Interview With Author Judith Starkston Discussing Hand of Fire, The Trojan War, And Achilles’ True Nature

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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.

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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?

Amazon
Nook
My Website
Twitter
Facebook

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!

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Judith Starkston: Author 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.

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Hand Of Fire By Judith Starkston Finally Places Achilles’ Love Briseis In Her Place In History

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“Patroklos, far most pleasing to my heart in its sorrows, I left you here alive when I went away from the shelter, but now I come back, lord of the people, to find you have fallen. So evil in my life takes over from evil forever. The husband on whom my father and honored mother bestowed me I saw before my city lying torn with the sharp bronze, and my three brothers, whom a single mother bore with me and who were close to me, all went on one day to destruction. And yet you would not let me, when swift Achilles had cut down my husband, and sacked the city of godlike Mynes, you would not let me sorrow, but said you would make me godlike Achilles’ wedded lawful wife, that you would take me back in the ships to Pythia, and formalize my marriage among the Myrmidons. Therefore I weep your death without ceasing. You were kind always.”

In Homer’s The Iliad, these are the only lines spoken by Briseis, Achilles’ love, and considered his wife. As you can clearly see, Homer left out a lot about a woman who changed the course of human civilization. Judith Starkston has corrected that mistake.

With the publication of Hand of Fire, Starkston has finally placed Briseis in her rightful place in history. Beginning as a healing priestess, our heroine soon finds herself in peril when she is taken captive after her family is killed in an attack. A woman who should have every reason to hate Achilles finds a way to love him, and those feelings become mutual.

We see Achilles and Patroklos’ close friendship, and how Patroklos was the only one who truly knew Achilles for who he truly was. When Patroklos was killed in battle, Achilles is inconsolable. This is the point when Briseis and Achilles begin to love each other, and she is able to peek through the veil of the immortal hero to see how human Achilles really is.

Throughout Hand of Fire, we see the progression of the romance between our heroes. The conclusion of the novel hits the reader very hard, when Achilles comes to realize that his fate is sealed and he is taken from this world so devastatingly. By this point, they consider each other spouses, and their love is cut down at its apex.

Hand of Fire is a truly amazing novel. Starkston executes the romance between Briseis and Achilles without letting it get too sappy or lose real, human emotion. Starkston interprets the Iliad the same way I do, with Achilles being a truly kind man with human emotions and flaws, rather than being a selfish, violent man like some believe. No matter what, though, Starkston has created two protagonists that all readers can relate to, with cares and emotions, love and betrayal. These two characters are shown so human-like, it allows us to peer behind the curtain of heroism to see how they really were, just like Briseis did when she found love with Achilles.

Judith Starkston has created a world full of historical accuracy to rival any other, and has crafted characters that we can all find similar to ourselves. I consider Hand of Fire to be one of the most powerful and well-written tales set in the Late Bronze-Age, and one of the best books of 2014. I look forward with great fervor to future works by Judith Starkston, which, if written on the caliber of Hand of Fire, will become classics themselves.

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Judith Starkston: Author 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.

Praise For Hand of Fire

“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

“Suspenseful, tragic, surprising and sexy” –Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown and The Chalice

“In Hand of Fire, Judith Starkston frees Briseis from the actions of Achilles and Agamemnon and gives her the power to become the heroine of her own story. … Starkston does a lovely job of bringing the characters to life, and her descriptions of the religious rites, the scenery of Mount Ida, and life as a woman of privilege in the ancient world put me firmly in the story. The love story between Briseis and Achilles is well-rendered, as are Briseis’ relationships with her father and brothers, her nurse, and the other women in the city and in the camp. A wonderful new take on a timeless story.” –Historical Novels Review

“Briseis steps out from the handful of lines she gets in Homer’s epic, and fearlessly tells her own story as healer, war prize, and partner to the famous Achilles–here a godlike hero who manages to be all too human. Recommended!”–Kate Quinn, author of Empress of the Seven Hills

