blackbirdonline journalSpring 2015  v14n1
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A Conversation with Helene Wecker
captured November 4, 2014

Kate Zipse: Thank you guys all so much for coming. I’m Kate Zipse; I’m the [Cabell] First Novelist Fellow this year, along with my co-coordinator over here, Matt Phipps. I just wanted to go ahead and make sure we’re all in the right room: the Helene Wecker Q&A. I’m just going to go ahead and introduce a couple of the groups we have in the room. We have some of the MFA graduate students, perhaps some of their undergrad students, and then Patty Smith’s high school kids, who drove all the way in, thank you, and then some of the professors and faculty/staff. And then, of course, we have Helene, who is our guest of honor, and she graduated from the Columbia MFA program, lives in the Bay Area. She brought along her beautiful baby boy, named Gavin, and we’re really happy to have her here.

I just wanted to make sure, no matter where you guys are in the process of reading or re-reading the book, that you feel free to ask her any sort of questions you have, whether it’s just about the general writing process or her MFA program, or specific, more nuanced questions about the novel itself. I don’t know if any of you guys saw the Style Weekly article, but if you did, it’s great, and—

Audience member: She got a haircut.

KZ: She got a haircut!

Helene Wecker: I did!

KZ: But yeah, you might have noticed that this nearly 500-page book actually started as a twelve-page short story in one of her workshops, so I just wanted to start off with that, and hear about the evolution of the process, and then I’ll go ahead and open up the floor to your guys’ questions, if you want to take it away.

HW: Okay. Well first, thanks very much for having me here. Thanks to Kate and Matt and everyone who has brought me here and been very, very accommodating, what with said infant boy and so on. So yeah, the whole starting-from-workshop thing: It was one of those things where you start to realize why the workshop process is so important, because some people tend to know better than you do what it is that you’re writing. The way that this book happened was I was at Columbia and—do you guys do a thesis for graduation? Do you do the creative body of work thesis? So I was working on this collection of linked short stories that were very realist tales about my family history, my husband’s family’s history. I’m Jewish, I grew up in suburban Chicago, and he is Arab-American; he also grew up in suburban Chicago. His dad’s from Syria. My dad emigrated when he was a little kid and so we’re both the children of immigrants, and we both have that sort of borrowed history from places we’ve actually never lived. So even though we’re from two cultures who nominally are supposed to be at odds with each other, so much of our families’ histories have echoed each other, especially in the baggage that gets handed down to you, and issues of language and feeling like you’re maybe from a place you’ve never been, that I wanted to bring that out.

So I was working on these very realist short stories but they weren’t going very well. They sort of sucked. I had one that made it eventually to publication, but the rest of them were just a hot mess. And I knew it and I was at that point where I couldn’t write as well as I could see the story. It was like, the story is here and I just can’t reach it. And I was complaining about it to a friend of mine in the workshop and she basically gave me this challenge. She said, “You are all about science fiction and fantasy and genre-bending and this is all that you talk about in class, you know, you’re all about Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem and Kelly Link,” and she’s like, “I’ve been to your place and I’ve seen your books, I know what you read, and this is not it. What you are writing is not what you read. There’s a disconnect here.” She said, “That stuff is where your heart is so you need to figure out how to integrate that into what you’re working on.” And she said, “The next thing I see from you in workshop, I want it to be about your families, part of this family project, but I want it to be fantastical too.” And she’s a little bossy—she literally gave me that challenge. And so I was like, “Ooh, okay.” I’d had these two main characters, this Jewish girl and Arab-American boy sort of threading through the stories, and they’d meet up every once in a while, and I was like, “Okay, what if instead of those two, we make it a girl golem and a guy jinni?” figuring that those were like the two most emblematic folkloric creatures from each culture if we’re going to talk about folklore and so on. Pretty much immediately they appeared in my mind, these two, and I went, “Ooh, okay, you guys are interesting.”

