As part of Jewish Heritage Month, we meet up with Helene Wecker – New York Times bestselling author, Trekkie, and Carleton alum – in Zoom-wonderland to discuss her novels, assurance for some (unfortunately) graduating seniors, and the age-old classic about authors she’d fight. To begin, we’ll give you a little summary of Helene’s first book, The Golem and Jinni (second book in the series, The Hidden Palace, out now!): Chava (the Golem) and Ahmad (the Jinni) find themselves in New York City in 1900 and embark upon an unlikely friendship, figuring out what it means to be both free and not-free in their new lives. If that doesn’t completely ensnare you, you’re a psychopath, have questionable taste, or maybe you’re the author of one of the more out there critiques that Helene’s ever received.
“In an online publication that will not be named,” she tells us, a “straight up mean” reviewer called her novel “too sentimental” and reliant on “cliches of the lower east side.” To which Octavia said, what? Not just because the former critique is silly (“Have you ever read literature?” Helene retorted; literally all books are about human emotions), but because we’ve never heard anyone say the latter. Apparently, one historical lower east side cliche is that there were “pushcarts everywhere,” but as Helene informs us, there actually were!
Now that you’ve been properly educated, you can return to feeling rightful indignation about that review. If you’re in a 100 or 200 level class right now and watching your writing suffer blows, take heart, creative writers, and some advice from Helene. She says, “there’s a type of critic that if a book isn’t just straight up realism, if it’s not, you know, 1950s male self-loathing, it’s just not going to pass muster.” You can learn to disregard some comments. Look how well it all worked out for Helene.
The cast of characters in The Golem and the Jinni stars protagonists, Chava and Ahmad – but, if revised to include any character she’s ever read or seen, they’d welcome Rey from Star Wars. Like any experienced fanfic writer, Helene had a plethora of evidence backing this. “She’s a tough character… very internal.” Or she’d add specifically old Luke Skywalker – a “bad-ass…who is so much better than young Luke Skywalker and a much more interesting figure. Or maybe force-ghost Luke and Leia, give them the ending they deserve.”
But, sans the Star Wars cast, would Chava and Ahmad enjoy any Carleton traditions? “They would probably love to play broomball, but [Ahmad] would cheat and have an unfair advantage.” As broomball should be played. “I can totally see Ahmad standing around at parties with the red solo cup. Totally. It’s not specifically a Carleton thing, but it’s a college thing.”
Meanwhile: “Chava would be such a nerd… the rare student who can study for hours at the Libe and not fall asleep. So she would also have an unfair advantage.” Magical powers do tend to be an advantage, people. “I see her sort of living out in Farm house. She would study and raise some vegetables and be away from the rest of campus. And Chava would LOVE Dacie Moses. She’d move into Dacie Moses, when she wasn’t at Farm, and cook for everyone.”
In a complete 180, we went into asking Helene more analytical questions about her work: Chava and Ahmad (who are given names by the humans they most closely interact with), certainly make the names their own, but what do you think is the power of names? Helene, ever the English major, ran with it, noting that “names or nicknames do have a lot of power especially in literature, but also in life. And there’s that whole mythical idea of how you gain power over a thing by naming it or by knowing its name. There’s a lot of Japanese and Celtic and English myths about knowing something’s true name.”
However, if you wonder whether Helene imagines they would name themselves differently – likely would not because she believes that to a certain extent, “Chava and Ahmad ARE the names they’ve been given. If they had to change their names, if they had to vanish for 20 years or so and then come back as their own children or something to disguise themselves, then I really think they would choose names that have the same resonance if they had to, but maybe names that are only slightly different.”
We also asked Helene to take us through her perfect day if she were dropped in Central Park in 1899. “First,” she jumps, excited, she’d see what’s missing. “There were some interesting structures that got torn down along the way and things that went up in their place. I would watch the people and see what they were doing to see if I got the research right.” That’s perhaps why, of the myriad of things she researched and had to leave out of Golem, silent movies were one.
To explain further: “You didn’t have to know English to know what was going on, so one thing that silent movies ended up doing for immigrants was putting into place this physical lexicon of gestures. Things like if someone turns their pocket inside out, it means they’re broke. If a guy is standing next to a woman putting his hands over his heart, it means that he loves her, you know? So you could see these movies and have the same experience as the person sitting next to you. And it made you feel like a little more, like you belonged and you understood. If you had a nickel, you went and saw a movie and even for immigrants, nickels were not that much.” We’d certainly join her in her excursion to the movies and maybe ride in an 1890s elevator with her.
If after you read The Golem and the Jinni and are looking for any more recommendations, look no further; it’s Helene to the rescue. Any “trashy” (and we use the word lovingly) books that she’d recommend? Her face brightened when she mentioned the first two Bridgerton books, to Octavia’s horror. (And to Julia’s delight, as she’s read all nine. Maybe she and Helene can make a book club.)
To conclude, we had to pull out the classic: What author would you like to fight? Helene actually already had a rap battle with another writer at a San Francisco bookstore (which he only won because he freestyled). As for another writer, we’re back at the beginning. It’s “the self-satisfied wind bags from the 1950s and 60s,” she ended, sounding very much like a GWISS minor, “who has never met a woman. I want to fight one of them.” Wouldn’t we all.