Interview with Helene Wecker, Author of The Hidden Palace and The Golem and the Jinni

Helene Wecker is the author of The Golem and the Jinni and The Hidden Palace. Her books have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller lists, and have won a National Jewish Book Award, the VCU Cabel Award, the Harold U. Ribalow Prize, and a Mythopoeic Award. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I had the opportunity to interview Helene, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Hello, Geeks OUT readers! I’m Helene Wecker, a writer of historical fantasy novels (primarily). Currently, I live in the Bay Area, but I grew up outside Chicago and will always be a Midwesterner at heart. I went to college in Minnesota and then spent a decade bouncing around between the coasts: first Seattle, then New York, and now finally California, where I’ve settled with my husband, two kids, and a dog. Back in my 20s, I worked in marketing and public relations for about seven years before I finally admitted that I hated it and switched my energies to fiction writing. I’m now in my late 40s, which is a fabulous decade from the perspective of life experience, but also deeply annoying when it comes to aches, pains, and overall exhaustion.

What can you tell us about the fantasy series you are currently most recognized for, The Golem and the Jinni? What was the inspiration for this story?

I started writing The Golem & the Jinni while I was at graduate school in New York. I’d decided that for my MFA 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.

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically historical fantasy?

I love the paradox of historical fantasy, of writing a story set inside known history that doesn’t contradict it at all but that, at the same time, is absolutely impossible. It makes the story feel like a secret that you’ve been let in on, and gives the narrative an intimacy that might otherwise get lost in the scope of the historical backdrop. It’s a challenge to write, which for me is part of the draw — but at the same time it’s really easy to bite off more than you can chew without realizing it.

For those curious about the process writing a historical fantasy book, how would you describe the process? What goes into the research and translating that into a book?

The research process has been gargantuan, and was especially so 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 worth 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 the details contribute to the overall lived-in feel of the books, and it’s important to me to get them right.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in, in terms of personal identity? If not or if so, how do you think this personally affected you as a writer?

This is a great question, and I’m honestly not sure of the answer. I don’t think I looked for myself in stories when I was young, because my own real-life childhood was deeply awkward and lonely at times. I read books, mainly scifi and fantasy, in order to escape that existence, not to find it again. That said, Paula Danziger’s teenage protagonists resonated with me strongly, as did Judy Blume’s. They captured the particular angst of being an adolescent girl and feeling like an alien, especially at school, and wrestling with the choice between fitting in and sticking out. Which, honestly, describes my own characters’ dilemmas too.

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general?

Neil Gaiman was a huge influence during a formative time in my life. I took my entire SANDMAN collection to college with me, and made my boyfriend (now husband) read it. (He, in turn, made me read all of LORD OF THE RINGS and THE SILMARILLION.) The various X-Men books of the ‘80s and ‘90s were also a big creative influence, and I think that there’s a way to see my characters in the X-Men tradition: powerful, flawed, unsure of their place in the world. Post-college, Michael Chabon was my biggest influence; looking back on it, if there was one book that turned me into a writer, it was THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY. These days, I read a lot of Ursula K. LeGuin, who was brilliant at engineering stories that hinge on moral and philosophical dilemmas.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or difficult?

My favorite elements are the research/planning before the first draft and the good, hard edit at the end. Everything in between is a long slog of frustration and woe. I’ve never written a complete, beginning-to-end first draft of a novel — short stories, yes, but not novels. I write a few chapters, decide I hate it, start over. It takes me a few stabs before I figure out how best to tell the story that I want to tell. It’s a very inefficient way to write, but for me it’s the only way that works.

Aside from writing, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

1) If I couldn’t be a writer, I’d want be either a librarian or a film editor. My absolute perfect job would be to live as a student for the rest of my life, just going around and learning things all day long. I have no idea what practical purpose that would serve, but if anyone’s hiring, I’m your gal.

2) My kids keep me incredibly busy, mentally as well as time-wise. We’re finally past the just-keep-them-alive years, and now we’re at the early adolescent stage where we have to pick our battles and maintain consistency about what we allow and what we don’t. My older kid just turned eleven, and she would be perfectly happy to spend her entire life reading books and watching videos in bed in her bathrobe. It’s a lifestyle I can only aspire to, really.

