Beginning writers are often taught to avoid certain tropes, including the retelling of fairy tales and myths. But retellings can be magical when deployed correctly. Such is the case with Sarah Blake’s debut novel, Naamah. Naamah is the wife of the Biblical Noah (of ark-building fame), and the book tells her story, from her perspective, in refreshingly modern prose and with very un-biblical characteristics. She questions the whole “husband talking to God” thing, and even the existence of God Himself—a skeptic in a time when, as Blake notes, belief in God was not optional. She has deep survivor’s guilt—increased because she left behind her female lover in the flood. She’s crass, selfish, aloof, and unprepared to be the mother of nations, especially when she can barely connect to her sons and their wives. She’s human, in other words—something not all Bible heroes are. She is deeply flawed, and therefore deeply relatable.
Blake is a poet, and the novel came out of a collection of poems about women in mythology, exploring the darker sides of real or fictitious icons who are held up as role models. The novel plumbs those depths well, exploring what it means to be a woman trapped in circumstances not of her making, and how one might seek to disrupt life in order to perhaps change those circumstances. Blake’s interest in fantasy and sci-fi is evident, too, in dream sequences, visions, and angels both friendly and fallen; this is a book where anything can happen, and does. Accordingly, it’s extremely hard to put down; I blew through it in two days, happy to be lost in this world and this woman. So much of being a woman means balancing want and need, “should” and “must,” personal and societal. Blake has struck that balance in an improbable setting and with unlikely characters—a high bar for a debut novel.
I spoke with Blake as she was preparing to move from Philadelphia to London, about the inspirations and impulses behind Naamah the woman and Naamah the book; moving from poetry to prose; the freedoms of rewriting within a known story frame; and our shared love for the movie Dogma.
—Mickie Meinhardt for Guernica
Guernica: What made you decide to write about this?
Sarah Blake: Another poet and I had been working on a collection of poems about a sea witch, loosely inspired by Ursula from The Little Mermaid. And I loved that, because it’s always fun to embrace the villain. But then I started thinking, why am I so dismissive of Ariel and these other women? The ones who have been upheld in stories, especially when you’re a child. So I started writing, in persona poem, fairy tales and Greek myths and women from the Bible, trying to think of the women I was exposed to as a child that I either did or didn’t relate to. I tried to go back and develop each more than I had had access to, and that felt more right. Like, Disney’s depiction of Ariel seems not right. Hans Christian Anderson’s depiction seems really not right.
Guernica: Really not right.
Blake: Right? For some reason, when I did Naamah, I could not stop thinking about her. I kept rereading the chapters of Genesis with the story of the ark, and thinking how sparse it was. They always talk about the unnamed women of the Bible—Lot’s wife stands out, and Naamah. And it was incredible to me how long I’d known this story, and how much it comes up in vernacular, but how little there is. As a child I’d shortened the story—they get on the boat, there’s a flood, they get off. 40 days and 40 nights, woof, long time to rain! So when I reread it as an adult, I thought, God, how long is this? And when I realized [they’re on the ark for] over a year, and I was looking into this at the same time as the 2016 election, I got obsessed with thinking about a woman who was trapped and hopeless and stuck and yet made it through. I think a lot of it was the context of the election. And thinking of a woman trapped on a boat for 14 months really threw me, and I really connected to that. [Laughs]
Guernica: Connected to it in what way?
Blake: I was feeling really trapped and hopeless. All these things I felt dismayed over, even with a Democratic president—police shootings and everything—like, how do we have a chance now? [From] a leader I believed in and had, I thought, a good deal of America’s best interests at heart, to a person I would never feel that way about. So I felt like I was being told to make it through these next four years and hold it together and not die. And every time I imagined a woman who had to do that, I just thought she must be a really strong, fierce woman. I needed to spend time with someone who is equally as miserable as me, but is totally holding it together.
Guernica: I think a lot of people now have been thinking what the product of the Trump presidency is, and the kinds of writing that are going to start coming out based in that time frame. I wonder if you consider this in any way a political work, or more a work that just came out of the emotions associated with politics.
Blake: I’ve come to feel this extreme feminism that’s more and more political. Growing up, I considered myself a feminist, a pretty extreme one, but I didn’t think of that as a political act. I should have realized it was, but my teenage self did not recognize that. As I grew older, I did, but especially now. Feminism is a very active political act. A fight, a kind of gruesome fight. The extreme feminism runs throughout the book: being really graphic about the body, explorative in terms of gender, thinking about matriarchs and family structures and how people are respected within their relationships. I hope it has more aspects of feminism than I can name. I hope the book reeks of it.
Guernica: It definitely does.
Blake: Good. I think we can call that a product of Trump times, as some of these very powerful books that are coming out now are, indirectly.
