SE: Early on in the novel, it’s clear you want readers to have the biblical story of Noah in mind. Out of all of the strange and powerful stories from Genesis, what specifically about that one was compelling to you? Why did a sort of retelling of it seem necessary now?
LS: First and foremost, I wanted to write about relationships—and a narrative centered on “pairs” of various kinds felt like a good place to start. Second, I was struck by how prevalent the imagery of Noah’s ark is in popular culture, particularly as nursery decorations or children’s toys. Although the animals and rainbows are playful and whimsical, the story itself is about the destruction of the world. I was interested in exploring some of those darker themes. Finally, I think the Noah story resonates with our concerns today over climate change. The oceans are rising, the glaciers are melting, the seasons are shifting. For me, the flood story is a reminder of the tremendous power of the natural world and humanity’s frailty and insignificance in the face of it.
SE: Of course, the novel is not a direct retelling of the flood story. How did you decide which of the biblical details to incorporate into your story, and when to diverge from the original? For example, in many ways, the biblical story of Noah is a terrifying one, involving punishment, destruction, and death. While your novel has its own chaotic and frightening moments, it is not quite so dismal as the original.
LS: Not quite! Although I did want it to have its darker scenes, its moments of despair. Most obviously, my novel draws on the imagery of the flood story: the rain, the animals, the major construction project. I also adopt some of the themes of the biblical narrative, although my focus is on human relationships rather than divine ones. For example, the biblical version revolves around the twin themes of destruction and salvation. God is so disappointed with humanity that he decides to destroy it, but he saves the best part: Noah and his family. My characters, too, are all determined to save something from destruction: Mrs. McGinn wants to save her town, Noah’s wife wants to save her marriage, Dr. Yu wants to save her father.
My novel diverges from the flood story in where it places its greatest focus: the human over the divine, Noah’s wife over her husband. Most importantly, the book centers on the community that Noah leaves behind in the flood story. What happens to all of his neighbors? I wondered. Did they really deserve such a watery fate? What does it mean to “deserve” a certain fate, anyway? These are the questions raised by the flood story. I tried to answer some of them with my novel.
SE: Something interesting is going on with the names of these characters. First names are used only in dialogue, and otherwise the characters are referred to by their last names, or their occupations, or their relationships to each other. You’ve said these naming techniques serve to “underscore these issues of identity, independence, and self-definition.” Could you say more about the importance of names within the world of the novel? What power do names have?
LS: Perhaps the clearest statement on the importance of names comes from Mauro, when he finds out that Mrs. McGinn’s daughter is pregnant. She wonders why everyone is so immediately concerned with the name she will choose for her child, and he quotes the Latin proverb Nomen est omen: the name is a sign. In the novel, names determine how characters are seen and understood. Some characters are so strong or so isolated that the narrator can only refer to them by name; others are so thoroughly defined by their relationships that the narrator defines them that way, too. Names are powerful in this way, but also limiting. Mrs. McGinn’s daughter wants to be more than Mrs. McGinn’s daughter; she wants to be Angela Rose, she wants to be the zookeeper’s wife, she wants to be a mother and a neighbor and a stranger in a new city—there are so many facets of her personality and her desires that a single name will never contain them all.
SE: The novel has been described as an allegory, or a myth, or a fable. One of the things that distinguish these types of story-telling is the presence of some sort of moral or lesson. If one of the morals of the original biblical story is about faith in God, what do you see as the lesson here?
LS: If there is a message to the novel, it is similarly centered on faith—but faith of a different kind. The characters struggle with their faith in each other, their faith in themselves. For me, the novel’s major themes are identity and community: how do we define ourselves without our friends, family, and neighbors? Who are we outside of our relationships? Where does one person end and another begin? I had always imagined the biblical flood story as a sort of top-down, vertical salvation story: God reaches down and saves Noah and his family. In my novel, salvation is horizontal: the characters must learn to reach out to one another in order to save themselves and their community.
SE: As much as readers might be thinking about the biblical story, the comparisons or similarities don’t seem to occur to the characters themselves. Any particular reason why the rain, the animals, the name of their new minister, etc. don’t inspire connections among the town’s people, even as they discuss other biblical stories?
LS: This is a wonderful question. For me, the reason is that the characters are so deeply inside of the story that they cannot see beyond it. A useful metaphor might be the ships-in-bottles that Mrs. McGinn’s husband builds in his basement. The ship only knows that it is a ship—it cannot see outside of the bottle itself, it cannot compare itself with other ships in order to illuminate its situation. The characters of the novel are similarly limited by their circumstances, their perspectives, and their current crisis. Part of their struggle over the course of the narrative is to overcome some of those limitations.
