It took magic to bring Helene Wecker’s writing to life.
Writing without magic, in a realistic literary mode, Helene Wecker had been working on a series of short stories based on her family history and that of her husband. Her family are American Jews; his are Arab Americans from Syria.
“So may of the themes are so similar — about coming to America and feeling like a fish out of water, and having that handed down to you as the child and grandchild of immigrants,” she said.
“I was working on these stories but they were not going very well. They were a little boring. They just lay there on the page.”
As a reader, Ms. Wecker loved magic. In high school in suburban Chicago, she devoured fantasy and science fiction novels. As an English major at Carleton College in Minnesota, she had discovered classics and literary fiction. But now, as a student at Columbia University’s masters program for writers, in class she championed writers like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon, who brought fantastic elements into their novels.
If her favorite writers could combine fantasy and literature, “Why aren’t you doing that?” a friend asked her.
“That was when I decided to switch it up,” Ms. Wecker said. She swapped the protagonists of her story cycle, a Jewish American girl and Arab American boy, for magical counterparts: a golem and a jinni, newly arrived from the Old Country and trying to find their places in late 19th century New York City.
“That is where it took off,” she said.
The result became her first novel, “The Golem and the Jinni.” Winner of the Mythopeic Award and nominee for two other fantasy prizes, it also was selected by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey for its “One Book, One Community” program. At least two dozens events connected to the book have taken place, ranging from straightforward synagogue book club discussion groups to a lecture on “Horror Flicks and the Supernatural in the Movies: What’s Jewish About That?” at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies.
“The Golem and the Jinni” will conclude its tenure as the Jewish community’s chosen book on May 14, when Ms. Wecker will speak about it [see box]. That’s also when next year’s title will be announced.
When she began work on “The Golem and the Jinni,” Ms. Wecker didn’t know that she was writing a novel. She thought she was still writing a short story, albeit one with magical stand-ins for her immigrant ancestors. But her writing workshop knew better.
“They convinced me this was a novel,” she said. “I fought against it, until I realized they were right. It sort of snuck up on me the fact that it was a novel. The ending kept getting further and further away.”
As the story grew, Ms. Wecker realized that she did not know enough about 19th century New York to fill what became a 512-page novel. “The first couple of years it was pretty much split 50-50, research and writing,” she said.
“I spent all my free time reading about late 19th century life and different neighborhoods. How did people get around? Get an apartment? The mechanics of everyday life? Once I had a foundation it was a little easier to go forward. Every day or two I would come across something that I realized I wouldn’t know and had to research to have some clue of what I was talking about.
“The problem is I would find all these interesting details and want to add them all. Then I would have to pare them.”
The result of all this research was a book that works both as fantasy and as historical fiction.
“I got a sense of what it was like being an immigrant at the turn of the century, but loved the way she wove in the more folkloric powers, the magical mystical things,” said Nancy Perlman, who runs the One Book, One Community program for the federation.
After all that research, does Ms. Wecker consider herself an expert on golems?
“Oh no, not at all,” she said. “I did enough golem research to feel like I knew what I was talking about. The problem with research is you can research yourself to the end of eternity, especially around all of this folklore stuff and cultural details.
“I was a very new writer when I was starting this book. I was easily intimidated. I avoided a lot of literary retellings. No, I didn’t read Cynthia Ozick on golems, because I was 27 years old and if I read it I wouldn’t have anything to add,” Ms. Wecker, 39, said.
“I went back and read a number of the golem of Prague tales, and I had read “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” in which a golem figures, and I read a number of other science fiction retellings through the year, including a short story by a fantasy author, Naomi Kritzer, with the first female golem I ever read.
“Most of these stories were told from the creator’s point of view, instead of telling it from the monster’s perspective. That became an interesting facet to explore, taking this very stereotypical male figure — or sexless, which is read as male — a brute, a giant — what if you make that a woman? What if you put that in 1890s New York? And tell it from her point of view? Each change is a layer away from the old stories. I felt it was something I could add something new to, rather than feeling I was riding the coattails of every master who had written about golems before.”
“The Golem and the Jinni” adds something new to the literature of the Jewish Lower East Side by setting half of the story in Little Syria, a neighborhood on Manhattan’s lower west side, south of the World Trade Center. Much of the neighborhood was demolished in the 1940s to make room for the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. At its heyday, Little Syria had 3,000 inhabitants — a fraction of that of the Lower East Side, which boasted three quarters of a million people in the 1900 census.
In some ways, though, the two immigrant neighborhoods were not far apart.
“The types of people who lived there were very, very similar,” Ms. Wecker said. “Reading autobiographies and memoirs of people who lived at the time, all you had to do was swap the names. It reads exactly the same on both sides.”
Most of the immigrants to Little Syria were from what is now Lebanon. It was a time when men were leaving their Lebanese villages, Ms. Wecker said. “People were coming over for economic advancement, to make a bit more of a living than they had at home. The vast majority of Syrians coming then were Arab Christians from what is now Lebanon. A lot were coming to escape, if not outright persecution — it certainly was harder for Arab Christians than Arab Muslims under Ottoman rule. It was harder not to get conscripted into the army.”
Fans of “The Golem and the Jinni” will be glad to learn that Ms. Wecker, who lives in the San Francisco area, is now working on a sequel. The writing is going slower, because “I have the additional distraction of two little kids now that I did not when I was writing the first book,” she said. “I can’t just sit on a couch and write for 10 hours at a time.
“If everyone could just be healthy for a year, and stop getting colds and throwing up, it will be done.”
The new novel is set a few years after the first, in the mid 1910s. It is an era that fascinated her when she stumbled across references to it while researching her first book.
“So much of American society was in flux at the time,” she said. “There was this neutrality that Wilson was holding on to with both hands and his teeth. You had the rise of the Bohemian set. There was the ‘new woman’ and the labor movement and the suffrage movement. When the U.S. got into the war a lot of breaks were slammed on it.”
Though it will take her away from her manuscript, Ms. Wecker is “really looking forward to coming to New Jersey and speaking.”
“I love it. I love it. It’s so much fun,” she said of her experience touring for the book. “I just love meeting everyone. It seems like meeting my relatives over and over again. Another synagogue where I feel like I’m at home and everyone is so friendly and warm and they take me out to dinner and ask me what I’m reading and tell me about their own kids. It’s just so much fun to meet readers, people who enjoy the book and want to talk about it.
“The synagogue and JCC audiences — the Jewish book group readers — have the best questions. It’s like they needle in and pinpoint what they want to know. There’s always a question that throws me. I feel at this point I must have answered every question about the book and then someone asks me something and I’m struck dumb on the stage.
“People have told me things about my book that I didn’t know. You have to wonder as a writer, did I mean to do that or did I not mean to do that?”