Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who fell under the spell of Greek history, mythology and especially Homer as an undergraduate. She taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.
Do you have a favorite historical novel?
This is like picking a favorite among one’s children, but for the moment I’ll say Ann Weisgarber’s The Promise, set in Galveston Texas in 1900. Ann does everything gorgeously: language, imagery, characterization, theme.
Is there anything or anyone that inspires your writing?
I often hear Homer’s language undergirding my own, just because I’ve spent a lot of time with the Iliad and the world I’ve built in Hand of Fire is a similar world—although I have to build this Bronze Age setting much more richly than Homer because it’s unfamiliar to my readers. Definitely, no one needs to have read the Iliad to enjoy Hand of Fire, but readers may absorb some Homeric atmosphere nonetheless.
What do you enjoy most about reading historical fiction?
I love to escape to a far away time and place. And I love learning about a new era while being entertained.
Once we become writers, we read with a critical eye. For some grammatical errors in a book are like fingernails on a chalkboard. For others weak plots cause them to lay a book aside without finishing it. What, if anything, annoys you about some historical fiction? (Without naming names!)
I did teach English for twenty years, so I’m afraid I do suffer from a keen ability to notice and be annoyed by grammatical errors. I also find it problematic when an author mentions an object or problem in one scene and then it just drops out of sight before being dealt with. Some editor should be catching these lapses! Small issue, but I find this grating. My critique group members skewer me, thank goodness, when I do that sort of thing.
Historical fiction requires a lot of research. How did you go about researching your work?
From various university libraries I’ve read the scholarly discussions and evidence. It’s a long leap from there to enjoyable fiction, but that’s the base.
While the iconic city of Troy gets most of the popular attention, the scholarship primarily focuses on the mighty Hittite empire right next door to Troy—an empire that was forgotten until excavated relatively recently. We now know Troy followed very similar cultural, religious and political traditions as the Hittites and the growing understanding of the Hittites informed my writing. Amazingly, in the last decade or so extensive libraries of cuneiform clay tablets have been translated that give a detailed view of many aspects of life in this place and time. I’m glad I don’t have to work out the translations. Cuneiform looks like bird tracks on clay.
In addition, I have traveled in Turkey, studied museum collections, talked with archaeologists at relevant digs and experienced firsthand the geography of the settings of my book.
What would you like readers to gain from reading your book(s)?
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.
Any advice for aspiring novelists?
Build your community. What I mean by that is find ways to reach out to other writers and to readers who enjoy the kind of book you are working on. That is where the fun and the strength lie. Your way of creating those connections will be different than mine, but find a genuine, real way of reaching out. Do not wait until your manuscript is ready to send out. You need friends along the way, especially if you are the kind of person who can listen when someone tells you where your writing has gone wrong. That kind of person, by the way, is what is called a writer.
Any final words?
I think we are in one of the golden ages of historical fiction right now and it’s exciting to be a reader and a writer in this genre.
Thanks, Judith! For a chance to win a copy of Judith's debut novel, please leave a comment with your email (name at domain name dot com) by this Friday at 8AM EDT along with the answer to this question:
Which moment in history would you love to be magically present to observe?