Fixed Baroque: What inspired you to write from the perspective of Na'amah, Noah's wife?
T.K. Thorne: I was completely blindsided by the idea. At a gathering of the Birmingham Arts Journal, a (wonderful) local poet, Irene Latham, explained that her inspiration to write a poem had come from her pastor’s observation that Noah’s wife was unnamed and received only a mention in one line of the Bible. As Irene related that fact, I sat there a bit stunned. It was as if a great blank slate appeared before me, and I had the opportunity to fill it. So I started by researching the flood and the culture of the time period.
Before I began actually writing, I had no idea about the character of Noah’s wife, but I read that the traditional Jewish name for her was Na’amah. This is probably based on the fact that a woman with this name is given a brief paragraph in the same Genesis chapter as the flood story, relating only her lineage from Adam, but no reason what her relationship to the story might have been. Looking up the name, I found it meant “beautiful or pleasant.” That seemed like a starting point, so I typed, “My name, Na’amah, means beautiful or pleasant.” Na’amah hastily added, “I am not always pleasant, but I am beautiful,” and she proceeded to tell her story. It never felt as though I had much choice about it from there and sometimes I laughed aloud or blinked in surprise at what she said or did. Fellow novelists will understand this; others might think I need treatment.
FB: In terms of her mentions in ancient texts, how much do we know about Na'amah? What, if any, facts about her influenced the way you wrote her character in Noah's Wife?
TK: Noah’s wife is barely mentioned in the Biblical tale. Basically, she goes into the ark and then leaves with her family. Although all three of her sons are named, she is unnamed. In both Jewish and Islamic traditions, she was an unbeliever or doubter, and she was true to that in my book, but not in a negative way. It was simply her nature to question everything. In that, I will admit, she reflected my own tendencies. My favorite word since I could talk has always been, “Why?”
FB: Throughout the novel, Na'amah is both mocked and praised for her mind. Though some call it a "wounded mind," for every disservice she suffers as a result, it affords her a unique ability. What inspired you to write Na'amah as having Asperger's Syndrome?
TK: I had no intention of giving Na’amah any kind of mental syndrome before I started writing, but I did want a character who was able to question what everyone around her accepted and believed. At first, I played with writing in the third person point-of-view (She said so and so), but I struggled with getting it to flow. On an impulse, I tried the first person point-of-view (I said so and so) and Na’amah immediately came alive. By the end of the first chapter, I realized that she was special in more ways than I had intended and displayed the symptoms of Aspergers (a high-functioning form of autism). Although I had not planned that and had no idea if it was a good idea or not, in the end, I decided to let my character be true to who she was and not try to force her into the box of my preconceived ideas. There’s much more about Aspergers and my decision at my blog post “Why Noah’s Wife Has Aspergers.”
FB: Because of Na'amah's keen senses, she could feel impending disaster long before other people. Considering this, why was it important for her to embrace her title as Priestess to have the vision of disaster laid out before her?
TK: Not only was Na’amah an Asperger savant, she also had synesthesia, a type of “crossed wiring” in the brain where people may “see” sounds or “hear” colors. Although everyone on the autistic spectrum is unique, a hypersensitivity in one of the senses is not that uncommon. I played with this idea, extending Na’amah’s hypersensitivity to sound to include the infrasound—low frequency vibrations normally below the human audible range. Infrasound has been known to cause symptoms of nausea, discomfort, and wavering in the peripheral vision. It is theorized that infrasound is produced prior to earthquakes, and that this might be the explanation as to why some animals seem to predict major quakes.
Na’amah’s nature made her uncomfortable with anything strange or different from what she was accustomed to. Her journey across the Land of Mothers was forced on her, as was the role of priestess, which she rejected. But a time came when she realized that rejection had a price that she was not willing to pay, and she forced herself to accept her responsibility. This was part of her real journey—the same one we all face—to become her potential.
FB: Noah's Wife is a feminist retelling of the classic Noah's Ark story. What were some of the challenges of writing a feminist story that is set in a time when the concept of feminism did not yet exist?