And from then it was a process of, “Okay.” It immediately felt like an older story. They had this sort of turn-of-the-century feel to them, probably because I was thinking about folklore as being from an older time. And I was in New York, so I’m sure that’s part of the reason why New York suggested itself to me as a setting, but also just from the little I knew about immigration at that time, was that everyone was, around the turn of the century, pouring through Ellis Island and forming these communities that were all just languages and cultures squashed up against each other a few square blocks at a time. At that point I knew three facts. I thought I knew three facts, you know. I actually didn’t, I actually probably only knew one, but I knew nothing and I was like, “Oh, that sounds interesting, let’s do that,” and I thought I was writing short stories. So I banged out these twelve pages, came up with some rudimentary plot, and brought them to workshop and said, “Okay, here’s something new I’m working on, tell me what you think.” And everyone was very, very generous about the fact that I had brought something that had fantasy in it to workshop. I get asked that a lot: “Well, you were at an MFA program, aren’t they, like, snooty about that sort of stuff?” And I was like, “No!” I mean, someone was writing mysteries, who actually has since gone on to publish a bunch of them and is fantastic. Other people were doing—not fables, but more like, almost absurdist sort of stuff, and I think—you know, this was back in 2005. I think especially with the rise of YA, that stuff is becoming even more accepted now than it was then, but everyone was like, “Okay, we’re going to just take this ball and roll with it; that’s great.” So they read it and they got back to me and said, “Well, this is more interesting than any of the other stuff you’ve brought us so far this year, so good for you,” you know, “thank you for giving us something interesting to read.” And they said, “There’s one thing, though, this isn’t a short story. This is a book. You’ve got a book here.” And I said, “No, it isn’t.” This, in my mind, was like this little project that I was going to do to get myself back on track and then I was going to go off and work on my stories again. And so the first four pages I figured were like maybe a quarter of the story. And then I kept writing and writing and writing and writing and writing, writing, writing, and it was like I was chasing the horizon. It was like the story kept getting away from me. And as I was sending more pages to workshop, they were telling me, “Slow down, slow down, you’re going too fast.” I had compressed the time so that—actually in those first twelve pages that was maybe the first—I think I figured it out—it’s the first 120 pages of the book now. And so it had that sort of fairy-tale—“They walked through the forest for three days, and then on the fourth day they found a cottage”—that way that you can jump over huge amounts of time, and they were like, “No, but you’re in historical New York, and that’s the interesting stuff. We want to see what people are doing on the ground. We want an immediate view.” And I was like, “Oh, crap, that means I have to know what I’m talking about.” This point was where I sort of admitted to myself, “Okay, they’re right, I am working on a book here, and I’ve gotten invested in it too, and now I want to see what happens,” and I wasn’t expecting this to hijack my life, but it did.

I went to the Columbia library and spent a very long time just photocopying everything I could get my hands on that I thought I might need for research because I knew we were leaving New York at the end of my classes, and so I was like, “I might need this! I might need this,” you know, feeding quarters into the copiers, and really got so many ideas from the research process, and had ideas killed by the research process. A couple times I was like, “Well, that’s it, that killed the book,” and then I would have to figure out a workaround. Or something else during the research—one thing died just as something else presented itself. And it took a very long time to integrate all that research and make it seem natural, but once it happened and it wasn’t—there were a couple chapters I sent to my agent for him to look at—this is when the golem and the jinni started taking their walks—and he said, “Okay, it’s reading like a Fodor’s Guide to Old New York. You need to—you’re giving turn-by-turn directions here—so you need to take out a few of these street names and seventeen details. Pick two details.” I was like, “But it’s all so cool!” and he was like, “I know, I know, but this is ridiculous.” I’m like, “Okay.” So—and if you guys are coming to the event tonight, you’ll meet him. He’s on the panel with me. Sam Stoloff, amazing guy. At that point we moved to California, and I brought my stack of photocopies and I sat on our couch and wrote and supported myself with weird little jobs, and just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. And it took a very, very long time and many, many, many drafts and a huge false ending that I then had to rewrite, almost at gunpoint with a contract extension and an infant daughter and it was hellacious and I don’t remember much of it, but it worked and the rewrite happened and then the book came out, and here it is. So that’s sort of my potted history of the novel.

Q: I’m curious about what research went into the mythology elements of it, because sticking with history seems pretty straightforward. Did you ever feel like you needed to streamline parts of it? Because these are based in real folklore, real culture, they’re not just imagined beings or fantasy. So how did you decide which elements to use?

