Helene Wecker’s 2013 novel The Golem and the Jinni is arguably the best fantasy book of the past decade. An elaborately realized, sometimes philosophical literary novel about two supernatural creatures from different cultures meeting in 1899 New York City, it’s thrilling and frightening, with a huge cast of carefully drawn characters from different countries and traditions, living in different immigrant communities. Separately and together, these immigrants and the magical creatures that symbolize their mythology try to survive and explore their identities in a city where everything is rapidly growing and changing.
The Golem and the Jinni isn’t a romance novel, but it touches on love. And it isn’t exactly a historical novel, but it’s heavily grounded in realism and the details of its turn-of-the-century setting. That’s also true of the new sequel The Hidden Palace, which brings back the first book’s protagonists, the golem Chava and the jinni Ahmad, and introduces new human and supernatural characters to further complicate their rich and winding story. Ahead of the book’s June 8 release and Wecker’s “virtual book tour,” Polygon talked to her about the process of researching and constructing the book. See below for our interview, and for an exclusive excerpt from The Hidden Palace.
One of the things we see in this excerpt is how important language is to Chava and Ahmad. Where did that element of the story come from for you?
Part of it came from my background as a kid from an immigrant family, and possibly also my husband’s background, or how I assumed his household worked when he was growing up. My family sprinkled Yiddish into everything. I certainly do not know Yiddish. For more modern, Reform Jewish people, it’s just the love language. It’s a word here and there, it’s part of family and tradition, a signifier of who we are. I felt like Chava and Ahmad, would have something similar, as signifiers to them, in their own private language, of their place outside humanity. They both understand all the languages they have around them, and it occurred to me that they could pick and choose their favorite expressions, their favorite metaphors and idioms, and use them as their own private language.
But they’re still using someone else’s language to do that. Ahmad specifically has his own language that he can’t even speak anymore, that he can only think in, and that no one around him has access to, including the woman he loves. So this would be his own private burden that he feels he cannot share with her, because he thinks she wouldn’t understand. So that’s the stew, the issues of language as signifiers, and the way couples form their own language. It was all swirling around, and it distilled.
That’s a lot of threads combining into one thought, which is how the book works as well. It’s full of competing timelines and conflicting points of view. How did you manage the construction process of introducing and merging all these different threads?
[Laughs] “Manage” is probably a very generous word to describe it. That’s why it took a very long time to write! Now that I’ve written two of these, I have a better idea of my process, which seems to be “overload at the beginning, then strip back.” There used to be even more strands and characters, and things I was putting down for myself that I knew I would have to pick up later in the book. About halfway through the process of writing this, I went back and stripped out a number of them and put them to the side. That left more room for elements like the language, and the emotional and psychological journey for the characters. It wasn’t just plot-plot-plot-plot-plot-plot anymore.
At different times I use different tools, different apps. There’s an app called Aeon Timeline that does an amazing job of letting you build a timeline for a story, if you’re trying to do a reconstruction of how something happened. I know a lot of mystery and thriller writers use it, because you have to have very particular pacing. Every once in a while, I would put everything I had into Aeon Timeline and say, “Okay, this is how this isn’t going to work.” Because everything would be stacked up.
Say I had to have an event at a particular time, since I’m nailing a lot of the narrative to established historical events. So I would have a particular historical event in the book, and things that needed to flow around it. But all the characters would be sitting around twiddling their thumbs and waiting for this thing to happen. And then as soon as the thing happened, they were off to the races. I was like, “No, that isn’t gonna work.” So I’d have to unhook everything from that historical event, and put something else in its place, so everything could smooth out.
It felt to me like pushing a bump on a rug to flatten it down. You know, if you’ve got a rug that doesn’t quite fit in an area, and you’re like, “Okay, so if I put this chair on top of it…” But the bump just gets pushed farther down in the rug. Honestly, a lot of it was just trial and error, moving one thing here and one thing there, then saying, “Okay, now where’s the problem?” It’s not not the best way to write a book. I don’t recommend it!
The Golem and the Jinni took place over about a year, but The Hidden Palace covers more like 15. Why did you want to move your timeline forward so rapidly this time out?
One of the main dilemmas Chava and Ahmad face in this book is that they live on such a different scale than the humans around them. Chava is essentially immortal and indestructible. She will always be as she was made. And Ahmad — I established in the first book that jinnis have a lifespan of about 800 years, and he’s only about 200. And yet they’re trying to fit in as humans, trying to establish themselves in human disguises and live human lives. But no matter how well you blend in, if you never age, that’s an issue. If they’re going to be successful in human life, part of that has to be about change and adaptation. So I had to establish a range of time where we could see that play out. And then I had to figure out how to elide a good deal of that time, so I wasn’t writing a book that was 15 times longer than the first one. That was also a learning curve.
