Today I interview author Judith Starkston. Her fiction debut, Hand of Fire, has just been published, and she was kind enough to take the time to answer some of my questions as part of her blog tour.
Hand of Fire is a historical novel inspired by Homer’s Iliad. In Hand of Fire, the Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.
Please welcome Judith to the blog.
SAT: What originally drew you to Homer’s epics, and what in them continues to engage you today?
JS: When I was an undergraduate, I read in Greek the Iliad, Homer’s epic set within the Trojan War, under the guidance of one of my favorite professors. The deep humanity of the poem has always held me, the insights into who we are and what matters in life. After years of teaching the Iliad, I still couldn’t stay dry-eyed when we discussed the scene at the end of the poem when King Priam of Troy comes into the Greek camp and begs for the body of his dead son from Achilles, the vicious warrior who’s been dragging the body around behind his chariot for days. And then, before our eyes, in the language of epic, that vicious killer returns to his human self because he sees his own father’s grief reflected in Priam—the grief he knows his father will soon feel because Achilles understands he is doomed. Homer tells us everything about the bond between sons and fathers in that scene. There’s so much beauty and resonance. I can’t put what I understand into words but I know I am richer for the experience. That quality will always engage me.
In much the same way, I thought there must be a rich dimension in the love story between Achilles and Briseis. Homer doesn’t tell us how they can love each other, just that they do. It doesn’t make any sense that Briseis loves Achilles. He has destroyed her city, killed her husband and brothers and turned her from princess to captive. In this case Homer doesn’t give us the resonances, but I knew they were there if I went hunting. I knew it wasn’t, as some suggested, a kind of ancient Stockholm Syndrome, because Achilles questions the whole war. He’s in no position to be a brainwasher. He’s a fragmented mess in need of the kind of healing that I discovered in Briseis’s character as I started letting history and my imagination work together.
People reading my book have no need of ever having read the Iliad or knowing the history involved. I carefully created a book that is independent of the poem in that sense, but I honored the Homeric richness. I don’t contradict what happens in the poem. I worked consistently in harmony with what Homer says. But the reader doesn’t for a minute have to know what Homer says! That’s my job.
SAT: Homer has only a few lines in the Iliad devoted to Briseis. Could you quote them for us?
JS: Briseis’s name is mentioned several times as men fight about her and then try to resolve the conflict, but in those references we get no feeling about Briseis herself. There are only two times when we get any indication of the woman herself. The first is a simple descriptive phrase only. When she is taken away from Achilles, she is described as leaving “all unwilling” with the herald who has come to fetch her.
As to actually hearing her voice, that occurs only once in the Iliad. Briseis laments Patroclus’s death in the lines quoted below. I’m using Lombardo’s translation (which I recommend as a good reading translation).
Briseis stood there like golden Aphrodite.
But when she saw Patroclus’ mangled body
She threw herself upon him and wailed
In a high, piercing voice, and with her nails
She tore her breast and soft neck and lovely face.
And this woman, so like a goddess, cried in anguish:
“My poor Patroclus. You were so dear to me.
When I left this hut you were alive,
And now I find you, the army’s leader, dead,
When I come back. So it is for me always,
Evil upon evil. I have seen my husband,
The man my father and mother gave me to,
Mangled with sharp bronze before my city,
And my three brothers, all from the same mother,
Brothers I loved—they all died that day.
But you wouldn’t let me cry when Achilles
Killed my husband and destroyed Mynes’ city,
Wouldn’t let me cry. You told me you’d make me
Achilles’ bride, told me you’d take me on a ship
To Phthia, for a wedding among the Myrmidons.
I will never stop grieving for you, forever sweet.”
SAT: Your Briseis is such an engaging character! How did you go about developing her personality from these few lines?
