By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
In this week’s episode of Behind the Scenes, I’d like to introduce you to Judith Starkton. Judith writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. She’s 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.
I recently interviewed Judith about her new release Hand of Fire. Before we dive in to the interview, I thought you might like to know a little more about Hand of Fire.
In the Iliad, Homer gives only a few lines to Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. Hand of Fire brings Briseis to life against this mythic backdrop. Thrust into leadership as a young woman, she must protect her family and city. Sickness and war threaten. She gains much-needed strength from visions of a handsome warrior god, but will that be enough when the mighty, half-immortal Achilles attacks?
And now to pull aside the wizard’s curtain…
M: One of the things that fascinated me about your story was how you looked at what it would have been like if the Greco-Roman/Anatolian gods were real. What inspired you to blend history and fantasy in this way?
J: My novel tells Briseis’s story, the captive woman who triggers the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad. Homer’s poem depicts a world in which a goddess rises from the sea to comfort her mortal son and the fate of the war is determined in an assembly of the Olympian gods. I enjoyed keeping some of those fantasy elements in my novel.
By treating the gods as real, I was able to enter into the historical mindset of the period I portray—walk in my characters’ sandals, so to speak. The Greeks and Trojans thought of their gods as real and that included their gods’ direct interference in mortal lives. While I’m sure a Greek soldier of the Late Bronze Age would have been terrified to meet a god in the course of his daily life, he wouldn’t have been surprised by the god’s presence.
We often think of myth as trivial or frivolous and not genuinely religious, but to these Bronze Age people (and this wouldn’t be true of the much later Romans) these myths had immense power. We have rites recorded on clay tablets unearthed from this period from other cities similar to Troy. Those rites include the recitation of myths at public festivals as powerful analogic magic. So, for example, in my novel, Briseis as a healing priestess, makes a prayer for the fertility of her city’s fields, herds and women by reciting the story of how the god who oversees such well-being was wooed back from abandoning his people. By telling this story of the divine restoration of fertility, Briseis and her people believed that a similar restoration would truly happen in their midst. They paired the recitation with sacrifices and offerings to entice the necessary god to be present and then magically won him over with the telling of his myth. It’s an exciting world to depict because the blend between fantasy and reality isn’t nearly as sharp as the modern world would have it. Being historically accurate didn’t for a minute exclude exploring the mystical, otherworldly elements I enjoy so much.
M: You mentioned that your main character, Briseis, was based on a historical figure. How much is known about the real Briseis, and how did you choose when to stick to history and when to invent something for the sake of a good story?
J: As far as the plotline of Briseis’s life goes, we only know a little from Homer, who may or may not reflect historical memory rather than myth. We have no truly historical records that mention Briseis. Homer tells us that she was a princess of Lyrnessos captured by Achilles, and Achilles slaughtered her three brothers and husband. But sadly, we don’t know if she really lived or not. She might be a figment of the bard’s imagination.
We do, however, know a wealth of detail about life around Troy in the Bronze Age thanks to recent archaeological finds, including extensive Hittite clay tablet libraries found in the city of Hattusa. Everything I made up in order to construct a flesh-and-blood life story for Briseis is grounded in historical fact, but I did have to imagine quite a bit. For example, I made her a healing priestess, a position in Hittite/Trojan life that comes straight from the cuneiform tablets, the most concrete (clay?) evidence we have about this culture, but I was the one who imagined that this real job was Briseis’s. Giving her these duties allowed me to build connections between Achilles and her. As a priestess she is tuned into her protective god from an early age—and that turns out to be an interesting link to her experiences with Achilles. Also Achilles was a famous healer as well as the most deadly of the Greek warriors, so they find common ground in this area as well. I was able to tie the mythic with the historical smoothly by using the solid historical details I found in the tablets because it was a culture that saw the world of the gods as directly interfacing with the world of man.
M: For writers who are working on a historical fantasy or a straight historical novel, what’s the best piece of advice you could give them?
J: Connect with the rest of your writing community because your friendships there will be the bulwark you’ll need as you try to get published and as you keep to the job of putting the words down every day.
Also, make sure you get the history right but don’t forget that the story comes first. Can any of us imagine loving Tolkien if he hadn’t used all that amazing medieval history, but would we have been glued to Lord of the Rings if it had been overburdened with that history? That goes whether it’s fantasy or straight historical.
M: What one theme or message do you hope readers will walk away with when they finish your book?
J: Hand of Fire explores why some people, women especially, can survive great tragedy and violence against them, even managing to take delight in what life still has to offer. Despite being a book about war with a lot of death and violence, the fundamental theme of Hand of Fire is one of hope. I think people will come away with a renewed sense of the resiliency of humanity and of women in particular.
M: I don’t want to give any spoilers so I won’t mention details about your ending. I would consider your ending hopeful, but not necessarily happy. What prompted your decision to leave it open-ended? Will we be seeing more books in a series or is this a standalone novel?
J: Although my next book published will be the first in a historical mystery series I’m writing about the Hittite Queen Puduhepa (now also a sleuth!), there will be a sequel to Hand of Fire. I didn’t anticipate a sequel when I started writing Hand of Fire, and the open-endedness you mention was a direct product of the themes that I was integrating, rather than an attempt to set up for another book. But the ending does invite the story to continue, and I’ve already started the research for that book. This spring I spent five weeks in Turkey and on the island of Cyprus, getting a detailed sense of new settings and talking to some fascinating archaeologists about what women of this period could do in the form of launching new lives, so to speak. It turns out, women had a lot of room to maneuver in and Briseis has a lot of opportunities to choose from. I’ll be consulting with her via imagination and see what she thinks! It’d spoil the ending of Hand of Fire if I revealed the central theme of the sequel, but it’s an idea I’ve been intrigued by for a long time and I’m glad Briseis is giving me the chance to ground it in a good story.
An excerpt from Hand of Fire, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community can be found on Starkston’s website www.judithstarkston.com. You can also connect with her on FB or Twitter.
Hand of Fire can be ordered through your local bookstore and is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and most other online outlets.
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