Sunday, June 2, 2013
Common Questions for Helene Wecker
Helene Wecker talks to Colin about writing like a golem and finding truth in fiction
At the beginning of our conversation, Helene and I discovered that we both grew up in the fictional-sounding small town of Libertyville, IL. I asked Helene if she recalled the candy store, Some Other Nuts, where as a child I was regularly chastised for buying candy cigarettes and Helene, turns out, got her fill of jalapeno jellybeans. From there our conversation turned to similarities between people and creatures in her new novel, The Golem and the Jinni. Meet Helene in person on June 20th at 7:00 p.m. at Common Good Books.
CGB: Both Chava and Ahmad, after landing/being set free in Manhattan, have the good fortune of quickly meeting humans concerned with their wellbeing, or at least their social lives, as they’re instructed to behave like members of society instead of mystical creatures. What proved more challenging: imagining the behavior of a jinni or a golem, or a typical New Yorker?
HW: (Laughs) I think it was more challenging to create the golem and the jinni because they had to be that mix of outlandish fantastical and typical New Yorker. In their bewilderment they are slightly typical New Yorkers. Certainly as they’re starting out and slowly learning the ways of the city. It’s funny you say that because I’m thinking now about when I moved to New York, and that first two or three months of just learning how the crowds flow, what platform you need to be on in the subway. You could always identify the tourists by the way they were walking, their speed, how they went through a turnstyle. I went back to New York a couple months ago and I was smiling at people, and people were looking at me like Why are you smiling at me? I’ve got that sort of suburban Hi, how are you? thing, and everyone else is like Who the hell are you? But to get back to your question, I think it was harder to create the golem and the jinni because there were so many elements that went into them, and having to square them with their surroundings and think about what would be new to them. Not just new to them in terms of the city but not knowing what people were like.
What’s so interesting about setting the novel in New York at its peak of immigration is that everyone, to some extent's, an “other.” Chava and Ahmad, in fact, are fundamentally alike in their otherness. What about the outsider attracts you as a starting point?
I’d always felt slightly other growing up Jewish in a small town, which I realize is about as “slightly” other as you can possibly get. But feeling just a little different. Also, growing up reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and that making me the weird kid. But a lot of it was connected to the similarities I saw between my family’s history and my husband’s family’s history. We’re both the children of immigrants and grandchildren of immigrants. It was a long time before I realized that not everybody’s grandparents had accents. I thought grandparents had to have accents, and so I would meet other kids’ grandparents who had come from the Midwest and that really weirded me out. That off-kilter perspective on being American with a history from somewhere else; that feeling like something else is the normal and you’re one or two degrees off has always interested me. And looking at our family histories and noticing the overlap of issues of language and culture and all that “stranger in a strange land” sort of stuff--seeing that as a commonality between the Jewish and Arab-American experiences in America fascinated me.
How did that idea or image of otherness change as you switched from the point of view of a human to a golem?
There are different takes on the experience of coming to America in the novel, different psychological baggages. I think maybe it comes down to two different emotional flavors I ended up seeing. One was coming to America with the forward looking hope of making a new start, and the other being the bitter feeling of coming to America and feeling like you’re escaping something or you’ve been pushed into it. And different characters in the book fall at different places on these spectra. Of course, it doesn’t mean they’re either one or the other but some combination of both. There’s hope as well as grief in any immigrant experience. For characters in the book like Saleh it’s a new beginning, but it’s a beginning that he thinks is going to be a death he’s galloping toward. And in as sort of bleak a method as possible, he wants to die. But he doesn’t want to kill himself; he thinks America is going to do that for him. And then on the other hand you have all the immigrants in the Hebrew sheltering house for whom this is a new start.
It’s interesting to hear you relate your personal experience to the novel’s larger themes. When I first picked up the book, I assumed it was a YA novel, based on its inclusion of the supernatural. And yet, as it’s been said and shown, the people who are actually reading YA books steeped in fantasy are not necessarily young adults. Your life prior to writing the novel suggests a kind of ownership with the material, but did you feel a certain freedom to explore the world this book creates because of the success of late of books like Twilight and The Hunger Games?
When I first started the book, my very first vision was that it was a short story I was going to write before getting back to what I was really working on. And then I thought maybe it was a novella. And then there was a point where I thought maybe it was a YA novel, because it was relatively short and I thought, I’ll try to write for a younger audience. I had no idea what that meant back then—this was like seven years ago—and then it became clear a month or two after I started that this was going to be a big novel. And at that point I thought it probably wasn’t a YA book, partly because I wasn’t very well read in YA at the time. And seven years ago… was Twilight even out then?
If so, it wasn’t TWILIGHT, yet.
There was Harry Potter. And it didn’t feel like Harry Potter to me. And YA hadn’t blossomed into the crazy huge movement that it is now. And I was writing in an MFA setting at Columbia, which might have dictated in my mind what it was going to turn into. But I always kept in mind that I wanted it to be something that could be read down to a teenage level. Not a ton of sex, not a ton of, I don’t know, deep darkness, although YA is so much deeper and darker than a lot of fiction right now that I don’t know what that would have meant. This is the sort of book I would have completely glommed onto when I was 15-16 years old, and I wanted a teenager to be able to read it because that is such an awesome reading age, when you can give yourself over to a book in a way that feels a lot purer than when I read books now and think, Well, that’s a very well written sentence! But an Oh my gosh, my soul is being pulled out through my eyes! sort of experience of reading a book. I’m hearing that people are giving it to their nieces or nephews and that just thrills me.
As you say, it’s a big book, in part, because it contains so much research about New York at the turn of the century. How does having rather unlimited access to information impose on or inspire your writing process?
It’s funny, the research killed a lot of good story ideas, but I think it generated just as many. So it became a symbiotic process. For example, I made the golem and the jinni so that they didn’t sleep, thinking that was a cool way for the golem, at least, to explore the city. And then, I don’t remember where I read it, but through some offhand reference I read that “Of course, women didn’t walk alone after dark,” and I was like, Oh my God, what am I gonna have her do? She’s just gonna sit in her room all day! She’s gonna go nuts! And then I thought, Wait, she’s gonna sit in her room all day and go nuts… that’s gonna be awesome! It became the impetus for her and the jinni to go out walking together. And I thought that maybe they would have a walking date once a week. And as soon as I latched onto that set up the structure for the middle part of the novel and their relationship was sort of organized around these weekly visits. So I would get an idea and the research would either feed it or kill it, but in the process I’d find something out that would contribute somewhere else. It’s funny, I think about writing something contemporary now and I wonder where would I get my ideas. Am I just gonna make stuff up?
My last question is a bit self-serving, but I’ve always thought of Libertyville as the perfect title for a future Garrison Keillor novel. Say you were assigned to write a novel in the Lake Wobegon series titled Libertyville. Where might you go with that?
What immediately comes to mind is… remember Main Street in Libertyville, where Some Other Nuts was? All of those businesses--and I don’t know how much of this is still true because so much has changed, but certainly when I was growing up--they were family businesses, and so many had been around for years, sitting on that street, accruing history, and the families all knew each other, so I think it would be a multi-generational, interlocking love/hate, revenge book, involving all the families that owned stores on Main Street.
Oh, that’s great. You could even have a conflict with the newer, corporate businesses.
Yea, like everyone hates the Honda dealership, because they have motorcycles going up and down the street all day. You know something funny? I grew up in Libertyville, now I live in Pleasanton.
(Laughs) The name Libertyville sounds made up. I’m always having to convince people I came from somewhere.
It does! I went through Minneapolis, Seattle, New York and finally came full circle.