I’d like to thank author Judith Starkston for stopping by the blog. Starkston’s debut novel “Hand of Fire” (reviewed here) was released this month. In the novel, the well-known story of the Trojan War is told from a very different perspective, that of Briseis, the woman who got between Achilles and Agamemnon in Homer’s story the “Iliad”.
1) I see you taught high school English, Latin, and the humanities. I think most view Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as high school material they will never encounter again, but here, you give the tale a new spin. What inspired you to revisit those classic works?
As an undergraduate Classics major I fell in love with Homer’s Iliad, which is an epic poem set in the Bronze Age. Over the years the poem continued to move me so much that there were sections that I couldn’t teach without getting teary-eyed. My students regularly said it was their favorite book each year.
While my interest at first was literary—the poem—I became increasingly interested in the details of Bronze Age life as I began to write fiction—which my love of Homer’s poem drove me to do!
While teaching the Iliad, I kept wondering with my students how Briseis, the young captive woman who sparked the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, could possibly have loved Achilles—which is what Homer shows us. The half-immortal Greek killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. She’s central to the plot of the Iliad and yet she gets only a handful of lines. In those few words, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow at being parted from Achilles.
I should say I always liked Achilles, the existential hero who calls the whole war into question—which shows he’s no brainwasher—so the answer wasn’t some ancient version of Stockholm Syndrome. I started exploring who Briseis could be that would solve this psychological puzzle and that led me to novel writing.
To write a good historical story you have to build a totally absorbing world that pulls your reader back in time. For that, the writer has to know far more than she ever actually includes. Her knowledge has to be deep enough that a few deft strokes paint the setting and atmosphere.
So I started digging away though archaeology and history into life in the Bronze Age in what is now Turkey where Troy was located. Once I did, I found even more to love. Who could resist a legendary city like Troy with towering citadel walls and room after room of golden splendor? In my heart and imagination, the poetry melded with the romance of the physical remains of the era.
2) I think few will realize that they’ve encountered the character of Briseis before – in the 2004 movie Troy played by Rose Byrne, where she’s a minor character. In Hand of Fire, we see the story through her eyes. What made you choose to tell the story from her viewpoint?
I should say that my Briseis and that movie’s version are pretty different! Briseis has only a few lines in Homer’s epic poem but the central conflict turns on her. It’s a patriarchal epic of battles and war dominated by men, so it’s understandable that Briseis gets decidedly shortchanged. But I wanted more. I wanted to know what kind of woman could love such a conflicted, extraordinarily difficult hero like Achilles. I knew she had to have a strong sense of self to retain or restore her emotional well-being despite the violence and tragedy she suffers. Without such resilience I didn’t find it persuasive that she would form the close bond with Achilles that the poem implies. But the tradition only tells us that she was a princess of Lyrnessos with a husband and three brothers whom Achilles kills. There was so much unknown about her that I felt driven to find her story and let her tell us who she was.
3) I read that you traveled to Turkey to research the book. I imagine the landscape today is quite different than what it looked like in Briseis’s time. What did the modern location reveal about a culture that lived so far in the past? Can you still get an impression of what Briseis might have seen and heard?
There are some major changes in the landscape, including, obviously, large city centers. There used to be a large bay by Troy that is now silted in and in many parts of Turkey the huge forests have long ago been logged away. But despite such alterations, I often saw scenes taken straight from the Bronze Age. Many rural villages are still there, built of mudbrick smoothed with mud plaster—pretty much as they would have been. The narrow dirt or cobbled streets with goats and chickens milling about seem quite authentically ancient! Also I’m pretty good at climbing over various piles of cut stone and rubble otherwise known as Bronze Age archaeological sites and reconstructing them in my mind into the palaces, temples, noble homes and artisan workshops they once were. It takes some knowledge about the architecture etc of the period, but that’s a historical fiction writer’s job. The great plain of Troy and nearby Mount Ida is now a national park with forests and a dramatic waterfall that reflects the same beauty of the area in ancient times. I often referred to my photographs of the area when I built scenes. Even though we have not found a site for Briseis’s city of Lyrnessos, we know the general area it is traditionally understood to have been and I found knowing what that area really looks like gave life to my descriptions—even if the city itself was imaginary.
4) I find it challenging enough to research events that took place five hundred years ago. What sources did you use to research a culture that lived thousands of years ago?
I have to say I’m always jealous of writers who talk of getting information for their historicals from 17th or 18th century newspapers in university archives. No such easy sources for me! Fortunately in the last decade or two, archaeology in Turkey has flourished. Along with the material remains—things like buildings, pottery, jewelry, weapons and the like—the excavations have also brought to light huge cuneiform libraries of clay tablets. I found in these tablets descriptions of women doing the rites and activities that I portray Briseis doing, along with court intrigues, scandals and magic. The translations from the tablets sound pretty dry and technical, but they provided the raw materials. Then it was up to me to pluck the juicy details out and use them to flesh out a good story.
5) Superstition seems to be a theme in many religions. In chapter 8, we see Briseis trying to undo a curse. What role did magic and superstition play in the Hittite religion?
Hittites—who by the way are the cultural cousins of the Trojans and hence included in this discussion of a book about Troy since we know more about the Hittites than we do about the Trojans—did not differentiate between magic and religion. One of the most basic assumptions in their religion was that if they performed a rite that was similar to the situation they wanted to happen, they could make the situation happen. So for example, if they wanted the crops to flourish, the priestess would recite a sacred story of a time when the crops were dying because a god was angry and then in the story the god was soothed and brought back to happiness and the crops flourished. By analogic magic the Hittites (or Trojans) believed their own crops would similarly flourish through the power of the story.
We have the word scapegoat. Well, sometimes for Hittites it would be scapemouse. They had a rite where red and green strands of wool would be transferred from a sick person to a mouse while the necessary words were said and then the mouse was sent away. They believed the mouse would carry away the pain and sickness since all illness came from the gods and the gods could choose to remove it if you gave them some prodding and a means. One does have to wonder why this belief wasn’t undercut by reality, but if you have nothing else to offer and you really believe in something like this, it may have had a powerful effect.
6) What is your favorite aspect of writing historical fiction?
I love the escape—going back into a mythological and legendary time with palaces, half-immortal heroes, and women “like Aphrodite” is just plain fun. And I think both the writer and the reader enjoy finding the commonalities across time. The past can provide a prism on us in ways that stories set in contemporary time can’t. For example, important to Hand of Fire is the way some women find a deep reserve of strength and resilience in the midst of unforgiveable tragedy and violence. Other women become emotional shells of their former selves. Why is that? How can we help each other build or find those reserves? I could have written about modern women surviving difficulties, but stepping back so far into time gives the reader a heightened sensibility that lifts us out of our ordinary way of seeing things and gives us access to a deeper vision. We’re not thinking in terms of modern categories and prejudices that blind us to more fundamental truths.
7) Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
I’m in the middle of a 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.
Have a question for Judith Starkston? Please write your question in the comments section!
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.