HW: It was a really hard process. In the end, I had to just own it, that these were my versions of the characters—my versions of these creatures. And it was a lot easier for me to do that with the golem. I’m Jewish, it’s like, “Okay, this is my culture, I get to mess with it however I want to.” That’s my inheritance or whatever. But with the Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim side of it, it was a lot harder—I wanted to be respectful, I wanted to be accurate. And the problem I ran into was that no two stories about jinn were the same. They all had completely different aspects—every country, every region, even every strain of Islam has their own versions and stories, and something that really didn’t impress itself on me until I was mostly done with the book was that, for golems, this was old-world stuff. You know, if someone’s writing modern interpretations, it’s like making an old story new. For jinn, it’s still very much a part of Muslim culture. They’re in the Quran, the Quran is the word of God; therefore jinn exist. In many Muslim and Middle Eastern cultures, including some Jewish Middle Eastern cultures, they are a fact of life. They are this unseen presence in the world. And I wanted to be respectful of that, but, at the same time, I did also have to own it. The whole thing about jinn being extinguished by water, that I made up, basically. I decided that he needed a weakness, otherwise he was just going to be too strong; there had to be some sort of kryptonite that would be a threat. So I decided, “Okay, they’re creatures of smokeless fire, maybe they can be put out by water,” which seemed to me to be sort of a childish way to handle it but seemed to work. And then I’m reading the One Thousand and One Nights and here is this story about a jinni rising out of a lake and I’m like, “Dammit!” But again, that’s that story’s version, this is my version, and if people come yell at me for it I will basically say I’m sorry; I decided to take some poetic license and everyone’s interpretation of “how far is too far?” is always slightly different, but I haven’t gotten yelled at yet, so that’s been good.

Q: What was your alternate ending?

HW: Oh! It was interesting. This is something I might get into talking about with Sam tonight. The problem was that I got to a certain point where I’d had this ending in mind the whole time that I’d been planning the book, and I got to four chapters before the end and suddenly every word that I wrote just felt wrong. It was like, “This is awful and boring and I don’t like it.” You’ve read the book, I think, most of you, so you know that there’s lots of threads that interweave and then come together at the end. And I had all of these problems that needed to be solved. It was like the endgame in chess—here was the board that I’d set up, and now I needed to move this piece and this piece and this piece and this piece. But the problem was that’s what it felt like, like a bunch of pieces moving. The ending solved all the problems, but had absolutely no emotional resonance and felt very false. It really did feel like the hand of the author coming in and moving things around. But I had no idea what else to do at that point, so I was like, “Okay, the only way out is going to be through.” So I wrote the ending, even though it just hurt, and I sent it off to Sam and to Terry Karten, my editor at HarperCollins, and said, “Okay, here’s the ending. It’s terrible. Let’s talk about this.” And they wrote back and said, “Okay, yeah, let’s talk.” You know, I think they were very nice about it.

And so we just put our heads together—again, collaboration, and other people knowing either better than you do or being able to help at least as readers—and what we came to was that even though the book had been pared down—I think it was fifteen or twenty percent at that point, from its original length—there was still too much stuff in it. There were still too many pieces. So we went back and took out a magic amulet and another minor character, and something else, I don’t even remember what at this point, cut out a subplot. We got it to where there were few enough pieces in the end to account for that we could give each its emotional due. And so what happened was, in terms of the particulars and the plot, the final confrontation at the end originally took place in Central Park instead of the ballroom, and I think someone died who didn’t die in the real ending—in the ending as it eventually got published—characters’ positions sort of traded off in order to account for the changes. So it was a lot of logistical stuff. The end itself, where they end up, the two main characters especially, was pretty much the same; it was just a different route to get there that in the end felt much more suited to the book and was much more emotionally fulfilling. When I finished the second version of the ending I was like, “Okay, okay. This, I feel, does justice to the book and I can send it off and be happy with it.” So that was good.

Q: How far into your story were you before you figured out what your characters really wanted? Did you know at the very beginning?

HW: No, no, no. I did not know at the very beginning at all. This book went through so many changes. It was a couple of years before I figured out who the villain was. Literally a couple years. I have to say, I wasn’t, sitting there for two years banging out—there were weeks I didn’t touch it at all. I was working, we were moving, and life was happening. I was doing this thing where I would start at the beginning and get up to say, chapter two, and then realize I’d made a fatal error. I’d decided that the jinni was too powerful, and he needed to have his powers pared back, but that would change everything that had happened in that time. So I went back to the beginning, and re-edited up until that point and then go maybe a chapter farther, and then go, “Oh, crap, I made another big blunder”—it was like I was laying down layers. I would have to go back, and I would get maybe three steps and then two steps, so I did that.

