Saturday, August 17, 2013

Guest Blogger Judith Starkston

A big Type M welcome today to Judith Starkston, founding mother of the Arizona Chapter of the Historical Novel Society and student of the mysteries of the past.

A Voice From the Clay

I’m pleased to be a guest on Type M for Murder, or in my case, Press Stylus Into Clay for Slaughter. My soon to be published manuscript, Hand Full 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.

The Bronze Age in Turkey is a period with plenty of murder and, as we have discovered through archaeology, plenty of writing on clay tablets in cuneiform script. The literal uncovering of this civilization occurred primarily during the latter half of the 20th century. Scholars then translated the libraries of tablets that had been dug up. The Trojans, Hittites and other Bronze Age peoples of this area came to light in detail not available to past generations.

That knowledge makes Briseis a good subject for a novel at this point, but it isn’t what got me started. 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 destroys Briseis’s city, reduces her from princess to slave and kills her husband and three brothers?

Yes, he is, but before anyone assumes “Stockholm Syndrome,” let me add some critical Homeric characterization. Achilles is a conflicted, half-immortal hero, 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. Strangely enough, I found much of the answer to this question of flesh and blood character in translations of those dry and dusty clay tablets. These tablets revealed the details of ancient life. I took this background and combined it with careful doses of imagination and common sense to build a world and a plot. Most importantly, I found the living Briseis in them. Contrary to the oppressed women you expect to meet in the ancient world, many tablets were written by powerful women, priestesses who served as healers and intermediaries with the gods. Interestingly, the mythic tradition says Achilles also trained as a healer and he was a singer of tales, as were these women in their rites. From this clay-stored history, I imagine Briseis as one of these women, strong enough to challenge the greatest of the Greeks. I discovered from the clay tablets that she had enough in common with Achilles to bind them together—if I mixed in some circumstances that helped her overcome her emotional pain. I hope I’ve created an historically believable Briseis in a fast-moving tale that finally gives this mysterious young woman a voice the epic tradition denied her.
Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire, as well as the occasional contemporary short story. She also reviews for her own website, Historical Novels Review and The Poisoned Pen Blog. She is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. As part of the research for her novels, she has traveled extensively in Turkey. For Publication news about Hand Full of Fire, check out Judith's website at, Twitter, Facebook, and


Mark Patton said...

I really look forward to reading this one, Judith. I was a little disappointed with Madeline Miller's "Song of Achilles" (beautifully written though it is) that she stuck so close to the Homeric story and didn't seek out the real Bronze Age people who must be there behind it all

Donis Casey said...

I enjoy the real day-to-day-ness of a well rendered historical as much as a clever plot. The best thing is how well a good historical drives home the fact that people never really change.

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