JS: The process had two sources. My imagination and the historical details I learned about her world—possibilities of what she could have been from what we now know of the world of Late Bronze Age Trojans and Hittites. From history and archaeology I found her “job” as a healing priestess and what the details of that were like on a daily basis. The imagination part led me to write many chapters about Briseis’s early years. Those chapters all hit the cutting room floor, but they helped me “grow up” with her. Writing them also taught me a lot about voice. I don’t think I ever want to take on the challenge of writing an adult book from a child’s perspective. What a lesson in consistent point of view that exercise was! But I got to know my young lady and I’ve been haunted by a bossy redhead ever since. As you know, if you let the characters come alive in your imagination, they take over and tell you what to do with them. It often feels as if they really are alive somewhere.
SAT: Hand of Fire includes a vivid description of a vision that Briseis has when she is acting as priestess for the Spring Festival. What sources did you use to research and flesh out this kind of visionary out-of-body experience?
JS: I have to say this was an act of pure imagination. The Hittite records about what the priestesses did are never that luscious, and while the precise rituals are very useful to me as a writer, the emotional content of the priestesses’ work couldn’t be found in the historical record. I guess I’ve read about such out-of-body experiences at some point and internalized information, but I wasn’t aware of that as I wrote. Those visions came out of somewhere in me.
SAT: I see that you’re also working on a series of historical mysteries featuring the ancient Hittite queen Puduhepa. How did you become interested in her?
JS: Troy, the setting of Hand of Fire, was located on the western coast of what is now Turkey. Most of that area in the Late Bronze Age, when a Trojan War would have happened (if it truly did), was controlled by the powerful Hittite Empire. Troy was one of a number of small, semi-independent kingdoms on the western edge of this empire. The Hittites and the Trojans share the same culture, religion and other traditions to a large extent. The Hittites, unlike the Trojans, left behind libraries that survived. We know the Trojans had similar written records; they just didn’t make it through the vagaries of preservation. So if a historical writer wants to know details about Trojans, as I did when writing Hand of Fire, the best place to look is in these Hittite libraries—which are on clay tablets written in cuneiform. Fortunately more and more of the tablets have been translated in the last decade or so. We have a window into these people we didn’t have before.
And one of those people that I met in the Hittite libraries is Queen Puduhepa, who reigned from her early twenties until past eighty. She sealed the first extant peace treaty in history between Pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittites. We have her judicial decrees, her haggling with Ramses via letters, and all kinds of great stuff. It occurred to me she’d make a great sleuth. She seems to have had that sort of mind. No one’s written fiction about her because we’ve only known a significant amount about the Hittites for a relatively short time and it isn’t all that accessible unless you are comfortable with ancient languages and archaeology. So the research is pretty complicated, but very fun, and I seem to be among the first to portray this period in fiction.
SAT: As someone who loves both historical fiction and fantasy, I was intrigued by this quote from your blog-hop post on your writing process: “When you have a half-immortal hero among your characters and a main character who connects with her gods in a mystical but very sensual way, there’s a fantasy element to the history. It just happens to be an element that the people living in the period would have considered entirely normal, not fantasy at all, so I didn’t really think of myself as writing historical fantasy.” Would you elaborate on this statement?
JS: I decided early on to keep to what Homer says happened, as I mentioned above. After all, there’s enough I have to make up whole cloth without also rewriting so venerable an authority! And Homer says things like, Achilles’ immortal goddess mother rose from the sea and talked to her son. I struggled for a long time how to work with these elements that we call fantasy. Greeks, mind you, thought the gods would come walking along looking just like a mortal and then mess with human life. They didn’t view this intermixing of mortal and immortal as some giant stretch. So I finally settled on treating these fantastical pieces as though they were ordinary parts of life, in the same way that the school of fiction writing called magical realism will present a man with wings as if that is the most normal thing around. No jaw dropping allowed, but some interesting added dimensions to the tale. I did have Briseis realize that what she hadn’t thought was such a big deal—believing Achilles’ mother is a goddess—did feel pretty hard to understand once she had Achilles right in front of her chatting about his mother sending omens. But it’s more like someone today feels when they meet a celebrity or a famous person. I also borrowed from Hittite mythology a strand that I believe is part of what went into making the Achilles legend in Homer, and I wove it into Briseis’s way of connecting to Achilles. So not only do we have gods and fantasy from the Greek tradition, but we have gods and fantasy also from the historical record of what the people around Troy believed. It gave the love story the kind of resonance I’d wanted to find. It also gives the connection to Achilles a sexiness from early on that otherwise I couldn’t have included and I do think the physical pull is an essential part of their bond.
