Hand of Fire: interview with Judith Starkston

So, a cool thing happened this weekend with my book club meeting. A few months ago, while reading Sharon Kay Penman’s blog, she put up one of her infamous Book Bankruptcy Blogs. In it, I noticed a name I recognized – Judith Starkston, who was publishing a book called Hand of Fire.

“Is that… it can’t be… maybe it is a common name?” said my brain.

“I bet Google will know!” replied the rest of my brain. It can have some good ideas on occasion. So off we went to ask Google and lo, and behold! We were rewarded with a link! To a website! We clicked it!

Up popped a picture of the author and her book. As soon as I saw the photo, I knew it was my former Latin teacher. So of course I was absolutely thrilled for her that she got published, and immediately sent off an email to her to reintroduce myself and say congratulations.

She replied, which always surprises me. I never think anyone will send a reply, nor do I expect one. I’m not that important. But she was sweet and offered me an electronic advanced reading copy of her book since I said I would be willing to review it on a few websites, which I very happily did. I had also mentioned that my book club was going to read Hand of Fire, to which she said that she would be willing to come talk to us if we wanted.

“What? That rocks!” my brain and I said.

And we happily accepted that very kind offer as well. The following is a summary of our evening. Be warned: there may be spoilers for Hand of Fire ahead!

My book club and I all met at a local grill/pub. Since my mom and I got there early, we got to have a few minutes to chat with Judith just ourselves, which was nice. I hadn’t seen her since I graduated high school, after all. I lamented that, at one point in grad school, I could have read just about anything in Latin that you put in front of me. Now I can barely get past amo, amas, amat. Mea culpa. Maybe I should brush up. I like being able to read dead languages.

Anyway, so the Hittites were an interesting group back in the day. They sometimes allied with the Trojans. Sometimes with the Greeks. Sometimes the Greeks allied with the Trojans against the Hittites. It was apparently a seething den of shifting loyalties, changing alliances, and fighting between various local groups over land and gods. So basically, nothing much has changed in the region in the intervening centuries. The Hittites had “prime real estate,” according to Judith, so were often the object of military operations by people wanting to expand their own territory. The Hittites were early Turks, not Greeks as some try to argue. Archaeological digs of Troy and surrounding areas unearthed evidence pointing to a unique culture. They were most not a branch Greeks, which some believe. They were their own people with their own culture.

While the Trojan War as depicted in The Iliad with its gods and goddesses and semi-immortal heroes wasn’t a real thing, there is evidence to support an actual Trojan War. During a major archaeological dig of Troy, Manfred Korfman, the head archaeologist, when asked if there had really been a war, responded with, “Why not?”1 There is a burn layer in the city which supports the idea, including piles of projectiles (such as spears and arrows), collapsed buildings, and unburied dead. These things support the idea that there had been a war at some point because even in massive earthquakes where buildings collapse, survivors will dig out the dead for proper burial. However, that isn’t always the case in wars, where there are often no survivors left to bury the dead. It is also unlikely that any war in Troy’s past was not ten years long. “Ten years” is a generic time period, similar to saying “long ago in a galaxy far, far away.” A ten year long war would have likely left far more archaeological evidence, and left far more destruction, than has been uncovered at Troy.

As for Hand of Fire – there may be a sequel in a couple years. Certainly there is plenty of potential. Judith confirmed she would like to do a sequel, and if so, Briseis may well end up in Cypress. There is historical evidence for a female business model in Cypress, and Briseis could set up shop. Cyrpess was a large center for mining copper, and Briseis’ knowledge of metallurgy could be a major asset to her setting herself up as a respectable business woman. Cypress is also a logical choice for her to end up, partly because that is where her friend Maira is from. There would probably be family and friends there who could help them and shelter them. Maira would know other women who could help deliver Briseis’ child when the time comes. Also, Cypress was a center where many people came from various parts of the world. There were lots of cultures collapsing, many wars and conflicts, and there was a lot of movement and migration. Cypress was welcoming, tolerant, and a good place for many to restart their lives. Perhaps the same could hold true for the next stage of Briseis’ story as well.

In the mean time, Judith is working on another historical fiction, this time a mystery centered around a Hittite queen, Puduhepa. If her region hadn’t literally been buried in the sands of time, she could have been as famous as Cleopatra. Her signature is on the earliest extant peace treaty, next to the signature of Rameses II. She ruled alongside her husband, and was known to other world rulers of her time. That in itself is fascinating enough to stimulate the curiosity and get people reading about her.

Writing that book may prove quite the challenge, as Judith states that the Hittites had “the pantheon of a thousand gods, and made the Greek pantheon look simplistic.” For every deity of the earth, there was a mirroring deity of the underworld. Plus, this model was repeated in every Hittite city. So in City A, there was an earth god of the sun, an underworld god of the sun, etc, and then in City B, they had different sun gods. Ad infinitum, it seems. I myself look forward to learning more about this intriguing culture and their insanely complex pantheon.

All in all, the evening was very entertaining and interesting. I learned a lot more about Troy and the Hittites than I could have imagined in just a couple short hours. I look forward to future novels from Judith, and encourage anyone with an interest in archaeology, history, or mythology to pick them up! For anyone interested in reading further, Sharon Kay Penman has a lovely follow-up interview blog with Judith.

1Korfman, Manfred. “Was There a Trojan War?” Archaeology. Vol. 57, number 3. May/June 2004.

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