Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Interview with Susan Campbell Bartoletti -- Newbery Honor Award Winning Author

Dear Reader,

It is such a great honor to introduce you to my long-time and treasured friend, the Award Winning author, Susan Campbell Bartoletti. www.scbartoletti.com   As Susan says, we were babies together, but what she means by that is baby writers. How lucky for me to grow up with this author!

Susan gives so much of her time and expertise to the writing community and to our children through her books. Please join me now in celebrating her newest title, Naamah and the Ark at Night.  amzn.to/p2NyxU

What was the source of the inspiration for your soon-to –be-released picture book, Naamah and the Ark at Night?
A very old wooden ark that sits on a shelf in my dining room.
As a little girl, when I visited my grandmother – my father’s mother – I played with the ark. I lined up the animals, two by two, and boarded them safely. I imagined the falling rain. The rising floodwaters. The ark tossing and turning on the churning sea. The screaming and crying people Noah left behind, pounding the gangway door, begging to be let on.
Okay, I’m just kidding about that last sentence, but this part is true: I was a very impressionable child. To this day, I remember clearly a coloring book illustration that depicted the terrified men and women Noah didn’t allow on the ark. And I was supposed to do what? Color it with my crayons? Colorize their terror? That illustration haunted me.

Can you share something about the character of Naamah, Noah’s wife?
One day, I found that my imagination turned to Noah’s wife.
In the King James Version of Genesis, we’re told Noah was a just man, full of grace.
But what about his wife? Who was she? What kind of person was she? And I began to imagine this woman who spent over a year on an ark filled with animals. I began to ask: what must she have thought when Noah told her his plan? How did she feel packing her house? When the rain began to fall? Surely the neighbors must have noticed. What did they think as Noah hammered and sawed away? When Noah gathered the animals? What did her sons and her daughters-in-law think? How did it feel when the flood waters rose? What was life like on the ark?
These are just some of questions I asked, and the answers led me to write different versions of the story. None of those versions “worked,” and so I put the story away. It sat in my drawer for many years. Every so often, I’d return to it and try again.
What I didn’t realize is that I hadn’t asked the right question yet: What was her name?
Although Noah’s wife is never given in the King James book of Genesis, some people have named her over the years. In 1941, an American scholar named Francis Utley listed 103 possible names for Noah’s wife.
From my research, I learned that some rabbinical legends tell us that Noah’s wife was called Naamah because her deeds were pleasant. These legends also tell of another Naamah whose name meant “great singer.”
So we might ask: what’s in a name? These interpretations helped me imagine Naamah’s personality and her talents. They help me imagine how she inspired and comforted Noah and their three sons and their wives, as well as all the animals. Perhaps Naamah sang.
There. I had found my entry into the story.
What about her connected to you emotionally?
The urge to tell a story usually begins with an emotional connection, doesn’t it? Something or someone that makes the heart swell or turn over.
This story began with my sentimental attachment to the ark. I never knew my father, who died in a car accident when I was two months old, and that wooden ark is one of the few things I own that belonged to him.
As a writer, I like to look for “untold” stories from history, because wherever there’s a gap there’s a story. And so I found myself drawn to the story of this woman whose name was left out of the story.  
The final version of the story also came about as I began to think about being a grandmother. And guess what?

