Q.: How did the idea for your novel originate?
When I was working on my MFA at Columbia, I started writing a series of short
stories that combined tales from my family and from my husband's family. I'm
Jewish and he's Arab American, and so in that sense we come from two different
(and, in many eyes, opposing) cultures. But I've always been struck by the
similarities between our families, the way that certain themes echo between
them. We're both the children of immigrants, with all that entails. My dad came
to the U.S. as a Yiddish-speaking kid from a relocation camp in Austria, and my
mother's parents both narrowly escaped Germany in the '40s. My father-in-law
arrived here with two children and little English. As a result my husband and I
both grew up in suburban, picket-fence America â€“ but with the intimate and
sometimes uncomfortable burden of another placeâ€™s history, and the
complications of living as a cultural minority, which affects our relationships
with those we love and those we meet.
In any case, I was writing these stories, but I wasnâ€™t having much luck with
them. A few came out all right -- one eventually made it to publication -- but
I was too close to the material, and much of it was too fresh. One day I was
complaining about it to a friend in my workshop. She suggested I try something
different. She knew I loved stores that used elements of the fantastical, and
was surprised I never wrote like that. By the end of the conversation, the seed
had been planted. Instead of two families of different cultures meeting and
interacting, I now had two supernatural characters: a golem and a jinni. And
somehow it seemed likeliest that these two would meet in New York in the late
1800s, when immigrants from Eastern Europe and Syria were coming to America in
Q.: When you thought about writing a golem character, did you think about
other legends and myths about people being created out of inanimate matter?
Adam from earth? The famous Golem of Prague, the greek myth of Prometheus, or
Pygmalion? Frankensteinâ€™s monster? Or even the idea of creating a modern robot?
Did you want to write from those traditions or come up with something
I certainly wrote the Golemâ€™s character with those legends and stories in mind.
In fact, in early drafts she was much closer to something like the Golem of
Prague. She had less emotion, and less insight into the emotions of others. But
it became clear that that wouldnâ€™t do for a main character. So I made her more
empathic, more â€śhumanâ€ť in that sense, and I think that brought her closer to
the androids and cyborgs of modern science fiction, like the replicants of
Blade Runner and Star Trekâ€™s Lt. Commander Data. But I think all
these stories have the same sources at heart, and the same central question, of
what happens when we create life that approaches human but isnâ€™t quite.
Q.: Your male jinni Ahmad arrives in turn of the century NYCâ€™s Little Syria
neighborhood (now Lower Manhattan) from inside of an old Syrian copper vase.
How is your Jinni different or similar to those of legend? From the Book of
One Thousand and One Nights, and the TV show â€śI Dream of Jeannie,â€ť we have
some preconceived ideas about what a jinni is. When you were writing his
character, what were you thinking about getting across to the reader?
I started out on less certain footing with the Jinni than with the Golem, and
it took me longer to figure him out. I didnâ€™t realize until I started
researching the jinn how much they are an everyday truth for many in the modern
Middle East and the Muslim world, and I wanted to be respectful of that. But I
also realized that a Western audience would be more familiar with the Thousand
and One Nights and pop culture versions. In the end, I kept coming back to the
idea of a creature created from fire, and how that might translate to his
personality: impulsive, passionate, dazzling, dangerous. It struck me that such
a creature would have avery hard time camouflaging himself in New York
society. Whether consciously or not, I think I drew from Western fantasy as
well, from elves and brownies and so on, which are sort of like the British and
European cousins of the jinn: strong-willed, mischevious, and usually hidden.
But one thing I was certain of, pretty much from the beginning, was that my
jinni wouldnâ€™t be granting any wishes!
Q.: You decided to give your Golem and Jinni free will and fairly strong
willed personalities, even though they are both bound to masters â€“ how did you
come to this decision and what are the consequences?
Funny enough, it was never really a decision per se. From the beginning I
wanted them to be the main characters, which meant theyâ€™d have to have some
degree of free will, otherwise it would be a lot harder to write a compelling
story. And I think their strong personalities came about because theyâ€™re
both bound and limited, and forced to live in a state that isnâ€™t natural to
either of them. I knew the interesting stuff would happen when they came up
against those limitations. As for the consequences, it meant that they were
constantly arguing! Which I hadnâ€™t intended, but grew to love. It made sense
that these two would spark off each other so frequently, considering the
differences in how they see the world.
Q.: Besides the Golem
and the Jinni in the novel, who were the other character(s) that
were the most fun to write?
Itâ€™s hard to choose, but I think Saleh was my favorite supporting character to
write. He was a huge surprise to me. I was researching Little Syria, and I
found an article in theNew-York Daily Tribune written in 1892, full of
all these flowery, condescending descriptions of the new Syrian immigrants, the
sort of stuff that a reputable paper today would never get away with. One of
the illustrations was of a man in a turban, sitting in front of a wooden churn.
The caption was â€śAn Ice-Cream Seller.â€ť I thought, who is that guy? And
suddenly I knew. I wrote his backstory in one long, frenzied session, and it
survived pretty much unaltered into the final draft. It felt like an unlooked-
for gift. I grew very attached to Saleh â€“ heâ€™s such a great curmudgeon.
Q.: In writing and researching this novel, what most surprised you?
One thing that surprised me quite a bit, and shouldnâ€™t have, was the diversity
of Jewish religion and philosophy at the turn of the century. Itâ€™s far too easy
to think of past peoples as monolithic, and the past as â€śa simpler time,â€ť when
of course it was anything but. I hadnâ€™t realized the extent of the Socialist
movement in the Jewish community, or the vehement variety of opinions on the
budding Zionist movement. They probably tried to teach me all this at Sunday
school, but I was too busy reading Dragonlance novels in the back. Another
thing that repeatedly surprised me was that back then theNew York Times
could print something casually, blatantly offensive, and no one would bat an
Q.: What makes your novel relevant today?
A good question, considering itâ€™s set over a hundred years ago, and has two
supernatural creatures for main characters. But over and over, my research told
me that the concerns and dilemmas of 1900s-era New Yorkers would be very
familiar to the modern reader. They worried about multiculturalism and
globalism, the tensions between science and religion, between tradition and
assimilation. It became clear to me that we have always been finding and losing
our faiths; we have always struggled to defend or flaunt propriety, to follow
or ignore the dictates of our hearts.
As for the main characters themselves, apparently folklore and fantasy can
still capture the modern reader -- at least, if the continuing proliferation of
vampires, werewolves, and the like is any indication. They're our own all-too
human urges and struggles, embodied and made explicit. I wanted to use
creatures of imagination to offer possible answers to the question of what it
means to be human -- hopefully while also delivering a fun and engaging tale.
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