SE: There’s something very seductive about the style of this novel. The writing is straightforward and clean, but deals with some complicated and messy emotions. In fact, the majority of the novel deals in interiors punctuated occasionally by moments of high drama. Point being, the writing style is deceptively simple, in many ways the opposite of biblical language. Are there other authors that served as a model for you?
LS: I’ve always admired clear, strong prose. I’m a staunch proponent of precision in language: a single word, when selected carefully, can do a lot of work for the writer.
In my day job I study the modernists, who also believed in the power of selecting the right word (Ezra Pound’s mot juste). I love the clarity of Ernest Hemingway, the precision of Marianne Moore, the fluidity of William Faulkner, the poeticism of Virginia Woolf.
Two contemporary writers who use simple prose to convey complicated, often deeply philosophical ideas include Marilynne Robinson and Elena Ferrante, both of whom I’m constantly recommending to others.
SE: One of the real pleasures of the novel is how well the town is populated. While Noah’s wife is clearly the protagonist, there are plenty of other characters worthy of our interest. How did you decide who to include and who to leave out? Did you see each character as playing specific narrative roles, or did they wander in unexpectedly?
LS: I decided early on that if I was going to write a novel where a minor character (Noah’s wife) learned how to become a protagonist, then I ought to populate the novel with minor characters who were strong enough to be protagonists in their own right. The idea was that a person’s status as major or minor is merely a matter of perspective. That’s why there are chapters in which Noah and his wife appear very little, or not at all; in these moments, they play walk-on parts in someone else’s story.
The novel began with a handful of strong characters and very little narrative. The first draft of the novel could have been described as “a group of charming, eccentric neighbors walking around and talking to each other in the rain.” (I found it delightful, but I was told it wouldn’t sell.) The hard work of revision was to figure out the characters’ individual arcs and the rise and fall of their communal storyline.
SE: I’m especially intrigued by the “ghosts” that seem to be haunting the story—the previous minister of the town and the Weatherman. Could you speak specifically about the role that minor characters play in the novel?
LS: One of the important qualities of these two characters in particular is their status as “doubles.” The flood story is, among other things, a narrative of “twos” and “pairs”—and in a certain sense both the weatherman and the former minister serve as “ghosts” of Noah. The former minister is what Noah could become, and the weatherman is what Noah might have been.
The weatherman also serves an important Old Testament function in and of himself: he’s the prophet figure. He comes hurtling into the narrative, warning of doom and destruction. And the townspeople, like so many biblical townspeople before them, don’t want to hear it.
SE: It’s been said that a writer’s first book is often largely autobiographical—the thought being that they must get some things “out of the way” before moving on as a writer. Does this ring true for you? Do you find yourself in the story in surprising ways?
LS: I wouldn’t say the novel is autobiographical per se, especially as regards the plot, but it gave me the space to think through a series of themes, ethical questions, and philosophical concerns that have preoccupied me for much of my life. Writing a kind of “fable” enabled me to divorce some of the questions and concerns from my own experience, which provided me the freedom and the distance to work through them. Every character has a little of me, a little of people I know. Mrs. McGinn often sounds a great deal like my own mother. When I wrote Dr. Yu’s father, I was thinking about my grandfather’s grief at the loss of my grandmother. A friend of mine really did take a kind of empathy class in med school—and like Dr. Yu, she’s wondered sometimes if an excess of empathy actually prevents her from doing her job as well as she possibly can. That’s the beauty of fiction: everything in the novel is true and untrue at the same time.
SE: What are working on these days? Given the success of Noah’s Wife, do you approach your next project any differently?
LS: I wrote the first draft of the novel when I was quite young, and so (in my youth and naivety!) I decided to put into it everything that I had ever thought about—love and grief and friendship and identity and parenthood and despair and on and on. One thing I’ve learned over the course of the project is that no novel can contain everything: it can only say what it says, from its limited perspective and its single point in time. But each reader will take from it what she needs, or what she wants—and that’s really where it gains its meaning and its strength.
I’ve begun the earliest sketches of a second novel. I’m hoping that if I think a little more about plot this time around, I won’t have to write and rewrite for so many years. Noah’s Wife grew out of a single sentence, and I’ve got my sentence for this next one. I’m looking forward to finding out what follows it.