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back CABELL FIRST NOVELIST AWARD 2014

Panel Discussion
Moderator: Shannon O’Neill. Panelists: Sam Stoloff and Helene Wecker
captured November 4, 2014

Shannon O’Neill: Hello, everyone. So we’ve now entered the Q&A portion of the evening. I’m Shannon O’Neill. I’m a former MFA in the program. Also former Cabell Fellow, so I’m honored to be here tonight to speak with Helene and her agent, Sam Stoloff. So what we’re going to do is, I’ll do a little intro of Sam as well, and then we’ll talk for about fifteen to twenty minutes about the book and then we’ll open it up to the audience for any questions you have. And Kate and Matt over here have microphones, so if you have a question, raise your hand, and they will get there as fast as they can. Sam Stoloff is Helene’s agent. He is a senior agent, vice president, and principal at the Frances Goldin Literary Agency in New York; he’s worked there since 1997. He represents a wide range of authors of adult fiction and nonfiction. Among his clients, in addition to Helene, are Barbara Kingsolver, as well as Mike Wallace, among others. He has an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in American Studies, both from Cornell University. Founded in 1977, the Frances Goldin Literary Agency is a full-service literary agency based in New York City’s Greenwich Village, representing quality fiction and nonfiction, with a particular focus on books that have a progressive political orientation. Now we can talk a little bit about The Golem and the Jinni. One of my first questions for both of you: we have a lot of MFAs in the audience, myself included, and I think you were talking a little earlier about origin stories, and I think the origin story of this book, and how it came from an idea and a short story, and blossomed into an agent-author relationship and then became a novel. So maybe if you both could talk a little bit about that process, some of the highs and lows of that?

Helene Wecker: Like I mentioned earlier, this really did come from the workshop process. When I did realize that it was a book, and I had a lot of research to do, I knew that it was going to take me beyond my time in the MFA program, obviously. I was in my second year at that point, and Columbia is a two-year program, so I was diligently working away on my book and bringing pages to workshop and getting lots of good comments in and going back and integrating those. And one of the things that happened about this time was Columbia held their annual student-agent mixer. And this is, I guess, one of the benefits of being in New York; you’re in the heart of the business, and all of the professors can bribe their agents and their agents’ friend-agents into coming over for an evening and listening to students work themselves up into a sweat talking about their books. And we were all told to practice our elevator pitches, which, if you don’t know what that is, it’s your one sentence about the book that you’re supposed to be able to just pull out at the drop of a hat if you happen to be stuck in an elevator with an agent, I guess. So at that point I had literally forty pages of the book—forty, fifty pages—and I figured I had nothing to lose to go just mingle and pitch and collect business cards. I figured when the book was done in a few years or whatever I would start cold-calling and saying, “I met you way back when, and would you please look at my book.” So I was walking around the room giving my pitch line and collecting business cards, and they all said some variation of “Well I haven’t heard that one before, so that’s interesting. Here’s a card, and let me know when it’s done. I’ll take a look at it.” And then I got to Sam. And I pitched Sam, and Sam said, “That sounds really interesting. Can you send it to me?” And at that point I’m like, “I’ve been rumbled.” Because you know I only had forty-fifty pages, so I’m like, “It—it’s not done.” I basically said the fa├žade has been ripped away. It’s barely more than an idea at this point.

SS: All right, so I’ll take over from that point.

HW: Okay. There we go.

SS: Now it’s my turn. I’m going to just make a parenthetical remark first, which is just to thank VCU and the Cabell program for bringing me down. This is rare, if not unique, as far as I know, to invite the agent to participate in this kind of event and I’m delighted to be able to be here to recognize Helene’s great work. So I’m going to tell you my version of that story. So Columbia still has this mixer, but it’s become this enormous, ridiculous thing where, it’s in the rotunda of Low Libraries, this vast, vast cavernous hall now. And everybody’s wearing color-coded nametags and every agent in town comes, and former MFAs and current MFAs—Columbia’s program is enormous to begin with—and it’s like a middle school dance where the agents are clustered on one side and the students are clustered on the other side, and tentative forays are made across the room. Horrifying. When I met Helene, which was in 2006 I think, it was much more modest. And actually there was a panel—a panel like this table on the stage—and we were talking about the world of books and publishing, and then afterwards there was the mixer part.

