Today, I have a very insightful interview with classicist and now historian, Judith Starkston, the author of Hand of Fire which was reviewed yesterday to high acclaim on this site. You can read that HERE! Enjoy!
Hi, Judith! It’s my pleasure to sit down with you today for an interview on Oh, for the Hook of a Book! You’ve been so supportive of me and Hook of a Book and I’m thrilled for you about the recent publishing of your book, Hand of Fire, which seems to be blowing up the historical circles left and right. That would be the good kind of blowing up of course, as the reviews are a stunning sign that your book is a must-read of the year.
Judith: “Stunned” is the right word—that’s how I’ve felt at the positive reviews Hand of Fire has received. As an author you work hard and send a book out hoping you pulled off a “good read,” but to hear a wide range of uninvolved people tell me I succeeded has blown me away, to use your other image.
Erin: Come in and have a seat. It’s fall in Ohio, the skies have been sunny for a few days, with a balmy breeze. The humidity has left (and I know you’ve been hot in Arizona!!) and it’s a lovely day to sit out on the back patio. Push open the double doors from the library to the outdoors, and we’ll have a seat on cushioned wicker chairs, enjoy the leaves turning to orange and red, and maybe light the fire pit.
I’ll be having coffee, it’s my choice of drink lately even in the afternoon and it’s just cool enough we can have that here now outdoors without causing more sweat. Of course, given it’s fall, I’m having some dark roast with pumpkin spice creamer. I can fix you coffee, pour some wine, or we could even celebrate with champagne first if you wish?
Judith: Here in Arizona, I’m enjoying the first couple days of weather cool enough to sit outside, so I’ll happily join you. I also have the door to the patio open so my big golden retriever, Socrates, will join us for the interview. He’s my favorite media consultant, although his universal advice is wag your tail and give lots of kisses. I modify how I implement this strategy, as you can imagine. A hot coffee sounds lovely, but I’m a purist about my coffee, no flavors besides the beans! I’m a little weird that way, no fruit in my chocolate, no spice in my coffee. I like to taste the pure earthiness in my caffeinated treats.
Erin: Your cute dog can give me a kiss on the cheek, but you’ll need to bring him here, unless I’m baking in your kitchen instead of mine! Lol! I’ll bring out the warm pumpkin bread too, with cinnamon butter. So, you’ve brought him along here then? Wonderful! Now that we’re settled, let’s talk about your book, history, life, writing, and wherever else the discussion leads.
Judith: Pumpkin bread with cinnamon butter sounds perfect.
Q: Hand of Fire, your debut historical novel, primarily revolves around Troy and the time of the Trojan War. Why did you choose this time period and place to set your book?
A: In the big picture, from my college years on, I’ve spent my intellectual life immersed in classical literature and history, and of all the Greek literature I love, my favorite is the Iliad of Homer, the epic poem set in the Trojan War. So I could say love drove me to set my debut in the time of the Trojan War. In the small picture, a different love drove me to it—a love I couldn’t figure out and it bugged me. Let me explain. Although Hand of Fire tells the story in such a way that none of my readers need to know anything about Homer or the Iliad, the triggering idea for my novel arose out of a puzzle Homer creates. In the Iliad a young captive woman, Briseis, sparks a bitter conflict between two of the Greek kings, Agamemnon and Achilles. This conflict is central to the poem, but being a patriarchal project, the epic doesn’t give more than a handful of lines to the woman—only leaving, briefly, the impression that she loves Achilles. Wait a minute, you’d be fair to say, Achilles has destroyed her city, killed her husband and brothers, and turned her from princess to slave. I wouldn’t love the guy, however handsome and half-immortal he might be. What gives? Homer only tells us that she’s a princess of Lyrnessos, a town allied to Troy (not a daughter of Priam as suggested by a certain historically-challenged movie with a hunky star playing Achilles). That’s it. No explanation of why she forms this bizarre bond with Achilles.
About now when I chat about this, most people suggest something like an ancient Stockholm brainwashing, but Achilles questions the whole war, the purpose of life, oh, pretty much everything. He’s a searcher for meaning, utterly unsuited for brainwashing. So I had a psychological puzzle about people and love and what can overcome tragedy and hate enough to make room for love. Pretty cool puzzle, actually. I found an answer in the kind of resilience that women often find in the face of violence. I also found a model with all the details for a historically plausible Briseis right in the historic and archaeological record. And the two matched up—psychology and history. Kind of magically. I still don’t know how that alchemy worked, but I loved the Briseis who climbed into my imagination and started bossing me around. And it made sense that she loved Achilles.
