Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Visit with Helene Wecker






Finally it's here my interview with Helene, the author of The Golem and the Jenni.  If you have not heard of her, you must have had your head in the sand literally. I can't believe being a debut author this is her first novel. Where has she been?

After reading her fabulous novel. I have not read anything that lives up to anything else.  Lush in history and description of character, place, and time.  It is a tour of nostalgic turn of the century New York City, circa 1899.  You can read my review here.



 Hi, Helene thank you for taking the time to visit me at Susan's Literary Cafe.  Welcome!!!

First I would like to tell you Helene, you have become my favorite author of all time.  Your novel speaks volumes to me.  It has all the elements, of historical fiction, magical realism, romance, storytelling, suspense, and so much more.  The best part, because I am a transplant from the north, you bring New York City to life.  It is more thing that I miss living in South Carolina.

Helene is a debut author for the novel, The Golem and the Jenni.     She grew up in Libertyville, Illinois, a small town north of Chicago, and received her Bachelor’s in English from Carleton College in Minnesota. After graduating, she worked a number of marketing and communications jobs in Minneapolis and Seattle before deciding to return to her first love, fiction writing. Accordingly, she moved to New York to pursue a Master’s in fiction at Columbia University. She now lives near San Francisco with her husband( her husband comes from a Syrian family) and daughter.

Helene, What was the inspiration for your novel? Why the characters of the Golem and the
Jinni? And why set it in turn-of-the-century New York, instead of modern New York?

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-American family. A couple of the stories were okay, but the rest were not very good, and I knew it. I was talking with a friend of mine about it, and how frustrated I was. She suggested I try a different approach. She knewthat I was a 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 girl and an Arab-American boy, 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. I set it in turn-of-the-century New York because that was when the first big waves of Jewish and Syrian immigrants were arriving in America. I thought the communities would be new and chaotic enough that a golem and a jinni could hide pretty easily -- unlike today, when you need a driver's license and a birth certificate, and and everything's on camera. Also, one of my original ideas was to tell the story over a hundred years! I got rid of that idea pretty quickly, though.
As a child, were your parents or grandparents big on Jewish folktales?
No,strangely enough! At least I don't remember hearing any folktales from them. My mother's parents were cosmopolitan German Jews, and Old World folktales weren't really their thing. My dad's parents were Polish Jews, and spoke Yiddish, but I don't remember them telling me folktales. Usually they were too busy trying to get me to eat! Instead of folktales at home, I had science fiction, most of it from my dad: Bradbury and Asimov and Heinlein and Star Trek. Only lately have I realized how closely some of the themes in the old golem stories match themes in classic science fiction -- only instead of golems, it's robots.


What was the inspiration for your novel? Why the characters of the Golem and the Jinni? And why set it in turn-of-the-century New York, instead of modern New York?
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-American family.

 A couple of the stories were okay, but the rest were not very good, and I knew it. I was talking with a friend of mine about it, and how frustrated I was. She suggested I try a different approach. She knew that I was 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 girl and an Arab-American boy, 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. I set it in turn-of-the-century New York because that was when the first big waves of Jewish and Syrian immigrants were arriving in America.

 I thought the communities would be new and chaotic enough that a golem and a jinni could hide pretty easily -- unlike today, when you need a driver's license and a birth certificate, and and everything's on camera.
 Also, one of my original ideas was to tell the story over a hundred years! I got rid of that idea pretty quickly, though.
As a child, were your parents or grandparents big on Jewish folktales?
No, strangely enough! At least I don't remember hearing any folktales from them. My mother's parents were cosmopolitan German Jews, and Old World folktales weren't really their thing. My dad's parents were Polish Jews, and spoke Yiddish, but I don't remember them telling me folktales.

 Usually they were too busy trying to get me to eat! Instead of folktales at home, I had science fiction, most of it from my dad: Bradbury and Asimov and Heinlein and Star Trek. Only lately have I realized how closely some of the themes in the old golem stories match themes in classic science fiction -- only instead of golems, it's robots.
Did you mean to write a book so massive, in depth and character?
I didn't start out with that goal, certainly. Then the characters and story lines started to proliferate, and I realized that the book was going to be a lot longer than I'd originally thought. It was intimidating, but also exciting, because that's the sort of book I really love: long and involved, with a community of interesting characters. (I'm thinking of genre novels like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or realist fiction like the recent Skippy Dies.) At one point the book was a lot longer than it is now, at least 20 percent longer. I cut out a lot at the sentence level, but scenes and subplots too -- extraneous material that wasn't doing much besides slowing the pace.
Did you realize you had the Jewish theme of free will, or was it a accident? I understand you were not brought up in a religious household, but free will is in your novel. The rabbis teach us young about free will, so if that is the case, where did that come from?
The theme of free will came directly from my characters themselves, from the Golem's servant nature and the Jinni's imprisonment in human form. Once I'd given them these constraints, it seemed pretty clear that this would be what they had in common, and what they would talk about. As for when I first encountered ideas about free will, I honestly think it goes back to all the books I've read: stories of robots acquiring sentience, and defying their creators, and so on. Also I remember reading Paradise Lost in college, and being taken with Milton's idea that God knew ahead of time every decision we would ever make, yet we still had the free will to make those decisions. It seemed like a really interesting paradox.
What do you want your readers to come away with after reading The Golem and the Jinni?
Ideally I'd like them to come away thinking about the issues that prompted me to write the book, like the tug-of-war between duty and free will, and between tradition and modernity. Honestly, I get leery at the idea of books with messages; I think the best way to kill a book flat is to give it an obvious message. I'd rather ask questions instead.
Do you call yourself a fantasy writer or magical realism?
Either! Both! I've been calling this book a "literary historical fantasy," and I know it's being shelved all over in bookstores -- in literary fiction, or historical fiction, or fantasy/scifi. Since this is the only major project I've ever written, I'm not sure yet if I'll only be writing genre-tinged fiction. Maybe someday I'll write a book that's completely realist, which honestly for me would be a real feat. So until then I'll just call myself a writer, and leave it at that.

What books would you like to share that you enjoyed ?

book recommendations: do you read Neil Gaiman? His AMERICAN GODS is really, really good. Also you might like JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL by Susanna Clarke

Have you published anything before writing The Golem and the Jenni ?

I have a written a short story, from a online journal. Here is the website at http://www.joylandmagazine.com/stories/san_francisco/divestment
Thank you for visiting and come again when you have some time.

you Helene for taking the time to visit me. Hope to hear, and read more fantastic books by you in the future.

For you book lovers that are living in the south. Please visit your local independent book stores, or solicit your Jewish organizations. I would love to see a book event in the south, particularly South Carolina. Maybe with a bit of luck we can get Helene to come down south. I have corresponded with her publicist and the only way that will happen is if I can promise 100+ people to come to a event.

Please let your book seller know about this terrific writer. If enough people tell their book sellers maybe we can get her to come. I am willing to travel at least 2 hours to see her. Her book is that good.

We southerners don't have a large literary presence here in the small southern communities. But, if you keep telling the book sellers you want Helene maybe someone will bite!!

Check out my Review of Small Great Things

Check out my review of Jodi Picoult's novel, Small Great Things https://bagelsbooksandschmooze.blogspot.com/2017/08/small-great-things...