PLEASANTON -- When author Helene Wecker set out to write her debut novel, "The Golem and the Jinni" (HarperCollins, 2013), she had no idea she was embarking on a seven-year pilgrimage requiring fortitude and faith equivalent to that of her Jewish ancestors.
After working for years in marketing and communications, Wecker was pursuing a master's degree in fiction at Columbia University. The Pleasanton author and her Arab-American husband, Kareem Kazkaz, grew up in suburban Chicago. Their parents arrived in the United States as first-generation immigrants.
Fascinated with the "otherness" of their families' histories, Wecker began writing short stories blending Jewish folklore with Syrian mythology and casting them on the shores of America.
Without knowing the deep hole she was digging for herself, she decided to set one story, about a supernatural golem, created in female form to serve her master, and a shape-changing Arabic spirit, or jinni, in 1899 New York City. The turn of the century marked a time when Eastern European and Arab immigrants were passing through Ellis Island by the thousands. The setting was the perfect place for a golem and a jinni to bump into each other. And having them meet in a place where they were equally lost, instead of on their own turf, lent natural drama to the story. She will appear at a Contra Costa Jewish Book & Arts Festival "Under One Tent" author's talk Nov. 14 in Walnut Creek.
"New York was the crossroad of the world, in my imagination," Wecker said in a recent interview. "Picking the pause before the 20th century was just something I fell into. Then I had to deal with the ramifications."
The "ramifications" sent her to the basement of the university library. There, she studied microfiche maps and periodical entries as if possessed by a demon as powerful as those in the magical realist fable she would eventually write.
"I knew we were moving to California, so I didn't read, I just copied. I had to learn everything from scratch. I knew next to nothing about everyday life in 1899 New York. "The first two years were 50-50 research and writing."
Information on Syria was far scarcer than it is today. With only three scholarly books as reference, Wecker found herself scouring old maps of the country for clues. She couldn't even rely on her Reform Judaism upbringing: her golem's Manhattan neighborhood was Orthodox. And the Maronite Christianity of several characters had her writing to Rome and the "Inside the Vatican" magazine for information.
"They placed me on a million Catholic mailing lists. I get hundreds of emails now, asking me to donate money. I wonder if they know they're sending pitches to a Jewish woman in California," she says, laughing.
But Wecker insists there's one instinct she did trust: something she calls "dirt digging" and likens to the Talmudic tradition of questioning.
"I don't like messages. I like making readers ponder," she explains. "Although I wrestle with the term "Jewish writer," because it may become the only lens through which my work is viewed, questioning is one way I am a Jewish writer."
Wecker says the Jewish story has always been fractured and faceted, but calls that a blessing. It's not the term she uses to describe the process she went through to bring the book to completion.
"It was seven years of crazy," she says.
Magical realism allows a writer to take ordinary desires and blow them up 100 percent through fantasy. The realism defines the boundaries and sets rules -- as much for the reader as for the writer.
"They're the unwritten contract so we know what can and can't happen," Wecker says.
But four years into the process, Wecker realized her narrative was "a lifeless mess." A friend jolted her out of her too-realistic rut by reminding her to write what she loved to read: science fiction and fantasy. She completely rewrote the golem's character and reduced the number of amulets, locations and characters by half. "I had diagrams, charts, outlines that changed. As long as I knew where I was going, the writing had momentum," she recalls.
The 484-page book, even in its trimmed state, packs a wallop. The made-of-clay golem's adventures and the mysterious, smoldering fire of the jinni's rebellious nature weave through multiple themes and time periods. The two creatures hide their true identities and try to live as mere humans, but rabbis, tinsmiths, shopkeepers, love interests and ever-present surreal, invisible forces interfere.
It's gothic, epic -- even monolithic in scope. Reading the book, one imagines Wecker as a highly-skilled charioteer, driving a team of thoroughbreds. With battling concepts -- faith countering free will and the human body fighting the spirit -- a reader might expect Jew versus Arab.
Thankfully, and with sophisticated craft, Wecker avoids the obvious trap. Instead, the immigrant story is a more timeless tale belonging not to one culture or religion, but shared by all who have at one time, or in a place, felt "other." Wecker is fiddling with a possible sequel and responding to "nibbles" from film companies about the book's possible cinematic future while working on a dystopian adventure story set in "an alternate 1990s in suburban Chicago."
Pleasanton author Helene Wecker will read from her Yiddish/Middle Eastern historical fiction novel "The Golem and the Jinni at 10 a.m. Nov. 14 at 74 Eckley Lane, Walnut Creek. Tickets are $5. Her appearance is part of the Contra Costa Jewish Book and Arts Festival.
For a complete list of festival events and directions to venues, go to http://www.jfed.org/underonetent/index.html.