Q: Your protagonist is Briseis, the woman captured and in love with the half-god Achilles. What did you see in Briseis as a woman, or a character, that you chose to feature her emotional story?
A: Now you know that it was what I didn’t know about her that caused me to choose her story—I wanted to know who she was to understand how she could love Achilles. My writing acted as a process of character discovery. Then as I got to know her, I grew ever more drawn to her strong-headed nature, her speak-first, think-second passion, her generosity of spirit and her resilience. I also found some especially appealing skills for her in the historical records of clay cuneiform tablets that have been excavated and translated in the last couple of decades. In those libraries the “job” of healing priestess came to light. The priestesses had both medicinal and story-telling talents (which they saw as one and the same). They believed the spoken word in the context of rites had a transformative power—to bring health and fertility or restore harmony with the gods. They used what we’d call myths to bring about what you or I today would go to the doctor for. While I appreciate modern medicine, what writer could resist a character who innately believes she changes the world with her stories? Also, as a healer she is both grounded and mystical. Very handy for good fiction.
Q: Do you feel readers will connect with her? If so, what types of readers, and also, why?
A: One of my reviewers said Briseis “is a woman who will capture your heart. She could be your friend, your sister or your daughter.” As I wrote her, Briseis increasingly felt like a daughter to me. I think some of this identification comes from my focus through Briseis on women surviving personal violence and finding inner strength. It’s a hopeful theme but it’s also a nail-biting one. Briseis seems to inspire protective instincts in many of my male readers. She’s also beautiful and sexy, which appeals to all of us. So it seems my Briseis reaches into people’s hearts and connects in a variety of ways. One of my final layers of editing involved a very conscious tugging of the reader in closer to Briseis who always holds the point of view in my novel. It took a few months of work, but I think those were effective months. It’s hard to put the reader inside the body and emotions of a character, but that was what I was striving for. I learned a lot of good tools from some excellent mentor writers and editors.
Q: You obviously love history of the ancient world, but do you also have a penchant for mythology, or is it just something you accept due to its intertwining in certain Greek (or other ancient cultures) time periods? If so, what is the allure of these stories and why are they important to history?
A: Mythology has a kind of dual existence. There’s what it is today—a giant repository of brilliantly engaging stories with a deep vein of cultural significance flowing through them. Pretty much any child will fall in love with the stories of Greek mythology if you give them the right translation/presentation (D’Aulaire’s has always been my choice for kids). Then there is what myth meant before the later Greeks and Romans began to view them with irony and cynicism. Sacred, magical, transformative, and full of emotional power. There’s a saying in Briseis’s culture, “The tongue is the bridge,” meaning stories are the connection between gods and mortals. I decided early on to accept my characters’ understanding of myth and write the tale within their belief system. Take one “mythological” moment from my book—when Thetis, Achilles’ goddess mother, rises out of the sea carrying his new immortal armor so that he can go back into the battle. This goddess is a mom and she knows she is bringing her son’s death in her hands. And she will suffer this grief for eternity because she’s immortal. You and I know if that worst possible thing strikes us and we lose a child, there will be with our deaths an end eventually to the unbearable grief. Not for Thetis, and doesn’t that make your heart ache? I love taking these myths seriously and respecting the source of emotional power they give to my writing.
Q: What do you feel is the most important take away from the Trojan War? Is it the usual story everyone knows that is still used today about “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth?” or something more cultural, political, or historical?
A: Actually the Trojan War, as portrayed both in my novel and the Iliad, is an argument against war. I show the seamy greed of leaders choosing to destroy other people’s lives for nothing but their own increase of power. That hasn’t changed for the most part if you look at the underpinnings of war in the last few hundred years. There are exceptions, “good wars,” further down the chain of events, but not at the source of the conflict. Like this ancient war, people gussy up their “reasons” with claims of insulted honor and defending others, but the level of destruction and suffering rarely justifies the reasons. One of the themes of my book is how, in the unstoppable crap that happens once a war is unleashed, some women, a lot of them, despite being on the receiving end of the worst of the violence and sorrow, figure out how to find a good reason to live and rebuild. My book has hope at its core. One purpose of writing a book set in a far-off war is that this war—the Trojan War—is so iconic of the concept of war in our historical consciousness that when the reader is given a chance to draw a sense of hope and human resilience out of that, a sense that human beings are bigger than the meanness of war, then you maybe have something really solid and good in your psyche after the reading experience.
