In Conversation with Sarah Blake


Naamah was one of my favorite books of 2019. The novel reimagines the story of The Flood (from Genesis), with Naamah, Noah’s wife, exploring the realities of destruction.  Instead of a cheery Sunday school story, this book showcases what it would realistically be like to care for all of these animals, to find a way to live for such a long period of time with such limited resources, and to deal with all of these doubts and fears on top of it. But while there’s a groundedness to the experiences on the ark, there’s also wild dreams and interactions with angels and ghost children. It’s queer, experimental, and nuanced. Naamah is a bold, beautifully imagined novel with profound insight and thought-provoking questions.

The author, Sarah Blake, began her career as a poet, publishing two books of poetry with Wesleyan— Mr. West and Let’s Not Live On Earth— before publishing Naamah with Riverhead. Naamah was awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Debut Fiction. Blake is the recipient of a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She’s also just super cool and hilarious, but if you’ve read her work, you probably already know that. 



Sarah Blake by JPG Photography

Hunter Mclendon: You started your career as a poet. Did you always see Naamah as a novel, or did you ever consider exploring this as a collection of poems?


Sarah Blake: I did start with poems about Naamah! Only a few. Then I wrote a short screenplay about her. After that I thought about writing a full length screenplay, but my ideas for her got too large. It got to a point that I had to let go and write prose. But I wasn't sure I was writing a novel. I just knew I had to spend time with Naamah every day. I feel very lucky that a novel resulted from that sort of relationship that I had to the text and to Naamah.



HM: This book has been controversial among Christian readers. Aside from the obvious, why do you think that is? Because a part of me wonders if it’s not even as much the abundance of sex scenes or the profanity and use of modern language but how you address questions of doubt and that this book asks hard questions. I still remember the moment you called the flood a massacre, and hadn’t really considered it that way.

  

SB: I knew the sex would be controversial, but I hadn't realized that some of my depictions of God could be controversial. He is all things, so I thought he could be anything! Isn't that the joy of God? That the unfathomable might be a multitude of fathomings? But I am definitely most surprised by how upset some people seem to be at my use of contemporary English. I can't speak the language they spoke 10,000 years ago in the Middle East! A stuffy version of antiquated English didn't ever seem like a realistic replacement for that to me. And yes to what you've said! This is a book about doubt and anger towards God. Those are difficult things, but I would think that doubt and anger would be part of anyone's faith today, with the current state of the world.



HM: I could rave about how perfect this book is, but I want to focus specifically on how you were able to get into the mindset to write about things in the way you did. theartisangeek on Instagram addressed a great point in her review on YouTube, where she talks about how because this story takes place before so many societal conventions came into being, certain bodily functions and even sex are seen in such a different way. Did it just come naturally, as you wrote, or did you want to address some of these aspects specifically?


SB: I find it so difficult to write in a contemporary, realistic setting because of the position women are forced into in our world, the shame in our culture, the secrecy around the body, the position of mothers, and so on, and so on. Anything I can do to remove some of those societal pressures and limitations, I find myself doing them before I even get to the page, in the world building phase. Over and over, I find myself drawn to societal structures that resemble utopias, and I let my main characters live there, experience that freedom, and explore how it is still complicated, and very much not perfect. In this way, I think of myself more as a science fiction/fantasy writer than anything else. At its essence, the story of the ark is the story of a "ship" being filled with everything a small "crew" needs to restart civilization at their destination.



HM: At one point in the novel, Naamah questions why God told Noah about the flood, but not her. It made me wonder, what do you think the story would’ve been like if Naamah had been the one God communicated with? How do you think it would’ve shifted the story?


SB: I think Naamah would have tried to save everyone. I don't know if she would have tried to warn everyone immediately, in her panic and shock, or if she would have been more sneaky about it―staying calm and going through the steps of making the ark, but then putting all the people on it and turning away the animals. Probably the latter. Whatever she did, she probably would have been killed for not doing as God commanded. But maybe more people would have lived.



HM: You’ve said in another interview that you partly wrote this out of a feeling of being stuck, from what’s been happening with the world. Naamah is stuck on a boat, stuck with guilt and anger. She has no real control, which goes along with the conversation we’ve been having lately about how women are having to fight for their autonomy. What was it like to write about a lot of these experiences of Naamah but in a time where the language didn’t exist for these experiences?


