In this enthralling historical epic, set in New York City and the Middle East in the years leading to World War I— the long-awaited follow-up to the acclaimed New York Times bestseller The Golem and the Jinni—Helene Wecker revisits her beloved characters Chava and Ahmad as they confront unexpected new challenges in a rapidly changing human world.
Chava is a golem, a woman made of clay, able to hear the thoughts and longings of the people around her and compelled by her nature to help them. Ahmad is a jinni, a perpetually restless and free-spirited creature of fire, imprisoned in the shape of a man. Fearing they’ll be exposed as monsters, these magical beings hide their true selves and pretend to be human—just two more immigrants in the bustling world of 1900s Manhattan. Having encountered each other under calamitous circumstances, Chava and Ahmad’s lives are now entwined—but they’re not yet certain of what they mean to each other.
Each has unwittingly affected the humans around them. Park Avenue heiress Sophia Winston, whose brief encounter with Ahmad left her with a strange illness that makes her shiver with cold, travels to the Middle East to seek a cure. There she meets a tempestuous female jinni who’s been banished from her tribe. Back in New York, in a tenement on the Lower East Side, a little girl named Kreindel helps her rabbi father build a golem they name Yossele—not knowing that she’s about to be sent to an orphanage uptown, where the hulking Yossele will become her only friend and protector.
Spanning the tumultuous years from the turn of the twentieth century to the beginning of World War I, The Hidden Palace follows these lives and others as they collide and interleave. Can Chava and Ahmad find their places in the human world while remaining true to each other? Or will their opposing natures and desires eventually tear them apart—especially once they encounter, thrillingly, other beings like themselves?
Adira: Mrs. Wecker, thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you! The Golem & the Jinni means so much to me as a reader since it was one of the books that kept me company while I sat with my father when he would go to treatment for dialysis. Because of this and the magical landscape you created, Chava and Ahmad are two of my favorite characters of all time.
Helen Wecker: Thank you so much! I’m truly honored, and I’m glad that The Golem and the Jinni could keep you company during a difficult time.
A: Can you tell me a little about the inspiration behind The Golem & The Jinni and The Hidden Palace and how you went about researching for your books?
HW: I started writing The Golem & the Jinni while I was at grad school for creative writing. I’d decided that for my master’s thesis I would write a series of short stories that combined tales from my own family history and from my husband’s family history. I’m Jewish and he’s Arab American, and I’ve always been struck by the similarities in our backgrounds, specifically around issues of immigration to America, language, and culture. But the stories I was writing were very realist and sort of uninspired. When I complained to a friend about it, she pointed out that I adore stories that combine realism and fantasy, and she challenged me to do that with my own work. So I decided that instead of a Jewish girl and an Arab-American boy for my main characters, I’d turn them into the most emblematic folkloric figures I could think of from each culture: a (female) golem and a (male) jinni. That opened up the whole story, and the characters developed their own personalities and struggles, instead of merely being stand-ins for myself and my husband.
The research process was gargantuan, especially for the first book. I’d picked 1899 because I wanted this to feel like an “old world” immigration story, a folktale set in our real history — but I’d originally thought I was writing a short story, not a novel. Once it became clear that this was going to be an actual book, I had to stop and take stock of what I really knew about 1899 New York, which wasn’t much. So I went to the Columbia University library and just started reading everything I could find about the neighborhoods and the tenements, to establish a baseline of knowledge. From there I branched off into specifics like the history of Syrian and Jewish immigration to the U.S., and the stories and folklore they brought with them, and the different religious sects and backgrounds they came from. For The Hidden Palace, I spent a lot of time researching Sophia’s travels in the Middle East. I read up on Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence, and the history of Palmyra (which is a few novels in itself), and how World War I eventually drove Lebanon into starvation. New subjects kept popping up for me to research, like the Western Union telegraph system and its messenger boys, and turn-of-the-century Jewish orphanages (I based mine on a real New York orphanage, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum). I tried to use primary sources whenever I could — which was easier than it would’ve been a decade ago, considering how much has been digitized and made available on the Internet — and I tried to fact-check everything that wasn’t a primary source. I took the research process pretty seriously even though I’m writing fiction, because I know how much the details contribute to the overall lived-in feeling of the books, and it’s important to me to get them right.