3) If you asked me, “Helene, in your opinion, which movie has the best script in cinema history, line for line?” I’d be forced to choose between either Charade or Kung Fu Panda. Honestly, Kung Fu Panda might win.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

This might seem like an unorthodox answer, but: If you’re looking for a life partner, it’s imperative that they 1) respect your wish to write and 2) give you the time and space you need. They don’t have to be your biggest fan; they don’t even have to read your writing. But they have to understand that sometimes you’ll be in the office with the door shut, and they’re not allowed to come in and bug you with something completely trivial, or suggest that you skip writing that day and go out for a movie instead. There will be times when the writing comes first. They have to be okay with that, period.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I’m currently hard at work on Book #3 in the Golem and Jinni series. It’s set in 1930, which is 15 years after the end of The Hidden Palace, at the beginning of the Great Depression and the end of Prohibition. I’ve brought back a few characters who we last saw in the first book, and created a few new ones. I’m in the early drafting stage, though I’ve done my requisite failed chapters and seem to have settled into the story a little more. The jump forward into 1930 brings the setting closer to what feels like a recognizably modern era, which opens up a lot of directions for the characters to take — but from the reader’s vantage point, WWII and the Holocaust are just around the corner, and that adds a dread that the narrative can’t address directly without being too heavy handed. So it’s going to take a light and careful touch to get it right.

Finally, what books/authors (Jewish, fantastic, or otherwise) would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I don’t read for fun nearly as much as I’d like to these days, but I just finished R.F. Kuang’s Babel, which deserves all the praise it’s gotten. And if you like your historical fantasy with a dose of Old Hollywood, Nghi Vo’s Siren Queen is a phenomenal read. So is Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, which is one of those books that crawls into your brain and just lives there for a while.

Rebelle Re-views: ‘Supernatural’ and the Road to Positive Masculinity

This past Fall I was hot off of working at NYCC and in the mood to indulge in the impending spooky season by deciding it was time to revisit Supernatural. I had watched the series initially as it was airing, but at some point along the way I fell off – something happened in 2020, can’t remember what – and I never saw how it all wrapped up. Enter a large bottle of red wine and a hankering for some classic rock and monsters and I was off on each new case riding passenger in that iconic 1967 Chevy Impala with Sam and Dean Winchester. It’s a long and windy road, full of lore and monsters, of course, deals with the devil/s, and gripes with God. It repeatedly asks us to define and redefine what it means to be family and how far is too far when it comes to our obligations to them

What I loved most about the show in the Before Times was its ability to not take itself so seriously. For all the horror and anxieties the Winchesters’ face there is levity and straight-up silliness in equal measure. It’s that kind of harmony that seemed to keep viewers tuning in for fifteen seasons. That’s not to say that Supernatural is without its foibles. The blatant misogyny and treatment of women, particularly in early seasons, is cringy in the best of circumstances and the well-documented history of queerbaiting in later seasons leaves much to be desired and disappointed by. And none of that should come as a surprise. Of the 16 executive producers of the show, only two were women. With a majority of the creative team or the team with the money making the decisions being white, cis, (presumably) straight men whose views of the world center around being centered, you can typically kiss nuance goodbye.

Over the 15 years Supernatural was on air, technology and the internet developed at a rapid velocity and conversations around gender, equity, and justice went through dramatic shifts. It was interesting to see how Supernatural, a show with all-American, blue-collar protagonists assembled with stereotypical “masculine” bits and bobs like a shoot first talk later attitude and predilections for vintage cars, brown booze, and babes would navigate waters that put their own identities as saviors into question. Horror as a genre is predicated on facing our greatest fears about who we are as a society and as individuals. Whether it’s the fear of our capacity for profound evil or the realization of how helpless we really are in the face of a ruthless and unruly natural world we have a lot to be afraid about and much to reckon with. 

Supernatural never shied away from confronting what happens when one becomes the monster. The brothers Winchester went to Hell and back at such a dizzying rate it was hard at times to keep storylines straight. Excuses for delving into monsterdom typically centered on the brothers’ codependent dynamic, where everything was done for each other but was never what either of them wanted. With all the abandonment, parentification, and exposure to significant trauma from such young ages it makes sense that the idea of letting someone you love make decisions for themselves and then respecting them even if you don’t agree would be terrifying. If facing homicidal ghosts, demons, and any number of creatures that go bump in the night wasn’t frightening enough, the possibility of having to face them alone can be even more so. 

Jared Padalecki as Sam and Jensen Ackles as Dean in ‘Supernatural’ formerly on The CW

What is further compelling about the show is that it doesn’t always fall into the rugged, lone wolf trope that it easily could have. Though positioned as the heroes of the series, Sam and Dean Winchester are rarely without and people (human and supernatural alike) who become chosen family. Like the monsters they set out to hunt, they are also people living on the margins of society. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile whether they are on the margins by choice as vigilantes with their privileges and abilities to “pass” helping them hop in and out of the human world as they deem appropriate or if they are in denial by the privileges they have so they can prolong any acceptance of what makes them the same or similar to those they claim to be protecting the world from.