Guernica: To jump off of that, I want to talk about Naamah herself. She is, as you say, this fierce, strong, independent woman. But she’s also kind of crass and selfish, very humanly flawed in a way that made me feel very close to her as a reader. And that was a powerful experience. Most everyone can identify with a feeling of not belonging, and you see her amidst all these “good” people, God-loving and God-fearing, and she does not share all those traits. Who was she when you started, and how did that evolve?
Blake: I loved the idea of her from the outset as someone who had to exist in a time where God spoke to people and was still unknown. There was no, “Do we believe in God or not?” What I feel typically when my agnosticism leanings come out. This was a book where that [belief] was a given. So I had to explore all the weirdness she has around the idea of even surviving, that it’s God’s will she does.
Naamah really started out as me. A grown-up version, with older kids and [living] 10,000 years ago. I feel like I poured everything wrong with me into her. I’m crass and selfish—or I worry I am—so I put as many vulnerabilities of myself as I could into her, to see how a woman I believed in so thoroughly would come through with those traits. But she has all these other relationships and choices to make, so she grew apart from me as the book developed—sometimes, I feel, only to become a better person than me. [Laughs] I needed to find hope in her, and I needed her to struggle as much as I thought I would struggle with ideas of escape. And being in surreal situations, which I always like to imagine for myself.
Guernica: There’s a sense that anything can happen in this book. Where did that come from, and did you feel a license to play with the story since it’s already kind of a myth?
Blake: It wasn’t until after I was finished that I had a few readers say, “I was really nervous about reading this because I know the story, and how could you build suspense?” That wasn’t an issue for me at all, because the story was a helpful frame. On one thread of the story, the ark will happen: the flood, the birds, etc. The whole rest is up to me. It left so much for the surreal.
This is my first time writing prose, really. With the dreams, sometimes those were because I felt I needed a break from telling the story. A very nontraditional form. I wanted to let go of where this woman’s head was at, and see where she would go when she dreams. I think she needs a break, and I need a break. Even writing into the setting of the ark was overwhelming. It always felt dark and cramped and noisy and smelly. And filled with people she didn’t all know! Her sons’ wives were strangers, kind of. Certainly not anyone she knew how to be mother to. And at this point in her life, she’s set to save everything. A lot of the surrealism came from that. That’s always been my draw.
The surreal is what I came up dreaming about, and what I always wanted to write. Usually it’s more cynical in a poem, because for me, poetry has a lot to do with logic and making strange moves on the page. This didn’t have any of that concern, it didn’t have to be a perfect beginning-to-end in a small space. There was a lot of freedom, which was interesting to me.
Guernica: Has starting to write prose changed the way you approach poetry?
Blake: It hasn’t yet. But I can’t do them both at once. I have a quota of creative energy. I like to complete a beginning-to-end draft before I’ll stop, so all poems stop for that time. But when they came out again, they still sounded like me before writing prose.
Guernica: Has it affected your subject matter?
Blake: Well, I still want to finish this book of all these persona poems.
Guernica: Yes! I want you to.
Blake: So that’s my big back-burner project. Every time poems start to come up, it’s either a new woman or giving another angle to one of the women I’m already focusing on. It’s been hard. I don’t really know what the project will be after that. It takes a really long time for me to put a collection together.
Guernica: What was your process of writing Naamah?
Blake: It was my son’s first year in school, an all-day program, and I suddenly had time in a way I hadn’t in years, which was kind of shocking to me. Often, I’d wake up, watch a show while I ate breakfast, and then sit down and write all day. It was a quick process in terms of the amount of time—a year. But it wasn’t in terms of probably how many hours I spent. It’s just that I had these hours available to me, suddenly—a wild gift that I leapt on pretty hungrily. It was very therapeutic. And fascinating, to me, to pour all of my energies and concerns and worries into growing this relationship with this woman, and figuring out how she could survive and love and get herself into trouble.
Guernica: That must have really allowed you to get inside her head.
Blake: Yes, and I was very scared at the beginning, because I really felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. So I didn’t go out to write; I wrote in my house and was very sheltered. I didn’t even play music until I got a few hundred pages in, when I got stuck. Like, if I was listening to Les Mis, which I’ve done since childhood, my hands would just start typing the next sentence without being too critical. And once I got going, the music went off and I’d be in it again. I could only ever see 50 pages ahead of me, at most. I tried not to even see that far. But if days got busy and all of a sudden I had to be away from the project, it would start building up in my head. Like, you need to spend some more time with Naamah and find out what’s happening on this crazy boat!
Guernica: How much research did you do?
