Thursday, October 23, 2014

Interview: Judith Starkston

Today I'm pleased to Welcome Judith Starkston to the blog to talk about her new book, "Hand of Fire." 

But first, a little about "Hand of Fire." 

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. 

In the Iliad, Homer gives only a few lines to Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. Hand of Fire brings Briseis to life against this mythic backdrop. Thrust into leadership as a young woman, she must protect her family and city. Sickness and war threaten. She gains much-needed strength from visions of a handsome warrior god, but will that be enough when the mighty, half-immortal Achilles attacks? 

  1. What inspired you to write this book?
It may sound strange, but I began to write in order to answer a question that had bothered me for a long time. For years I’d taught the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, and kept wondering with my students how Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, could possibly have loved Achilles.

The Greek had killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. She is central to the plot and yet she gets only a handful of lines. In those few words, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow when she is forced to leave 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.

  1. Would you classify your writing more as plot driven or character driven?

Hand of Fire is very much character driven. I wanted to figure out who Briseis could have been—after a while she became very real to me and when I found myself struggling with a scene it usually meant I was trying to make Briseis do something that simply wasn’t in her nature.

Achilles stumped me for the longest time. He’s larger than life, half-immortal and deeply conflicted. In an early version I had him as one of the point-of-view characters, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t hear his voice. I finally wrote his part of the story as epic poetry in iambic pentameter, which is the closest I could get in English to the hexameter verse of Homer. Once I used a medium that was mythological and writ large, he gradually revealed himself. Later I used that understanding to remove the poetry and slide in his character in the more standard format of scenes.

The manuscript I’m working on now is a mystery and for that I find I had to develop a plot outline early on, but even so the characters keep shifting that plot around to suit themselves. Characters are a very bossy lot once you let them get into your imagination.

  1. Can you tell us a little about your main character?
Briseis is essential to the plot of the Iliad, and yet we only know that she was a princess captured by Achilles. To develop who she was I needed both an understanding of what she could plausibly have done in the course her life and her inner psychology.

Intriguingly, the world Briseis lived in—the details of its everyday life, religious beliefs, language, etc. have only come to light recently—dug from the earth by contemporary archaeologists. The cuneiform libraries of ancient Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the Hittite Empire, where Troy and Briseis’s city of Lyrnessos were situated, have begun to be translated and provided the material I needed. I discovered in the evidence a powerful role for Briseis, that of a healing priestess, called in Hittite a hasawa.

That role made perfect sense for a woman who fell in love with Achilles, the warrior who is also a healer and a bard. The stories—one taken from clay-recorded history and one from mythology—meshed and a strong-willed redhead began to form in my imagination.

Briseis is a smart young woman in an ancient culture that, counter to our modern stereotypes of the past, expects her to be powerful, literate and a leader. Briseis succeeds in rising to those expectations despite the circumstances arrayed against her—and she’s strong enough to take on the mightiest of the Greek heroes.

  1. Without giving away too much, tell us a little about the main conflict in this book.
There’s conflict on two levels, as is often the case. A Greek army attacks and destroys most of what Briseis holds dear—battles, raids and rape make for vivid external conflict, but there’s the inner side of that violence also. I was very interested in how some people, women especially, can survive great tragedy and violence against them, even managing to take delight in what life still has to offer. Part of that inner survival for Briseis involves coming to terms with Achilles—the man who slaughtered her loved ones and yet offers her love. Can she return that feeling without destroying herself?

  1. What do you hope readers take away from your book?
Despite being a book about war with a lot of death and violence, the fundamental theme of Hand of Fire is one of hope. I think people will come away with a renewed sense of the resiliency of humanity and of women in particular.

Also, my aim was to build the Bronze Age world of these Greeks and Trojans vividly enough that readers feel like they’ve lived there. For most people, that’s a new and exotic world and yet it will feel surprisingly familiar in some ways. I guess you could call Hand of Fire historical escapism with a positive message.

  1. Now for a few fun questions! What song best describes your writing style?
Instead of a particular song, I guess I’ll go with a jazz improvisation. You hear familiar tunes from other times and places—I use mythology and history throughout—and as far as how I compose, I meander all over and then find my rhythm eventually.

Follow the Hand of Fire Tour!
  1. Night Owl or Early Bird?
Definitely an early bird. By evening I’m brain dead. It takes some serious caffeine to fire my mental and physical engines in the morning, and walking my golden retriever helps jiggle me awake, but I get my best work done first thing in the morning.

  1. Skittles or M&M’s?
I would be thrown out of my family if I ever sided with anything other than chocolate.

  1. Who are your favorite authors?
I dread this question because it’s like choosing among your children. The truth is frequently that my favorite author is whomever I’m reading at the moment.

Major influences include Victorian writers like George Eliot, Wilkie Collins and Charlotte Bronte, and in Greek lit, the Iliad, obviously, and there I’d recommend the Lombardo translation to anyone giving Homer a try.

Among contemporary writers here’s a somewhat random list of authors I’ve really loved that also reveals my various reading personalities: P.D. James, Priscilla Royal, Ellen Feldman, Rhys Bowen, Kelli Stanley, Rebecca Cantrell, Nancy Bilyeau, Elizabeth Speller, Geraldine Brooks, Jacqueline Winspear, Alice McDermott and Isabel Allende.

  1. Can you tell us about your future projects?
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.

Hand of Fire will be followed by at least one sequel and possibly a prequel of sorts focusing on Iphigenia and Achilles. This spring I made a research trip to Cyprus because the sequel to Hand of Fire will end up there—but it’d be a spoiler if I revealed how or why. (Also I’d have to know the answer to both of those and I’m not entirely sure yet…) Suffice to say Cyprus is a beautiful and dramatic island with a density of Bronze Age archaeological sites that is almost alarming. My husband and I had a delightful trip and maybe that’s reason enough.

Meet the Author

Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Her novel, Hand of Fire (Fireship Press September 2014), tells Briseis’s story, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad. 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.

An excerpt from Hand of Fire, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical tidbits as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community can be found on Starkston’s website You can also connect with Judith Starkston on Facebook ( or on Twitter (

Get Your Copy of Hand of Fire

Follow the tour here: Hand of Fire Tour

Praise for Hand of Fire

Advance Praise:

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." Helen Hollick, 
Historical Novels Review Editor and author of Forever Queen

"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

“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