You’ve said The Golem and the Jinni took an immense amount of research, just to get down the basics of how people lived in 1899 New York. Was Hidden Palace research-intensive in the same way?
I think it probably took about the same amount of research, but more focused on particular things. For the first one, so much of the research was about just establishing the baseline of how people lived in 1899. What were specific immigrant communities like? How did people tell time if they didn’t have wristwatches? How did you know if you were late for something? What was the elevated train like? How late did it run? You know, just the world-building establishment research. Most of that was done in the first book. There were some changes between 1900 and 1915. I tried to be as accurate as I could about, “Okay, I have to find a new set of maps that aren’t the real-estate maps from 1900, because buildings had changed and grown.” And I’m sure I got something wrong, and people will send me email.
The research-heavy part of this one was more specific. There’s a lot of Middle Eastern stuff I ended up researching, leading up to World War I, for the part where Sophia is traveling through the Middle East. I did a decent amount of research on metalsmithing and steel-frame architecture, just so I could talk about what Ahmad was doing without being a total ignoramus. Obviously I’m not getting a degree in architecture or anything, and I had to remind myself of that. But I wanted to at least not pull people out of the story with them going, “Okay, she doesn’t understand what she’s talking about here.” I did a decent amount of research on what was being called Domestic Sciences at the time, the subject Chava gets a degree in. I actually found the Teacher’s College Handbook, the coursebook from 1912 or something like that, and I tried to faithfully reproduce all the language. They were talking about the courses as this combination of the womanly mothering instinct, and scientific exactitude. “We’re going to focus science on being a woman, and turn it into something you can get right or wrong.” So it was more about drilling down into particular subjects.
And there were a lot of subjects I researched that I ended up not using at all, because it was part of the stuff I pulled out. At one point, there was going to be a bunch of stuff on silent film, so I spent a month watching silent films. And now I’m like, “Okay, well, that was a month I lost, but that’s okay. I saw a lot of interesting silent films!” It’s always a crapshoot, whether it’s going to get used or not.
What’s the plan at this point? Based on the themes of this book, and where it ends, you could plausibly end with The Hidden Palace, or write 20 more books and bring some of these characters into the present day. How are you feeling about continuing this story?
I think there will be one more book. I’m not 100% certain on that. At the moment, I’m still climbing back to my feet after finishing this one. And I need to take a good look at what I have, the research I’ve already done, the stuff I wrote and pulled out of The Hidden Palace, to see if any of it can be repurposed. If not, I would have to start from scratch, and that would be almost too daunting to think about right now. But I am hoping to do one more book. And then from there, I don’t know. Having a trilogy down would be the natural breaking point at which I would take a look at my career and see what else I might want to do. But I think there will be one more book.
And now, here’s an exclusive excerpt from The Hidden Palace.
“Thea wants me to come to supper,” she told the Jinni sourly one winter night, as they walked the Mall beneath the snowy elms. “She’s planning, in secret, to invite a neighbor of hers, a man she thinks of as ‘poor lonely Eugene.’ You can guess her motives.”
“I see,” he said gravely. “A rival. Shall I challenge him to combat?”
“If you like him, I suppose you can see him on alternate Thursdays.” She responded to this with an Italian phrase they’d heard near Mulberry Street; it translated to “misery pig,” an image so evocative that they’d added it at once to the lexicon of borrowed human idioms that now peppered their conversations. The Jinni’s particular favorite was don’t bite my head off, overheard on a summer night when they’d walked beneath a couple arguing on a fire escape. The phrase itself, and the plaintive anger with which the man had yelled it—Sweet Jaysus, Bernice, don’t bite my head off!—had struck the Jinni as indescribably hilarious, and he’d laughed so hard that the Golem had been forced to grab his elbow and half drag him down the street before the furious man could come after them. Her own favorite idioms tended to be terms of frustration, and she was given many opportunities to practice them.
“I know you think it’s amusing,” she told him, “but it’ll be such a terrible strain.” A thought occurred to her; she turned to him, suddenly worried. “You do know that I’d tell them about you if I could, don’t you? Only it would cause so much gossip and whispering, they’d think about nothing else, and I’d never hear the end of it—”
He took her hand and squeezed it. “I know, Chava. Don’t worry. I’m content to be your clandestine lover.”
She smiled at that, slightly mollified, but the worry remained. Was he content? She never quite knew for certain. Were all lovers so opaque to their partners? Or did he only seem so in comparison, given that his thoughts alone were hidden to her sight? She had no true wish to know his every desire or fear; she’d long since learned that some amount of privacy was necessary in a relationship. And yet there were nights, on the rooftops and on the Park’s familiar paths, when a dark and faraway look would steal across his face, and the quiet would stretch too long between them; and in those moments she’d give everything she owned just to know what he was thinking.