SS: And so Helene tells me about her story, and I went, “Wow! That sounds amazing. What have you got? Send it to me. Send it to me tomorrow. I want to see it tomorrow.” And she said, “Uh—um—okay.” And tomorrow came and tomorrow went, and there were no pages, and then a week, and then a month.

HW: Really?

SS: I think so. And I wrote to the director of the program and said, “You have this student named Helene Wecker and she said she would send me her pages—and—could you make her do it?”

HW: In my defense, we were told not to. Before this mixer, they gave us these guidelines, which, in retrospect, seem like the dance-with-a-sheet-of-paper-between-yourselves thing that they used to say. But they said, “You really only have one chance when an agent asks to see your stuff. Make sure it’s ready before you send it.” And here I was with my forty, fifty pages and Sam saying “send it.” So when the professor who Sam wrote to—she was actually my workshop professor—she said to me, “You know, you met Sam Stoloff; he really does want to see your stuff.” I’m like, “Is it okay to send it?” Like I’m breaking some rule. And she said, “I know Sam. He’s a nice guy. Send the stuff.” So that’s how . . . I had to get dispensation.

SS: Right.

SO: So do you remember what was in the pitch? Or what was that really drew you to it or what popped for you?

SS: I actually don’t remember the—you mean when we were meeting for the first time? No, I don’t remember. I just remember—I mean, she had her nucleus of an idea, which is what this project has had going for it from the start, of a golem and a jinni meeting in New York around the turn of the twentieth century. So a mythological figure from the Jewish tradition and a mythological figure from an Arab tradition, and I just thought, “Wow. That’s genius.” And it is. It’s genius.

SO: So that part was definitely in there.

SS: Yes. That was what spoke to me.

SO: So how much did you know about golems and jinnis when you started and how much do you know now?

HW: Oh God. I knew very little. I think most of what I knew about golems came not from anything I learned as part of growing up Jewish, but from the modern retellings of golem stories, and golems popping up here and there in fantasy literature. I grew up reformed Jewish outside Chicago, and we never really—aside from a lot of viewings of Fiddler on the Roof—we didn’t really go into any of the old tales, the old world stuff. It was more about learning Hebrew and Jewish identity and the Jewish life cycle and all of that. And my dad’s parents were Polish Jews and Holocaust survivors and they never really told any of the old stories, though I’m sure they’d heard them growing up. It was just associated, I think, with stuff they didn’t want to really talk about anymore. So I had to learn from scratch. When you’re dealing with golems, the overarching story, the most famous story, is the story of the Golem of Prague. Which was built in, I want to say the 1600s, supposedly, by the chief rabbi of Prague to protect the Jews of Prague from the pogroms that were happening at the time. And there are lots of different versions of the story, but in most of them, what happens is the golem grows more and more powerful (and this is a male golem, by the way). In some versions, he actually grows physically—he becomes as big as a house—until he starts to turn against the very community he was built to protect. And the rabbi has to destroy him. I became really fascinated with that story because it seemed to be in a direct line with the golem stories, to Frankenstein’s monster, to Asimov and the robot run amuck stories of the fifties, and then on to modern day 2001, and Star Trek and all of that “What happens when we build something that looks human but isn’t quite?” and “When our technology runs away from us, what’s the idea of ‘playing god’?” and “What happens?” And it really seemed to me that then there was a lot of interesting stuff you could do there, and then if that figure was a woman, and not the traditional, stereotypical male figure, of large, brute, and powerful. What happens once you make that a woman? That seemed to be an interesting twist. For jinnis, for jinn, I knew even less. I knew basically what I picked up from American pop culture versions of Aladdin and the Thousand and One Nights and I Dream of Jeannie and all of that stuff, which, I had to unlearn most of it, and go back to the original tales, and not just the folktales, but—what I hadn’t known at all—was that in most, I think it is, Middle Eastern and Muslim cultures jinn are very real. They’re with us; they’re a belief. Jinn are in the Koran and the Koran is the word of God, and therefore there are jinn. And it’s this shadow world that exists alongside ours, and there are places where, there are cities that are famous for their jinn—sort of haunted cities. And there are places where if you buy a house, it’s the done thing to have someone come do an exorcism if the house has been sitting around by itself for a long time because jinn might have moved in. And so you’re just cleansing it and getting rid of any jinn that might be there before you move in. And what that meant was that I wasn’t reading folktales, so much; I read a few, and I read some stories from the Thousand and One Nights, but I was going more to things like anthropological journals and stories of local folklore, like, “In our town we have jinn, and this is what they do. This is what they’re like.” So that was fascinating. And I tried to integrate that feeling of “they’re just always there; they’re always around you” to the book.

