Ancient Rites and Sexy Flowers: Discussing the Research Behind Historical Fantasy with Judith Starkston

 

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Book cover: Priestess of Ishana
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Author Judith Starkston. Image retrieved from author website

 

A couple of months ago, I sat down to chat with author Judith Starkston about her new book, Priestess of Ishana. With deepest apologies to Judith about the delay in writing this article, especially as she was so gracious about giving me the interview – and feeding me in her own home, no less! – I want to talk a little bit about the awesome lady and the research behind a truly unique new series of books.

The series, which begins with Priestess… and will carry on with a forthcoming book (yay!) is based on Starkston’s research of the Hittite culture. I touched on this a little bit in my initial review of the book both on my blog and the historical novel review site, Discovering Diamonds. Her research is deep and accurate, and I would expect nothing less of her since she is a Classicist who is committed to providing detailed information about the ancient world in a fun and accessible way.

One of the overarching themes I noted in the book involve politics and shows men trying to keep women submissive. Starkston comments, “There are a lot of correlations between the politics of then and now. We like to think of history as progressing, but that isn’t always the case.” She goes on to explain about Hittite culture and how women like Tesha, her main character who is based on the real-life Hittite queen Puduhepa, were allowed to stay queens after their husband died. Often, if they had a son, they would navigate their power to get their sons on the throne, because there was always a king, unlike, for example, in Tudor England with Elizabeth I. But generally speaking, Hittite women had more power and freedom than Victorian women – they had property, could keep children even after a divorce, and they were allowed to initiate a divorce. Priestesses in particular had a key business and financial role as well as religious. The temples are sometimes referred to by scholars as “Little Vaticans” since they held so much power and influence over other non-religious institutions.

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The Great Temple in Hattusa

 

The rites and rituals portrayed in Starkston’s book are fascinating and full of magic. They also come directly from existing Hittite records; none of them are made up. While this might seem unbelievable to modern readers, Starkston explains that the Hittite culture is imminently well-suited for a fantasy novel.

She says, “When I decided to change the series from straight historical fiction to fantasy, it was actually really liberating. There is so much about how they view the world that is hardwired for magic.” For example, there is a detailed scene where Tesha performs a rite in a cave to banish an evil spirit, which they believed was lingering because a man was burnt to death. The entire ritual comes directly from cuneiform records. Similarly, another ritual, not used in the book but which Starkston discovered about Hittite culture, deals with disputes within a family. When such instances occur, the family would call in a priestess to heal them, believing it was an illness. The priestess would make wax tongues, the family would say the words of the argument, then spit on the wax and burn it. Based on court records, Starkston explains that this ritual and other similar ones showed that the Hittites believed words were the most powerful thing, curses were believed to be real and were feared, and correcting bad words is written into the culture. Such belief is woven into the fabric of Priestess of Ishana at every level.

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Cuneiform tablet

Another element of the book I truly loved were the mouth-watering descriptions of the food. I’m a foodie and I love to learn about new places and foods based on the books I read. Some of the foods in Priestess were made up to reinforce the fantasy elements, but overall, the foods in the book were also based on archaeological records and DNA studies of the residue from around hearths or pots, which can tell us if they contained wine, grains, cheese, and so on.

Starkston says, “Food is core to understanding a culture, so I really wanted to highlight it.” Indeed, she did. One of my favorite scenes involved Tesha and Hattu eating the stamens of large flowers in the temple. Who knew that eating flowers could be so sexy?

The flowers in this scene were made up, but the rest of the food in the same scene was not. I asked Starkston if she had ever tried making any of the recipes she had written about in the book or discovered in the historical record. Not only has she done so, she actually made a cookbook based on them. They are based on ingredients and techniques available at the time. All the recipes mentioned in her books are collected there and if you sign up for her newsletter, she will send it to you for free. I have tried some of them and I have to say, they are GOOD. My favorites are her hummus, lamb and lentil stew with raisins (though I hate raisins so I substituted with dried blueberries and it was delish), and the almond-stuffed dates. Seriously, the recipes are scrumptious and are fancy enough to impress your friends at a dinner party. That they are based on ancient recipes is just a delightful bonus for history nerds.

Starkston’s series will continue with a second novel, which I, for one, am eagerly anticipating. As yet, there is not a release date for the second book, though she says Tesha’s sister Daniti will be a point-of-view character. This will prove fascinating, as Daniti is blind, having lost her sight from chickenpox as a child. The way Starkston approaches illness and physical imperfection in the novel struck a balance between actual beliefs from antiquity. She is doing a lot of research to create as authentic a character as possible in Daniti. She says, “Since I found no evidence of how blindness might have been treated in Hittite society, or how the blind might have been viewed, I worked from close cultures like Sumerians to extrapolate. But there were split ideas toward blindness in ancient world. They were either thought to have inner visions sent by a god, like Homer’s ability, or they were thought to have a deformity or imperfection. Daniti is viewed by her father as cursed. Whatever went wrong was always the fault of the sick person, for example. So I made her an outcast, which was historically accurate, except that she and Tesha are close.”

Daniti is a strong woman, something Starkston excels at crafting. She creates women who can take on an enemy and do it without a sword. Tesha and Daniti are both women of deep strength.