“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 and 9 other Prioress Eleanor mysteries

“Starkston breathes new life into an age-old tale in this masterful retelling of the Iliad. The reader experiences the terror, bravery and heartbreak of Briseis who now takes center stage in one of the most famous love triangles of all time.” Elisabeth Storrs, author of The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice

“Absolutely loved the book. Couldn’t put it down. Wonderful writing. And, I see no errors whatsoever as regards the history.” –Professor Eric Cline, Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, George Washington University

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Purchase Hand Of Fire At:

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Guest Post From Donald Michael Platt, Author Of Close To The Sun

Today I have a guest post from Donald Michael Platt, author of Close To The Sun. Mr. Platt has had a long career in teaching and writing, and I look forward to sharing a post penned by him. He has now begun to write many new novels in genres including historical and military fiction, and I hope that this post helps you learn more about the man behind the books.

Guest Post From Donald Michael Platt:

I thank you Nassem Al-Mehairi for inviting me to post on your blog.

I have loved reading about History since first memory and later immersing myself in Historical Fiction by age eight. If I saw a swashbuckler film first, I wanted to read the book it was based on and non-fiction to learn how much was true. No Tom Sawyer for me, I preferred Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, both of which were made into films.

I bypassed Dickens, Johnny Tremaine, and the Hardy Boys for writers from the so-called Golden Age of HF. Many of their novels were made into films when I was a boy into my early Teens:

Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, The Black Swan, and Scaramouche
Samuel Shellabarger’s Captain from Castile and The Prince of Foxes –
Thomas Costain’s The Black Rose
Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow, The Golden Hawk, and The Saracen Blade—Edison Marshall’s novel Benjamin Blake became the film Son of Fury and others that made it to cinema included Yankee Pasha and The Viking –

And at age twelve I even read Kathleen Windsor’s Forever Amber. All the HF and non-HF I have read since then would fill many pages.

Continuing my love of History, I earned my B.A. in History at U.C. Berkeley and taught it as well. Able to write in several genres and media, film and TV, I decided the time had come for me to try HF.

Although my first published novel A Gathering of Vultures was contemporary horror, I included some history about worship of vultures going back to ca, 7,000 BC.

Little known historical characters who led exceptional lives have always interested me. I wanted to know more about them, but often no information existed to fill the gaps and satisfy my curiosity. That is why I wrote my first HF novels Rocamora and House of Rocamora based on the life of Vicente de Rocamora. a sparsely documented historical personage who went from Dominican ( the monastic Order that controlled the Inquisition) royal confessor and spiritual director for the teenage teenage Infanta of Spain and sister of Philip IV to at age 46 a Jewish physician in Amsterdam, married a twenty-five year old woman who would give him nine children over the next eleven years.

Another historical personage who appears in my next novel to be published in September of this year is Bodo, the Apostate, as described in this blurb for the back cover:

“… in the meantime, a credible report caused all ecclesiastics of the Catholic Church to lament and weep.” Prudentius of Troyes, Annales Bertiniani, anno 839

On Ascension Day May 22, 838, Bishop Bodo, chaplain, confessor, and favorite of both his kin, Emperor Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, and Empress Judith, caused the greatest scandal of the Carolingian Empire and the 9th century Roman Church.

My novel, Bodo the Apostate, dramatizes the causes, motivations, and aftermath of Bodo’s astonishing cause célèbre that took place during an age of superstitions, a confused Roman Church, heterodoxies, lingering paganism, broken oaths, rebellions, and dissolution of the Carolingian Empire.

About my novel published this past June 15th,, 2014, Close to the Sun follows the lives of two Americans and a German from childhood through the end of WWII. As boys, they idealize the exploits of WWI fighter aces known as chivalrous Knights of the Skies.

