Name Judith Starkston
Where are you from
I was born in California, but I’ve lived much of my adult life in the desert of Arizona.
A little about your self `ie your education Family life etc
I studied Classical literature and history in college and grad school. That’s where I originally fell in love with Homer and the Greeks. As I researched for Hand of Fire I discovered I was equally enamored of the culture of the Hittites and other peoples of ancient Anatolia where Troy was located.
I taught English, Latin and Humanities during a long career as a teacher. My students’ questions and interpretations are certainly reflected in the pages of Hand of Fire, although they probably won’t recognize them. Those lively discussions have been transformed into plot, dialogue, and characterization. My two children are grown. Now my one “child” left is my golden retriever, Socrates. He spends his days snoring under my desk. He helps me finish my books by sleeping on my feet so I feel bad getting up out of my chair. The best assistant a writer could have! He also contributes a very positive philosophical view of life to the project, although his dependence on napping as an essential activity in life is a little limiting…
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
I’m in the editing stage of a historical mystery. It’s very fun to see the various threads of plot coming together. My “sleuth” is Queen Puduhepa, a Hittite ruler who would be as famous as Cleopatra had she not been quite literally buried by the sands of time. Now that archaeology has dug her out, she’s starring in a mystery series. I suspect she did not realize how good at sleuthing she is! But we do have her letters, treaties and judicial decrees. You should hear her getting Pharaoh Ramses II to do what she wants him to—she’s quite the diplomat and student of human nature. All good fodder for a mystery.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I retired from teaching and was working on various projects—new languages to learn and such. I was walking with my dog one morning and got to thinking about a question that had plagued my reading of Homer’s Iliad for years—why does Homer show Briseis, Achilles’ captive, in love with Achilles? After all Achilles has killed her brothers and husband, turned her from princess to slave and destroyed her city. Not such a good courtship. So I started playing around with what the psychology of these two could be, what the historical circumstances, etc and eventually a novel started climbing off the pages.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Somewhere in the middle of writing Hand of Fire. For a long time the drafts I produced were pretty lame. I’m a literary critic by training, so it’s pretty painful to read and pretty easy to recognize as lame. Eventually I learned enough about how to write that I began sometimes to like what I wrote. Somewhere in there I thought, hey, maybe I can write a book. It’s lovely how positive the response has been to Hand of Fire. Incredibly gratifying after all the hard work.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I portray a very distant time and place so my style necessarily involves a lot of world building—lush description integrated into action. I enjoy working details of everyday life or a particularly gorgeous/intriguing artifact into the plot. I like to think I create an effortless time machine for the reader. I also tend toward the dramatic, so there’s a fair amount of blood and upheaval. Conflict and suspense are intrinsically interesting to readers so I work both in as often as my poor characters can bear.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
Originally the title was Hand Full of Fire. It was kind of a pun on how much of a handful Briseis is and how much fire Achilles’ hands bring into the world around him both destructive and warming. No one got the pun. Titles should not be confusing. One of my favorite scholars of the historical period the novel is set in, after he’d done a “fact check” read for me, suggested the title Hand of Fire. It made perfect sense. Both hands and fire are central images throughout the novel. And there’s that mystical, divine thread in it and Hand of Fire echoes the old phrase Hand of God, so it suggests some of that mythological/gods aspect also.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I didn’t know it when I started, but as time went on I realized I was writing about the resilience of women in tragedy, especially when they have to endure intimate physical violence. I explored what underpins some women so they can be strong and renew themselves despite the horrors and why some women become lost. In the process I portrayed families, friendship, avocations, inspiration. For a book set in a war, it actually has a very positive outlook and that makes perfect sense to me now.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
I have gods and goddesses walking through the pages of my book—the people of this time period would have viewed that as quite to be expected, even if they hadn’t individually chatted with a goddess! So I’m not sure how “unrealistic” this fantastical element can be considered, since it reflects the thought patterns of the period. But still, I think we all feel that the goddess Thetis doesn’t really make the sea part and carry armor out to hand to her son, armor made by an immortal blacksmith. My characters are drawn from a tradition that is part myth/legend and part history. It seems historically true that some sort of Trojan War happened—my website has a couple articles on that. But whether a warrior named Achilles ever took a woman named Briseis captive is probably always going to be something we won’t know for sure. That said, the world I portray is based very carefully on the historical and archaeological details that we do know with great precision. So I think a reader will get a very realistic introduction to the world of the Late Bronze Age in the area surrounding Troy. They’ll know without realizing they were learning anything, what women did, how the rhythms of life went at that time. And I think my answer to why Briseis can love Achilles is very psychologically realistic even if part of the answer lies in the half-immortal nature of Achilles.
Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
No writer can divorce herself from her own experiences nor would that be a good way to write, but I spent most of my efforts trying not to make my characters think like a modern person, although the human emotions haven’t changed over time.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most?
Homer’s Iliad is the most influential to Hand of Fire, although my readers don’t ever need to be familiar with that epic poem. I love the Victorians, Dickens, Bronte, Eliot and I suspect some of my plotting style comes from that early immersion. Nowadays I read a number of my contemporaries in historical fiction. I learn a huge amount from the way they bring the past to life amidst page-turning plots: Nancy Bilyeau, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, Ann Weisgarber, Kelli Stanley, Priscilla Royal, to name only a few that quickly come to mind.
Fiona: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
While it’s entirely presumptuous of me, I’ll claim Homer (or the tradition he represents). His poetry showed me how to reveal the essential humanity at the core of historic events.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I just finished Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches. I’ve been thinking through the intertwined roles of fantasy and history and how I want to blend them going forward in the sequel to Hand of Fire. Harkness is a first rate historian who clearly uses the fantastic in her writing. I enjoyed sorting out what she was doing and why it’s so compelling.
Fiona: What are your current projects?
Finishing my historical mystery about Queen Puduhepa and laying out the sequel to Hand of Fire. Then there are the “ancillary” parts of a writer’s life. I’m preparing for a panel I’m on about midwifery at the Historical Novel Society conference this June, a writing workshop I’m giving at a couple museums in Arizona on using historical artifacts in fiction, and trying to keep up with my occasional reviews, interviews and blog posts.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
Way more than one. Writers need community. I have a small critique group and a larger one that both knock sense into my writing in the early stages. I would never have figured out writing and publishing without the Desert Sleuths chapter of Sisters in Crime, the Arizona chapter of the Historical Novel Society (which I organized), HNS on the national level, and the many writer friends with whom I converse through various media and face to face. I welcome guest posts and other visits to my website by historical writers and readers—that’s all part of essential community building
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Yes, writing for me is a full time occupation and I think there are professional standards that need to be observed. I can’t say as this is a lucrative career, but I love it.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Not at the moment. When I’m in the middle of writing the sequel, you may hear the screams of frustration, but so far I haven’t had to return too intimately to the text so I haven’t had to face my failings in detail.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Here’s the opening paragraph of my manuscript-in-progress, an historical mystery with Queen Puduhepa of the Hittites, currently titled Blessed by a Curse:
Inside the cave the young man reached across the stone altar, its carved Hittite sun disks barely visible. As he lifted the libation cup, its gold caught the torchlight and produced an unlikely shimmer in this gloom. The smell of rot rose from the slime beneath his feet. Drops of water leaked from crevices, lost in the darkness above. The grating repetition as the water pinged against the floor tensed the bands of muscle in his shoulders, already bow-taut with dread. Strange that the gods chose such a place to communicate with mortals.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Writing is almost always hard work. It takes discipline to force myself to focus my mind with the intensity required and get to it. Once I’m in that mode, it’s much easier to carry on.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
Travel, for me, is essential. I’ve enjoyed two extended trips to Turkey and Greece since I started writing. There was no way Hand of Fire was going to work unless I could put the reader into that world without any effort on the reader’s part. That meant I had to know intimately what my characters pick up, wear, eat, see, smell. I did everything I could through archaeological research to know with precision what the physical details would have been. But being lucky enough to travel through the areas I set my book in was just as helpful. The physical setting is quite vivid in my own personal experience. That really helped. I had to “build” every city from ruins I’d observed, but the waterfalls, shorelines, mountains remain to be lived. There are changes in plant life and sea levels and that sort of thing since the Bronze Age, but for the most part, those lived sensory experiences can transfer directly into the writing.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
My press was responsible for the cover of Hand of Fire.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Build a writing community, both local and farther afield.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
I love to cook and getting lost in a good book is still my favorite pastime.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
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