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On Golems and Empathy: An Interview with Jonathan Auxier

Monday, February 11, 2019| Permalink

I recently had the opportunity to ask Jonathan Auxier, author of Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, some questions about his acclaimed novel. Sweep—a finalist for the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature and winner of the 2019 Sydney Taylor Gold Award in the Older Readers category—has impressed both readers and critics with its compelling characters and exciting narrative, as well as its sophisticated integration of history and fiction. Auxier has made a significant new literary contribution to the Jewish myth of the golem, a supernatural being invested with the hopes and fears of oppressed people.

Emily Schneider: You mention your visit to Prague at the age of nineteen, and how much the city seemed imbued with the myth of the golem, Rabbi Loew’s sixteenth-century monstrous creature sent to rescue the Jewish people from danger. At the time, you weren’t familiar with this mysterious figure in Jewish folklore, but you became fascinated by it. Why you do you think you maintained this fascination over the years, and eventually pursued it as an author?

Jonathan Auxier: It’s hard to say why certain ideas lodge into the heart of a writer. I think many traditional monsters lack complexity that feels true to the way the world works. That’s not the case with the golem of Prague. His entire genesis is rooted in the (ugly) way the world works. And even when Rabbi Loew uses magic to save his community, the outcome is not unambiguously happy: the golem himself, for all his enchanted might, cannot escape the pain of what it means to live in this world.

Another reason the golem stuck with me for all those years was that it still felt like unexplored territory. The golem is a creature of folklore, rather than literature. He has not been confined to a single definitive text (contrast this with Frankenstein’s monster or Count Dracula or Mr. Hyde—all of whom are inextricably linked to their authors). The golem of Prague is certainly the most famous golem, but he is not the only golem. Virtually every golem I’ve ever encountered is slightly different than those that have come before. There’s a freedom to this, as it lets a writer build a story around a specific character rather than a canonical narrative. Also, they’re fun to draw!

ES: One of the most rewarding qualities of your book is its simultaneous sophistication and accessibility. Young readers will become wrapped up in the excitement of the story, but there are so many intricate historical and literary ingredients that bring it to life. The past of children’s literature is very much alive in your book! Can you tell us about the literary influences on Sweep?

JA: The chief non-golem literary influence is definitely Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. Some say this was the first “modern” children’s book. It’s a strange, very dated novel, but the beginning is gripping: it details the horrible life of a “climbing boy”—one of countless children working as chimney sweeps in the nineteenth century. Once I read Water Babies, I was hooked. The more I researched climbing boys, the more I knew I wanted to write a story set in that world.

The one problem is that the history of climbing boys is unimaginably bleak. There were research days I was so emotionally destroyed that I didn’t think I could go on. And so I began looking for stories that might teach me how to find hope in hopeless situations. I ended up coming back to two favorites: E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. I think those stories, each in their own way, showed me a path through the impossibly bleak world of chimney sweeps.

ES: Your young heroine, Nan Sparrow, is vulnerable and strong. As parents, we know that our children all begin life in need of our protection. You have written about how becoming a parent of three children, one with special needs, had a definite impact on your vision of Nan. Can you explain this connection between your life and your work?

JA: Just to be clear, my youngest daughter’s disability only relates to this question insofar as she came with attendant health problems (chiefly, a congenital heart defect called AVSD); facing the possibility that she might not survive forced me to reckon with what it means to care for someone who I might not be able to protect from harm. That experience was a heightened version of what any parent experiences with any child. Being a parent changes you. All of this to say that having daughters was less about informing Nan’s characterization and more about deepening my understanding of the Sweep—the whole story stems from what he can and cannot do to protect Nan from harm.

ES:Another quality that stands out in Sweep is empathy: for children, for laborers, for women, for Jews. If you will excuse the chutzpah of this question, how did you develop and convey such a great sense of empathy for the Jewish people (which is central to the novel, in the myth of the golem and in the character of Esther Bloom)?

JA: I’m glad to hear that empathy came through, because it’s certainly there—the warm reception of Sweep in the Jewish community has meant so, so much to me. In practical terms, I worked with a number of outside readers and had a lot of conversations about the Jewish experience, which is a big part of it. And before that came years of research: as with many of the uglier aspects of human history, the only way to deny it is to ignore it. It’s impossible to read about marginalized groups in Victorian London and not be horrified—and it’s impossible not to read current headlines and see that these issues are with us still. I think it was Neil Gaiman who referred to books as “little empathy machines.” I came to care about these other identities and concerns by reading books. It is my deepest hope that Sweep has that effect on some future reader.

ES: In the historical note included at the end of the book, you remind readers that child labor is still, tragically, a reality today. How did you achieve a balance in Sweep between telling the stories of unique individuals, and bringing in social issues which are important to you?

JA: This is a place where Nan’s journey mirrors my own. I’m not an activist at heart—I’m a homebody who just wants to be left in peace. At the beginning of the book, Nan is very similar: she wants to keep her head down, do her job, and survive. Characters repeatedly try to form relationships that she rejects. It isn’t until she’s saddled with an infant golem that she has no choice but to open herself up to relationship. And once that happens, it’s a slippery slope! Once you start caring about one other person, it pushes you to care for another and another and so on until you start to care about the world. At some point while writing Sweep I understood that Nan’s journey was one of isolation to social consciousness—of connecting herself to her larger community in service of justice. Over the ten years it took to write this book, I underwent a similar change . . . I’m still not sure if Nan led me there or vice-versa!

Emily Schneider is a writer and educator living in New York City. She has published on children's literature, feminism, and politics in Tablet, The Foward, Jewcy, and Family Reading at the Hornbook. She blogs about children's books at https://imaginaryelevators.blog/.

This interview was coordinated in collaboration with the Sydney Taylor Book Award and the Association of Jewish Libraries. Check out all of the interviews with Sydney Taylor Award winners being published this week.




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