Okay, so the book sold as a partial. I was halfway done with the book and that took six years. So that shows you how many changes it went through. The golem’s character changed utterly about four or five years in. She did not have the ability to feel people’s fears and desires, and that became a very central part. That became the defining part of her character. The feedback I was getting from my readers was that she was too much of a robot. She was just wandering around, blundering into things. The reader could see what was going on, she’d be in a room and two people would be acting funny at each other, and I wrote it that, as a reader, you knew that they were flirting, they were in love with each other and doing that slap-tease, not wanting to show it, and she’d be like, “What’s going on?” As a reader you get impatient with that really fast. If you know more than the characters do, it makes the character look dumb, even if they’re not, because you’re like, “Figure it out. Figure it out. Figure it out.” And I had two or three readers tell me this, and it was the thing that had been buzzing in the back of my head that I didn’t want to think about until then. And then I had to own up to it. I was like, “Oh, God, okay, well now the book is dead,” and I pouted about it for a week and then decided to go back and figure out if I could do anything to salvage it. And this was the fix that I came up with, was that it put her closer to humans. It gave her the bare-bones knowledge of human emotions—she knows that those two people are flirting with each other, she knows they have a crush on each other. What she doesn’t know is why. She doesn’t have that self-knowledge, that knowledge in her own history, so it’s like she’s looking in a window. There’s still that distance, but it’s been closed a little bit. It gave her agency; it gave her the ability to decide what to do based on what other people are doing. But I, again, had to go back to the very beginning of the book because this altered every scene she was in. And I went and looked at it and was like, “Okay, who’s around her? What are they feeling? What’s that going to make her feel? What are they going to do?” And so it was a massive rewrite of the book. So even though it is my first book, and I guess maybe this is the way with all first books, but I feel like this is like the third version of my first book. So, no, to answer your question, it took a long time.

Q: So I guess a follow-up on that, these guys are all in a novel workshop and they’re writing drafts and we’ve been talking a lot about structure, looking at your book and trying to figure out how it was structured or how you planned it. And we’ve been talking a lot about whether you’re a plotter or a pantser.

HW: Oh, yes, yes, yes.

Q: So it sounds like you’re a pantser.

HW: I’m both.

Q: At what point did you start to maybe structure it out, or?

HW: So it’s—plotter or pantser? Fly by the seat of your pants. It’s sort of hilarious, I would spend a week doing this big outline—a flowchart, I would get software that made me be able to do a flowchart, and I would—every character had their own symbol, and I got really—you can start procrastinating so bad with this stuff. Yes. And then I would plan the whole thing out and then I would get to step two in said diagram and suddenly realize that that decision, that character’s decision, that made perfect sense on the paper, was something he would never do. When you’re faced with it as part of the story, as his character, it was like, “In this moment, he would never do that. So what now?” And the whole thing would come apart within two days of writing, but I still think it was a good exercise in that it puts you closer to the story. Structure is important. I love structure. I’m a structure junkie, and so it made me think about that overview of the book, and then, when you get down into the weeds of it, stuff changes, and then you come back and you take another look at the overview. So it became this micro, macro, micro, macro thing and they both altered and changed with each other.

Q: So you spoke earlier about how part of this book was inspired by your family history, but any story about a Jew and an Arab interacting is going to imply certain interpretations, and I was just wondering how much the process of writing or plotting was inspired by or affected by modern politics.

HW: Less than you might think. I think it was less about the politics and more about learning communication and finding similarities, which sounds like a softball answer but is, in my mind, a lot more complex because we come from, ostensibly, two different cultures. We grew up watching the same cartoons and we grew up forty-five minutes away from each other, didn’t know each other until we got to college. But here were these two family stories that really did resonate against each other and that spoke to a shared history of immigration to America that no one talks about. When I would go back and look at the sources for Jewish immigration stories and Syrian immigration stories—really, only the names were different. That’s not quite true. The details were different, the flavors were different; the essential story was the same. And that was one of the things I wanted to bring out because it’s just something that isn’t talked about, is how close in feel the Arab and Jewish experience in America was, up until a certain point. It was even to the point of—and this was something I had in the book and then ended up cutting, one of the many things—the peddler experience, that was one of the main ways that both Jews and Arabs made their living when they came to the US was pack peddling. Basically you’d land in New York, you’d fill up your pack with a bunch of cooking wares and notions and whatever, and then pick a train and hit the road and sell door to door and that’s how these colonies got established. The biggest community of Arabs in the US is in Michigan. That’s why, because Michigan became this hub of peddling in the Midwest. And same with Jews, that’s where my family is from. So that’s one answer. The other answer is that the golem and the jinni, they have many of the same experiences, but they come at them from absolutely opposite perspectives and temperaments. And one of the things that both of them have to do is to learn that another person’s perspective can be true and completely opposite of yours. And that’s something that anyone in a relationship has to deal with this at some point. Your spouse or your boyfriend or whatever says, “I feel like you hurt me, I feel like you betrayed me,” and the kneejerk response might be to say something like, “Well, that’s completely ridiculous, why would you feel that way?” To negate someone’s opinion is not a good way to win an argument. And that is something that I’ve seen more and more, especially this summer with military operations in Israel and Gaza and basically, people on my Facebook feeds shouting at each other, shouting past each other, and essentially telling each other that their felt opinions were baseless. And you’re never going to come to any sort of understanding. You might win an argument by shouting but you’re never actually going to come to an understanding until you can say, “Okay, how radically different of a perspective do they have and how can I make myself see that radically different perspective,” to the point where you’re calling the same historical events by completely different names that have completely different flavors. Think about that as a system; you grow up with one system, and here comes someone else who’s grown up with a completely different system, that’s in some ways opposite, and then you look at each other and you’re like, “How can we be talking about the same thing? Well, we need to figure out how.” And that’s something that the two of them had to work toward. And so my depiction of them—I think I’m just starting to admit this to myself—my depiction of them is how I want that process to work on a cultural level. How do you scale that? It’s almost an impossibility but it’s something that you have to hope for. So that’s my long and convoluted answer.

