Sunday, February 5, 2012

Interview with Susan Campbell Bartolleti, Author

I am so excited to bring you this interview with Susan Campbell Bartolleti, as a part of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Book Tour sponsored by, and the official Sydney Taylor Book Awards. The full blog tour schedule will be posted at - go see which of my friends are participating and meet some new folks!
Her book, Naamah and the Ark at Night, is a sweet lyrical poem combined with gorgeous illustrations. As I told Susan when I sent her my interview questions, Sam and Yael really liked the book - which might trump any award, right? 

Will you share a little bit about yourself and your journey towards becoming a writer?

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this interview.  I’m really excited about this blog tour.  I’m grateful to the Sydney Taylor award committee for Naamah’s honor.

My journey to becoming a writer was a bit slower than some writers I know. I wasn’t one of those writers who knew she wanted to become a writer as child.

I’ve always loved to read. I’ve always loved stories of all kinds, good and bad. But I didn’t begin to write seriously until I became an eighth-grade English teacher.

My students wrote poems, short stories, and essays. They researched, wrote, and illustrated their own nonfiction picture books and other work. They held poetry readings. They kept writing journals. They published their work to the school’s award-winning literary magazine, which I co-advised.

It felt good to see my students grow as writers. They inspired me to practice what I preached. As they wrote poems and stories and essays, I did, too. Our classroom became one large writing group. They brought their work to class; sometimes I brought mine. Together, we would figure out what makes a good story and how to make a story better.

The first big discovery that a writer makes is her voice and audience. My students helped me discover that I wanted to write for young readers.

I sold my first story to Highlights for Children in 1989. By 1997, I had published short stories, two picture books, and a nonfiction book. I had a novel and another nonfiction book under contract.

The time had come for a difficult decision.

For eighteen years, I had a career that I loved – teaching. Was it time for another? Could I make it as a full-time writer?

“Leap and the net will appear,” a friend told me. (That friend was Laurie Halse Anderson.)

And I did.

And it did.

I’m lucky to work that my hands, my head, and my heart love.

What inspired you to write the story of Naamah?

A very old wooden ark that sits on a shelf in my dining room.
Susan sent me this photo of her old wooden ark.

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 ark now sits on a shelf in my dining room. One day, several years ago, I found that my imagination turned to Noah’s wife. In the book of Genesis, we’re told that Noah was a just man, full of grace, who pleased God. But who was Noah’s wife and what kind of a person was she?

I began to imagine this woman who spent more than a year on an ark filled with animals. I began to ask: what did she think 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 floodwaters rose? What did it feel like to leave all those terrified people behind? What was life like on the ark?

The answers to these questions led me to write different versions of the story. None of those versions “worked,” and so I tucked the story away. It sat in my drawer for many years. Every so often, I’d return to the story and try again.

Then one day, I realized that I wasn’t asking the right question: What was Noah’s wife’s name?

Many people have suggested various names over the years.  In 1941, an American scholar named Francis Utley listed 103  different 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.”)

I liked that, and the interpretations of the name Naamah helped me imagine her personality and her talents. They helped me imagine how a woman might have inspired and comforted her husband and their three sons and their wives, the animals, and herself during all those days and nights afloat.

Perhaps Naamah sang.

You explain at the end of the book that you chose the ancient poetic form of the ghazal for this book. What inspired you to do so? Why did that format fit in with the story of Naamah for you?

A few years ago, I heard my friend and colleague Molly Peacock read a poem that she termed a “sonnet-ghazal.” Molly’s hauntingly beautiful poem gave me goosebumps.

I knew what a sonnet was, but I didn’t know what a ghazal was. As I read more ghazals and learned more about them, I felt drawn to the form for Naamah’s story. Once the story had a form and Naamah had a name, the words poured out in the first draft, with little revision and very few changes after that.

Strictly speaking, a ghazal (pronounced “guzzle”) comes to us from the Middle East.  It’s an Arabic word that means, “talking to women” and the subject of a ghazal is usually longing and loss. (How perfect is that meaning for Naamah’s story?)