SO: Yeah I think you did a great job of that. I think talking about immigration, and loss, and all of these things that are very real to nonfantastic entities like ourselves—I know you’ve talked in some interviews about writing these family stories, or based on stories from your family, and moving into the more fantastic. How did that free your writing or inform it in different ways?

HW: Oh, it really freed what I was trying to do because part of the problem I was having with those original stories was that I just knew them too well. Fictionalizing real life stuff is hard. It’s very easy to lose that kernel of what it is you’re trying to do, or to become so attached to the way that things actually went that you lose sight of how to make it into a story that is more readable and believable and doesn’t sound like you’re just recounting a thing that happened; you’re actually telling a story that has its own rise and fall and energy. So turning it into this, turning it into something that was about mythological creatures that had nothing to do with my family really let me focus in on “Okay, what is it I’m trying to do here? What are the themes I am trying to write about? What’s the experience of being an immigrant? How does that work then when you are a golem or a jinni, when it’s not just ‘I can’t speak English and I don’t know how to get a job and I don’t know how to get groceries at the corner store.’ It’s ‘I need to figure out how to eat so that I don’t seem weird because I never eat. What do I do when everyone else is sleeping?’” Neither of them has to sleep; they have to figure out what to do when the rest of the city is sleeping. One thing I think fantasy and sci-fi does, that it’s meant to do, is take issues of our lives and blow them up larger than life and externalize them so that you can look at them in all directions in a way that you couldn’t when it’s about real people.

SO: That certainly comes through in the book and I think something else you talked about too is just moving from writing what you feel you should be writing to writing what you love to read. I know you’ve talked about some of your favorite writers like Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon, and working through that excitement of moving back into “these are the things I love to read” and having that start your writing process. How were you conscious of that while you were writing? I think we all have our favorite go-to authors and we’re either crushed by them when we realize we won’t quite make it or inspired. So I would just be interested to know how you navigate that.

HW: Gosh. I don’t know; I think, in some ways, Michael Chabon—I don’t know how to pronounce his last name; I never figured it out—Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was the book that set me on the path to deciding, “No, I really need to—I need to at least try to be a writer or one day I am going to never forgive myself.” So that was sort of a touchstone for me but the path really had been laid by Neil Gaiman because he was the first of the writers I had encountered to really take a look at folklore and bring it into more of a pop culture, modern feel, first with his Sandman series and then with American Gods, which was his breakout novel. So I really did have the sense of—in my bad days, the days I thought I was writing crap—I would have said riding on their coattails, but I think, if I’m nicer to myself, basically I was walking a path that they’d laid down. I’d seen them do it, so I knew it could be done. And in that sense I owe them, and a bunch of other authors, a really big debt. Including a woman named Naomi Kritzer, who I actually went to college with and who became a fantasy writer herself, and she wrote a short story called “The Golem” that was my first experience of a female golem. And it was about a lesbian couple in 1930s Prague who build a golem to defend themselves from the Nazis. And when the idea occurred to me that I could write about a girl golem and a male jinni, I’d already seen a girl golem, so that wasn’t as much of a big, scary “but no one’s done that; is that allowed?” sort of thing. Because I was—I think back then—more worried about whether something was allowed that I could write about. I’ve had a lot of that beaten out of me; let’s see if there’s anything else I feel I’m not allowed to write about.

SO: Well on the “beaten out of you” note, I heard it did take seven years to write the novel, which, that is not as long as some people’s novels have taken, but I’m—

HW: Much longer than others!

SO: —sure it felt long at the time, right? Sam, how was it working with a deadline, or if she was over deadline, or working with a writer who you started with on—

SS: Helene likes to torture me.

HW: I do; I’m sorry!

SS: I don’t know how to answer that question. I mean the actual publisher’s deadline wasn’t until the very end. I was trying to set deadlines for Helene to provide a useful service. It didn’t—you know, different authors are different. Some want deadlines and some resent it; it didn’t work very well in this case, partly because she had to earn a living, which is a problem for many authors. And so I’ll tell this story, which is that: in the end I got tired of waiting and decided to submit what she had—which was about half a manuscript—to publishers, which is unusual, nowadays. It used to be a little more common, but now very rare for an agent to submit what’s referred to as a partial manuscript, a “partial” for short, to publishers, but I was so confident in the work, in the way it was shaping up, in her ability to see it through, to realize it fully, that I made a calculated risk after talking about it with her. Partly because I thought an actual deadline, like a publisher’s deadline might—

HW: But, no.