Q: Within each chapter we get lots of little pieces of the different stories. How did you decide what scenes would go where and when to introduce different subplots?

HW: That’s a good question. Most of that was in the editing process. Things got moved around a lot. Some of that was going back and looking at it myself. Some of that was help from my agent, my editor, and other readers—things like, “Okay, you have given us way too much information here. How can you break this up? Can you put some of it in conversation? Figure out how to do it that isn’t just like, a giant whack of narrative just sort of dropped into the middle of the chapter.” Or feedback that was like, “This character popped back up and I had forgotten who he was, so you need to remind us about him earlier.” So it was keeping those tensions, again with an overview of structure, of—I don’t think I ever actually did this measuring, and I didn’t think ahead or have this role for myself but it was like, “I can’t go too long between when a character shows up or is at least mentioned, we have to remember that that guy exists—keep him in your memory.” But yeah, a lot of it really was editing, especially editing to the plot, playing with those different threads and bringing them together, having to get, like I said before, the pieces into place. And I know this is very fuzzy but it really was by feel. Does this work here? No. Let’s move it earlier. Does it work here? Better! Let’s make it shorter, then it can fit between these two… And it’s really the sort of thing that you can only do by doing. You do it a lot, and then it was like I almost started to think of the book as a body, like a person’s body, and I could tell when it was getting too lumpy on one side or the other. I mean, that’s the only way I can think of to put it. I wanted to make sure that both “halves” of the book that took place in both neighborhoods, had equal time. I didn’t want one to end up being the catalyst for the other. All the emotional work, I didn’t want to on one side or the other. Sort of the way that the best friend in a buddy movie is there to sort of boost the main character to greatness or whatever, I wanted it to be as equitable as I could make it, so I did almost have that physical sense of balance, like, “Is the book in balance? Is it out of balance?” just by how much time was being spent in each neighborhood.

Q: You mentioned Michael Chabon as someone who inspired you in terms of what he does in genre. Were there any models you went to for examples of structures you tried out?

HW: Not that I consciously tried out, but I did get almost like permission to do—“Ooh, you can do this, and it’ll actually work.” From Chabon again, Wonderboys, which is also the “many threads” feel. And his are in specific objects; it’s like you’re watching him do a shell game in Wonderboys, which is a fantastic book. There’s a backpack, there’s a manuscript, there’s the body of a dog, and there’s a few other things that end up in trunks of cars or in someone’s house, and then someone picks it up and brings it somewhere else and it’s all—they’re all these loaded objects that pop up at the wrong times, in the wrong places. It’s like watching one of the old—oh God, what are they called?—the old police movies where it’s all the bumbling police.

Audience member: Keystone cops?

