Friday, October 10, 2014

Interview with Judith Starkston, author of Hand of Fire

Judith Starkston's Hand of Fire has been garnering praise throughout the blogging community, and for good reason.  It's an accessible, historically authentic, and emotionally intense retelling of the Trojan War as seen from the viewpoint of Briseis, a young woman who finds herself at the center of the drama but who wasn't given a significant voice by the Greek epic poet Homer. To my mind, Judith's novel exemplifies the value that small presses have in the industry; they let wonderful stories like these be heard.

If you're not familiar with ancient Greece or with the cast of Homer's Iliad, there's no need to worry; no prior knowledge is needed either for the novel or for this interview, for that matter. I hope you'll enjoy reading it.

Your interest in classical literature and culture is longstanding. What first ignited your passion for this field?

In college I fell into the welcome clutches of a small band of young, enthusiastic and especially brilliant classics professors—they lit the torch. But how I fell into this fruitful study is downright silly. I was sitting in a freshman orientation meeting and heard an English professor say the one thing he’d change about his life was that he would have studied ancient Greek. I suppose to a clueless freshman enrolling in Greek sounded like the way to ensure a lifetime of happiness—and it has! The semester I read the Iliad in Greek I became permanently hooked on the poem. I believe it’s the most humane piece of literature ever composed. Reading the Iliad continues to grant epiphanies of understanding into the human condition every time I open my worn copy—even though college was a long time ago! To my perpetual surprise, the Iliad was the favorite of the majority of my high school students every year I taught it.

The mythological story of the Trojan War has been told and retold many times in fiction, with each novelist offering her or his own interpretation. Why do you think the story has exerted such a pull on writers and their audiences?

I think there are two parts to the answer.

Part one, it’s Homer—he sang this tale so profoundly and yet so accessibly that it has been grabbing everyone ever since. My high school students are a testament to that. I tried to hold onto the resonant quality of Homer’s version of the Trojan story when I wrote Hand of Fire. Homer created a few perfect vignettes of women in the Iliad, but women weren’t his focus. I wanted to shift the lens so we saw it through the central female character, Briseis. That meant a new version of the tale, but I didn’t want to lose Homer, although I should say, no one needs to have read the Iliad to enjoy Hand of Fire. I needed to know Homer, but my readers don’t.

The second part of why the Trojan story exerts such a pull is the story itself. No matter who tells it, the elements of entertainment and enthrallment are built in. Heroic warriors take their attack to the gates of a legendary city in order to achieve greatness and the only immortality available to men—fame, but these men find instead that they cannot resolve their own conflicts among themselves. We can all believe that very human dynamic, and what a backdrop for it—battles of glistening armor and colliding chariots, and a city that seems almost golden as it beckons to these warriors.

Then, introduce the defenders of home and hearth, the equally heroic Trojan warriors, show us their wives and their infants. Bring death close to these innocents. Now light a passion between a captive woman, Briseis, and the greatest of the Greeks, Achilles, that flames into uncontrollable danger when Achilles loses her to his hated rival. Then throw in friendship so deep and profound that a half-immortal man can’t recover himself when he loses that friend, not until an aged father reminds him how to be a human being not a god. Love, war, passion, friendship, heroism, all the elements that make a great story, time and again. All there, handed to a writer like me on a gorgeous platter of myth and legend. The pull is intrinsic.

Fully half of the novel takes place on Lyrnessos, before Briseis leaves with Achilles and his fellow warriors. Was this a deliberate decision, to give equal attention to her earlier life as a priestess and her later life away from her homeland?

Briseis, we are told in the tradition, is a princess of Lyrnessos (not a daughter of Priam as people have been led to believe by Hollywood). Lyrnessos is a city allied to Troy somewhere on the far side of Mount Ida. Or so the Homeric and surrounding mythic tradition says. No site identified as Lyrnessos has been excavated, and Briseis may have been a figment of Homer’s imagination. I focused on Briseis because a question had bothered me for many years as I taught the Iliad. While Briseis triggers the central conflict in the poem, she gets only a few mentions and in those, one of the key ideas Homer suggests is that she loves Achilles. That had never made sense to me. Achilles has killed her husband and brothers and destroyed her city. So why the love between Briseis and Achilles?