A: Why did you decide on a “golem” and “jinni” to embody your main characters? Likewise, why did you choose Chava, the golem, to be the female protagonist and Ahmad, the jinni, as your male protagonist?
HW: Hope it’s ok that I rolled this part of the question into the answer above…
A: Of course!
I only ask this because it reminds me of a conversation I had in my Globalism and Transnationalism Literature class in graduate school, where we discussed how women and men assimilate differently into their new communities as immigrants.
For example, while it is harder for Chava to assimilate because she is at the mercy of her empathic connection to others, as a woman, she can blend into her Jewish community easier through her inquisitiveness about the human world and her work as a baker, which forces her to interact with her neighbors. For Ahmad, though, like many other men who start anew as immigrants, he’s so stuck on the image he holds in his memory of his home country, he couldn’t adapt to his new surroundings. This leads Ahmad, unlike Chava, to shut himself away from the community of Little Syria for much of the series.
As an author, did you intentionally follow this pattern for female and male immigrants for Chava and Ahmed or any of the other characters in your books?
HW: That really is a fascinating question. I remember that during the research process, I read a few academic studies about this exact thing: that immigrant men who’d come to the U.S. for economic gain would consider themselves less tied to America, and held onto the idea of “going home” someday, much more than the women whose role it was to create a new home for their husbands and children. The expectations were so different, and so deeply gendered!
For my characters in particular, these tendencies came about as a result of their individual histories. Ahmad has a past, a life before New York, and Chava doesn’t; she can’t long for an earlier life because this is all she knows. She’s drawn to help others both by her nature and as a result of her empathic abilities, so she has more of an inner incentive to assimilate, while Ahmad — who arrives in New York against his will — is much more conflicted about humanity in general.
Now, was I more likely to make Chava an empath because I’d created her as female, and more likely to make Ahmad a loner because I’d created him male? Almost certainly! Gendered expectations strike again!
A: Be it a religious, ethnic, or a community built around a character’s magical species, so much of what you write about in The Golem & The Jinni and The Hidden Palace centers around the theme of community. How would you define community, and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote the characters and changing settings in your novels?
HW: I define community in its broadest sense as a group of people whose interactions are framed around a shared element. You can have communities based on physical proximity, on one’s geographic or cultural origins, on shared life experiences, on something as inconsequential-seeming as a hobby. I think that we all belong to any number of these communities, all of which intersect and layer on top of each other. Our ties to them may wax and wane as our lives change. The problems come in when a person belongs to two or more communities that are antithetical to each other in some way. In my books, Chava and Ahmad become a community of two; their experiences are so distinctive that they literally have no one else who can understand them. Yet they each also belong to human communities (Chava more willingly than Ahmad) that would never accept them if they knew the truth. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to bring another golem and another jinni(yeh) into The Hidden Palace: so we could see a different intersection of these communities, these shared experiences. Chava is drawn to Yossele despite her better judgment, because the lure of that common experience is simply too strong to deny. And Dima is forcibly cast out from her original community and seeks out Ahmad in hopes of creating a new one, though it doesn’t go as planned.
A: In The Hidden Palace, you speak of the “changeability” of stories as they are retold in your Prologue. When your series takes place, humans are starting to discover electricity and make massive leaps in technology, which has changed the way humans can tell and preserve our cultural myths and ways of worship. How does this change in technology influence your method of storytelling and the action in your stories from the time the series begins in The Golem & The Jinni and then later in The Hidden Palace?
