26 November 2013

Meet Our Contributors: Judith Starkston

Judith Starkston
Twitter: @JudithStarkston
Facebook: JudithStarkston
Google+: +JudithStarkston

Current Book List
Hand of Fire, (Fireship Press, 2014)
SoWest: Desert Justice, story entitled “Season for Death” (Desert Sleuths Sisters in Crime Anthology)

Given how many agents told me my time period was too remote, I’m definitely a card carrying Unusual Historical and happy to be here. Initially my status came as a surprise to me. I write about the Trojan War. What’s obscure about the most famous war ever? I have to confess I also write about Hittites, and, yes, they are not on everyone’s radar. They were buried and forgotten to history until the 20th Century (except for a neo-remnant of Biblical mention).
Ruins of Troy, David Spender, Wikimedia    
My book, called Hand of Fire, tells the tale of Briseis, the captive woman Achilles and Agamemnon fought over in the Iliad. It is set during the Trojan War of the Bronze Age in what is now Turkey. I’m a Classicist who fell in love with Homer’s epic poems way back in college (Jurassic Age, was that?). My interest grew over years of teaching the Iliad, enough to prod me to write fiction set in the Homeric world of 1250 BCE.

We’ve learned a lot through archaeology over the last twenty years about the people who lived in and around Troy and further east into the Hittite Empire. Huge libraries of cuneiform clay tablets have been brought to light and translated. 

Cuneiform clay tablet, Hawkins, Wikimedia
The right moment to tell Briseis’s story has arrived—now that those clay tablets and digs have told us about her world. But the impetus for my book came from a question that had bugged me each time I taught the Iliad. Briseis, being a woman in a patriarchal epic, gets only a handful of lines, but one thing Homer insists on is the mutual bond of love between Achilles and Briseis. Huh? Isn’t Achilles the guy who destroyed Briseis’s city, reduced her from princess to slave and killed a lot of people she loved?

Yes, he is, but before anyone assumes “Stockholm Syndrome,” let me add some critical Homeric
Achilles, Nguyen Wikimedia
characterization. Achilles is conflicted and half-immortal. He’s the best warrior who nonetheless questions the value of war and wonders what the purpose of life is. Achilles is an existential hero who is way too fragmented and likeable to be a brainwasher. He’s the one in need of mental assistance.

So what, I wondered, drew Briseis to Achilles? That was my quest—to find the qualities in Briseis that could make her understand and need this odd if hunky hero, in spite of all the bad history between them. In that clay-stored history I discovered powerful women, queens and priestesses who served as healers and intermediaries with the gods. Mix in careful doses of imagination and Briseis emerged—strong and subtle enough to challenge the greatest of the Greeks. I hope I’ve created an historically believable Briseis in a fast-moving tale that finally gives this mysterious young woman a voice that epic tradition denied her.