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Today’s guest is Helene Wecker! She is the author of “Majnun,” a story published in the World Fantasy Award–nominated anthology The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories, as well as the New York Times bestselling novel The Golem and the Jinni. Her first novel, a wonderfully written historical fantasy book combining folklore with New York City around the turn of the twentieth century, also won the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize and was a Nebula and World Fantasy Award finalist. The Hidden Palace, a sequel to her debut, will be released soon—on June 8!

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker - Book Cover Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker - Book Cover

I wanted to be an actor, once upon a time.

This was in my school years, during the height of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Broadway musical spectacles, back when one could still sing Memory unironically at a tryout. I memorized every Original Cast Recording I could find, but I only won a few roles in my school plays, probably because I couldn’t carry a tune.

In high school I was cast in The Crucible, and even though mine was the smallest part in the show (Betty Parris, ten years old, spends most of the play asleep in bed) the rehearsals still ate into my study hours. Predictably, my grades tanked. I was horrified, and so were my parents. So I quit acting and worked crew instead, which was stage-adjacent but less demanding. I painted sets, hung backdrops, and mooched around in the wings, envying my friends who’d managed to land good parts and maintain their GPAs.

The big production my senior year was Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale extravaganza. Even if you aren’t familiar with it, you know the main characters: Little Red Riding Hood, Jack of Beanstalk fame, Cinderella and Rapunzel, a malevolent old witch, and a baker and his wife. A Narrator stands at the edge of the stage, in command of the story, as the characters venture from their homes into the nearby woods, all of them in search of something. Cinderella wishes to attend the royal ball; impoverished Jack has to sell his beloved cow. The baker and his wife — Sondheim’s own creations, but rooted in folktale tropes — want to lift the curse that prevents them from having a child.

Along the way, the characters cross paths. Cinderella meets her prince; Rapunzel escapes her tower. Jack climbs the beanstalk and slays the giant. By the end of Act One, the villains have been thwarted, the curse lifted. Punishments and rewards are bestowed as appropriate. We reached the right conclusions / And we got what we deserve, they sing as they leave the woods. All is tenderness and laughter / Forever after!

At rehearsals, the true theater nerds among us told stories, almost certainly apocryphal, of audience members at the Broadway premiere who’d left at the end of the first act. The stories had reached their well-known ends; they’d assumed, quite reasonably, that the play was over.

Fast forward twenty years, give or take.

In 2013 my first novel, The Golem and the Jinni, was released into the world. It’s the story of Chava and Ahmad, two supernatural creatures who arrive in Manhattan in 1899. Chava, the golem, is shy and cautious, and drawn to help others; Ahmad, the jinni, is capricious and free-spirited. Both must learn how to disguise themselves as ordinary human immigrants, and make new lives for themselves. Being polar opposites, they spend their scenes together in constant argument. Nevertheless I’d ended the book on a hopeful note, suggesting that they were about to embark on a relationship together.

I was lucky, and The Golem and the Jinni was successful enough that, before long, I could start thinking seriously about selling my next book. Readers seemed interested in a sequel; my publisher, too, liked the concept. I had a few vague ideas for other, non-Golem-and-Jinni books, but none of them were clamoring to be told. I was now mother to a two-year-old, with a baby on the way. I was turning forty, and I was tired. The first book had taken me seven years to write. I really, really didn’t want to do that again.

Write a sequel, said my weary brain. It’s got to be easier than starting over from the beginning.

I began to think up plot outlines, likely-sounding scenarios. I wanted something multi-layered and full of detail, with my two main characters at its heart. I also invented another golem, this one male, as well as a jinniyeh, a female jinni. These new dramatis personae would be closer to their traditional portrayals in folklore and legend than Chava and Ahmad, whom I’d designed as more human-seeming. I brought back a number of supporting characters from the first book; one of them, the Park Avenue heiress Sophia Winston, I elevated to main player status. And at the center were Chava and Ahmad and their new, tentative romance. How would it work, in practice? They’d have to learn to reconcile their conflicting natures, to meet in the middle somehow — and that would create tension enough to power a novel, wouldn’t it?