SAT: Tell us a bit about your writing journey: when you started to write, your road to publication, and so on.
JS: I started to explore how to write fiction when I stopped teaching about a decade ago. I took classes and workshops, found a critique group, and dug into the research. It had quickly become clear to me that I needed to know much more about the material world of this place and time than I’d gained as a classics major and grad student. Every time someone reaches for something, the writer has to know exactly what it looks, feels and smells like. Clothes, buildings, religious rites, political intrigues, customs regarding women, marriage, murder, farming—you name it, I had to figure it out. So that took some time and I didn’t actually start writing this book for many years.
Then when I thought I had a good manuscript, I sent it out to agents and got some excellent criticism that led me to rework and shorten. I worked with some perceptive editors. Eventually I chose Fireship Press, which specializes in historical fiction, as my publishing home.
SAT: How do you go about researching your books? Did you go about researching your new Hittite series in the same way that you did research for Hand of Fire?
JS: Fortunately, the basics of both series are the same. They have different settings, but the same Bronze Age culture in both. It is true that I’m pretty sure I’m moving the sequel of Hand of Fire to the island of Cyprus and that is taking some new research, but not outside the basic framework I’d built.
I work in university libraries and converse with scholars and archaeologists in the field to make sure I’m not off track. I’ve travelled extensively in Greece and Turkey, and now Cyprus. Seeing the real geography of the settings of my books is an essential piece of the research. Even though we do not know exactly where Briseis’s home city of Lyrnessos was, we know where the Greeks thought it had been. I pointed to that spot on a map and told the archaeologist who was guiding me, basically, I want to go look at a city that doesn’t exist. Once she realized what I meant we clambered all over the back side of Mt. Ida and I became familiar with the landscape that a real Briseis would have known. I could place my imaginary city in a genuine landscape.
I’ve done similar work with Puduhepa’s setting. This past spring I went to the archaeological site that we can best surmise was her hometown of Lawazantiya in central southern Turkey. I spent a whole day with the director of the site, climbing the site itself and exploring the surrounding springs which are key to the identification of the site as Lawazantiya.
When Puduhepa leaves her hometown, we know from the record, she goes with her new husband to the city he rules at that time, Hakpis. This summer I accidently ended up in a dramatic city that can reasonably be identified as ancient Hakpis. Had my same archaeologist friend who climbed Mt. Ida with me many years earlier not chosen Amasya to stay that last night because it has beautiful Ottoman hotels, we wouldn’t have struck up a conversation with the resident archaeologist at the tiny Amasya museum. We would not have known that his wife had been conducting a dig on the mountain fortress above us that revealed the tell tale signs of Bronze Age ruins. It’s a new dig, unpublished. The guess that it is Hakpis is still tentative, but it’s such a great guess for me because never has a fortress looked so dramatic. It was made to be part of compelling historical fiction.
So that’s how research in Turkey goes. Archaeology is very fresh and underway all over the landscape. New discoveries are commonplace. It’s all pretty darned exciting.
As I research I combine fun travel with scholarly reading—which is very dry and boring usually—but provides the raw material to create flesh and blood characters who keep the plot moving along quickly so the pages, I hope, won’t stop turning. From library research to good story is a big leap, but I hope I’ve made it.
SAT: Fascinating stuff! I look forward to reading more of your novels.
Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.
Find an excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on Starkston’s website www.JudithStarkston.com
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