Hank Milroy from Wyoming learns his first flying lessons from observing falcons. Karl, Fürst von Pfalz-Teuffelreich, aspires to surpass his father’s 49 Luftsiegen accumulated during WWI. Seth Braham falls in love with flying during an air show at San Francisco’s Chrissy Field. The young men meet exceptional women. Texas tomboy Catherine “Winty” McCabe believes she is as good a flyer as any man. Princess Maria-Xenia, a stateless White Russian, works for the Abwehr, German intelligence. Elfriede “Elfi” Wohlmann is a frontline nurse. Mimi Kay sings with a big band.

Flying fighters over Europe, Hank, Karl, and Seth experience the exhilaration of aerial combat victories and acedom during the unromantic reality of combat losses, tedious bomber escort, strafing runs, and firebombing of entire cities. Callous political decisions and military mistakes add to their disillusion, especially one horrific tragedy at the end of the war.

Why did I write Close to the Sun? A sentient boy during WWII, I admired the fighter aces and their sleek planes. Over time I was given access to many documents from both the Allies and the Axis, and I met and conversed with aces from the USAAF, the RAF, and the Luftwaffe. A novel formed in my mind and I sat down to write.

I wanted to create a fictional USAAF fighter group and its squadrons for my fictional composite American characters against a realistic background. It took some time to find numbers that had not been used. For the Luftwaffe, I chose to use historical unit and bases.

My next challenge was to create composite characters. I wanted the two Americans to represent country and city, with a secondary character who had all the negative traits of certain fighter aces. I found it easier for purposes of the novel to make the Luftwaffe ace an aristocrat. The history of the air war over Europe carried the narrative.

I did not want Close to the Sun to be an all-male story, so I added four female characters. Winty McCabe was easy to create because she was the embodiment of all women who wanted to fly and who served as a WASP, Women’s Airforce Service Pilot. A Russian princess who worked with the anti-Nazi faction in the Abwehr, German Intelligence, gave me the inspiration for Mariya-Xenia. Given that some U.S. fighter aces wed actresses and big band singers, after a while I came up with the singer streetwise Mimi Kay. Last of all, I added Elfie, a German combat nurse for purposes of story.

My publisher has asked me for a sequel to Close to the Sun, which I have begun, and many more HF novels have been written in my mind.

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Donald Michael Platt, Biography~

Author of five novels Rocamora, House of Rocamora, A Gathering of Vultures, Close To The Sun, and Bodo, the Apostale, Donald Michael Platt was born and raised in San Francisco. Donald graduated from Lowell High School and received his B.A. in History from the University of California at Berkeley. After two years in the Army, Donald attended graduate school at San Jose State where he won a batch of literary awards in the annual SENATOR PHELAN LITERARY CONTEST.

Donald moved to southern California to begin his professional writing career. He sold to the TV series, MR. NOVAK, ghosted for health food guru, Dan Dale Alexander, and wrote for and with diverse producers, among them as Harry Joe Brown, Sig Schlager, Albert J. Cohen, Al Ruddy plus Paul Stader Sr, Hollywood stuntman and stunt/2nd unit director. While in Hollywood Donald taught Creative Writing and Advanced Placement European History at Fairfax High School where he was Social Studies Department Chairman.

After living in Florianópolis, Brazil, setting of his horror novel A Gathering Of Vultures, pub. 2007 & 2011, he moved to Florida where he wrote as a with: VITAMIN ENRICHED, pub.1999, for Carl DeSantis, founder of Rexall Sundown Vitamins; and THE COUPLE’S DISEASE, Finding a Cure for Your Lost “Love” Life, pub. 2002, for Lawrence S. Hakim, MD, FACS, Head of Sexual Dysfunction Unit at the Cleveland Clinic.

Currently, Donald resides in Winter Haven, Florida where he is polishing a dark novel and writing a sequel to Close To The Sun.

Books By Donald Michael Platt:

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Visit Mr. Platt at: http://donaldmichaelplatt.com/, and watch his YouTube video at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=RXZthhY6OtI