Today it is my absolute pleasure to welcome author Helaine Becker to Bookish Notions as she makes her way through the blogosphere on tour for her new YA novel Gottika! Set in a futuristic city comprised of the privileged, quick-to-anger Gottikans and the marginalized Stoons, Gottika (my review here) tells the story of a Stoon teenager named Dany as he uncovers dark secrets about his family, his people and himself. Helaine stopped by to talk about golems, Narnia and writing herself into her characters.
Danielle @ Bookish Notions: What inspired you to write a novelized retelling of Jewish folklore?
Helaine Becker: The Chronicles of Narnia. And Harry Potter.
I love these books. Love love love them. But as an educated reader, I can’t help seeing that they are both overwhelmingly Christian. Their plots and themes are based on Christian mythology, Christian architecture, Christian values. Which is perfectly understandable, since they are part of the Western tradition. The Christ story is pretty well where it’s at.
But not everyone in the West is Christian. I am not Christian. And as a result, the Christ story just doesn’t sing to me in the way it does for so many others.
I began to wonder, “Could I write a story that is as interesting, as compelling, as exciting, that has philosophical and mythological roots also in Western literature, that is not Christian-based? And make my story as universally appealing as Potter or Narnia?” Now that seemed to me to be a worthy writing challenge.
I searched high and low for the “right” story to work with. Eventually I came back to one of my all-time favorites. The Golem legend.
Now when I was a kid, we had a 16-mm movie projector for our home movies. When my grandfather bought it, it came with a studio short thrown in. The short was called The Man of Stone. Only this past year, I tracked down that it was actually an abridged version of the 1936 French classic Le Golem.
My family watched The Man of Stone every time we pulled out the projector. It was great—especially the bits where the Man of Stone squished the head of the bad guy under his giant boot. And the lady in the tiger cage and the defenestration scene and oh! When he crumbles back to dust. We used to beg my dad to run that scene backwards so we could see the monster reassemble…
So the golem had gotten under my skin before I even knew what a golem was. Gottika is very much, then, my personal, foundational story.
It also turned out to be the ideal vehicle for expressing some key, and I think very beautiful, Jewish philosophical ideas. Universal ideas having to do with truth, identity, and yeah, the meaning of life.
Gottika is NOT a Jewish book, though. If it’s seen only as such, then I have failed in my purpose. There are motifs, characters, scenes, in this book drawn from around the world. Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, the genocide in Ruanda, the Disappeareds in Argentina. Tienamen Square. Unfortunately, racism and oppression are universal constants.
Danielle: How did it come about that Gottika would be illustrated? And how was it working with illustrator Alexander Griggs-Burr?
Helaine: The first incarnation of this story—oh there’s a lovely, golemy pun there—was as a graphic novel. When I revised it as text, I thought some of the original graphic elements worked so well that I wanted to keep them. Especially as a way to explicate bits of the story that were not available to the first person narrator. I’m glad my publisher, Dancing Cat Books, agreed.
And how was it working with illustrator Alexander Griggs-Burr? We authors frequently have little contact with the illustrators. The publishers keep us apart. Perhaps to prevent conflict? I think it’s good that the illustrator gets freedom from the author. I have very strong ideas, sometimes, on how the art should look, but I’m not an artist! I’ve got enough experience now to know to let the people who are experts at art do the art, while I stick to what I am (hopefully) good at. If it works, we wind up with a book that is greater than the sum of the parts.
Danielle: What was the biggest joy and the biggest challenge you faced writing Gottika?
Helaine: Like every book I write, the joys and challenges are intertwined. The very difficulty of creating something new, out of pure brain sweat, IS the joy. You can’t have one without the other.
That being said, I would prefer not to have the head-banging challenge of trying to find an agent, getting an agent, losing an agent, getting rejections, getting more rejections, finding a publisher, losing a publisher, finding a publisher… You know. That old chestnut. I’ve published more than 60 books for kids and teens, and every single one of them was tough to get to market. On the plus side, though, every single one—including Gottika—brought me together with some of the most wonderful people on Earth. You gotta love book people! My Dancing Cat editor, Barry Jowett, was a dream to work with.
Danielle: I always find it interesting how protagonists take shape, some showing up fully formed in the writer’s mind with the plot coming after, while others evolve as the plot unfolds. How was it for you with Dany? Did he surprise you?
Helaine: The first draft of Gottika just poured onto the page in one massive all-night writing session. I knew Dany inside out. Knew exactly how he felt, and why he felt that way, from the get-go. It wasn’t until about two years later that I realized this was because Dany was me at 14. I just wrote myself on that page.
Funnily enough, this happened to me again, after finishing Dirk Daring, Secret Agent (Orca Books, Oct ’14). It’s a middle-grade novel, very funny, about an 11-year-old boy who has an alternate secret life as a (imaginary? real?) spy.
I realized with a huge shock that not only is Darren Dirkowitz me, again, but that the novel tells the same exact story as Gottika. I HAD NO IDEA. REALLY. And the two books are so different, I’m sure an ordinary reader might not notice either.
Danielle: What was your favourite book/story while growing up?
Helaine: What a fitting question to end on, because if I had to pick one (an impossible task!), I might say The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. From those very same Chronicles of Narnia we started with…
Helaine Becker is an award-winning author of over 60 children’s books, including A Porcupine in a Pinetree, Zoobots, Gottika and the Looney Bay All-Stars series. According to her online bio, she “is crazy about fluffy dogs, coral reefs, ice cream and color-changing nail polish.” She lives in Toronto.
You can find Helaine online at:
Gottika is available now.