I am very excited to share with you an interview I conducted with Judith Starkston, author of Hand of Fire. Starkston has a wealth of knowledge on ancient history to rival Homer himself, and I hope this interview is as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to conduct.
Hello, Judith, and welcome to Seize the Moment! I am so happy you’re here, and I’m excited to talk about your new debut novel, Hand of Fire! How are you?
I’m great and very happy to join you on Seize the Moment. I’ve been a fan of your blog for a while.
Homer has been an inspiration to many historians and military writers for a very long time. He must have had an impact on you too, as Hand of Fire follows Briseis, Achilles’ love, during the Trojan War. When did you first read any of Homer’s work, and when did it first pique your interest in that time period?
When I was an undergraduate, I studied ancient Greek and read the Iliad with one of my favorite professors. The discussions we had in that class were so insightful and engaging that I ended up writing my undergraduate thesis on the Iliad. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Briseis is just very briefly mentioned in The Iliad. What kind of research did you conduct to create the multi-dimensional character that fills your novel? What would life have been like as a healing priestess like Briseis?
When I first thought of writing about Briseis, I imagined a strong-willed young woman because I couldn’t see a wet noodle standing up to a hero like Achilles, who is half-immortal and very conflicted and complicated. She had to have some major strength of character and a cultural background that supported that power. But I was afraid I might create an anachronistic woman. I assumed, based on what I knew about the later Classical Greek women, well after the Homeric period, that Briseis would have a similarly limited set of horizons.
Early on in my research into the Trojans and their allies (such as Briseis’s city of Lyrnessos), I had an amazing revelation that put Hand of Fire on its path. The Bronze Age civilization in the area which today is modern Turkey, where ancient Troy was located, gave certain women very high status and respect, both to rulers like princesses or queens and also to various priestesses.
The major political force in this region during the Bronze Age was the Hittite Empire. Troy and her allied cities were semi-independent kingdoms within the same cultural, religious and political traditions as the Hittites. This is important because extensive Hittite libraries of cuneiform clay tablets have been excavated and translated in the last couple of decades (which explains why I didn’t know about all this cool stuff in college or grad school, since I’m told I went to college during the Jurassic Age). From these translated libraries I found the raw material to build Briseis’s life. I should point out that the actual translations are very dry reading, but if you pluck all the juicy details out and put them into a compelling story, then you end up with a historically accurate world and a non-anachronistic but strong woman of the Late Bronze Age. Just what I needed! Briseis’s “jobs” as a healing priestess and princess came straight from these tablets. She would have enjoyed the deep respect of her community, have had a lot of say in what happened in her city, and she would have been involved with performing the town’s religious festivals and rites, curing illness, delivering babies, creating harmony between gods and men, and a few other small tasks like that!
While we are on the subject of research, how did you reconstruct the city of Troy and its surroundings? Are there very many texts that describe what life was like then that date to that period?
I’ve been to the archaeological site of Troy and studied it carefully. I’ve also wandered thru the area where traditionally the Greeks thought Lyrnessos must have been (it’s never been found). Being there in the setting allows me to include vivid descriptions based on the actual geography. I like my readers to feel like they are there. For example, there’s a beautiful waterfall on Mt Ida’s flanks and that became a setting in my novel. The archaeology at Troy during the last twenty years has established how the walls were built, the basic layout of the city and those kinds of details. For my more imaginary city of Lyrnessos, I studied a variety of excavated Bronze Age cities in the general area and found the common elements that would be present in a real Lyrnessos.
As far as texts, there are the Hittite libraries I mentioned above, although they focus mostly on the royal court and religious practices, so there are some areas that I’d love to know more about that they are silent on. I had to do the best I could with what archaeology reveals (and common sense). So, for example, a really thorough contemporary dig will include some DNA profiles revealing the organic substances present. I mine things like that to make delicious meals for my characters to eat. I pluck out the spices, grains, meats, etc. But trust me, this takes some messing around in the kitchen before something mouth watering goes on the page. DNA profiles by themselves are a good cure for insomnia! I’m giving out bookmarks at my book launch that have one of my favorite recipes that I worked out during this process, lamb with lentils and raisins.
