For her first novel, Philadelphia writer Sarah Blake tackled a well-known Bible story — the tale of Noah and his ark — through the voice of a lesser-known character, Noah’s wife, Naamah. Filled with magical realism and fantastic imaginings, Naamah was released on April 9 by Riverhead Books.
Blake will be in discussion with novelist Madeline Miller (Circe) at Shakespeare and Co. on April 19. She chatted with us about the challenges of reimagining such a beloved story and exploring the facets of faith through Naamah’s eyes.
The book seems to be an exploration of feminism through an unusual lens — that of a Bible story.
I’m definitely drawn to women’s stories. I’m especially drawn to what it is about women’s stories that connected us as children. You’re introduced to a lot of these women when you’re pretty young, especially with Bible stories. While writing this book, I revisited all the women I was introduced to as a kid and the ways in which I identified with them, or didn’t identify with. I revisited my more negative feelings about the women that I had originally seen as meeker. Was it because of the ways they were being told through the story and not necessarily the way they are themselves? And in the end, I created a woman I would have wanted to know as I was becoming a woman.
What drew you to reimagine Naamah’s story?
I was working on a poetry project, and I was reading a lot of stories from Genesis for it. As I was reading over the story of the ark and the flood, it struck me in a way that it hadn’t before. This family was on the ark for over a year. The idea of taking your grown children, being trapped with all the animals together, and telling [your children] that this was their best option despite not knowing that the future was the right one, a good one, a happy one — that really stuck out to me.
You’re reimagining, or, really, imagining for the first time, the story of someone we have very little information about.
It goes both ways. In some ways that was really freeing for me. Even though I was taking on such a favorite story, I didn’t feel like I was rewriting her story. The challenge came from writing about something that took place 10,000 years ago. I didn’t know what their day-to-day life looked like, so I had to piece a lot of that — what they wore, what they ate — together using the internet. But I also made a deal with myself and said, “It’s OK to be wrong.”
For a lot of the book, you’re writing in scenes — on the ark, underwater with an angel, dreams — as in a play. What was writing those parts like?
It helped me as a first-time novelist. I have a set number of people in a set number of spaces. When I wanted to break out of the two confining spaces — the water and the ark — I would push myself to write the dream sequences. I also found that I’m a dialogue nut. It’s actually how stories come to me. It’s interesting because I came up as a poet, and poetry is not dialogue-driven. I would think, “What are the characters going to say to each other? How are they going to interact with each other and interrupt each other’s inner lives?” And that would set someone’s path.
One of the biggest themes in the book is Naamah’s doubts concerning God. She is the only character with such doubts. Yet God’s choices make the flood happen.
For Naamah, in her time, there is no question that God exists. But Naamah does doubt God’s choices. She questions: Why would he kill every person and animal besides those few on the ark? And how does she then turn to her children and say, with confidence, what has been done was the right thing and the path ahead of us is good? Naamah captivated me because of her intensely hopeless position on the ark, where even the definitive existence of God would not relieve all of the pressures and demands of thousands of animals and the eight humans who determine the fate of the world. I think many of us are looking at the world now, wondering, how can it be saved? And how do we promise bright futures to our children with the state of things? And where does hope come from when we need it? That was the most interesting part of writing the book for me.
Sarah Blake in conversation with Madeline Miller
6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., April 19. Shakespeare & Co., 1632 Walnut Street. Free. Information: 215-486-2106, shakeandco.com.