Do magic and fantasy sit well together within historical fiction – indeed can such novels even be counted as historical? Should ‘historical’ be as accurate as possible without the addition of magic or obvious fantasy, or is there leeway for diversification? Should a book that is clearly fantasy in essence, but has its background of characters and general plot set very firmly within an accurately researched historical setting be considered as historical or as a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world that is very loosely based in history, and therefore have no right to be classed as ‘historical’? What actually constitutes history or fantasy, anyway? Is the merging of fantasy into history acceptable? In short, of course it is! Within the varied genres of historical fiction, is it not this diversity which makes reading novels set in the past so exciting? The accurate biographical type novels of the lives of known people (usually kings and queens, or men and women of note) is one branch of historical fiction where the known facts are imperative to ensure the overall feel of ‘believability’ is ensured. For the other genres, mysteries, thrillers, romance, timeslip, alternative, it is the depth of the background research that creates the feeling of realism. If fantasy is not acceptable for historical fiction we would be sadly deprived of many wonderful novels and series: Mary Stewart, Barbara Erskine, Du Maurier to name just three – and there would be no Outlander!

When I find an author who writes a unique story, and who does it really well, it is a delight. When that story is also based on actual fact, as Judith Starkston’s novel is, it undergoes an alchemical change from just a fun story into a jaw-dropping narrative of women in the ancient world, struggling to gain their own agency, find their strength and bravery, give love to those around them, and fulfil a destiny. It provides an insight into what life was really like and shines a light on the human condition. We can look beyond the elements of fantasy and see the real people behind the magic.

And really, isn’t that what good literature is supposed to do, be it fact or fantasy?

42865572Buy the Book

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Find out more about Judith Starkston

Website: https://www.judithstarkston.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/judy.starkston

Twitter: @JudithStarkston

French Women Don’t Get Fat

1320781French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 304 pp

Publisher: Vintage

Year: 2007

This book is about the French culture and how they manage to eat the foods they eat – lots of rich sauces and breads and wine and chocolate – without becoming obese the way so many Americans are. It’s the French Paradox, although I think that specific term was only used once in the whole book. I think that some people – a lot of people, actually, based on some of the criticism this book has received – might get defensive about what they view as an attack on American culture, or see it as fat shaming. But let’s face it: she’s right about a lot of things, like it or not. The main premise is simply to eat fresh, seasonal foods in moderation, get up off your lazy ass, eat with purpose and at an actual table off of actual plates with actual silverware, and drink a shitload of water. This isn’t a difficult concept to grasp, but I think American ideas of what is a portion are so overinflated that a correct portion seems like starvation rations. The entire framework requires a shift in mindset. It really struck me when Mireille wrote that French women are always thinking about good things to eat and American women are worrying about bad things to eat. I think that is true for many people, even those who are thin.

Throughout the book, Mireille tried to highlight the idea that food and eating should bring pleasure, not stress, anxiety, or shame. At the same time, she also stressed that there is no reason that pleasure from food implies it shouldn’t also be healthy. The concepts she claims are cultural to the French are very much common sense things that my own mother taught me. If you overindulge one day or one week, cut back a little until you feel back in balance. Don’t starve yourself. Have a good variety of foods that are in season. Eat lots of fruits and veggies. Walk or ride your bike to as many places as you can. I have a hard time with this one simply because it’s too hot to do that all the time where I live, and I also live in the suburbs. But when it isn’t over 90 (more often over 100), I do walk several times a week to the grocery store to buy what I need for a couple days. I make up for the lack of walking, which I love doing when it isn’t so hot it triggers a migraine, by going to my all-women’s studio gym, which I also love. I know Mireille hates the gym but I love beating the shit out of the mannequin Bob. I’m nicer after boxing. I take the stairs when I can, and I don’t park as close as I possibly can. I park where there is shade, no matter how far it is from where I need to go. When it gets cooler, I plan to get a bike and start riding it to the weekly farmer’s market. It should be fun, and buying fresh, local food items is a thing I support anyway. I’m rather looking forward to it!

There is also a huge component to eating at home and preparing your own meals. I think people now view cooking and food preparation as a tedious chore that has to be done, or else they don’t bother at all and just go out all the time or buy garbage you can throw in a microwave. And then kids have behavior problems because diet is absolutely linked to behavior. When my own kid eats healthy, she minds a lot better. She also has a healthier appetite when I don’t let her snack. She gets breakfast, lunch, a small afternoon snack, and dinner. She whines about it sometimes, especially if she’s been at my mom’s a lot because my stepdad eats constantly and she sees that bad example. When she gets back on a proper eating schedule, she eats well, and she is a lot more willing to try new foods. She also likes to  help me fix the meals on occasion, though I’m still trying to get her to understand that she has to follow a recipe until she learns what actually goes well together. But I try to make it fun and when she is able to make something well, she feels proud of herself. Cooking with my daughter is a lot of fun and is something I look forward to. It is my job to teach her how to be well and I see no reason why it should be a chore to do. There are a lot of recipes that were included in this book that we can try together that she would like. I also have a large collection of cookbooks that I use all the time, and I like to teach her how I plan a menu. She likes to pick out recipes so when I let her do that, it adds to her enjoyment of food and learning that it is a pleasurable thing to cook.

I liked that Mireille was careful to note that of course not every single French woman is thin. Being overweight or obese is a universal issue and not confined to American culture. It is, however, a lot more rare in France, where it is culturally ingrained to eat smaller portions, eat fresh and seasonal fruits and vegetables, walk everywhere as much as possible, linger over meals rather than cramming them down like you’re starving, drink tons of water, and any number of other things that Americans in general simply don’t do. Like it or not, the observations made in the book about American culture are pretty accurate. Some things may be a little out of touch, but overall, I thought this was a great intro to changing one’s mindset and relationship to food. Regardless of one’s social class or income, I think these basic rules are things most people can follow in their everyday life. It is just a matter of whether you want to or not.