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A Reading by Helene Wecker
captured November 4, 2014

John Ulmschneider: Good evening. My name is John Ulmschneider. I’m the university librarian for Virginia Commonwealth University. On behalf of faculty, students, and staff at VCU, I welcome you all to tonight’s thirteenth annual VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. And lest you be thinking that thirteen is an unlucky number, I’m told that first, our guest of honor considers it her family’s lucky number, so that’s good. And second, we have to add another number to this and that is the number seven, the lucky seven, because tonight is the seventh year of co-sponsorship of the First Novelist Award by the Cabell Associates and the VCU Libraries with the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Department of English. I’m delighted to say that, in my experience, very few partnerships have ever been as successful as the collaboration between the college, the Cabell Associates, and the VCU Libraries. Since 2008, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award has grown enormously in stature and recognition and is now a keystone literary award for writers who publish their first novel, and also, the keystone literary event for the Virginia literary arts community.

As always with the Cabell First Novelist, this is a true community event; we have a lot of sponsors to recognize. Many thanks, first and foremost, go to the Cabell Associates for their support for the VCU Cabell First Novelist. The Cabell Associates were first founded in 1981 by Margaret Cabell, the wife of Richmond novelist James Branch Cabell. And the Cabell Associates continue today to encourage scholarly work about James Branch Cabell to foster his legacy and to elevate his profile as one of America’s most distinguished literary artists—a writer who has helped define the art of fantasy writing for people like Neil Gaiman and others—and someone who remains today one of the country’s most distinctive and memorable historic forces for political satire. Also coming together tonight as co-sponsors are the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Department of English, the VCU Libraries and the VCU Friends of the Library, the VCU Graduate School, and Barnes and Noble’s VCU bookstore, and we have to extend special thanks to the folks in the creative writing program at VCU which does all the hard work needed to administer the award and select the winners. And then finally, we owe grateful thanks to many folks in the VCU libraries and Department of English who have done all the logistics tonight—done all the hard work so all you have to do is sit back and enjoy things. So please join me in a round of applause for everyone who has made this possible. And now, Dr. Katherine Bassard, chair of the Department of English, will continue our program. Katherine. Thank you.

Katherine Bassard: Thank you, John. My name’s Kathy Bassard and I’m chair of the Department of English here at VCU. On behalf of the department, welcome to the 2014 Cabell First Novelist Award. This annual award honors an outstanding debut novel, published in the preceding calendar year. The award truly began with students working on their first books as part of VCU’s MFA and creative writing program. Professor and novelist Tom De Haven designed and debuted the nation’s first year-long novel workshop—still one of very few in existence. In 2001, he and former VCU professor Laura Browder, who’s here today, dreamed up the award and its special night as a way for students to learn from writers who had recently been through the same creative process that they were going through. Tonight, we celebrate this year’s winner Helene Wecker and her novel, The Golem and the Jinni.

I would like to add to the thanks that John has already extended: a much-deserved thanks to our most recent Cabell Fellows, Matthew Phipps and Kate Zipse, for their tireless efforts in helping coordinate not only this event, but the entire year-long award process. Last year, we had over 100 entries, and undoubtedly, we will receive even more for next year’s award. So Helene Wecker had some steep competition, and we’re very excited to have not only her here tonight, but her agent as well, for what we hope will be an enlightening reading and discussion. So without further ado, please welcome Matt Phipps, who will begin the evening with the award presentation.

Matthew Phipps: Good evening. My name is Matthew Phipps. I am one of the coordinators of this award, and I am also a current master’s student in VCU’s creative writing program. I had the honor and pleasure of helping facilitate the selection of this year’s winner, The Golem and the Jinni. In addition to helping plan this event, most of my job is receiving and cataloging the more than 110 submissions that came in as contenders for this year’s award. Our submissions come from large presses and small presses all over the country, from authors fresh out of MFA programs like VCU’s, as well as those who’ve published their first books only after retiring from long careers in other fields. Once the books come in, my colleague Kate Zipse and I make them available to readers from all over the VCU community: undergrads, graduate students, professors, librarians, and even a group of students from Patty Smith’s novel workshop at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School down in Petersburg. Each reader selects a book and then submits a simple review form, evaluating each novel in a variety of categories, including story, structure, character, prose style, and my favorite—artistry. The question the review form poses in this category is: does the novel embrace an ambitious artistic vision? It’s not a particularly scientific process, I have to admit, but we’re talking about literature here. What do we do with all of the review forms that come in? Every single one is read by my colleague or I, and, using reader comments, the more detailed the better, each novel is assigned a ranking according to the enthusiasm of the reviewer. Each novel is read at least twice to average out the scores, and from this ranking comes a list of twelve semi-finalists. Then a small committee composed of members of the English department and creative writing faculties rereads each of the twelve semi-finalists, which are then reduced to three finalists. These three finalists are sent to three external judges who vote on a winner.