He made her feel so young and inexperienced sometimes, so very unsure of herself. He’d lived for centuries, but she knew next to nothing of his earlier life, only a scant handful of facts. Likely he could tell her tales to fill a year’s worth of nights—so why didn’t he? Did it pain him too much? Or did he think that the stories would pain her? She knew that he’d had lovers, knew that he’d lived in a manner that humans would call immoral; that much, at least, he’d made clear. Did he think her too naive to hear the details? Worse, was he right to?
The Jinni looked across at her. “You’ve been quiet,” he said. “Is something wrong?”
Ought she to say what was truly on her mind? No, he’d only reply with one of his vague flippancies, or begin an argument to distract her, and she had no wish for either at the moment. “I was only thinking of poor, lonely Eugene,” she said instead. “I ought to tell Thea that I’ve sworn off all romance, but she’d only take it as a challenge.”
“Have you considered,” he said, “that poor, lonely Eugene might have a clandestine lover of his own?”
She smiled at the thought. “I hadn’t! What a relief that would be. But really, we ought to find a better phrase than clandestine lovers.”
“You don’t think it suits us?”
She’d expected an arch or teasing comment—but instead he slowed to a halt, gazing at her as though truly considering it. She held herself beneath his appraising eye, refusing to shrink or simper, wishing she’d stayed silent.
“You’re right,” he said at last. “It doesn’t fit.” And then, to her surprise, he cupped a hand to her cheek and kissed her, there on the open path. It wasn’t a lengthy kiss—her lips must have been uncomfortably cold—but when he pulled back, a touch of his warmth remained for a moment, before the winter air stole it away.
Pleased, a bit puzzled, she said, “You’re in an odd mood. Did something happen at the shop?”
He made a show of thinking. “Yes. Our new shipment of wrought iron came in.”
She rolled her eyes at that, but couldn’t help smiling.
They walked on together, up the path to the Ladies’ Cottage by the skating pond. The door was always locked at night, but she tried the knob anyway. She was stiffer than usual, and her legs ached. She would’ve liked to get out of the cold, for a few minutes at least.
“Look,” the Jinni said. A pair of ice skates lay next to the door, abandoned in the snow. He picked them up by their leather straps and inspected them, held one to his shoe, then peered out at the frozen pond, considering.
“You wouldn’t,” she said.
“Why not?” He walked to a nearby bench, sat down, and began strapping them to his feet.
“You know exactly why not,” she said, irritated. “What if you fell through?”
“Chava, the pond’s been frozen for months. It’s not even particularly deep. Besides, you’d rescue me.”
“Oh, really? If the ice doesn’t hold you, it won’t hold me, either. I’ll sink to the bottom and freeze solid. And you don’t even know how to skate.” She paused. “Do you?”
“Not as far as I know.” He stood from the bench, wobbling on the blades. “It might be like the languages, though. Perhaps I can skate perfectly well, only I don’t know it yet. I ought to try, at least.” And he began a precarious, stiff-legged walk to the pond’s edge.
She followed after him, resigning herself to the spectacle. At times like this she felt he was taking advantage of her instinct to caution, needlessly racking her nerves so he might feel he’d done something daring. If she could tell him, Yes, go ahead and skate, I think it’s a lovely idea, perhaps he’d lose interest. But he knew her better than that, and she had no talent at all for bluffing.
She stood on the shore, hugging herself as he stepped out onto the ice, his arms outstretched, tilting this way and that. If she weren’t so annoyed, she might’ve laughed: instead of his usual graceful self, he looked like a drunken stork, all limbs and joints, none of them quite behaving. “I don’t think it’s like the languages,” she called.
“Apparently not. How does one move forward on these things without—” A foot slipped out from under him, and he came crashing down on the ice.
She flinched, though she’d tried not to.
Out on the ice, the Jinni ignored his embarrassment and stood again, feeling for his balance on the thin blades. It ought to be easy; he’d seen children do it… He scowled, shifting his weight, trying to ignore a small, uneasy prickle of guilt.
Did something happen at the shop?
He wondered, as he often did, if his thoughts were as hidden from her as she believed. Yes, something had indeed happened at the shop. He hadn’t mentioned it because it was a minor thing, insignificant really; it was only his own mind that insisted on magnifying it out of proportion. He’d been at his workbench, examining one of the newly arrived bars of wrought iron—he had ideas for a line of decorative goods in wrought iron, andirons and fireplace screens and the like—when Arbeely, perusing a catalog at his desk, had said, Any idea how much solder we have left in the back?
