an old photo would trigger an idea, and take me in a new direction. Research, it turned out, wasn't just about pocket-watches and train fares: it was about adding depth, figuring out how these details informed the characters' lives.
It took me seven years to write this book, and I'd estimate that research accounted for at least two of them. But looking back, the research was fun, in a perverse and stressful sort of way. The longer I spent hunting for a fact, the more satisfying it felt to pin the damn thing down. At this point, if I had to write a story set in the modern day, I'm not sure how I'd do it. No research? Where would I get my ideas? This might be a sort of Stockholm syndrome for historical writers, but these days I'm glad I jumped in over my head. Next time, though, I might figure out how deep the pool is first.
About The Golem and the Jinni
The Golem and the Jinni
Harper, April 23, 2013
Hardcover and eBook, 496 pages
In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.
Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.
Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free
Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker's debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.
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