All of this adds up to one of the most democratic and inclusive selection processes of almost any award given to first time novelists in the country—a credit to VCU, and especially to each year’s winning author. This year’s judges were the 2013 Cabell First Novelist winner, Ramona Ausubel; the writer Bryan D. Dietrich, author of six poetry collections and professor of English at Newman University in Kansas; and novelist and critic Robin Oliveira, who won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship for her own debut novel, My Name Is Mary Sutter. Some comments from the judges this year included the following: “Not only is it charming, beautifully written, and meticulously imagined, but it is also symbolically insightful. Like Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Golem and the Jinni uses genre tropes to dig deep into the American psyche and its underlying mythology.” Here’s another one: “Ms. Wecker deserves the award without question. The Golem and the Jinni shows originality, polish, complexity, imagination, and panache; Helene Wecker’s story won me over within the first twenty pages.” I know the students in my introductory creative writing class would agree with that last one, and I do as well. Helene Wecker received her MFA in fiction from Columbia University. Her fiction has appeared in the magazines Catamaran and Joyland, and her debut novel has won acclaim from reviewers in The New York Times, USA Today, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and many other forums. It’s been nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel, received a 2014 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for adult literature, and been recognized by the Jewish Book Council, among many other honors. And now, it’s my privilege to present the 2014 VCU Cabell Award to Helene Wecker.

Helene Wecker: Oh my goodness. Thank you all so much for coming and thank you to everyone, all of the judges, everyone who read my book and put it forward. Thank you, especially, to Matt and to Kate, who have been shepherding me around town and my three-month-old son, and doing things like looking for babysitters for me and so on. When Kate called me and said, “Congratulations! You’ve won the Cabell Award for first novel,” I was standing in the pet food aisle at our local Target, I was eight and a half months pregnant, and I was having a very bad week. And ever since the book has gotten published, there have been these moments of wonderful cognitive dissonance, and this really was one of the best. It’s very easy, I think as a writer—or I’m discovering this at least—to forget that your book is out there in the world. Writing is a very solitary thing, and what happens is if you’re lucky enough to get published and lucky enough to have some notice, there is a whole bunch of amazing buzz and a lot of fun, and then life sort of returns to normal. And for me, life, normal life, is living outside San Francisco in a rather sleepy suburb with my husband and two children and making sure that there’s enough milk and Cheerios in the house and all of that wonderful day-to-day logistics. And writing definitely is my job now and that is what I do, but it is me at the computer at home with cats, trying to type for me, on occasion.

And so this was just a wonderful, wonderful surprise, and a shock and a joy. And it felt right and I was so grateful that not only was it this amazing award but that it was coming from a college, that it was associated with an MFA program, which felt right because this book was born in an MFA program, in a master’s program for writing. This book was born when a friend suggested a new direction for my writing that she said seemed to fit better with the stuff that I read. She said, “You’re writing all of these very straight up literary fiction short stories; you read nothing but science fiction and fantasy. Why aren’t you doing that? That’s where your heart is.” And that’s when this book was born. Then at first I thought it was a short story, and then my friends in my workshop told me, “No, you’ve got a novel on your hands, so you need to see it through.” And then Sam Stoloff, who became my agent, helped shepherd it along the way, and then it was bought when it was only half-done, and so my editor helped develop the rest as well. So I feel like this book really is a testament to the MFA process in the larger sense of learning to write in a community, and learning to take advice, and to listen to your readers—to find the readers who are the readers of your true heart, the ones who understand what it is that you are trying to do, and who see the virtue in that, and who believe in that, and who want to help you see it through, and who are willing to tell you things you may not want to hear along the way—which happened to me more than once.

All of that being said, I could not be more thrilled and honored to be standing up here at VCU and accepting this award. I think with that, I’ve been told I should read from the book, so I am going to read from the book. Unfortunately, it’s hard to launch in without a little bit of backstory, so what you need to know is that it is 1899, and we are on a steamship that has left the port of Danzig on its way to New York, and on the ship, in steerage, is a man named Otto Rotfeld, who is emigrating from Europe to the United States. And he has a rather curious crate in the hold of the ship that contains his new bride—his new bride who is not human—she is a golem. She is a woman made of clay who he commissioned from the half-mad Kabbalist who lives out in the woods by where he used to live. And he is taking her to America to start a new life. She is not yet activated; he has yet to do that. He has been told that he shouldn’t do that on the ship, but he is starting to get a little antsy. He also has something of a stomachache that’s been bothering him for the past few days, so let’s see where that goes.

[The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker, HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. 6-9.]

HW: Now I will read you part two. I like to think of these as origin stories. If you are a fan of comic books you know that every comic book character has their origin story, whether that’s your home planet exploding or being bit by a spider or what have you. So that was the golem’s origin story and now we’ll see the Jinni’s. For this you need to know that we’re in the neighborhood of Little Syria in southern Manhattan, and there’s a tinsmith there by the name of Boutros Arbeely, and he is from what is now Lebanon, what was back then part of greater Syria. He’s a very good tinsmith and he, on occasion, will fix objects brought to him by his friends and neighbors. On this occasion a woman named Maryam has brought him an oil flask to take a look at. It’s been in her family for a very long time, and it’s got some nicks and dents and she wanted to see if he could give it a bit of a polish.

[The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker, HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. 19-22.]

HW: Thank you very, very much.  end  

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