Briseis (left) And Phoenix. Credit Here.
You have portrayed Achilles as a man that, despite being half-God, still has many human flaws. Why did you take this route with the character, and did those flaws add another dimension to his romance with Briseis in actual history?
First off, let me remind the world that Achilles describes himself in Book 9 of the Iliad as a mother bird caring for her chicks (his fellow warriors are the chicks in this analogy). He may be the best of the killers in this war, but he also has a nurturing side. Or thinks he does, at least. That’s not a flaw, but it isn’t what people expect when they picture Achilles.
A long time ago when I was first working on an earlier version of this book, I took a fiction writing class and brought some passages for critique. One of the other students got so angry at me for portraying Achilles as a man of conscious who could be kind. He wanted his hero bloodthirsty and constantly killing. He thought I’d made a wimp and, boy, it made him mad.
I avoided that one-sided violent portrayal, despite the ire I’d inspired, for two reasons.
First, when I read the Iliad, I see a man with a subtle mind and a heart easily overwhelmed (someone who can describe himself as a mother bird). Think about his early childhood—which, by the way, I decided to accept as “true,” never mind that it involved immortals etc. I told the tale as Homer intended it—a kind of ancient magical realism. That’ll be a leap for modern audiences, but I think this style allows us to step into the ancient mind. First in Achilles’ infancy his goddess mother puts him in a magic fire that burns away most of his humanity in order to make him undying, but since his dad yanks him out, he’s still mortal. I think that makes for a very uncomfortable mix, a fragmentation of the soul. We think of God as a source of goodness, but the ancient Greek (and Hittite) gods were capricious and unpredictable. And they didn’t give a hoot about humanity except as a source to take things from. So being part immortal didn’t make Achilles moral, but quite the opposite. I think his redeeming part is his mortality. If you will die, then you value what little time you have. If you are immortal (in the Greek system anyway) you have no time pressure to value life. Continuing with Achilles’ childhood, his mother abandons him because she is so paralyzed by the idea that he will die one day that she can’t even enjoy the years she’s got with him. He gets raised by a Centaur (part horse, part man—another dual personality!) who teaches him two things, how to heal and how to fight. Another split in his soul. He’s fragmented and thus fragile—which is ironic because physically he’s invincible. No one can challenge him successfully in battle and he is definitely a merciless killer on the battlefield. But I think we’ve come to realize that such killing instincts don’t mean a man (or woman, quite relevant to this book) is devoid of moral sensibility once that frenzy passes. We humans have more layers than we like to feel. Achilles’ real flaw for Briseis is that he lets her down at a key moment. That comes from his fragmentation.
Finally, my second reason to ignore that early-on angry claim that I should make a one dimensional Achilles. No one finds a totally good or a totally bad hero interesting. Even our “superheroes” come with flaws. I think Homer knew this basic rule of good story telling, and I followed the same sound advice. While I did some extending and imagining, I don’t think my Achilles is different than Homer’s. But I’ll admit, there are still lots of people who read the Iliad and don’t see the same Achilles I do. That’s what makes it a great poem and I hope part of what makes Hand of Fire engaging.
What actual information is there on the city of Troy? Information like where was it located, when did it rise, and when did it disappear from history?
Ah, the mess that is Troy. What I mean is that of all the archaeological digs in the world, one of the most mistreated is Troy. It’s located on the western coast of what is now Turkey, right on the straits (the Hellespont or the Dardanelles depending on which age is naming the straits) which lead into the Black Sea, a very rich area for trade with the Mediterranean. Troy’s ruins were first dug in the 19th C by a romantic, incredibly rich German businessman named Schliemann. Most people thought Troy was a legend with no foundation in reality. He begged to differ. There were other, more archaeologically trained scholars who had identified possible locations for Troy. He bought the land out from under one of them and then assumed that what was Homeric would be at the bottom of the mound, so he dug a giant trench straight down and threw out the stuff above.