Not off the top of my head, the Jinni had replied—and then had stood there in shock, utterly aghast at himself.
Don’t bite my head off. She’s coming unhinged. A fine kettle of fish. Oh, go threaten the geese. To trade these phrases with the Golem was one thing; it was knowing and deliberate, a shared amusement. But his reply to Arbeely had been so absentminded, so natural-sounding, that one might’ve thought he’d spent his entire life talking about the tops of heads. And in that moment it had struck him—for what felt, absurdly, like the very first time—that he’d never speak his own language again.
The sense of monstrous loss confused him. After all, he rarely even thought in his own language anymore. He’d resolved to do so for the rest of the day, to reassure himself that he still could fill his mind with words that mimicked wind and fire, the sounds of the natural world— and only then had he realized how much of his life refused to be translated. Newspaper, ledger-book, automobile. Money, cigarette, customer, bank, catalog. In vain he’d hunted for equivalents, metaphors, but they were all wrong, either too vague or too poetic. Even worse, every phrase that had to do with iron was pejorative. His chosen profession, turned to an endless stream of obscenity.
And as he’d examined his unspoken language, forgotten sayings had begun to surface, the proverbs of elders, childhood taunts. Angrier than a ghul’s mother. Stop stealing my whirlwind. Give them a storm-cloud’s welcome. With each one came the thought: I must tell this one to Chava. But translation was no simple matter. The words themselves were many- layered, contingent on the season, on the time of day, on any of a host of circumstances. He imagined stumbling over the explanations, going back to add some crucial detail he’d forgotten, as he tried to show her how each phrase was a small tale in itself. He would never succeed to his satisfaction; he would only sadden and frustrate them both. And even if he could find the words, then what would be laid before her? A dictionary of lusts and caprices, avarice and recklessness; a vocabulary made for wandering where one pleased, and taking what one wanted. A language suited to the ways of the jinn—which were everything that she abhorred.
He lived a different life now. He followed rules and conventions, as far as he deemed himself reasonably able. He guarded his speech, and checked his desires, and tried, at all times, to remember that his actions had consequences. He was Ahmad al-Hadid, born by accident in a Manhattan tinshop, neither jinni nor human but a thing half between. That was who she walked with. That was who she’d promised herself to.
Grimly he pushed himself forward on the blades. One snagged on the ice; he wobbled, overcorrected, and toppled backward, landing on his shoulder. He stood back up, ignoring the Golem’s stifled groan behind him. He was doing it all wrong; he was trying to propel himself forward like a sledge—but the blade needed resistance. If he pushed one foot sideways, against the ice…
He glided forward, an arm’s length.
From the shoreline came a note of surprise, small but edifying. He pushed with the other foot, and then again, moving outward from the shore, curving slightly to the right; he leaned left, found his balance, and swerved to an upright halt. He looked around, pleased with himself, then took off again: one foot and then the other, finding a rhythm, building speed, the wind whistling past him as he curved out toward the center of the pond…
“Be careful!” the Golem called. “It’s thinnest in the middle!”
Irritated, he shouted back, “Stop fretting, Chava, I know enough to hide from the rain!”—and then drifted to a stop as, for the second time that day, his words echoed around him.
Silence, from the shore.
He began again, gliding away with long strides, wanting to curse himself. He’d gone rummaging through his mind as though it were an abandoned cupboard, stirring up memories instead of leaving well enough alone. He slalomed about, turning curlicues, feeling trapped, dreading the return to shore. What you said before, she would ask, about hiding from the rain—what did that mean? The metaphor was obvious, it meant she was treating him like a child; she only wanted to hear him say it so that she could ask another question, and another. She’d pry him gently open and it’d be his own fault, he’d just handed her the lever—
A distant voice called his name.
He looked up. The Golem was a small, dark figure silhouetted against the Ladies’ Cottage. The frozen pond stretched between them. He’d skated clear to the other side.
“Ahmad,” she called again, her voice thin and odd-sounding. “I’m going to freeze.”
He skated back as quickly as he could. She stood immobile at the pond’s edge, hands slowly opening and closing as she tried to keep her fingers limber. Her face sparkled with frost.
He yanked off the skates and tossed them into the snow. “There’s a stove in the cottage, I’ll break the lock—”
“No,” she said firmly, through clenched teeth. “Let’s just walk back, please.”
Slowly, like a moving statue, she turned and started toward the path. He kept to her side, placed her stiff hand on his arm and covered it with his own, as though they were a courting couple. She threw him a half-annoyed glance, but kept her hand where he’d left it; and by the time they reached Washington Square, her face no longer collected stray flakes of frost. But his own guilt hadn’t yet ebbed.