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.
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.
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!