He couldn’t have been both more right and more wrong. It was indeed Troy that he had found. We owe him that. But he was wrong about where in that mound to find “Homer’s Troy,” that is a city that was destroyed somewhere roughly around 1250 BCE give or take a few hundred years and was grand enough to be worth a major Greek attack. It turns out Troy has 9 major layers with many sub-groupings within each of the layers. People started building on that site generations before the Bronze Age and the last layer is a Roman city and temple, which unfortunately carved off the top and erased for all time the citadel of the Bronze Age Troy. If I’m remembering my numbering correctly I think our current best guess as to which could have been a city described by Homer is layer VI. Fortunately, the last couple decades have been kind to Troy and first rate archaeology has uncovered many of its secrets. Guess where the one sample of writing from Troy was found? In Schliemann’s garbage pile.
What other time periods fascinate you like the Trojan era does? Are there any that you have thought to maybe set a story in?
I wrote a story set in the modern world and that was fun. Very handy not having to go read for several hours each time a character reaches for something and you need to know what that something looked like. I remember using chicken wire in the story and thinking, wow, why don’t I write more contemporary stories? I totally know how painful it is when chicken wire bounces back and stabs you. (The life of a writer is not something to envy—as you can see from my glee in understanding chicken wire.)
I thought I knew a lot about the Trojan era before I started. I discovered that I didn’t know enough to completely immerse a reader. So I got to work researching. I don’t know which period I’d also like to get to know that well, but I suspect I’ll move around eventually. For now, I’m going to stay here where I’ve learned the details.
Your career led you to teach high-school English, Latin, and humanities for over 2 decades. What do you find so fascinating about these subjects, and what advice do you have to someone interested in learning more about ancient historical time periods and people?
The commonality to those three subjects is that they all make a person think. I enjoyed showing high-school students what they could do with their brains. It also kept mine busy. Learning about ancient history is an enjoyable project if you love to read. I’d start with historical fiction—there are superb writers of Greece, Egypt, Babylon, Rome, etc. One of my favorite writers of non-fiction about the ancient world is Eric Cline. He gets how to write history and entertain at the same time. His latest, 1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed, about the simultaneous fall of all the great empires of the Late Bronze Age is a great read.
I have seen that you spent some time in Cyprus earlier this year. Are you planning to write something set on that Mediterranean island? What other works do you have planned?
You caught me. My husband and I spent time on Cyprus climbing over Bronze Age ruins, enjoying the crystal Aegean Sea and savoring a tradition of red wine making going back 5,000 years. I was testing out an idea that the sequel to Hand of Fire could move to Cyprus. After a lot of fascinating discussions with archaeologists working on Cyprus, it turns out to be a workable concept. Cyprus was the center of the copper trade in the Late Bronze Age. Tons of copper mines and a central location. Copper is the key ingredient of bronze—so clearly a major commodity in an age named after the stuff. This means that my metal-working savvy Briseis can make a new life in Cyprus and there is evidence of women taking on major roles in trade there. I don’t yet know how this will all work. My characters tend to boss me around once I get them going, so who knows. But I think we’ll be moving the crew to a new and gorgeous landscape that was a hot spot of the ancient world.
But first I need to finish my first historical mystery featuring the Hittite Queen Puduhepa as “sleuth.” She would be as famous as Cleopatra if she hadn’t been buried by the sands of time. Her seal is on the first extant peace treaty in history next to her foe, Pharaoh Ramses II. Now that she’s been dug out, I’ve taken her remarkable personality, which seems perfectly suited for solving mysteries, and I am writing a series. She ruled from her teens until she was at least eighty, so I think this series may outlast me.
Hand of Fire is a truly great novel, full of romance that makes it seem all too real. Where can people purchase a copy for themselves, and where can readers get in touch with you?
Thank you so much for being here today, Judith! I look forward to seeing all your readers love Hand of Fire as much as I have!
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.