First of all welcome and thanks a lot for accepting to answer my questions, Judith. It’s a great pleasure to have the chance to present you and your debut novel, Hand of Fire, to my readers. How excited are you on releasing your first book?
It’s great fun to see the positive reaction to my book. Such a long journey to get published and now I feel proud. My book launch at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore was fabulous and we sold twice as many books as the staff had predicted. How thrilling is that!
My first question may be quite tricky, but let’s try. What’s the difference between a good historical fiction novel and a brilliant one?
I’m so glad you asked. According to Helen Hollick, editor of Historical Novels Review and author of Forever Queen,”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." I would never argue with a pro like Helen and any other answer would take a few hundred pages!
The Trojan War. A healing priestess defends her city. But when half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire: a tale of resilience & hope
Let’s play with adjectives! I’ll give you 3 for each of your main characters.
Briseis: strong-willed, compassionate, gorgeous
Achilles: invincibile, volatile, tender
Are they inspired by literary characters you admire?
Briseis and Achilles step straight out of Homer’s Iliad, a 3,000-year-old epic poem. But, while I was inspired by Homer, my readers don’t need to have read the Iliad at all to enjoy my novel. I was very conscious of writing a totally accessibile novel—an effortless time machine back to ancient Troy and Briseis’s world. But wear your seatbelt because it’s a wild ride!
What was the scene in the novel you enjoyed writing the most?
|Rose Byrne and Brad Pitt as Briseis and Achilles in Troy|
How did you come to be so interested in historical fiction or writing in general?
I studied classics (Greek and Latin literature and history) in college and grad school so I have always loved works set in the far past. Perhaps this story will show how I was drawn to write historical fiction: Many years ago, I walked through the British Museum with my toddler son on my shoulders (he’s a grown man now). I was retelling the myths painted on the Greek vases in front of us. We were happily lost in our imaginative world. I turned to go to another display case and discovered a crowd behind me listening in. So I think I was “writing” historical tales for a long time before I sent a manuscript to a publisher.
How much do you work on researching and how important is historical accuracy to you?
A good story has to move quickly forward and hold the reader every minute. So there’s such a thing as too much historical detail, which can weigh down the plot. However, the writer has to build a historically accurate world and never try to slide in things that wouldn’t happen in that era or thoughts that are anachronistic for the characters. To write about the Late Bronze Age in the area of modern Turkey where ancient Troy was located takes a ton of research. Fortunately, there are extensive libraries of clay tablets written in cuneiform that have been excavated in the last couple decades and from the translations of these tablets a great deal can be learned about this exotic world. Other archaeological finds fill in many other blanks about daily life and customs of Briseis’s people. The “jobs” she has in my book, that of healing priestess and princess of her city, both come directly from the tablets and so are totally historically accurate. She may sound too powerful as a literate leader of her people to some readers who assume that ancient woman were pawns of men. But I did not give her any more authority than her culture granted such women. It was very exciting to find thesepowerful ancient women.
What were the aspects of the past you found most intriguing while researching?
As a healing priestess Briseis used a lot of what we think of as magic in her rites—some very intricate and involved rituals that felt mystical to me. As part of this belief, her people considered the words of the priestess to be incredibly powerful. She would tell the sacred stories (we’d call them myths) and through these recitations of stories she could make the needed events happen, such as the fertility of the crops and herds—or so her people believed. For an author, that’s a pretty cool idea. That words have a transformative power in human life. And of course they do! But I won’t count on my novel bringing world peace, sadly.
What are you like as a reader?
I love historical fiction and historical mysteries. I can binge read for hours if life gives me the slightest opportunity. I love to get lost in another place and time amidst characters whose fate I desperately have to find out!
When you are not writing,what do you like doing?
I love to cook. My favorite thing in the world is to cook a good meal, open an excellent bottle of wine and share them with friends around my table.
What are you up to at present or in the next future?
I’ll be writing a sequel to Hand of Fire—and my characters may move to the Island of Cyprus. We’ll see. Right now I’m about half way done writing a historical mystery about Queen Puduhepa of the Hittites as “sleuth.” She would be as famous as Cleopatra if she hadn’t been buried by the sands of time. On the first extant peace treaty in history, she placed her seal next to her foe’s, 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.
That’s all, Judith. Thanks a lot for answering my questions.
I was delighted to chat about Hand of Fire with you.
Read an extract from the book
A rage rose up in Briseis; the sound of a hundred bees filled her head. In one motion she swept the dead Greek’s sword off the ground and leapt from behind the well. Achilles’ blade flashed in the air above her. She saw his hands grasping the hilt and sensed their power, then saw his look of astonishment as she raised her blade against the blow aimed at her brother. A new, invincible strength coursed through her arms. The desire to strike—raw and terrifying—drove out her helplessness. Her blade met his. A bolt shot through her.
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.
Historical background of Hand of Fire, book reviews, ancient recipes, 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 Facebook or on Twitter.
About the book
About the book
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.