How were you first introduced to Briseis, and what inspired you to write a novel about her?
I first discovered Briseis when I was studying classics in college and read Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem set in the Trojan War. Briseis is the woman who sparks the central conflict of the poem between the two Greek kings Agamemnon and Achilles, but because it’s a male-dominated piece, Briseis gets only the briefest of mentions. Over the years as I taught the Iliad, which was a perennial favorite of my high school students, a question kept bugging me. How could Briseis possibly have loved Achilles—which is what Homer shows. The half-immortal Greek had killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. In the few words Homer gives to Briseis, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow at being parted from Achilles, so this seemed very puzzling.
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 wrote Hand of Fire to solve this psychological puzzle and figure out who Briseis really was. I needed to get to know the flesh and blood reality behind the mystery. I should add that my readers don’t need to have any familiarity with the Iliad or the history of this period in order to enjoy Hand of Fire. I intentionally wrote it independently of the Iliad, although I stay true to Homer (unlike the Hollywood film Troy, which was entertaining but utterly inaccurate!)
How does Briseis's story reflect on the position of women during the time period?
Homer doesn’t tell us very much about Briseis—only that she was a princess of Lyrnessos, a town allied to Troy, and that Achilles destroyed her city and her life. So to find my Briseis, I turned to the historical record of this faraway place and time, the Late Bronze Age (about 1250 BCE) in what is now Turkey. Thanks to some excellent modern archaeology, we now know a lot about Briseis’s world. I should add that Briseis herself may not ever have existed. She may be legendary, but I set out to create who she would have been in history whether she really lived and breathed or not—she certainly breathes in my book!
The archaeologists have brought to light large libraries of clay tablets from the larger culture of which Troy was a part—the powerful Hittite Empire. One of the most startling and fascinating things I learned from the translations of these tablets is that some Hittite women (and hence, also, a woman from Lyrnessos) held positions of power and influence, even though the culture as a whole was patriarchal. I found the role of healing priestess, in Hittite called hasawa. Such a priestess performed healing rites, many of which we’d think of as magical, brought about harmony between the gods and her city, insured the fertility of crops and herds, and other roles that are central to the well being of these people. The priestesses were literate and charismatic. In the public festivals to the gods they retold the sacred stories—we’d call them myths—as a way to influence the gods. Fun for an author to write a character who believes in the transformative power of words! Since Achilles was known not only as the greatest warrior, but also as a healer trained by the immortals and a singer of tales, this role of priestess seemed perfect for a Briseis who would be strong enough and sympathetic enough to bond with this complicated, half-immortal hero. And also challenge him in some impressive ways that I think will engage my readers.
You did quite a bit of traveling as you researched this novel; can you share some of the highlights of those travels with us? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
One of my favorite travel days was when we went to the area where the city Briseis grew up in, Lyrnessos, is traditionally said to have been located. No one’s ever found the actual site—perhaps Achilles destroyed it too thoroughly or perhaps the legends about Briseis are just that—legends. It doesn’t matter to the flesh and blood woman I’ve created. She’s quite sure she’s real. With my husband and two grown children, we climbed the foothills on the far side of Mount Ida from Troy, looked out over the peaks to the blue Aegean in the distance, and explored a village that looked for all the world like a Bronze Age town—mud-brick houses, communal wood ovens and orchards of olives and pomegranates. We befriended an old lady who shared her one room mud house with a goat and a kitty. She brought out olives and delicious plums to eat, and I kept her cheerful, deeply lined face in my mind as I wrote Briseis’s nurse, Eurome—one of my favorite characters in Hand of Fire.
This past spring I made another research trip with my husband, uncovering background and landscapes, both for the sequel to Hand of Fire and for the historical mystery I’m in the middle of writing. My “sleuth” is a Hittite Queen named Puduhepa, who’d be as famous as Cleopatra if she hadn’t been buried by the sands of time. I asked my archaeologist friend if we could go explore where Puduhepa’s hometown of Lawazantiya might have been—rather like I’d done with Lyrnessos. As it turns out, archaeology in Turkey is developing so quickly that, while it hadn’t been published yet or available to the world at large, there’s a very likely identification of a site as Lawazantiya and it was gorgeous! It is surrounded by seven springs. The biggest of these is a lily pond garden that looks like Monet’s paintings. Truly a joy for a novelist. The archaeologist who directs the site calls this one spring Puduhepa’s Paradise. We enjoyed a lunch of fresh trout from the pond as I met with his team and learned as much as I could about the dig. Very fun and totally unexpected when I first planned the trip.
What has been the most challenging aspect of writing Hand of Fire? The most rewarding?
To some extent the challenge and the reward are the same—uncovering the history. The challenge is to keep the history from weighing down the story. I wanted to build this world accurately and vividly for my readers—a kind of effortless time machine—but I also wanted a fast-moving tale. But the history is so striking that it’s incredibly fun to read about and explore. I just reminded myself pretty regularly, not everything I learned had to end up in the book.
Are there any books or authors that have influenced your writing?
For this book, the Iliad was never far from my consciousness and I think I sometimes I hear echoes of Homer in my language. I also owe a lot to several current historical novelists whose books have taught me the craft. There are so many issues when writing historical fiction—the best place to learn is from those doing it right. This isn’t a complete list at all, but some of the most influential to me are Ann Weisgarber, Susan Kay Penman, Kelli Stanley, Priscilla Royal, Kate Quinn and Nancy Bilyeau.
What are you working on now?
As I mentioned, I’m in the middle of a historical mystery with an indomitable queen as my solver of crimes. We have her letters and other documents (well, clay tablets) so her personality comes thru them to some extent. But there are also huge holes in what we know, so there’s plenty of room for imagination. She ruled from her mid teens until after eighty, so I figure this series may outlast me.
I’ve also begun roughly outlining the sequel to Hand of Fire. Some of the characters may move to the island of Cyprus, a dramatic setting that was a hub of activity in the Eastern Mediterranean at this chaotic period toward the end of the Bronze Age. More fun digging into history for me ahead!
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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.
About the Author:
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. Follow Judith Starkston on FB and Twitter, and visit on Goodreads.
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