Q: Do you believe that there is any historical reality to the Trojan War? Why or why not?
A: I’ll quote a truly authoritative voice on this subject, Manfred Korfmann, who undertook the contemporary reworking of the archaeological site of Troy for almost twenty years until his death. When asked if the Trojan War really happened, he said, ““According to the archaeological and historical findings of the past decade especially, it is now more likely than not that there were several armed conflicts in and around Troy at the end of the Late Bronze Age. At present we do not know whether all or some of these conflicts were distilled in later memory into the “Trojan War” or whether among them there was an especially memorable, single “Trojan War.” However, everything currently suggests that Homer should be taken seriously, that his story of a military conflict between Greeks and the inhabitants of Troy is based on a memory of historical events—whatever these may have been. If someone came up to me at the excavation one day and expressed his or her belief that the Trojan War did indeed happen here, my response as an archaeologist working at Troy would be: Why not?”
I did a longer discussion of this complicated issue in two posts along the way on this blog tour. The links to both can be found on my website under “The Trojan War: History or Myth?”( http://www.judithstarkston.com/articles/the-trojan-war-history-or-myth )
Q: The Iliad by Homer is an epic poetic literary writing from the period, which is one of the main sources for any record of the Trojan War. I know that you’ve mentioned that, of course, people don’t have to have read Iliad to understand Hand of Fire, but what does this classic piece of literature have to do with the novel?
A: From the beginning I worked closely with all the elements of the story found in the Iliad. Because I am telling the tale from a woman’s point of view and it is a very male poem, I had to add a great deal. My story is a totally different one than the Iliad. However, I never violated anything that the Homeric tradition says. There were times when that posed huge challenges. For example, in the only moment when the Iliad lets Briseis speak she tells us Achilles’ best friend Patroklos told her early on that Achilles would marry her as his legal, recognized wife. It’s one of the signs of how much Achilles loved Briseis, but at the point in the timeline when the scene has to happen, it made no sense to me as I wrote. I tried writing that scene a hundred times and I couldn’t find a way in. Then suddenly I got it. Homer was right. That’s what happened. I just was slow to understand the emotional rightness of it since this was Achilles’ need not Briseis’s at that point. She doesn’t get it at all at that moment, any more than I did, but she comes to and such a vow from Achilles from the get-go turned out to be essential.
So I remained stubbornly true to Homer, unlike that same movie I referred to earlier J, but that fidelity is my job not my readers’. My primary critique partner had never read the Iliad and I checked everything with her. If something confused her, I tracked back to what I was assuming and laid in the necessary plot or character changes so that no one will ever feel “left out” if they haven’t read the Iliad. The old teacher in me is thrilled by how many people have said they’ve picked up the Iliad since reading Hand of Fire. (For that I recommend the Lombardo translation.) But that’s a separate story!
Q: What was Troy like during this time period? They say it was most likely where present day Turkey lies, during the Bronze Age. What are archaeologists uncovering now? What is the latest news?
A: I think we can move from “most likely” to certainly as to the identification of Troy with the archaeological site on the Western Aegean coast of what is now Turkey. Originally a 19thC businessman named Schliemann excavated this site. He had some unfortunate misunderstandings and no knowledge of archaeology. He dug straight down, figuring all the “Homeric” stuff would be at the bottom. The site of Troy actually has 9 layers (distinct rebuilds of the city on the same mound) with a large number of subdivisions in each of those layers. The best hypothesis now places “Homer’s” city at the beginning of the VII layer or end of the VI layer, depending on the numbering system you employ. When Korfmann gave the site a careful modern archaeological makeover, the one sample of writing found to date (a pretty phenomenal find) came from one of Schliemann’s heaped up dump piles—so the modern dig finds some great stuff.
Most of the gold jewelry that Schliemann stole from Turkey and that disappeared into Russia after WWII has resurfaced and some of it has come back to Turkey. So even outside the dig, there are discoveries relating to Troy. Schliemann and many others over the years assumed Troy was pretty much a Greek city, but what Korfmann has conclusively shown is that Troy shares its construction style and layout with other cities of ancient Anatolia (modern Turkey) and that culturally and politically, the Trojans were akin to the powerful empire to the east, the Hittites. Since we didn’t even know about the Hittites when Schliemann was digging, he’s to be forgiven for missing the similarity! Turkey is one of the most active archaeological areas in the world—maybe the most active—and the discoveries relating to my Late Bronze Age period come fast and furious.