No, don’t guess. I’ll tell you. As soon as Holly Meade agreed to illustrate the book, my daughter became pregnant with twins! I have boy-girl twin grandchildren, named Rocco and Alia who turned two in March. They have a younger sister, Mia, who turned one in June. My first grandbabies came by two and the third came by one.
(And speaking of the illustrations, are they not magnificent? I feel so fortunate to have been paired with Holly.)
You modeled your poem after an ancient poetic structure. What drew you to this form?  Can you tell us a little about it? Does your lullaby/poem follow this strict form or did you alter the structure?
A few years ago, I heard my friend and colleague Molly Peacock read a poem that she termed a “sonnet-ghazal.” Her poem was so hauntingly beautiful that it raised the hair on my arms.  (Molly and I teach in the low-residency MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.)
Molly and I have talked a lot about poetry. She says to think of a poetic form as a container that you pour the words into. (Er, I mean, into which you pour the words.)
In short: Noah’s wife needed a name and my story needed a container. Once the story had a name and a form, the words poured out on the first draft, with little revision and very few changes after that.
(Of course, that wouldn’t have been possible without all those years of attempts.)
So what is a ghazal?
Strictly speaking, a ghazal (pronounced “guzzle”) comes to us from the Middle East.  It’s an Arabic word that means, “talking to women.” (How perfect is that meaning for Naamah’s story?)
Here are the basics:
·         A ghazal is composed of five-to fifteen stand-alone couplets. (The usual number is seven.)
·         Each couplet should be a stand-alone poem in itself that is not linked in any way. (Some poets describe each couplet as a pearl on a pearl necklace.) The refrain provides the link.
·         Each line is the same metric length. The first couplet introduces a scheme: a refrain (a repeated word or phrase) that appears at the end of both lines of the first couplet and a rhyme or near rhyme that precedes the refrain.
·         Subsequent couplets follow the scheme in the second line only. Here, the refrain is repeated and the second line rhymes or nearly rhymes with both lines of the first stanza.
·         The final couplet usually includes the poet’s name and a derivation of the meaning of the poet’s name.
The traditional ghazal is so beautiful! You can find examples by conducting an internet search online.
That said, many Western poets take liberties with the traditional form, and so did I.
Liberties? What sort of liberties? Do tell . . .
One of the biggest liberties is that my ghazal is a continuous development of one subject – Naamah and the Ark at Night.
What was your writing process for this?
Once I determined my refrain – night – I wrote eleven couplets with rhyming words that moved Naamah throughout the night.
Did the rhyming words come first? No. I needed to determine Naamah’s movement first. Then I figured out the rhymes so that they would be organic to her story.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t asked?  Advice for writers?
Write and read more poetry. Poetry helps me stretch and grow as a writer. The craft and skill that goes into writing poetry improves the other work I do. 


Thank you for sharing such rich insights into the writing of Naamah and the Ark at Night. I am, as always, encouraged by your dedication to taking time as time is needed to create not just a new book, but a work of art. 

Dear Readers, 

Please take a moment of your time to leave a comment for Susan about her new book for a chance to win and receive an autographed copy of the gorgeous Naamah and the Ark at Night, before it's released to the public. The winner will be announced on July 29th. Thank you! We love you for your thoughtfulness!


  1. I am a picture book writer and you definitely caught my attention with this. It sounds like a wonderful story and the pictures are beautiful. I am going to do a search for ghazal. Thanks for the wonderful interview, I hope some day to have one of my children's manuscripts published, too.

  2. Hi Janet, I'm so glad that you were inspired by Susan's interview! Best wishes and write on!

  3. I met Susan at "The Gathering" at Keystone college several years ago when she was working on this picture book. SHe so inspired me with this form of poetry that I wrote a ghazal for my Dark Fantasy Poetry Collection.

    I'd love to win Naamah and the Ark at Night not only because it is an awesome topic, but I'd love to see the poetry format that inspired me to write one of my own.

    Susan is a great inspiration to all authors, new or old.

  4. Gayle, Thank you so much for sharing how Susan touched your life and your writing. I love it!

  5. I'm so happy to read this interview with Susan, a wonderful writer and teacher. Hearing her speak at the Eastern NY conference recently helped me fix a key scene in my novel. I love the song and story of this new picture book, as well as the way Susan used the touchstone of her father's ark to bring the story to light. Thanks for sharing this, Clara.

  6. Hi Clara,
    Every time I visit your blog, I always leave refreshed and inspired.
    Where do I start after reading Susan's interview?
    Susan and Clara,
    Thanks to both of you for such a wonderful interview--Clara's questions and Susan's responses.
    I love the way Susan describes the genesis of her book--her inspiration, curiousity, imagination, and the actual doing.
    Although I am not a poet, I am intriguied by this poetic form. Naamah and the Ark at Night sounds like a lovely book, and the illustrations in the post are glorious.
    Donna v.

  7. Toby, Getting to hear Susan speak at The SCBWI Eastern NY Conference was special, wasn't it? Thanks for sharing how Susan touched your life and how her words helped you with your revision.

  8. Hi Donna (irishoma)-- Thank you for your kind and generous comment. You've nicely touched on the different aspects of Susan's writing process.

  9. A brilliant beautiful interview with an amazing writer whom I'm also proud to claim as a friend.

  10. Thanks for your heartfelt words, Claudia! We would never know the pink wing without our Susan!

  11. Oh, this book sounds so beautiful and inspiring. I love it!!! Please, oh, please, let the random numbers fall on me... Congratulations, Susan!

