Please welcome Helene Wecker to The Qwillery as part of the 2013 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Golem and the Jinni, Helene's debut, will be published on April 23, 2013. You may read Helene's Guest Blog - On Accidentally Writing a Historical Fantasy - here.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery.
Helene: Thanks so much for having me here!
TQ: When and why did you start writing?
Helene: I started when I was pretty young. I don't know the "why" exactly, except that reading stories wasn't enough -- I wanted to tell them too. I kept up with it through high school and college, mostly bad imitations of whatever I was reading at the time. I remember a lot of Robert Heinlein and Emma Bull pastiches, and a few Doctor Who fanfics. It was awful stuff, and I kind of knew it, but it still felt vital to me. After college I got a "real job" and stopped writing fiction for a long time. It wasn't a good decision. Finally I had to admit that I was miserable and I hated my career, and I decided to take the leap back into writing. Not long after that I got laid off, and that gave me the push to consider getting my MFA.
TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Helene: I do my best writing on the couch. Most of The Golem and the Jinni was written on our ratty old flower-print sofa, with my feet up on the cushions and a cat sitting on my legs. I have a very sturdy desk and a comfy ergonomic chair, but for some reason I keep gravitating back to the couch!
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Helene: A bit of both, I think. I made a plot outline for The Golem and the Jinni, but it was pretty thin as far as outlines go, and I'd change it at the drop of a hat. It was really more a series of important scenes than an actual outline. Every time I hit a scene, I'd have to figure out how to get to the next one. It felt like wilderness orienteering.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Helene: I think I'll always struggle with the sheer discipline that it takes to sit down at the desk (or couch!) every day, by myself, and start writing. I grouse about not having enough writing time, but put the keyboard in front of me and I'll immediately remember everything else I absolutely, positively have to get done right now.
TQ: Describe The Golem and the Jinni in 140 characters or less.
Helene: In 1899, a female golem and a male jinni arrive separately in NYC. Both struggle to hide their true natures. One night, they meet.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Golem and the Jinni?
Helene: When I was in grad school, I started working on a series of linked short stories about my own Jewish family and my husband's Arab-America) family. A couple of the stories were okay, but the rest were terrible, frustratingly so. I was talking with a friend of mine about it, and she suggested I try a different approach. She knew that I was a total scifi/fantasy geek, and she challenged me to add a fantastical element, to take the stories out of the realm of straight-up realism. So instead of a Jewish woman and an Arab-American man, I decided to write about a golem and a jinni. I thought I was just taking a break and writing a fun little story, but then it became clear that I had a novel on my hands.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Golem and the Jinni?
Helene: At first I spent a lot of time in the Columbia University library, photocopying all the archive materials that I could find. I had a lot of learning to do, especially about Little Syria -- I knew next to nothing about the neighborhood going in. I found a few scholarly studies, which helped immensely. Then we moved to California, and I started using Internet resources more and more. The New York Public Library online archives in particular were a huge help, especially for their photo archives. The Tenement Museum website was another source that I went back to over and over again.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Helene: I think Saleh might have been the easiest character to write. He's only got one real conflict in his life: his desire to live as alone as possible versus his doctor's instinct to help others. He's not a very complicated guy! The Golem was definitely the hardest. She can hear the fears and desires of others, and if she's not careful they influence her actions -- so I always had to take into account whatever might be floating through the atmosphere around her.
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in The Golem and the Jinni?
Helene: The Jinni has a very memorable night out in the first half of the book, and that was a lot of fun to write. (A few of my readers have told me that it's one of their favorite scenes as well.) Towards the end of the book, there's an important scene involving a fireplace. I'd been imagining that scene for years, so it was very satisfying to finally write it!
TQ: What's next?
Helene: To be honest, I'm not quite certain. I've got a lot of story ideas waiting in a file on my computer. I need to open it and take a look, and see which ones are still interesting to me. I'm sure some of them will sound like total nonsense!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Helene: It was a pleasure!
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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