SB: It was challenging to not have some of the words that best capture what's going on in terms of the many crises we're facing as humans right now, but it was freeing to explore those issues from this alien perspective of the ancient past. I liked considering what Naamah would think if she found out more about the science of our bodies, of her own body, and I liked to wonder what she would have thought about gender given how little she must have known about bodies and medicine. Would that actually help her to understand gender fluidity? Of course, as it became clear how accessible these issues were for Naamah, how easy to articulate without all our present-day vocabulary and discourse, you realize how long these issues have been around, and how little progress we've made, and the suffering of people and of women seem to have this deep-down universality to it that's crushing. But besides that!


Sarah Blake by Nina Subin.

HM: What was it like to navigate telling a queer story within a biblical narrative?


SB: I was just following Naamah's truth. I knew I was in the construct of a story from the Bible, but it was so vague. Most of the details were about the building of the ark and the sending out of the birds. That left a lot of months in between. And it left their whole story before the ark, where Noah and Naamah were hundreds of years old. That's quite a history to fill in. Whenever I imagined Naamah, I imagined her ready for connection―loving and practical and a little lost to the whim of the world (and its God). I don't think she knew who would be at the other end of those connections. She didn't need them to be any particular person. She just knew who they were when she found them. (I also wanted to write really great sex scenes that focused on vaginal pleasure, so that might have affected my choices.)



HM: Were there any books (aside from the Bible) that inspired you while writing this?


SB: I don't remember! Let's talk about something else!



HM: I’m just curious, what was your elevator pitch for this book? How did you convince people to stop and take notice?


SB: Here's how I pitched it to agents: Naamah is a work of literary fiction that focuses on Noah’s wife as it retells the story of Noah’s ark. It begins two months into their yearlong journey on the floodwaters. Naamah, Noah, their three sons, and three daughters-in-law all have to survive until the waters recede while also tending to the animals—escaping their attacks, treating their illnesses, and killing their young so that the ark is never overrun. Naamah starts swimming as an escape from the pressures of the ark. Underwater she discovers a village for the dead that was created by an angel of the Lord, whom Naamah later takes for a lover. Over the course of the book, Naamah is followed by an Egyptian vulture who is the Metatron, and in the end, she will have to speak to the voice of the Lord to figure out her role in this new world as she grieves the one she lost.


Image courtesy of Sarah Blake.


HM: If you could write a book about another person in the Bible, who would it be?


SB: I don't know! I feel like I squeezed all of my favorites into Naamah, writing also about Sarai and an angel. 





HM: I could actually see this becoming the jumping off point for a great series on HBO or something. If someone did adapt this, how would you hope that would look? Also, please write a short story collection taking place in the same world. I’d just die. I still have dreams about the ghost children. Those stories could spin into other seasons. I’ve clearly thought too much about this.


SB: Hahaha I don't know where to start! I could see this as an HBO miniseries, with all the book's threads—the dreams, the underwater world, the ark, the past. Or I could see this as a movie with just a few of the book's threads. I'd love to see what writers would do moving forwards with some of these characters, past where the book left off. I'd love to know what happens next with Sarai, what happens with the angel, the children. Maybe I could write a short story for each of their futures.



HM: How long did it take to write Naamah, and what was the process like? I’m curious to know what the transition was like, switching forms.


SB: It took about six months to draft, working on it nearly full time while my son was at school. I could never engage with my poems in that same kind of sustained way. Poems set off like fireworks and I write them until they're finished and then I need a break before the energy builds up again. But prose I can ease into and return to every day. And I can't seem to switch back and forth easily. I usually can't work on poems until I'm between drafts of novels.



HM: Let’s say it’s fifty years from now, you’re deep into your career, what kind of books do you see yourself having published? Do you have an idea of the types of stories you’d like to tell or do you just like to see what comes to you and when?


SB: I hope every book I've published is pretty different from the last. I hope every book has created a world readers love to temporarily live in. I hope every book was a wild romp. I hope every book changed the way the world thinks about women. I hope I inspired other artists.




Image courtesy of the Sarah Blake archives. Circa 1987


Naamah is OUT NOW in paperback. You can buy it from our Bookshop here. You can also get her other works; Mr. West and Let’s Not Live On Earth. With every purchase you will be supporting local bookstores!