HW: Keystone cops, yeah, yeah. Where you’re watching someone be brilliant at bumbling. So there was that. There was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I don’t know if any of you guys have read but it’s like a master class in how to write a historical fantasy. It just builds this world that you buy from page one, and it’s this gorgeous novel that she’s filled with footnotes, literal footnotes, about the history of British magic. And the footnotes—it was just the most brilliant thing she could have done because that’s how she delivered those giant chunks of exposition or backstory, but she made them into these very charming, academic footnotes, and she would sneak in little bits of plot into there, too. So hints about things that would come later were presented in the vein of, “…which of course as everyone knows had blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and you’re like, “Oh, okay, filing that away for later.” So there was that. There was Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, which—I swear to God that woman has a time machine, that’s the only way she could do it. The sheer volume of research that she must have done, and then that she’s just incorporated it seamlessly into the book, and she’s just living it on the page. It was not a model so much as a standard, like, “Okay, here’s the bar, she set the bar, no one’s going to—I can’t make it over this bar, but I’m going to try. We’ll see how close I can get.” More of a goal to be reached. One thing that’s really awesome that happens when you get really deep into a project, and I’ve talked to a lot of writers who—published writers—who say this as well: everything starts to resonate. You get to this awesome, awesome point where stupid things you see on TV are like, “Oh, I can use that,” even if it’s just a technique. One thing that I always had problems with was skipping over time. If someone leaves the house, and you need them to arrive at work, I always wanted to write the bus ride: “Well, she walked out the door, and then she went to the bus stop, and then she got on the bus,” and it’s like, “just cut it!” But how? What’s the best way to do that? What’s the most seamless—you don’t notice that you jumped over two hours, or whatever? And the workshop process does this immensely. That was one of the things workshopping really did for me, was like, “Okay, now I’ve turned the lens on you, and that helped me build a lens, now let’s see if I can shine it on my own work and find my own problems.”

Q: At the end of the book, was the nature of the relationship between the golem and the jinni purposefully left ambiguous, or were the readers meant to interpret it in a particular way? And did you have your own personal interpretation?

HW: I don’t think it was purposefully ambiguous in the “ha-ha, I’m teasing you” sort of way—hopefully it didn’t come across that way; it’s not what I meant. Part of that original first ending was it was much more clear that they were going to end up together—

HW: And they—everyone: “Yes! You owe me five dollars! I bet you, I told you.” And my agent said it felt too happy. It felt too much like the classic wedding ending, you know, not that they actually got married, but if you think about it in terms of Shakespeare, and there’s comic structure and tragic structure, and comic structure usually ends with a wedding, or a “happily ever after.” And it was too “happily ever after.” There needed to be more of a feeling of loss, and possibility, and hopefulness. And once he put that out I was like, “Oh my God, you’re right, you’re so right.” There needed to be more of a sense of, “If these two are going to try to make it, it is absolutely not clear that it will succeed, in anything that they try.” So yeah, so that was a balance that had to be struck more. And I did sort of leave it ambiguous, but more as a sort of forward-looking ambiguity with hope. Hopefully. I hope.

Q: Do you see it as a two-protagonist book?

HW: I do, I do. I know that the golem ended up with a bit more of the lion’s share of that feeling of protagonist. That was not meant, but she seemed to defy my attempts to wrest it from her so I went, “Okay, fine.” And I think part of it is that she is more easily identified with, especially in terms of—you think of two coming-of-age stories—she’s the one you more naturally want to root for. Him, it’s like, “Just stop being such an ass.” That’s more of—which, he’s got his reasons; he’s had something huge taken from him, and so he is a tragic figure in that way. But the golem is—you more naturally want to root for her, I think. So yeah, I think it’s two protagonists but she’s stepping on his toes a bit.

Q: How did you decide when you wanted the golem and the jinni to meet?

HW: I’ve had a number of reviewers and readers tell me that they thought they met too late, that they were getting impatient, and I think that’s entirely valid. But I wanted them to be established in themselves and in their various dilemmas before they met each other, because otherwise they were either going to just imprint on each other or be so terrified of each other that they would just run away. And it had to happen at a point where they had a bit of ground underneath their feet, but not so much that this person who is going through exactly the same thing that they were going through wasn’t going to be really enticing, like: “Oh, God, can you help me here?” Like, “Oh, you too?” You know, “What’s your experience been?” So it was, and again, again with the editing process: “too early, too late, just right,” just trying out different scenarios to see what worked the best.

Q: We get the character of Sophia out of nowhere. How did you think about her? What made you decide that she needed to exist in the story?