Q: You traveled there for research, correct? Did you find its likely location and what did you experience? What did you find that helped you in your writing?
A: Every bronze age city I portray in my fiction is a reconstruction project based on scholarly research and climbing over a lot of very “ruined ruins” to quote my kids. I need the ruins and for that travel is essential. But even more important are the actual landscapes—real, concrete and dramatic. I didn’t have to imagine those because I’d hiked all through them. The glimpses of the Aegean from Mount Ida’s peak, the waterfall in the ravine, the city nestled in a fertile valley. Troy embraced by two rivers. I could write all of that much more vividly for having stood there and taken it all in.
On a slightly different note regarding travel, I discovered this spring as I again went to do a research trip, that archaeology is moving so fast in Turkey that I didn’t know about half the needed things for my current manuscript until I got there and started asking the archaeologists who are directing these exciting sites.
Q: In sights, sounds, visuals, and smells, what was the favorite part of your trip?
A: From the first research trip: the day my family and I spent on Mount Ida, which is now a national park. We wandered along the dirt roads thru a village that looked entirely Bronze Age with its stone and mud brick houses and communal ovens. We met an old woman who shared her olives and plums with us and introduced us to her roommates, a goat and a kitty, in her one room hut up against the mountain slope. Her deeply lined, cheerful face became the model for Eurome, Briseis’s nursemaid.
Q: I know you traveled this summer to Cyprus and back to Turkey. I enjoyed following you along via online photos. What new things did you uncover there, first of all, and second, I believe you went to Cyprus on research for another book you are writing, correct? What are or will you be working on next now that Hand of Fire has published (and after you’ve become un-zombified from all the promotional book launching)?
A: New things I discovered? Let’s see, numerous examples of just the right Bronze Age sword for Briseis to hold on the cover of Hand of Fire, now that it’s too late and the cover is published. Seriously, when I was hunting for an available photo for the press’s graphic artist to use, I could not find anything that didn’t look medieval. The one I sent isn’t bad, but through the whole trip, amazing examples kept leaping out of museum cases to be photographed!
I was in search of research groundwork for two different books on this trip. The best new things were locations for the historical mystery I’m currently in the middle of writing. My “sleuth” is Queen Puduhepa of the Hittites who would be as famous as Cleopatra if she hadn’t been buried in the sands of time. We have in the cuneiform tablets many of her letters, treaties, judicial decisions etc so she’s very much a historical person, but with enough blanks in the record to make her fun to write about. She was a very clever diplomat and judge so she’s perfect at unraveling crimes—even if this aspect is a bit imaginary. I thought none of the key cities of the early part of her life before becoming the Queen of the Hittites had been found. Never underestimate the speed at which Bronze Age ruins get excavated in Turkey. Her hometown, the “villain’s” location, and the next city on her life journey had all been pretty solidly identified at unpublished digs that I only found out about by traveling and talking directly to archaeologists.
So I have all kinds of great landscapes and details for my historical mystery. The springs that surround her hometown are especially fun to incorporate. The archaeologist who directs the dig calls one of them “Puduhepa’s Paradise.” Think Monet’s lily gardens.
Cyprus—well, in truth I wanted to go there because it’s gorgeous and you trip over ruins about every inch or so. I had a tickle of an idea when writing Hand of Fire that I might move one or more characters to Cyprus in a sequel. After my trip to Cyprus, my tickle has turned into a burning determination. So, when you read the sequel, don’t be surprised if some of the action takes place in an entirely new setting.
My only hint as to why is to say that Cyprus was the center of copper mining and copper is the key ingredient of bronze, and a certain main character of mine is very knowledgeable about bronze working. A wonderful archaeologist I shared a great meal with says there’s evidence of women running businesses on their own in Cyprus. Did I mention they’ve been making wine on Cyprus for more than 5,000 years and it’s still a great place for excellent, cheap red wine, so any further research I do there really wouldn’t be unpleasant!
Q: You love to read about strong historical women like I do. Who are some women in history that believe to be 1) great role models 2) interesting for any reason 3) someone you’d love to write about one day?