I wrote a proposal, got the go-ahead, and dove into the first draft — and before long, the problems set in. How much of the previous book did I need to recap? Could I do it gracefully, without As-You-Know-Bobbing my way through the first hundred pages? I began with a cold open set a decade after the first book, and alternated the forward motion with flashbacks — but then the flashbacks started to take over the book, and the momentum slowed to a crawl. I stopped, backed up, started over. Intoxicated by my research, I shoved in all sorts of flotsam: policemen, boxing rings, gentlemen’s clubs, nickelodeons, New York State sanatoriums. I came to my senses after a while, and cut out half the plot.

So far, so familiar; I’d had growing pains with the first book, too. But something more troubling was happening. The more I wrote about Chava and Ahmad’s fledgling relationship — the flying sparks, the tension that was supposed to propel the book’s emotional engine — the more irritating and superficial their arguments became. He looks at other girls, Chava fretted. She thinks she’s better than me, Ahmad grumbled. Oh, grow up and get over yourselves, I wanted to tell them. These were characters I’d spent years getting to know, and now I felt like I was stuck at a dinner party next to a couple of self-involved jerks, wishing they’d go to couples therapy already and leave the rest of us alone.

But I couldn’t figure out what else to do. I’d designed the entire book around this putative romance, so I gritted my teeth and kept writing. Deadline extensions came and went. At last I gave the manuscript to a trusted reader. Their response was multi-layered, full of detail. At its heart was the word boring.

It’s over, I thought as I lay in bed, staring up into the dark. I thought there was more to their story, but I was wrong.

And the back of my brain told me, That was just Act One. They went into the woods, and they came out again. It’s the start of Act Two.

The second act of Into the Woods is quite a bit darker than the first.

It doesn’t start off that way. Jack and his mother now live in luxury, thanks to the gold he stole from the giant. The baker and his wife have a new baby; Rapunzel and Cinderella have married their princes. All have gotten what they thought they wanted — but none of it is quite what they expected. Jack pines for the kingdom in the sky, and the baker is uncomfortable with fatherhood. The princes, having won their elusive sweethearts, realize that it was the pursuit itself they truly loved.

Then, disaster arrives. A Giantess, the wife of the giant from Act One, climbs down the beanstalk looking for justice. She blunders about in search of Jack, destroying houses and castles. The terrified characters debate whether to give the boy to her before she tramples them all. But he’s nowhere to be found — and so, in their panic, they offer up the Narrator instead.

The quiet pause onstage as the characters’ calculating gazes turn toward the oblivious Narrator is one of my favorite moments in all of theater, and it gives me the shivers every single time. Simply by acknowledging his presence — and, by extension, their own fictional existence — they break free of the story’s control. Anarchy is loosed upon the stage. “You’ll never know how the story turns out!” the Narrator cries as his own creations drag him to his doom. “You don’t want to live in a world of chaos!”

The Giantess kills the Narrator and stomps off, squashing Rapunzel by accident. Soon Jack’s mother and the baker’s wife are dead as well. The characters aren’t in the Narrator’s tidy story anymore, but Sondheim’s, which is uglier and messier and far more real. Here, people die for no good reason. The consequences they suffer may be from someone else’s actions, and sometimes the only decision that’s left to them is whether to run from an unpleasant truth, or turn to face it head on.

I began to ask, what unpleasant truths were my characters running away from? What could I find that was already there, that would give life to their tedious resentments?