The answer to me lay in who Briseis was before she met Achilles. There had to be so much that connected them that those bonds would create a bridge over the unthinkable grief he’s caused her. I found those commonalities in two ways. We’re fortunate in the last decade or so to have access to translations of cuneiform tablets excavated from archaeological sites of cities sharing the same cultural and religious traditions as Briseis’s people. Troy was located on the Western coast of what is now Turkey. To the east of Troy in Briseis’s age lay the powerful Hittite Empire, which left us these large clay libraries. Many of the tablets describe the role of healing priestess that I gave to my Briseis. As a healer and a singer of sacred tales—both activities Achilles was famous for along with his fighting prowess—she stepped out of the historical record as this believable lover of Achilles. But no modern audience is familiar with this “job” of healing priestess, so I did some world and character building so that this exotic place and time would feel familiar to my readers and along the way showed how Briseis responds to crises and stress.

Also, I found a way to connect Achilles and Briseis mystically before they came face to face—he’s half-immortal and she’s a priestess, so this was very natural to their story despite being “fantasy” in some ways. I won’t spill too much, but suffice to say, in the Hittite myths there’s a very Achilles-like god whom I am convinced served as the model for much of what became the Homeric Achilles. I wove that Hittite god into my story to create a spiritual connection between my two unlikely lovers. So the first half, back in Lyrnessos, isn’t “prelude” but integral to the love story, even as the physical first meeting has not yet occurred. Also, although this is a tale of love, it doesn’t have a traditional romance arc. It’s Briseis’s story first and foremost, not Achilles and hers as a couple. She enters the stage alone, struggles to define herself and she steps off the stage not as a “happily ever after” romance would do it. She needed some room to grow before the outsized Achilles filled the space.

By the way, Achilles is a psychological mess, so I really needed a young lady skilled in therapeutic healing or she’d have gone nuts being in love with him! Imagine if your mother had plopped you in a magical fire that made you mostly but not quite immortal and then ditched you when her magic failed. Yikes! (It was fun introducing readers to that myth in the novel.) My heart always goes out to Achilles and I wanted him to have a lover who could understand his fragmented psyche and make him happy for at least a time. Both Briseis’s healing knowledge and her mystic physical connection made that possible.

The personal relationships that the people of Lyrnessos have with the goddess Kamrusepa, the rites performed by healing priestesses like Briseis and her mother, and the important roles these women play in society come through clearly in your descriptions. How did you re-create this aspect of your heroine’s life?

The rites and the important roles of women come directly from the written record found in the cuneiform libraries of these people. Actually these aspects all come in exacting detail, sometimes pages upon pages of it for a single rite or role (far more than would ever be incorporated into good fiction). I was surprised but pleased at how influential these women were—literate and leaders of their communities. It felt as though the Briseis of my imagination had been quietly sitting there in the historical record waiting for me to “dig” her out. It must be said, however, that the tablets make for dry reading—none of the emotions or connectedness to the gods are explicitly there. It’s implied by the fullness of activity, the sometimes heart-rending content of prayers, and the devotion of lives to the gods, but it isn’t revealed fully. I had to fill out those implications with the imaginative process. I also felt my characters’ connection to the gods in some of the beautiful artifacts such as libation cups and divine statues. This artwork often mirrors the soul of the artisan and reflects this society’s attitudes about the relationship between gods and mortals.