HW: The change that had the greatest impact was probably the increase in speed of communication. The telegraph had been around for decades, but by the turn of the century the service was much quicker and more streamlined, as well as completely commonplace. And then the telephones, of course, which by the 1910s were practically a household necessity, in the same way that personal e-mail exploded in the mid- to late ’90s. It made it easier for my characters to communicate with each other, even over distances. Though I did sometimes have to come up with reasons why my characters still met and talked in person, instead of just picking up the phone!
A: One thing I loved about your novel is the way you center language. Your usage of language spans from having characters in the Jewish community be engrossed in learning Hebrew and harnessing its power for good and sinister purposes to having Ahmad be frustrated by the distance that grows between him and the imaginary language of the jinn. Was there a greater role you wanted language to play in your novel?
HW: In The Hidden Palace I tried to use language as a signifier for community and belonging, or the lack of it. The fact that Ahmad can’t speak his own language anymore, for instance: it’s one thing to say “I have no one to talk to,” but in his case it’s literally the truth! It’s just another way in which he feels he’s assimilating to humanity against his own will. And in the case of Kreindel, the young girl who’s at the Jewish orphanage uptown, language is a tie to her father’s memory and the religious values that he taught her. So she wants to learn Hebrew as a holy language, but the orphanage insists on teaching it as a spoken language, which to her is a form of blasphemy. So in refusing to speak their language, she rejects the community that’s offered to her. And Ahmad and Chava have their own “language,” too, a private blend of human languages which they pepper with idioms and metaphors that they overhear in their walks around Manhattan. It’s just another way that they’re a private community of two.
A: While your first book is a bit easier going, The Hidden Palace tackles more hard-hitting topics, like pogroms in Eastern Europe, the rights of women and factory and railroad workers, and even what it looked like for those who had their countries turned into war zones in World War I. How did you prepare yourself as a writer to shift your perspective from being a tale of “good and evil” and a matter of two characters attempting to find their place in society in The Golem & The Jinni to touching on the more challenging subject matter in The Hidden Palace?
HW: To be honest, I sort of backed into it without a lot of planning beforehand. At first I’d envisioned The Hidden Palace as more good vs. evil, like The Golem and the Jinni, but the plot grew way too big and I had to cut it down to size. Eventually I realized that the book didn’t need a clear-cut villain for them to fight against, that the characters themselves could create the necessary conflict. But the thing about good vs. evil is that it provides a handy trajectory to plot a book around, so instead I had to weave that trajectory together out of the various threads I’d created. In the end it was a matter of trial and error, as always, as each of the main characters got their turn at playing the “villain” as they reacted (often poorly) to the changes in the world around them.
A: Speaking of “hard-hitting” topics, since the publication of The Golem & The Jinni, immigration has become a hot-button issue in America. Did this change the way you attempted to tackle this issue in The Hidden Palace or the trajectory any of your characters’ stories took?
HW: In the end, it didn’t change the book so much as it made the subject matter feel more immediate and urgent. I also felt the echoes of the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis that it caused; in fact, I was researching the Palmyra sections of the book just as ISIL took control of Palmyra in 2015 and went about destroying parts of the ruins. Around that time I wrote a version of Dima in which she was a refugee who’d barely escaped Syria with her life. But it made the character too instantly sympathetic and messed with her motivations, so I changed her back before too long.
A: Are there any authors that influenced your writing or that you’d recommend readers put on their Summer TBR List?
HW: Oh, too many to list! I discovered Ursula K. LeGuin far too late in life, and I’ve been slowly working my way through her collected works. What a staggering mind that woman had. Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series is lighter than LeGuin, and a hell of a lot of fun. It features a humanoid construct that’s built for servitude and defense but escapes its masters, so of course it reminds me of Chava, though it curses a hell of a lot more than Chava does!
A: I love this series so much and can’t wait to read the next book in the series. Are you working on any writing projects you can share with readers?
HW: At the moment, I’m still recovering from the process of getting The Hidden Palace out the door! But I hope to start researching for the next book before too long, and I really hope that it doesn’t take another seven years before Book Three is finished!
A: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me, Mrs. Wecker!
HW: Thank you! I loved the questions!