HW: Sophia’s an interesting one. I get asked about her a lot, for exactly that reason, so: why Sophia? She’s the only character who really doesn’t fit one place or the other, and she ends up a real personality in the book. And the answer was that the jinni needed a girlfriend. He needed someone to be a bad boy with, and as I’d originally envisioned it, he was going to crash this party, and have his way with her, and then maybe she’d be there, be around for a little while, and then she’d fade away. And as I wrote that, I was like, “Oh, that’s terrible! Then she’s just a plot point in a skirt.” I wanted her to have—because we’ve all seen stories where a character comes and is brought to life and does their thing and advances the plot and then just disappears. And you’re like, “Where did they go?” Movies, especially, are terrible for this; characters just disappear in the last third because the plot needs it to happen, and it’s like, “But I like them, where did they go?” So I got interested in her. I didn’t want it all to be about the jinni’s prowess in landing fair young millionairesses or whatever. It was like, “What would make a person be primed for him to just go ‘ding,’ and she just falls into his arms? What sort of personality? What would have led her to this being a very natural step for her, and something she decides to do, so that it’s not all on him?” And give her a little more agency in this. Of course, at the point at which you give someone agency, they become a real person, or a real character. And at that point I was like, “Okay, now I can’t get rid of you, because you’re interesting, and I like you and I want you to stick around.” So I just played around with her and I was like, “Okay, what if something happened to her?” And at the same time, having the idea of the jinni having to live with the consequences of his actions. I was like, “Okay, what if this is the consequence? What if the thing that brings him up short is something that happens to Sophia, this girl who he wanted to bed and leave, and maybe she’ll be the vehicle for him to start to clue into the fact that he needs to take responsibility.” So that’s where she came from, and then I remember having this talk with Sam where we were talking about trimming the book, getting it ready to sell, and what are editors’ quibbles going to be, anticipating future problems. And I said, “I’m sure that someone’s going to want me to get rid of Sophia. I don’t want to get rid of her.” And he said, “Okay!” It was that it was his job to advocate for that, since that was my view as the author and he agreed with me, although I don’t think he would have been too upset if she’d gone. But yeah, she just—that’s how she happened. Also I read a lot of Edith Warton.

Q: How did you come up with all the secondary characters and their backstories?

HW: They all came from different places. Some of them, it was I needed a person to do a particular job story-wise, so I would say, “Okay! I will toss in—the rabbi will have a nephew who works at the sheltering house, and he’ll be the one who blah, blah, blah.” Some of them came down to that whole idea of parity between the two sides; I wanted the character lists to read relatively the same length on both sides because I knew that would help keep balance. And then there was stuff like Saleh. I know I’m not supposed to have a favorite. He’s my favorite. He came basically from nowhere. He was a product of research. I was looking at these articles from the turn of the century in New York newspapers about Little Syria: very, very terrible articles, very, “Oh, let’s go down to lower Manhattan and look at the picturesque new people who’ve arrived.” You know, very condescending and obnoxious. It’s amazing what people used to get away with in journalism. But back then, no photographs—they had drawings and illustrations. And so I’m reading this article about Little Syria and here’s this illustration of a man sitting on a curb with this wooden churn. And he had a white cloth wrapped around his head, sort of like a small turban, and this drooping mustache, and he was thin and he looked like he was about in his fifties. And he had the saddest expression, and the caption said, “An ice cream seller.” It was something about that juxtaposition of looking so sad, like he’d had the world’s worst thing happen to him, and then ice cream, which is this happy treat for children, and I was like, “Who is this guy?” And as soon as I started to think about it he appeared in my mind. He just—“bing,” there he was—which, when writers say that, “Oh, a character just came to me!” I think sometimes people lean toward a certain mysticism about it that I want to say, “Okay, yeah, let’s just leave that over there,” because there’s a lot of hard work that leads up to that point where a character can come to you fully. You have to be deep into it before that can just happen, but he just arrived. I knew him immediately, and I went and I sat and banged out his backstory in this four-hour frenzy of writing that survived almost completely unaltered into the book. When he arrives and you get his backstory about what happened to him in Syria, that was just one writing session. And I always knew what his reaction was going to be; I always knew what he was going to say. Everyone else it was like pulling teeth, trying to figure out their character. Saleh just landed fully formed in the book, and he was this immense gift and it was always a relief to write him because I wasn’t like, “Oh, God, ugh! What’s he going to do now?” I always knew exactly. So from that all the way down to Michael, who to me is one of the weaker characters in the book. He’s sort of a schlemiel; he’s a little hapless. Again, when the reader knows more than the character, the character comes off as stupid. You’re like, “My God! Can you not see that your wife isn’t breathing? Like, can—ugh!” But he was originally three different characters, and he got compressed down to one character. There was the rabbi’s nephew, there was the guy who ran the Sheltering House, and there was some other dude that I don’t even remember who he was because he was just that poorly formed of a character. And at one point I just smushed them all together and made Michael, and he came off as a much better character than any of them did but I think he could still use some touch-ups. But it won’t happen, because the book got published. That’s always the problem.