SS: —no, it worked. It might be scarier than I was managing to be. But also because I thought that I thought I probably could sell it for enough of an advance that she would be able to quit all of the crummy jobs she was wasting her time on, and in the end, that proved to be right. And the advance was large enough that she could focus her energies on the book and I think, a little more than a year later, actually cross the finish line.

HW: Yep. I sent it in, the finished manuscript, on June 13 of 2011, which was again 13, and that’s my husband’s birthday, and he said it was the best present I could have given him.

SO: If you could take us through a little bit of the promotion of the book? I mean it’s won so many different awards from Science Fiction Fantasy Writers and Fantasy Nebula Award to Jewish Fiction Award to Goodreads; you know you’ve gotten a lot of great reactions. How do you promote a book that’s sort of falling into different categories?

SS: You know, as an agent, I complain incessantly—and authors, too—about how poor a job publishers do of promoting books—which is very often true—but I think HarperCollins really did an outstanding job in this case. One of the things they did that I think was really most successful was they had a luncheon in New York for reviewers, for media—a media luncheon. Publishers won’t invest in this kind of event unless they think a book really has the potential to get widespread attention. So they decided to do it for this book, and they invited twenty, twenty-four reviewers, and Helene was just brilliant at that event in talking about her book. And succeeded in interesting a number of reviewers, most important among them perhaps the reviewer for Entertainment Weekly, which is quoted here at the bottom of the jacket. Their review, among others, was instrumental in putting a lot of wind in the sails of the book. So that early event, as much as all the routine stuff—sending it out, sending advance copies, sending it to the pre-pubs. Not much touring in this case.

HW: No, mostly West Coast and a little in the Midwest, as I would go back home to the Chicago area and do a couple things and whatever. The Jewish Book Council was a lot of help there.

SS: Right. Just a note about touring, for anybody who’s curious about this: it can feel to a new author like the publisher is slighting them if they don’t send them out on a tour, but the truth is that for a debut novel, it’s not necessarily the best use of resources because since it’s your first novel, nobody knows you yet and there’s no real demand—you know, a high likelihood that nobody’s going to show up. It’s more established authors, authors who already have a following, who have an established readership, for whom it makes sense to tour. So while some authors feel disappointed, like that’s supposed to be part of the package, the truth is that it can be really demoralizing, so it’s not something I necessarily advocate. So that’s, I think in this case, why it made sense not to tour a lot. Now for Helene’s next book—whenever it comes, it’ll come someday—I think there will be that demand. I think that the publisher will want her to tour and she will have legions of followers, like you guys, who will come to the bookstore.

HW: My minions.

SO: So Helene, I understand you have a background in marketing and communications, so did that help you?

HW: You know, that was something I was going to say as Sam was talking; I was thinking about it. I feel I lucked out in that I came to this with some media training, some training on how to talk in front of large groups, how to talk about something that you’re trying to promote. HarperCollins did not give me any sort of training on how to talk about the book. My guess is they looked at my background and how I was talking about it already and said, “She’ll do okay.” But I wonder if—do they do that? Do they give people any media training?

SS: Yeah. Actually in their new offices they have a media center where they do videos with authors and coach them and stuff. But you were a natural.

HW: Well, I learned. What I was going to say as part of that is publishers . . . my understanding and what I’m hearing from friends and so on, is since there’s more and more outlets, blogs, Twitter, whatever, authors are expected to be their own marketers more and more. So it really starts to behoove writers to learn how to talk about their own book, and to learn how to go out and put your foot in and start looking to see if you can join a bit of a community and to just be out there in the world as a writer with work. And that will serve you in really good stead.

SO: I understand too—if you could talk about this a little bit—that toward the end they wanted to change the title? I was interested to find out what they wanted to change it to or what made you feel so strongly about this particular title.