  12. Thanks for stopping by, Christie! It is a stunningly beautiful book. Best wishes!

  13. Wow, Susan. Writing poetry is the hardest kind of writing there is . . .and putting it into a picture book! My goodness. That's wonderful. I can't wait to read it. Not to mention, the stories (even imagined) concerning the women of the Bible are particularly intriguing. What is the next one going to be about? BTW, I love what I see of the illustrations!

  14. Thanks for your comment, Betty! Hmmm . . . great question for Susan about her next project. I'll have to ask her if she can tell us in the post next week!

  15. Oh boy, would I love to win this book. I love poetic forms like this and have tried to write a few. Thank you for this interesting interview!


  16. Clara--Thanks for opening up the window and letting us peek in on Susan as a writer. I love her idea of the poetic form being the "container in which we pour the words." I guess when I write free verse, that means the containers are definitely shaped in funky, quirky ways, right?

    Susan--I think I saw the same "color it and make it happy" picture of all the people who did not get onto the ark. I found it interesting that you had questions, which helped drive the story, but this was the most fascinating: there was one detail--one "key"--that unlocked the entire storytelling process, once that detail was in place.

    The story sounds like a marvelous one, and the illustrations--the color and the style--are gorgeous. Good luck with book signings and readings.

  17. Dear Susan,
    Thank you for sharing your writing journey for Naamah and the Ark at Night. Amazing! It was encouraging to find out that the idea slept for years before it came to life. Sometimes I think of the writing I've tucked away as, well, failure. Maybe, it is just a matter of asking the right question!
    I googled ghazal. What a beautiful form of poety. The illustrations are beautiful, too. I want to see them all and read the story. I don't think I can stand the wait until August when your book comes out!
    Thank you and Clara for this inspiring interview!

  18. Margo, Thanks for dropping by and for your ongoing support!

    Sioux--Thank you for sharing what resonated most with you in Susan's interview, and for pulling out Susan's reminder that as writers we need to ask questions!

    Lorrie--Pull out those old stories, ask those questions, and discover the pearl in each attempt. I'll check with Susan, but I think it was also Molly Peacock who said, "Success lies in the attempt." Thank you for stopping by!

  19. What a terrific article and so neat to learn the inspiration and process involved in writing the story.

  20. Hi Shannon, Thanks for stopping by to celebrate Susan's new book!

  21. Fascinating, Clara and Susan. Can't wait to read the book.


  22. Thanks for joining us, Laurie! I know that you're going to love NAAMAH and the ARK at NIGHT!

  23. Beautiful inspiration! I can't wait to read the book.

  24. Thanks for the comment, Suzanne! I'm glad you were inspired.

  25. This is fascinating! I never heard of a ghazal before, but this story sounds so intriguing and I would love to read this poetic form. What a wonderful interview!

  26. Hi Susanna, Thanks for stopping by to join the book celebration!

  27. Wonderful and inspiring interview.
    Happy Weekend!

  28. The story and the poetic form it takes sound fascinating. Thanks for offering us all this opportunity to win a copy.

  29. Hi Carol, Thanks for stopping over from your Tiki Hut to say hello! Still sultry here!

  30. Hi Pat Kahn, Thanks for joining the celebration. I'm going to check out your Childsplay now!

  31. I've only just become interested in picture books as an art form and an outlet to my creativity. Thank you for the further inspiration and good luck with your book!

  32. Anita, Best wishes with your new writing journey. I am delighted that Susan's words were an inspiration. Thanks for joining the celebration!

  33. Thank you, Clara, for this opportunity and everyone for your thought-full comments. xxoo

  34. Thank you for this great interview. It's wonderful to hear from someone who delves into oft neglected poetic forms.
    Kathy Wiechman

  35. So lovely to hear from you, Kathy! Thanks for joining us. Hope you're having a great writing summer!

  36. Oh, wow. What a beautiful book! I'll look for it.

  37. Kristin, You'll really love this book and the poetry form! Thanks for joining us!

  38. Congratulations, Susan, on a gorgeous book and for brilliant use of an intriguing poetic form. I haven't seen you for so long...it's nice catching up with you again this way!
    Pat Thomas