A: I’ll defer to my description of Queen Puduhepa in the question above. Hers was a famously happy marriage, a brilliantly active rule that kept peace in difficult times and coped with some major problems like plague and food shortages without losing the support of her people. She continued to rule after her husband’s death, as was the Hittite custom. Women had some clout.
Q: You are a classicist and taught high school English, Latin, and Humanities. Did or would you still encourage people, especially young students interested in literature and history, to read classics such as the Iliad?
A: I think most people would enjoy and benefit from reading the Iliad and other classical pieces. My students identified the Iliad as a favorite year after year, and I think part of its continuing appeal is its accessibility despite its venerable age.
Q: I am grateful to have taken Latin for two years in my schooling, but it isn’t taught as often any longer and it, of course, is a dying language. However, I feel that Latin is one of the best things I ever educated myself in! It’s used in history, law, foreign languages, science, math….how do you feel about it—for young minds (or old for that matter!)?
A: I think Latin is a wonderful language to study. Its lessons are quite different than taking French or Spanish—no ordering your dinner or asking when the next train leaves—but as a training in how language works, fundamentals of syntax and grammar, it can’t be beat. Probably we’d do ourselves a big favor as a country if we immersed all kids in a couple spoken languages from nursery school on and taught Latin from 5th grade through 8th. Then we wouldn’t be incapable of conversing with the world or of writing coherent sentences.
Q: What are some of your most favorite books you’ve ever read? 1) for historical research and 2) for pleasure? What authors do you enjoy reading most? I have noticed you like mysteries too!
A: For historical research, I’m particularly enjoying the scholarship of Eric Cline and Joanna Smith these days. If I go look at my shelves and start reminiscing about other research adventures, this interview will never be done, so we’ll leave it at that.
I do love historical mysteries as well as a bunch of historical and contemporary writers. Here’s a somewhat random selection of some favorites, but as soon as I make a list I hear the ones I’ve left out popping up in my brain: Elizabeth Speller, Priscilla Royal, Kelli Stanley, Kate Quinn, Sharon Kay Penman, Nancy Bilyeau, Geraldine Brooks, Isabel Allende, Rebecca Cantrell, Ellen Feldman, P.D. James, Rhys Bowen, Jacqueline Winspear. Okay, random stop.
Q: If you could give anyone in history the biggest scare of their life for Halloween this year, who would it be and why?
A: Oh let’s choose the Roman emperor Nero. He had a flair for the dramatic, was a total wackjob villain and he killed a lot of innocent people, so if you could have scared him into better behavior, that would have made for a little less misery in history.
Q: Where can readers and writers connect with you?
A: My website: http://www.judithstarkston.com/
Q: Where should everyone purchase Hand of Fire?
Erin: It has been such an amazing afternoon with you, Judith. Thank you so much for spending time with me to talk about your historical pursuits, your thoughts, and your writing. As always, I wish you outstanding success in all you do! It’s always a joy to talk to you!
Judith: I’ve enjoyed our conversation. Thanks for all the good questions and hosting me. Unfortunately the dog is napping on my foot so I’ll have to stay put for a while. You won’t mind if I get to work on Puduhepa’s murder mystery on your patio, do you? This is how I get my writing done—the dog pins me in place. I owe my writing career to my dog Socrates.
Hand of Fire, Synopsis~
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.
Judith Starkston, Biography~
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
Visit on Goodreads Hand of Fire
Link to the tour schedule: Hand of Fire Fireship Press Virtual Tour
“But what is the difference between a good historical novel and a brilliant one?
I suggest you read Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire and you’ll discover the answer.” Helen Hollick, Historical Novels Review Editor and author of Forever Queen
“In Hand of Fire, Starkston’s careful research brings ancient Greece and Troy to life with passion and grace. This haunting and insightful novel makes you ache for a mortal woman, Briseis, in love with a half-god, Achilles, as she fights to make her own destiny in a world of capricious gods and warriors. I devoured this page-turning escape from the modern world!” — Rebecca Cantrell, New York Times bestselling author of The World Beneath
“In her portrayal of Briseis, Judith Starkston has cast a bright light on one of the Iliad‘s most intriguing sub-plots. With her fast-paced story, three-dimensional characters, and fascinating cultural details, Starkston has given historical fiction fans a tale to remember.” –Priscilla Royal, author of Covenant with Hell