HW: That was really interesting. From the very beginning, even way back when it was just the forty pages, it was always in mind as The Golem and the Jinni, and I had person after person tell me, “That sounds really interesting, but you know they’re going to want to make you change the title.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, probably. But I have no idea what I would change it to, so it’s just this for now.” As the book got bigger and more developed, every once in a while, I’d be like “If I wasn’t going to call this The Golem and the Jinni, what would I call it?” and nothing ever came to my mind. So I was like, “Well, it’s not a crisis or anything, so we’ll just keep it that.” And then it got to HarperCollins, and it made its way through the editing process and so on and so forth, and it wasn’t until rather late in the game that the HarperCollins marketing department came to my editor and said, “We want a different title. Right now, what it is, is two words that people don’t know connected with an ‘and,’ so we really need a different title.” My editor called us up and said, “They want a different title.” So we decided to put our heads together and come up with a different title. And we came up with bupkis. We could not think of a single title that made sense.

SS: I wish I remembered—do you remember any of the titles?

HW: Oh, some of them were just awful.

SS: They were awful.

HW: One of them was like Shadows-something. We were trying to come up with—they’re opposites, so let’s come up with opposite words. Someone said East and West and we just nixed that. You know she’s earth, and he’s flame, so a creature of something—and we’re like “Oh God.” It was like the book was Teflon and these titles were just sliding off of it and laughing. Nothing resonated. Nothing worked. It was just The Golem and the Jinni.

SS: I think we had a conversation about the title before I even submitted it. And I too thought that the title wasn’t going to work, and we tried to come up with something, and failed then, too. And I ended up feeling that although it felt slightly inelegant, it had the virtue of actually describing what the book was.

HW: Yep. It does what it says.

SS: Truth in advertising. So I decided to submit it under this title and ended up championing it with the publisher. I mean we did try to come up with another title when they asked. So one other funny thing happened with the title—can I tell this story?

HW: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

SS: So they came and they said, “Okay, we’ll call it The Golem and the Jinni, but can we spell jinni G-E-N-I-E?” Which, of course, immediately evokes every terrible stereotype of a genie in a bottle in American pop culture, and we drew the line at that. So they did this thing that really seems kind of stupid. I don’t know if you noticed; in the American version, in the U.S., the HarperCollins version, they spelled it J-I-N-N-I, but you may have noticed, if you were paying attention, that the trailer had it spelled differently. It was spelled D-J-I-N-N-I. The trailer was produced by the British publisher, another division of HarperCollins. In the U.S., the HarperCollins publicity people seemed to feel that jinni spelled D-J-I-N-N-I would confuse people even more than they would already be confused. But in England—

HW: “What’s a d-jinni?”

SS: “D-jinni—what’s that?” Whereas in England they seemed to feel like this would not be a problem.

SO: I have an English copy of the book. My husband got it for me.

SS: So you have the English copy? So it says D-J-I-N-N-I?

SO: So you wore them down by coming up with no good ideas or what?

SS: We made a good faith effort. We weren’t just stonewalling.

HW: I think what happened—I might be telling tales out of school at this point—but what happened around that time was that my editor went to the art department at HarperCollins and said, “Get me a gorgeous cover that incorporates the title, The Golem and the Jinni, so they’ll actually get excited about the title.” The art department came up with this and when I saw it, it was like my birthday and Hanukkah and the Fourth of July all rolled up into one. It was amazing, because I’d had literally no idea what I wanted the cover to look like. People kept asking me, “What do you want the cover to be?” and I’m like, “I don’t know.” And then they showed me this, and I was like, “How could it have ever been anything else? This is just perfect.” And I think maybe that was when HarperCollins decided, “Okay, fine. You have your title.”

SO: You have your book now.

SS: Well, they couldn’t come up with anything better, either.

HW: No. We all just sort of went like this and said, “It is what it is.”

SO: Well, so those are all of my questions, I guess, if you want to open up to the audience for a few minutes. If people have any questions we have our assistants here with the microphones so just raise your hand and they’ll come to you.

Audience: I want to know if you shopped this to publishers other than HarperCollins. I’d always understood that the agent was inundating every publisher with manuscripts. I mean the same manuscript to a number of different publishers.

SS: I’d like to think that I don’t “inundate” them, but I’m very picky. I only send them things I think are good. Yes, I submitted this widely. I forget exactly how many—for me a wide submission is maybe twelve or fifteen. There’s actually fewer and fewer large commercial publishers as time goes on, and they consolidate, so twelve to fifteen is pretty much covering the ground. So we had an auction—I forget exactly how many bidders there were—I think half a dozen interested publishers in the end. For an agent, that is the goal—to have competitive bidding—because that’s the only way you really find the true price, the true value in the market, is when you have competitive bidding. On occasion I’ll make an exclusive submission, when I just think that a book is perfect for an editor at a given house, but that’s really exceptional. Especially when I’m so excited; I was so excited about this book, I just wanted to show it to everybody, and so I had a hard time limiting myself to a dozen or whatever the number was. But it was very gratifying to have an auction of a half a dozen publishers—that’s as good as it gets. And then HarperCollins was the winner.

