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Kill Your Genies

Author Helene Wecker on the birth pains of her award-winning “The Golem and the Jinni.”

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Disney makes things too simple — even genies.

California novelist Helene Wecker is anxious to dispel the Disneyfication of a recognizable character from Arab folklore with her debut novel, "The Golem and the Jinni," which has won the 2014 Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award.

"Americans mostly know them as a 'genie,'" she says of the character, adding that a true jinni — made from smokeless fire — is a thinking and feeling creature that exists in a shadow world alongside of humanity.

Wecker's novel combines the authentic mythology of a jinni with a unique twist on another misunderstood character from Jewish folklore, the golem, a magical figure commonly depicted as a hulking, lumbering male but presented by Wecker as a thinking and feeling female.

This unusual mix of fantasy, history and mythology weaves through her complex tale of two supernatural creatures that arrive and survive in the bustling immigrant communities of 19th-century New York.

Wecker's 486-page novel began as a short story more than seven years ago while she was a student in the master's of fine arts program at New York's Columbia University. "I submitted a 12-page story for workshop," Wecker says. "I worried that sometimes in academia if you dabble in genre they will throw it out and call you a hack, but this was the opposite. My classmates and the professors were very enthusiastic about it, and said that it could be a novel."

Two years of research compounded by a move to the West Coast ballooned into a seven-year writing process. While the "research drove the writing," she says, the ending she envisioned kept getting further away. But if it was going to be a novel, "It had to be done right," she says. "I got invested in it without really realizing it."

She adds, laughing: "It took me a couple years to just figure out who the villain was.

Wecker says she couldn't have written this book 20 years ago in California, stressing the convenience of online research and her reliance on the Columbia Library digital archives. "I could do image searches for any New York City street corner in any year to find the one telling detail to anchor a scene," she says.

William Faulkner once said that writers need to sometimes "kill their darlings," meaning that favorite passages frequently need to be thrown out during editing. Those darlings got cut a number of times, Wecker says: "The first few times the book wasn't actually finished. It sold as a partial and in order to get it ready I cut out about 15 to 20 percent."

Another painful cut was when the ending she'd been working toward for years no longer worked, she says: "It was terrible. Every word hurt to write and I knew it was bad, but I had no idea what else to write."

On contract and past deadline, and on the advice of her agent and editor, she severely streamlined the plot, delivering the emotional payoff it needed. "The new ending fit much better and was much more satisfying," she says. "It felt like the last good edit. And the book was done."

The unusual title presented the final roadblock. HarperCollins' marketing department suggested a change, but after brainstorming with her agent and editor Wecker says the book "resisted being called anything else." The publisher came up with a striking cover that she hopes will draw in the readers — "even if they don't know what the title actually means."

There were more than 110 submissions to this year's first novelist competition, according to coordinators and fiction graduate students Matt Phipps and Kate Zipse. From the pool of finalists, three judges selected Wecker's novel over two others: "Snow Hunters," by Paul Yoon, and "Fort Starlight," by Claudia Zuluaga.

Phipps and Zipse say they encourage anyone who's interested to read and review next year's submissions, which can be found in the VCU Cabell Library.

"The Golem and the Jinni," a New York Times bestseller, also has received the Nebula Award for best novel from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and a 2014 Mythopoeic Award for best fantasy adult literature, among others. S

Helene Wecker will receive her award, give a reading and participate in a discussion Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. in the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Ave. The event is free, but registration is requested at firstnovelist.vcu.edu/event.

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