Blake: It depends. There was a lot of animal research, because I really enjoy biology and animals, and my son has gotten really into Wildcraft (a PBS show). I tried my best with researching life 10,000 years ago, but that was a lot more difficult! I tried to get in touch with scholars. I tried to get a whole trip funded where I could go to Israel and talk to Torah scholars and maybe go to the desert. None of that happened. My mother and I were sure we were going to go to the ark replica near Cincinnati, and never did that. I just didn’t know what I was doing yet and how far it was going to go, and I really thought that at the end I would look up and go, “That’s very nice, but this was just for me.” And it was going to go in a drawer. It really wasn’t until I sat down and read it from beginning to end that I realized, oh no, I think it is a novel. I think I’ve done it.
Guernica: Well, that leads to other, more fun things, like the dreams, which I was curious about. Where did those come from?
Blake: I needed a break. It became clear that God had to be in there somewhere. I really had no idea where He was going to come up. Like I said, I live in the surreal. I would write everything there if I could. But it doesn’t always make sense, or satisfy the other things in the story. I like suspense and wild thoughts, and am a drama queen in terms of fiction and what I want to do page-to-page. The surreal doesn’t always fill that need. It very much seems like a detour, which I think you need, especially in such a dark book.
Guernica: You said you wanted to set this in a time when a belief in God was not an optional belief. I really enjoyed that Naamah had a faith that was so complicated, because I don’t know anyone that doesn’t have a complicated relationship with God, or the idea of it. I’d like you to speak to that a bit, and developing both her mental relationship and then her actual relationship with God.
Blake: I sort of identify with a more mystical sense of God: more, energy that’s in everything and everyone, and you can do behavioral things to get in touch with that energy more if you want, but you don’t have to. So for me, getting to create a God felt more like reading Greek mythology or learning about Hindu gods. It felt like a character that could have a story and a personality that could be as complicated as a mortal’s. I was raised culturally Jewish, but not religious in any way, so I didn’t have any hang-ups or guilt or shame around religion, or around the things that typically get guilt and shame from religion, like sex. I’m a shameless creature. So creating God didn’t really feel like creating “God.” I don’t really feel I’ve attempted to give a personality to what a faithful Christian would consider God. I don’t think I’ve done anything blasphemous, because I did something completely different. That’s really my own twist on it.
I loved watching Dogma, which was an inspiration.
Guernica: I love that you said that, because it’s one of my favorite movies, and I thought of it when reading this book.
Blake: I love Alan Rickman, and the idea of the Metatron, and that God is a more complicated presence, and multifaceted, and also represented by speaking angels as much as Him- or Herself. That kind of changed forever how you could do a religious text. [Director Kevin Smith] was more faithful to many different facets of Christianity than I would ever know about, and put this fabulous twist on it that I think is fantastic.
Guernica: I was raised Catholic, but the reason I know what the Metatron is, is because of that movie. When I saw it in the book I thought, “Great! I know what that is!”
Blake: Yes! It’s Alan Rickman in Dogma, but evil! I often hear Alan Rickman’s voice when I hear the Metatron in my book. He was heavily inspired by that.
So, like that movie, I’m using [these figures’] names, but I very much created very different types of characters with very different types of characterizations. I’m glad I was able to stick to the story. I really enjoy the Bible and its language, and these sections of Genesis, and the translations I’ve seen, and even some of the outside texts—the Midrash and the Book of Jubilees—and where they aligned. But it really didn’t feel to me that I was treading on that in any way, by creating a new story.
Guernica: I feel like your sense of discovery really comes through in the book.
Blake: That’s what I always found with poems. It was something Sarah Manguso said to me once, when she was visiting the College of New Jersey when I was an undergrad. I was allowed to show her two poems, and she said, “This is a good poem. But did you know the end when you wrote it?” And I said yes, and she said, “I can tell.” It made me change my whole way of thinking. So much of what was exciting to me about writing poetry was that great ending line that comes to you out of nowhere; you hear writers talk about it. My whole thing was often to write the poem that deserved the ending line, but when I let that go, my poems and writing process changed completely in a way that I fell in love with, where I didn’t know where I was headed. And I loved that about the novel.
I never understood foreshadowing as a middle- or high-schooler. How would the author know this? So it was kind of a revelation as I got older: Oh, rewriting. Revisions. I realized as I was writing it that there’s this way weird effect of layering in details to scenes, and if you keep an eye on them, they come back up and change every time. In a poem, you’re doing that very deliberately in one sitting, but in a novel I would notice, oh, I did that weird thing with Sarai, I have to do the next weirder thing now! It keeps me really excited when I get to the page—I’m dying to find out what happens next, too. But it did help to have that ark in the background: to know that, even if I got lost and go way off for 50 pages, I know overall where the story has to go and get to. That kept it grounded.