Audience: We read your book for our book club; we stumbled upon it, and it’s a brilliant book. This may be a trite question, but what was your favorite character to write? Because we all had lots of emotions toward certain characters; you know we all have our favorites, so it’s just interesting from the writer’s perspective. Who was your favorite—if you had a favorite?

HW: I was actually talking about this with a group of students earlier today—I could see you guys going, “I know! I know who it is!” My favorite is Saleh. Yeah, we’re not supposed to, you know—“Oh, I love all my characters”; it’s like children. Saleh was my favorite to write. He came sort of out of the blue. He was a product of research. I was reading an article about Little Syria and it was written in the 1890s, back when Little Syria was a relatively new community. They didn’t have photos back then; they had illustrations in newspaper articles, and there was this illustration of a man sitting on a sidewalk curb with a churn next to him—a wooden churn. He looked like he was in about his fifties, and was thin and he had this mustache. And he had this cloth wrapped around his head, and he had very, very sad eyes. He looked so sad. The caption was: “An Ice Cream Seller.” It was that juxtaposition: ice cream, fun, children, summertime, and this guy who looked like something horrible had just happened to him. So I was like, “Who is this guy?” And he just appeared in my head. He’s the only character who ever did that. Usually I make scoffing noises when people talk about the characters writing themselves, but he did. Everyone else, it was like pulling teeth: “What are you doing in this situation? What are you going to do? What are you going to say?” Saleh, I always just knew. So when his scenes came around, they were just a relief to write. He really felt like this gift; he became my favorite that way.

Audience: Since you’ve been so successful with your first novel, could you perhaps say something about the stresses of gearing up for, one day, your second novel coming out? Which I’m assuming you’re working on. Will you tell us all about it?

HW: Yeah, it’s a little stressful. And it’s, of course, the sort of stress that you want to have. I’ve been—for whatever combination of skill, luck, and whatever—this book has been a success. It’s been amazing. And now it’s like I’m looking at a to-do list that has “write another New York Times bestseller” on it. And that’s a little daunting. I think what’s going to need to happen is I’m going to have to really just forget about all of this in order to do that, because otherwise I will be second-guessing myself from the moment I begin. And I have begun. I had a very prolonged false start, and now I am back trying to regroup, and taking what I learned from that false start and going on. Something I heard many times at Columbia was, “Just because you’ve written one book doesn’t mean your second book is going to be any easier.” It’s the sort of advice that we all hear and go, “Yeah, but not for me.” There’s always that voice in the back of your mind; sort of like, “You don’t understand how much work kids are.” It’s like, “Yeah, but I’ll be fine.” One of those. Now I’m running up against that. I’m having to remind myself that I had all the time in the world with the first one because I had nothing to lose. And I need to act, in some manner, in that way as much as I can this time while also having two kids and so on and so forth. There’ve been a lot of “I’m living someone else’s life” moments, but this one is “no, it’s just me now.” This is on me. So that’s how I’m moving forward.

SS: I’m just going to add to that. Here are some words of encouragement.

HW: For me?

SS: For you. For Helene. For anybody else who can profit by them, but for you. It took Helene a very long time—we didn’t talk that much about the development stage for this book—but it took seven or eight years and one of the things that I thought was most impressive about how—I mean I know it was agonizing a lot of moments, and there were false starts and ripped out pages and stuff—but what was impressive was the way in which Helene approached it as a craftsperson—and I really mean this in a very positive way—in a very workman-like way. So I am confident that it’ll be a struggle with the second one too, but that craft will be what allows you to work through whatever psychological challenges there are. Just a diligence.

Audience: I’m just wondering—because Helene said how it started out as a short story and became then a novel—and this question is, I guess, maybe more for Sam. In the MFA program, oftentimes we talk about short stories and novels, and it seems like to get your foot in the door, even if you may be more prone to be a novelist or if you feel like you’re more comfortable in that form, it’s always encouraged to write short stories so that you can get yourself out there. What is your feeling about that and can you speak to that for us a little bit?