Q: When you were writing the jinni’s backstory with the Bedouin family—also when you were writing Schaalman’s backstory, or the reincarnation, or wizard—did it feel like you were writing three different stories altogether?

HW: Funny thing about that. So the first version of the book, I don’t think Schaalman even had a name because he was in the first chapter and then he disappeared. He was the guy who made the golem, and then you never see him again. And I gave this description of what he looked like—you know, the old, drawn face with furrows and a tangled beard—and then when I was writing the backstory, the jinni’s backstory, and I was writing this wizard, at some point I realized I’d written the wizard in the exact same physical—it was the furrows and the face and the tangled beard. And the back of my mind said, “That’s because they’re the same person.” And I went, “Oh my God.” And that was how that all started, that was—like I said before, it was a few years until I knew who the villain was. That was when I started figuring it out. And so then I had to create Schaalman’s backstory. Because suddenly he was now a major player in the book, and he had to have a backstory to go with it. So when I was writing his backstory, I had in mind that he was this wizard reincarnated. I wanted to create a life for him where, when you look back at it, you realize he really never had a chance, and in that sense he can be a sympathetic character, but that each decision as he made it was his decision. In a sense he had everything stolen from him. In a sense, this was always his destiny. But he came to it through his own doing at the same time. It’s that paradox of Paradise Lost when Milton talks about, “God knows all of our destinies and yet we choose them every moment.” So the idea of free will and predestination being able to exist simultaneously has always been something that interested me. That was what I had in mind: he is predestined; at the same time, it is his fault completely that he came to where he is. I did have to keep that in mind. I didn’t want him to be this sniveling, mustache-twirling baddie; I wanted there to be enough tragedy in his life that, even if you didn’t root for him because he’s clearly a bad guy, you wanted to feel some sort of edge of sympathy for him. I wanted it to be a little tempered by that, so that was the tone I was going for when I was writing that. But the wizard’s backstory? I just made him bad. I just made him nasty. You never really find out who this guy is. He’s the one black hat in the entire book; I just let myself write the nasty dude. He ended up sounding like a villain from Buffy the Vampire Slayer I think—the way he talked—but I was fine with that.

Q: Mine kind of has two parts. There’s a lot of characters in the book, which I really admire, but how do you keep up with them all? Were they all just in your head or did you write every little detail down to keep up with them? Also, was having to handle all of them a daunting experience or were you okay with it?

HW: Oh God, it was so hard. I kept saying the next book I write is going to be two people talking in a room. I don’t think I could ever do that, because I make things difficult for myself, but it was very hard to keep up with them—keep everyone straight, give everyone their own lives. This is one of the reasons why it took seven years to write. I set this ridiculous task for myself and then felt I had to see it through. And I don’t want to make it sound like “Oh, woe is me. I had to write this book for seven years,” because it was so much fun at the same time that it was such a pain in the butt. It was really the most fulfilling thing—I’m supposed to say besides my kids—but really this was it. Kids just grow; they’re their own thing. They grow inside you and they grow on their own and you don’t have much to do with it. They come out their own people. My daughter was her own person from the very beginning and I’m like, “You’re a total mystery to me and you’re awesome, and I can try to steer you, but really you’re going to jump off the sofa and there’s very little I can do about it.” This was like, “ I am responsible for every single word and every single word has to be chosen, and these people—I am creating these people—and I can push them this way and that way, but I have to figure out which way is the best way. It took awhile to wrap my brain around that, but once I did, they really were there with me all the time. I’d be in the shower and suddenly realize, “No, it was actually this thing that happened to the character that sent them off in this direction,” and I’d have to go back and rewrite that. It does sort of take over your brain. The key is to keep pushing the flywheel, keep working on it. Especially you guys who are in the MFA program; when you’re done you leave academia and you go out and find a job and live a life, and all of that, it becomes harder to keep up with a book. One of the things that was the single best piece of advice I got from a professor at Columbia, from a guy named David Ebershoff, who’s an author and also an editor at Random House—I came to him and was like, “I’m so worried. Classes were about to end, I was moving to California; I know I’m in this little hothouse—my life is organized for me to write—and I’m worried about what’s going to happen when I leave.” And he said, “Touch the book every day. Just make sure you touch it every day, even if it’s just thinking about it for five minutes in the morning. Just make sure it’s a presence even if you’re not actually sitting at the computer for hours at a time. Just make it a presence in your life in whatever way you can while you’re paying the bills.  end  

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