The traditional ghazal is so beautiful! You can find examples by conducting an internet search online.

Many Western poets take liberties with the traditional form, as did I.

What is your own favorite children's book or books? Do you read and find inspiration in other authors' work?

I continue to read and to write a lot of poetry. I always try to read the most recent Best American Poetry Series.

I don’t have a favorite children’s book. I love so many! I’m presently reading Jack Gantos’s Dead End In Norvelt. (I’ve already laughed out loud twice!) Another book I loved from last year was Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now.

There's a great deal of variety in the subjects of your books - a lot of historical fiction but also some sillier subjects like some of your picture books.

I am equal parts silly and serious.

How do you come up with new and different ideas for your work?

One of my grad-school professors once remarked that I have a “lively intellect,” and I suppose that’s true. I’m curious. I ask a lot of questions (which can be annoying). I have a passionate desire to learn more and to puzzle things out.  I enjoy the intellectual process and the physical process. I like fitting the pieces together, thinking in new ways – and this always leads to new ideas.

How did Naamah fit into the other books you've written?

For me, Naamah story’s was the perfect emotional arc to They Called Themselves the K.K.K.

I often write about tragic and dark times in history. In my other work, I’ve explore the lives of the disenfranchised, the exploited, the victimized, and the silenced -- from the pain of child labor in Growing Up in Coal Country and Kids on Strike!, to the trauma of famine of Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, to the horrors of the Third Reich in Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow and The Boy Who Dared, to racial violence in They Called Themselves the K.K.K. is a continuation of this interest.

Authors often say that their books are like children to them, and they’re right. As I researched and wrote about these things, the subject matter kept me up at night, made me cry and made me angry, made me worry, and made me frustrated, and yet my research inspired me and filled me with wonder and awe at the courage of the human spirit.

And yet, I wonder: How do people survive dark times? Perhaps by holding on to hope and faith and trust through the night, just as Naamah must have done.

Holly’s art is awesome, in the true sense of the word. I love how she depicts Naamah moving through the night, carrying that candle.  That’s the answer, isn’t it? To shine a light on the darkness and to keep moving.

The illustrations are truly gorgeous.
How do you find that you best create a balance for yourself in your family life and writing?

[Insert maniacal laughter here.]

It’s hard.

Writing is pretty all-consuming.

I believe we make the time to do the things we really want to do. I want to write books, and so I make the time to write. I want to spend time with my family, and so I make that time, too.

Sometimes the balance needs an adjustment. I’m on a tight deadline right now, and the other day, my very grownup daughter and mother of three under three  said, You know, Mom.  I really hate it when your characters see you more than I do.

I’ve got her and the grandbabies penciled in.

A huge thank you to Susan for participating in this blog book tour, and mazel tov on your award! Please don't forget to visit the rest of the STBA Blog Book Tour at

*The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) since 1968, the Award encourages the publication and widespread use of quality Judaic literature. Gold medals are presented in three categories: Younger Readers, Older Readers, and Teen Readers. Honor Books are awarded silver medals, and Notable Books are named in each category. Thirty-three outstanding books were selected from among the over one hundred and twenty titles evaluated by the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee during 2011. The Committee recommends them for library, classroom, and home use. List of all 2012 Award, Honor, and Notable Books.


Heidi Estrin said...

Phyllis and Susan, thanks for kicking off the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour with this beautiful interview!

Aimee Lurie said...

What a terrific way to start the STBA blog tour! I really enjoyed the interview and seeing a picture of the Ark that inspired the story.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

I'm eager to read the story of the ark from another protag's perspective.

Also just enjoyed hearing more about Susan's life and writing life.

Thanks to you both.

marjorie said...

Wonderful interview. And I learned a new word!

Hard to believe the same writer produced They Called Themselves the KKK and Naamah -- now that's range.

jaylen watkins said...

Thanks for this wonderful post. This really interest me.

Interview Questions

Rebecca Einstein Schorr said...

What an in-depth interview. Great job, Phyl!!!! I learned so much...