SS: I mean, I don’t really have an opinion. I mean, the short story, obviously in MFA programs, is the form of choice partly because it’s just workshoppable, I think. It certainly is true that, I mean for me, as primarily a book agent, the form that question takes is, “What about a collection of short stories?” The old model where a new author would start with a collection of short stories and then follow that with a novel—that as a system has decomposed somewhat. Short story collections seem to go through cycles; there’s one that becomes a bestseller every once in a while and that encourages everybody to think that, “Oh, the short story is back,” and you’ll see a cover story in the New York Times about new interest in the short story form and then it fades again. It’s case by case. Short story collections are certainly harder to sell than novels.

Audience: As an agent, would you—in Helene’s case, she just had this incredible, amazing concept that sold you right away when you met her at this event—but would you be more likely to—if you had a young author who’s published a short story just in a literary journal or something, not necessarily a whole collection—would that encourage you more to want to represent them and their novel if they’ve written one?

SS: Yes; well it would make me pay more attention. It’s maybe a sad truth that we do depend, to a certain extent, on other people’s vouching. If an author approaches me and they’ve had stories published in literary journals and reputable journals, that is meaningful to me because it means that others have read this author’s work and found it worthy. So yes. I mean I try not to be superficial. I try to judge for myself, but because of the volume of stuff that I have to deal with, I need shortcuts and that’s one.

Audience: I was wondering if you had an endpoint to the story early on or if that just sort of developed over the years that you were writing.

HW: I had, more or less, an endpoint that I think changed in tone a number of times. One thing that’s funny is that I knew what the last sentence of the book was going to be for about two or three years, but the last three chapters or so changed dramatically as that ending approached. The first ending that I wrote was a horrible ending. Really didn’t do the book justice; it crossed all of the “t”s and dotted all of the “i”s without having any real emotional resonance whatsoever, and at the time, I was writing over deadline and needed to get this book done. And I wrote the whole ending and then sent it off to Sam and to my editor and said, “This is terrible. Let’s talk about it.” And they agreed and we talked about it. We then went through and fixed it through a process of going through the book and taking out everything that was completely inessential—that was at all inessential—and streamlining it so that at the end, there’s fewer characters in play; there’s fewer magical items; there’s fewer elements that I had to keep track of so that I was able to give each its own emotional due. As part of that, Sam suggested a rather large change to the tone of that ending—of the epilogue—that worked much better, that was more true to the book as a whole. So when I talk about this book being a collaborative process that’s one of the things I’m thinking about is this ending that needed massive rework, and it became like we’re all pulling together. I was the one who had to do the work of sitting down and writing, but I was leaning pretty heavily on a lot of people.

SS: There’s another answer to that question which I think is interesting. I hope I’m not breaking confidence. When Helene first told me about the novel, her initial conception was that the story would take place over the course of a century, which I thought was interesting, because to me it made the combination of elements from Jewish and Arab folklore more allegorical, because then, it would be paralleling the foundation of Israel as a state and all of the conflicts that have ensued from the rise of Zionism in the Middle East. So I did like that, on the other hand, I mean as it was, the story just covers a single year and got very big just covering a single year, so that had to be jettisoned. I guess the short answer to your question is no; she had a totally different idea of how it was going to end originally.

HW: Yeah. Although, I think even so with that original century, I had something in mind that it was—I don’t want to say anything about the ending of the book, spoil the ending of the book for other people in the audience who haven’t read it yet—but that sense of ending on a question, I think, seemed to me to be . . . I don’t know, sometimes it’s hard to remember, but I do think there was an idea that they were going to keep going on after the pages ended that I always wanted there to be. And I hope it’s there now.

HW: Thank you very much.  end  

Shannon O’Neill is a regular contributor for Style Weekly, an alternative newsweekly serving the Greater Richmond area. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University, where she served as the 2011–2012 Cabell Fellow.

Sam Stoloff is vice president and senior agent at Frances Goldin Literary Agency, Inc., a full-service literary agency based in New York City’s Greenwich Village, representing quality fiction and nonfiction, with a particular focus on books that have a progressive political orientation. He represents a wide range of authors of adult fiction and nonfiction, including academics, journalists, activists, poets, fiction writers and memoirists. He has worked for the Frances Goldin Literary Agency since 1997. Stoloff earned a PhD in American studies and an MFA in creative writing from Cornell University.


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