I ended my book tour for A King’s Ransom at the Tucson Festival of Books, which was a delightful experience and one I recommend highly to all my fellow book-lovers. While in Tucson, I met and became friends with a gifted writer who shares my passion for the past, Judith Starkston. When I learned that she was completing Hand of Fire, a novel about the Trojan princess Briseis, famously captured by Achilles during the siege of Troy, I was fascinated; I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Troy. Judith kindly sent me an ARC to read, but neither of us expected that I’d suddenly find myself needing to have my cataract surgery performed sooner rather than later. I was delighted with the results of the surgery; I would not go so far as to say I was viewing the world in black and white and it suddenly flamed into vivid technicolor, but there is no doubt that everything is brighter and sharper now. But the surgery wreaked havoc on my schedule and I have had to postpone reading Hand of Fire. Fortunately, I can still introduce Judith and her story of Briseis and Achilles to my readers.
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.
What drew you to historical fiction?
I loved ancient history and literature as a student while I earned my Classics degrees. That is the base that trained me.
Many years ago, I walked through the British Museum with my toddler son on my shoulders. I was retelling the myths painted on the Greek vases in front of us. We were happily lost in our imaginative world. I turned to go to another display case and discovered a crowd behind me listening in. So I think I’ve been “writing” historical tales for a long time.
Tell us about Hand of Fire.
Hand of Fire is partly a romance—Briseis and Achilles fall in love but in an unconventional manner that includes a mystical element. Achilles is half-immortal and I made full use of that half of his conflicted personality.
In addition to the romantic element, Hand of Fire explores why some people, women especially, can survive great tragedy and violence against them, even managing to take delight in what life still has to offer.
It is a coming of age tale featuring a smart, strong-willed teenage woman in an ancient culture that, counter to our modern stereotypes of the past, expects Briseis 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.
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.
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. Characters are a very bossy lot once you let them get into your imagination.
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.
Which is more important in “historical fiction”: the historical or the fiction? How important is it to get the history right?
I think you have to tell a compelling story first, but also get the history right. I feel a special obligation to do that with Hand of Fire because Bronze Age Turkey is still a new field.
Until recently, various prejudices and giant blanks in our knowledge led scholars to assume the Trojans were culturally Greeks, but now we know Troy and all the area now called Turkey, which in the Bronze Age was made up of various kingdoms but dominated by the Hittites, had its own language, cultural traditions and style, quite distinct from the Greeks. Older novels set in the Trojan War focus only on myth or follow the belief the Trojans were Greek.
In addition to my research via books, academic journals and archaeological site reports, I have travelled in Turkey, spent hours studying museum collections, talked with archaeologists, and experienced firsthand the geography of the settings of my book.
However, none of that desire to get the history right is worth anything if you don’t tell a story that your reader can’t put down.
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.
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.
Thank you, Judith, for a very illuminating interview. My readers love it when writers lift the veil, allowing them to glimpse how a novel takes form and offering a view into the author’s inner world. Hand of Fire is sure to appeal to anyone interested in history in general and the ancient world in particular. I am looking forward to reading it. Here is the link to Judith’s website.
This may be my last blog for a while, as I am soon to leave on a research trip to Israel. I felt very cheated that I was unable to follow in the Lionheart’s footsteps when I was writing my account of his crusade. So I am very excited that I will be able to track the shadows of Balian d’Ibelin, his Greek queen, and the tragic young king, Baldwin IV, through the streets of Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Acre.
September 25, 2014