TK: Noah’s Wife is a feminist retelling in the sense that the story is told from a woman’s perspective and delves into the mother-goddess culture that existed before the Judeo-Christian patriarchy that is part of our current cultural inheritance. For thousands of years before the Hebrews, the area of the Levant (the Middle East) practiced goddess worship. (The old name for Turkey is actually “The Land of Mothers.”) Women’s status, especially for those in the priesthood, was significantly higher than in the culture that replaced it. We know this from Mesopotamian records and from archeological substantiation. In fact, there is strong evidence that even the early Hebrews’ worship included the sacred female. (I recommend When God was a Woman by Merlin Stone and The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai for further reading.)
My story took place in 5500 BCE before the written word. I chose that date because geologists believe that is the approximate time that a cataclysmic event caused the collapse of a natural land barrier between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea (which was a fresh water lake up until that time) resulting in a great flood that affected a large portion of the Middle East. So my challenge was to fill out a world and culture from what clues we have in the historical and archeological records. My imagination came into play as well, of course, and I did take literary license. One area in which I did so was to foreshadow the coming historical conflict between the female and male divine.
FB: Without spoiling too much of the story... The novel deals with some heavier issues. What were the biggest challenges of writing these difficult scenes?
TK: It is a common directive to writers to “write what you know,” and I agree with that in the sense that it is difficult to deeply portray a totally unfamiliar perspective. That said, “what you know” can be expanded by research and by opening yourself to the experience of others. A good writer is, at heart, an observer with a developed capacity for empathy, as well as imagination. I often draw on my years as a police officer where I encountered a wide range of people in intense situations. The human experience transcends time. Cultures differ, but our emotional responses are based on hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, and “civilization” is but a thin veil over that.
FB: The novel acknowledges the conflict between matriarchal and patriarchal religions that would have been present during the time. Though Na'amah, her family, and her friends favored the Goddess, Noah credits the rainbow to God in the end. Why is this?
TK: Throughout the book, Noah has a strong belief in the gods—Father god and Mother goddess—as creators and beings who interact with his physical world. In many ancient cultures, the earth, sea, and the animals belonged to the realm of the goddess, and the heavens and sky to the god(s), hence a rainbow in the sky would be a sign from Father god.
One thing to keep in mind is that the idea of “goodness” being ascribed to the divine is a relatively recent thing. Even as late as the Hebrew Bible, God is portrayed as jealous and vengeful, as well as good and generous (albeit to “his” people). In Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology and other cultures throughout the world, the gods possessed the full range of human emotions and drama. Thus, they believed praise and sacrifice were important to keep the gods happy, to make sure they knew humans weren’t trying to usurp their prerogatives, to appeal to their desire for worship, or to appease their anger, etc., and that practice of sacrifice existed in Judaism until roughly 70 AD. (Modern practice of Judaism and Christianity still, in general, include the element of praise as essential to worship.)
FB: I'm not religious and, finding that religiosity was not a prerequisite to enjoying the book, I thoroughly loved reading Noah's Wife. What would you say to those who would look at the book and think they wouldn't enjoy it because they aren't religious?
TK: It is my hope that both religious and nonreligious people will find the story engaging. It is a novel, and that is its intent, but many people along a wide spectrum of religious beliefs have found it an interesting alternative perspective of a historical or mythical story that is an important part of our inherited culture.
I don’t consider myself “religious” either, but spiritual growth, for me, is about finding meaning in our lives and is not necessarily hooked to religion or even a theist belief. Perhaps discovering the “divine” is as simple as acting with compassion and responsibility toward our fellow humans and our world. Compassion and responsibility are attributes we can learn and develop; life is a journey, and in that journey we can find strengths and power within us that we never dreamed existed.
FB: Your next book will be Angels at the Gate: The story of Lot's Wife. What can you tell us about the story plot-wise? Will Angels at the Gate appeal to the same readers that Noah's Wife appeals to or will it attract a different audience? When will Angels at the Gate be released?
TK: Angels at the Gate will be released March 5, 2015, and I absolutely believe it will appeal to fans of Noah’s Wife! It is also a story of an unnamed woman in the Bible, but we jump forward a few thousand years to the time of Abraham (I was fortunate to be able to spend time in Israel to research it). There is adventure, love, and plenty of twists and turns, as well as a strong female character with her own perspective. Again, I “discovered” who she was in the book’s first paragraph:
If the path of obedience is the path of wisdom, it is one not well worn by my feet. I am Yildeth, daughter of the caravan, daughter of the wind, and daughter of the famed merchant, Zakiti. That I am his daughter, not his son, is a secret between my father and myself. This is a fine arrangement, as I prefer the freedoms of being a boy.