I went back, again, to the beginning. I put everything else aside and, in a spirit of desperate experimentation, wrote a scene where Chava and Ahmad go to Central Park on a cold winter night. In the park, they pass by a frozen pond, and Ahmad decides to try ice skating for the first time. Chava is against it: he’s a creature of fire, and a fall through the ice would kill him instantly. He waves away her objections and wobbles out onto the lake. Chava calls after him to be careful. Intent on his keeping his balance, Ahmad calls back, Stop fretting, Chava, I know enough to hide from the rain!

That line transformed the entire book.

Ahmad lives half a world away from his desert home and his own kind. An iron cuff around his wrist keeps him locked in human form, which means that he can’t speak in his own language anymore — but he can still think in it. It’s an inner link to his past, which he remembers as a truer existence than his life in New York — a past, moreover, that he feels he must hide from the woman he loves. The cavalier ways of the jinn go against everything Chava believes in, and he’s afraid that if she looks too deeply inside him, it’ll only drive her away.

Chava, of course, has noticed Ahmad’s refusal to talk about his earlier life, but she doesn’t realize the true reason behind it. She can only assume that he thinks her too prudish and naive to hear the details; at times, she wonders if he’s right. And on the rare occasions when Ahmad lets something slip — when, for example, he unthinkingly translates a jinn idiom into human language — it’s a painful reminder of the gulf that still exists between them, even after everything they’ve shared.

Finally. Some real tension.

I went forward from that scene and rewrote all their bickering with this new dynamic in mind. The entire shape of the book began to change. Now, instead of looking like a bad teen comedy, their relationship hinged upon a deeper question: Is it possible for someone to assimilate into a radically different society while maintaining a sense of continuity, a wholeness that includes both past and present? And can their loved ones in their new, adopted home — their friends and partners, the children they bear — ever truly understand the life they left behind?

Nowadays, instead of the entire musical, high schools can choose to perform “Into the Woods Jr.,” a stripped-down version that omits the second act. I understand why such a thing exists; the original’s a heavy lift, especially with Sondheim’s notoriously tongue-twisting lyrics. I also assume that some schools skip the second act so they can avoid its difficult subject matter, and I can’t help feeling a little salty about this. Yes, some of the characters make bad and cowardly choices, and they aren’t necessarily punished for them. There’s philandering, and abandonment, and plenty of indiscriminate death. (When the play debuted in 1987, many theater critics saw the rampaging Giantess as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis. Apparently Sondheim’s reply was that he hadn’t intended it, though he didn’t argue against it either.) But at the end of the second act’s chaos and misery lies the possibility of self-knowledge. The grieving characters no longer wish for the things that a story has told them to wish for. Instead, connected to each other by their shared experiences, they leave their demolished homes and come together to care for each other, a found family. The play ends not with the first act’s superficial happiness, but the possibility of future joy.

In the end, the book that became The Hidden Palace took me just as long to write as The Golem and the Jinni did. I finished it during a pandemic, in a months-long marathon of sleepless nights that I really, really don’t want to do again. I’m forty-six years old, and I am tired. But at last my book is something I think I can be proud of, and after seven years spent wandering through the woods, I’m feeling pretty joyful about it.

Photo of Helene Wecker
Photo by Kareem Kazkaz

Helene Wecker is the author of THE HIDDEN PALACE (Harper, June 8, 2021). It is the sequel to her debut novel THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI (Harper, 2013) which was awarded the Mythopoeic Award, the VCU Cabell Award, and the Harald U. Ribalow Prize, and was nominated for a Nebula and World Fantasy Award. The novel was chosen as an Amazon Editor Top 20 Pick, an Amazon Spotlight Debut, an Indie Next Pick, one of Entertainment Weekly’s top Ten Works of Fiction for the year, Audible’s Top Debut Novel Audiobook of the Year, and featured in Buzzfeed’s and Kirkus Reviews’ best books of the year features as well as many other national outlets. Her work has appeared in Joyland, Catamaran, and in the anthology THE DJINN FALLS IN LOVE AND OTHER STORIES. A Midwest native, Wecker holds a B.A. in English from Carleton College and an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and children.