The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
This month my guest on this blog is Judith Starkston. Judith is a fellow reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and this month she is publishing her first novel, Hand of Fire, a re-telling of part of the Iliad from the point of view of one of its female characters, Briseis, who was captured by Achilles and became the cause of his quarrel with Agamemnon.
Judith is a debut author but no stranger to the Classics. She taught high school English, Latin and Humanities for 21 years, which as she says taught her to write very clean copy. She is now retired and lives in Phoenix, Arizona (what an appropriately named home for a writer on Greek mythology) with her husband and their dog, Socrates
Tell me, why do you think the Iliad has had such a hold on the imagination of so many people throughout the ages?
The Iliad raises the big questions that we never seem to escape as human beings—about war’s purpose, the nature of love and friendship, the resiliency of the human spirit, the balance between divine and human, the bond between father and son. In addition, the biggest, strongest hero, the best of the killers in some sense, is the guy in the poem who calls the whole war into question—how can anyone resist? There’s also a sly humour to the poem—Hera seducing the king of the gods so he won’t notice what she’s up to and other moments that are deeply appealing as comedy. There’s a heightened quality to the poem that lifts us out of our ordinary understanding: A goddess rises from the sea bringing golden armour fashioned by the immortal blacksmith and we feel her heart breaking since she knows by giving him these weapons she brings her son’s death. Or, a grief-broken father kisses the hand of his sons’ killer and brings them both redemption in that tragic moment. It’s hard not to love the poem. It was consistently the favourite book my students read over the years. Amazing that—high school students loving a poem more than three thousand years old.
When did your interest in Homer begin to take shape?
When I was an undergraduate, I studied ancient Greek and read the Iliad with one of my favourite professors. The discussions we had were so insightful and engaging that I ended up writing my undergraduate thesis on the Iliad. I’ve been hooked ever since.
What made you choose Briseis as the main character in Hand of Fire?
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. Who was she before Achilles entered her world and how did the tragedy and love he brought her alter her? What kind of woman can stand up to this semi-divine, but immensely conflicted man and hold onto her own sense of self, as she must have, to form a genuine bond with him?
What were the main difficulties in writing your book?
Homer tells us very little about Briseis—only that she was a princess of Lyrnessos, a city allied to Troy, and that Achilles took her captive. Not much to base a novel on! I had to find sources that would bring her to life in a way that would be a great story but also be historically accurate. I found those sources in the great libraries of the Trojans’ cultural cousins, the Hittites. In the last decade or so these thousands of cuneiform tablets have been excavated and translated. It is still a long way to a good story from these dusty sources, but I had the raw material—such as the details of what a healing priestess did, which was the calling I gave to Briseis.
I also struggled with the violence, especially against women, that is at the heart of this story, but as I got to know Briseis, her story became one of hope and resilience even in the midst of that violence—which the world certainly needs these days. Hand of Fire carries a life-affirming message that overcame my initial difficulties while not avoiding the actual conflicts and tragedy integral to the plot.
What made you choose Fireship Press as your publisher?
Writing about the world of Troy and the Bronze Age of what is now modern Turkey is not the “hottest” selling period/place in historical fiction. After agents told me they loved my manuscript and could have sold it a few years ago but couldn’t make enough off a “niche” book anymore, I looked for good small presses that wouldn’t require an agent. I review for Historical Novels Review so I knew Fireship was respected. I wrote to some Fireship authors and they were pleased with the honesty and good faith of the press (which sadly is not true of all small presses), so I sent off my manuscript. They liked it and are willing and happy to publish books set in less “popular” periods, as long as the book is well written.
I am hoping to prove the agents wrong about Troy being a “niche.” Given the response thus far, it seems this legendary war still holds us in thrall as long as it’s told in a good story. How can anyone resist the handsome demi-god Achilles falling for a woman who looks “like Aphrodite” and turns out to be as strong-willed as he is?
When did you decide to be a writer and how much has your professional career shaped your writing?
I didn’t start writing fiction until I retired from teaching—before that I was always buried under essays that needed to be graded. I did spend my whole career thinking about what makes good writing and a page-turning story, so when I turned to fiction I knew right away how much I had to learn! My first attempts did not thrill me, to indulge in understatement. But recognizing what’s wrong and being willing to listen to criticism and apply useful suggestions are the most important tools a writer has. I also create remarkably clean copy after a lifetime of correcting grammar and syntax for others.
Are you working on another book?
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.
I’m also outlining a sequel to Hand of Fire—and Briseis may just make a major move to Cyprus. It’s such a gorgeous and intriguing island, covered in Bronze Age ruins, with several qualities that make it perfect for her. But as readers of Hand of Fire will realize, Briseis has got some business to take care of nearer to home before she can travel so far away.
Thank you, Judith. I will shortly be posting a review of Hand of Fire on this blog. In the meantime you might like to meet some of the earlier guests on other pages on this blog –