Monsters and supernatural beings are never just that in this genre. Historically, they are coded as the pariahs and scapegoats of society: Jews, women, queer people. Those that are deemed by “civilized” Christian society to have been born with a darkness inside, that are clearly the cause of all the world’s problems and must be destroyed. Much of the representations of these monsters we see and read about in modern media stem from these medieval Christian prejudices and justifications for continued acts of violence toward the marginalized members of their societies. In Supernatural we see Sam and Dean struggle with this time and time again. Though not explicitly Christian in nature, there are many references to stories and figures from Judaism including, my personal favorite, the scribing archangel with chutzpah larger than their human vessel Metatron, the heavy focus on the battle between heaven and hell and what it takes to get into either is straight up New Testament. 

Other aspects of strict Christian dogma are the “traditional” ideas of who people are allowed to love and how as well as the rigid expectations of the roles of men and women. Though beginning to change now, that worldview has and still is dominant in the stories that are put forth for audiences to consume. Supernatural falls in line in many ways, but also breaks a significant mold. I can’t recall many shows, if any, that showed young men having relationships that included affection, vulnerability, and desire and willingness to try and set things right with each other, even if imperfectly. Sam and Dean heart-to-hearts, typically taking place in the aforementioned Impala, are a common occurrence episode to episode. When something is on their mind or they are in disagreement they don’t succumb to patriarchy-approved “male” behaviors like, beating the shit out of each other or challenging each other to some sportsing thing. They talk it out (or sometimes in Dean’s case, gruffly yells). Their attempts at communicating, of wanting to be heard and get the other to open up is a stark contrast to the societal messaging that the only emotion acceptable for men to express, regardless of everyone who ends up paying for it, is anger and if anything else arises it must be immediately shut down.

Misha Collins as Castiel, Jensen Ackles as Dean, and Jared Padalecki as Sam in ‘Supernatural.’ Photo Credit Diyah Pera/The CW

To see men engage in and explore more of their emotional worlds with each other and develop intimacy based on mutual respect rooted in partnership rather than the more normalized form of male bonding over the humiliation and degradation of women, gender expansive and queer folks feels like a breath of fresh air. So much so that in the devastating scene when Castiel tells Dean he loves him mere moments before his end it feels so loaded that it’s almost jarring. Not simply because this scene, in particular, evokes the queer-coded nature of the #Destiel relationship and the accusations against the creators of queerbaiting all the way  to the “bury-your-gays” trope, but also because it still feels incredibly rare to see men look at each other and express a deep and heartfelt “I love you.” And I wish that was more normalized. 

As a culture we’re in the uncomfortable and frightening moment of reactionary backlash toward conversations we’ve been having about gender, Me Too, CRT, and basic human rights. It’s to be expected that the more inclusive and free from norms and binaries people inherently realize they are, the more threatened people who have not gotten there yet or who benefit from keeping people in particular positions will be. And those struggles are quite apparent in Supernatural as creators tried with some success and definitely big failures to navigate a fan base more in touch with their identities who could bring more insight into characters and their relationship dynamics than the creators possibly anticipated. The struggle to be a person, or supernatural being, or god-like entity is real. For all its missteps, oversights, and messy plot lines, in the end Supernatural is a story about the consequences of our actions, the obstacles we’re able to overcome when we make sure to have a little fun and don’t take ourselves too seriously, and the wild ride life becomes when we find those people we want to go to Hell and back with. Carry on. 

The Geeks OUT Podcast: Supernatural(ly) Queer & Problematic

In this week’s episode of the Geeks OUT Podcast, Kevin is joined by Kate Moran, as they discuss Supernatural problematically confirming a character’s queer identity, check out the new trailer for Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton, and celebrate Grant Morrison coming out as non-binary in This Week in Queer.



KEVIN: Latest episode of Supernatural confirms a queer shipping
KATE: Kotaku publishes list of video game company execs and what campaigns they donated money



KEVIN: The Dead Don’t Die, Star Trek: Discovery, Queen’s Gambit, Legendary
KATE: Kipo, Korra, Steven Universe, Mandalorian, ACNH, Sims, Among Us, Phasmophobia



New trailer for Shonda Rhimes’s new Netflix series Bridgerton



Comic writer Grant Morrison comes out as non-binary



New red band trailer for Icelandic gay vampire movie Thirst




• New trailer for the Lego Star Wars Holiday Special
• Jordan Peele is producing a remake of The People Under the Stairs
• Ryan Reynolds’ Free Guy delayed
• Johnny Depp asked to leave Fantastic Beasts sequel
• New trailer for What Lies Below



• New teaser for Fox’s new animated series The Great North
• AMC announces a Walking Dead holiday special
• Hulu has canceled Castle Rock
• New trailer for HBO Max spanish language series Veneno



• Due to COVID, Playstation 5 will sell exclusively online at launch
• Among Spider-Man: Miles Morales areas of representation, includes a deaf character



• KEVIN: Bolin
• KATE: Asami