Queen Hatepa’s maid, Maira, was one of my favorite secondary characters, due to her intelligence and resilience. How did you develop her role in the story?

author Judith Starkston
She was such a delightful accident. Her character wasn’t present in early drafts and her much expanded role came very late. She started as an “extra” and grew into one of my favorites also. She kept insisting that she could make a problematic scene work, that she could be the friend, often silent, that Briseis so deeply needed. Sometimes it feels as if characters are actually alive independently of my imagination—with Maira that was so true. When I tried to explain Briseis’s epiphany about her connection to Kamrusepa, I found the only way I could express it was through Maira’s response. She let me “say” what needed saying without a word but with a resonance. I must have gone back into the novel five or six times adding Maira layers in. The surprising information she shares with Briseis toward the end, came as a surprise to me also. Maira helped me so much with a theme I hadn’t known I was going to write about, but that became central to the novel: the theme of women’s resilience in the face of personal violence against them. I couldn’t have said what my soul needed to if Maira hadn’t shown that kind of strength. Briseis needed someone who’d been there with her.

Could you provide some background to your depiction of the immortals? Although they don’t have direct speaking roles, not really, they have a definite presence in the novel that conveys their mystery as well as their influence and occasional powerlessness against fate. I particularly admired the portrayal of Thetis, the water imagery associated with her, and how she watches over her son Achilles from afar.

I’m so glad you like my Thetis. She’s a primordial force to be reckoned with, not a “sea nymph” to be dismissed as so often people think. In the myths she took on all the gods when they tried to overthrow Zeus and she has the powers at her command to defeat them all. So I included this imagery and myth of her great power because it does such a great job of making us believe that Achilles, her son, is indeed larger than life, an invincible warrior. And if such a seemingly omnipotent being as Thetis can’t save her son from death, then that maternal grief can convincingly resonate in my readers’ hearts. If even she can’t save her child, what hope do we moms and dads have to protect our children? No one wants to think of losing a child, but for us to imagine thinking of that, bearing that for eternity, as she must, causes us to weep with her in a universal lament for this worst of all sorrows. That’s the kind of resonance that I borrowed from Homer. I love the water imagery, which she shares with her son Achilles. Water is limitless in its fluidity and is the hardest of all forces to control when it rages. Yet it appears so life-sustaining and benign—perfect for such a goddess and a merciless warrior who was also a healer and poet.

Were there any cultural artifacts or other discoveries you came across during the writing process that were so compelling that you knew you had to use them in your book?

There’s a silver rhyton libation cup in the Metropolitan Museum. It’s shaped like a kneeling stag with branching horns, a checked collar and then an elaborate freeze of priests making a sacrifice to the gods. Before I’d travelled to Turkey, I’d come upon this cup. Briseis’s goddess, Kamrusepa, is said to hold the stag as her sacred animal and divinities are often depicted as standing on the back of a stag in Hittite iconography, so this exquisite piece lit my imagination immediately. Briseis lifts this cup at the festival to Kamrusepa when she is visited by a crucial mystical vision. Her goddess was there in her hands.

In your author’s note, you mention traveling to Turkey for research. What insights did you pick up there that you may not have otherwise known?

The many Turkish museum collections are inspiring for populating Briseis’s world with real objects. The archaeologists and the sites they showed me were full of crucial information that I wove into my novel. But most important, I think, is the experience of the real landscapes of my book. A good story places the reader concretely into its world. When you’re writing about the Bronze Age every building or city is a hypothetical reconstruction based on a lot of complicated scholarly research. I needed to throw myself into the natural landscape without that filter. Mount Ida and surrounding areas—that is Briseis’s beloved world—have been established as a national park so I could walk and explore all through this area. Tiny villages survive that have houses with stone and mud brick walls like their Bronze Age compatriots. I needed to experience the dramatic waterfall and glimpses of the crystal blue Aegean from Ida’s peak to be able to write from the heart. I am so grateful I had that opportunity.


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.

Hand of Fire was published by Fireship Press in September ($17.50 trade pb, $5.50 ebook).  This interview marks part of the author's virtual tour.

1 comment:

  1. This interview has great questions about her experiences in writing the book.