Today it is my pleasure to introduce you to Judith Starkston, historical novelist and author of HAND OF FIRE http://www.fireshippress.com
Below find Ms. Starkston’s responses to a few questions about her work:
Mary Donnarumma Sharnick Interview
1. What is the relationship between the historical record and “the fictive dream” for you?
My novel Hand of Fire is historical fiction set within the Trojan War. Historical fiction is by its very name a combination of the two—history and fiction. It’s bad historical fiction, however, if the history weighs down the story. An author must keep the story emotionally engaging and fast moving. But it is also the author’s responsibility not to fill the readers’ minds with a bunch of “wrong” history. Do the research and know your stuff as a writer. For me, I’d like to think I’ve given my readers an effortless time machine back into the Bronze Age of Troy and the surrounding towns. But it has to be a really fun ride in the machine. No previous knowledge of history or the Iliad or anything else is required for full enjoyment.
How much of Hand of Fire is made up of imaginative leaps, the “fictive dream,” and how much from the historical record?
There’s a lot of imagination involved even while I keep my book grounded in history. Briseis may or may not have ever been a real, living person. We know about her from Homer’s Iliad, a 3,000-year-old poem in which she is given only a handful of lines although she is central to the plot of the poem. It’s possible Homer made her up—we have no way of knowing. Homer tells us only that she was a princess of Lyrnessos, a town allied to Troy, who was captured by Achilles and that Achilles killed her husband and three brothers. That’s not enough to make a novel. So I clearly had to imagine a life story for her beyond those spare “facts.” But I made up that “fictive dream” within historical plausibility, within the extensive evidence. I immersed myself in the world I’m portraying and then I lifted out of that immersion a breathing human being—Briseis. So in that sense there’s a lot of historical record to the book. The reader meets a genuinely Bronze Age woman doing appropriate things that such a woman might really have done.
2. How did you come to your view of Achilles as an “existential hero”? What about your interpretation of him appeals to Briseis?
I think I first need to explain why I wanted to write about Briseis at all. Homer doesn’t give her many lines, but he makes it clear that Briseis is sad when she is forced to leave Achilles. He shows us that she loves Achilles. Wait a minute, he killed her brothers and husband and turned her from a princess to a slave. How does that lead to love? I wanted to get to the bottom of this psychological puzzle. Some people suggested it was an ancient case of Stockholm Syndrome, but Achilles is a hero who questions why they are fighting the war to begin with, so he is no brainwasher. I needed a deeper answer.
So how did I come to believe Achilles is an existential hero? When I first started playing around with writing about Briseis and Achilles, I took some passages to a fiction class for critique. One of the male students in the class was furious with what I’d done. I’d shown Achilles being kind, sensitive to Briseis, caring about his fellow warriors. In the student’s opinion I’d taken his hero and turned him into a wimp. Never mind that in my portrayal Achilles is also invincible and merciless on the battlefield. This man wanted his Achilles all bloodshed and slashing sword, nothing else. I say that is boring. So for good storytelling he has to be more than just a big brawny guy who can kill efficiently.
I also say that male student’s view of Achilles isn’t the warrior Homer depicts. While my readers don’t ever have to have read Homer to enjoy the book fully, I felt a deep responsibility toward the ancient bard and his view of things. I took the care not to violate what that tradition says. Unlike the movie Troy, for example, I wanted my novel to harmonize with Homer. (Sorry to you fans of the film—fun but not the Homeric poem’s version at all!) I’m telling a very different story from the one Homer told, since I tell the war from a woman’s point of view, but in the process, I didn’t want Homer to get violated.
Homer shows us an existential hero in Achilles and thus I did also. Achilles is so complex and fascinating. He resonates all over the place! Why lose that? Here’s a passage that is one example of how I came to interpret Homer’s Achilles as existential. At one point in the Iliad, Achilles says to his fellow warriors (Lombardo translation, which I recommend):
“It doesn’t matter if you stay in camp or fight—
In the end, everybody comes out the same.
Coward and hero get the same reward:
You die whether you slack off or work.
And what do I have for all my suffering,
Constantly putting my life on the line?
Like a bird who feeds her chicks
Whatever she finds, and goes without herself,
That’s what I’ve been like, lying awake
Through sleepless nights, in battle for days
Soaked in blood, fighting men for their wives.”
So, if he’s the best fighter of all, but he recognizes the essential meaninglessness of the battles—everyone will end up dead just the same—and he compares himself to a mother bird worrying over her little warrior chicks, this sounds to me like a man who questions the very reason for his existence as a warrior and does not see himself as a ruthless killer but as a mother, protecting his fellow warriors long after he has ceased to see a meaning in that project beyond his love for his brother fighters. Sounds existential? I think so.
As to why this portrayal of Achilles would appeal to Briseis. She is a healer and she has seen her city destroyed. War has no good side for her, so to connect with Achilles, she has to see in him a similar disillusionment with war. They connect also in positive ways such as their shared skills as healers. And in a darker way, by understanding their drive to protect the ones they love even at the cost of violence. Their bond grows in several complicated, multi-layered ways.
3. Is Hand of Fire a feminist work?
Feminism as a movement is concerned with the political and economic equality of women with men. I’m certainly proud to be a feminist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean my book is a feminist work. I don’t have a simple answer to this question.
Readers will probably instantly think that feminist sounds awfully anachronistic for a book set in the Bronze Age. Actually, one of the big surprises to me as I researched Hand of Fire was how powerful women of the Trojan and Hittite world could be. (The Trojans were a satellite kingdom of the Hittite Empire, sharing cultures, etc.) Much more so than women of later Near Eastern and classical Greek periods—by a lot! I had no trouble staying within the range of historically accurate when I created an influential healing priestess who is princess of her city with authority at her disposal. All the details came from the written record of this time and place (clay tablets written in cuneiform). Queens carried on as rulers after their husbands died—which implies equality—but there’s the limitation that a new king, usually the queen’s son also came to power. Women did own property in their own right. They conducted business. I found a far more “equal” situation than I thought I would when I started researching. But, that said, it’s still true that the Late Bronze Age culture of what is now modern Turkey (where Troy was situated) was a male-dominated culture, and it’s best not to lose sight of that. So, there’s one hesitation I have about the label feminist for Hand of Fire: A general sense of anachronistic inappropriateness.
But I have to think about this. To call a book feminist implies that the book is making an argument for the improved status of women. Maybe “argument” is too strong a word. Perhaps a book can be feminist by showing emotionally charged situations that would influence the way a reader thinks about women in a direction of greater equality. In that sense I think you might call Hand of Fire feminist. I’ve certainly given an expansive voice to a woman whom the patriarchal epic tradition didn’t allow more than a handful of lines. And, as I noted above, the real historical record, rather than our preconceived stereotypes, actually gave a lot of latitude to women in this period.
I intended through Hand of Fire for the reader to feel the Trojan War through a woman’s perspective. Experiencing life through another’s viewpoint is one of the fundamental reasons to read. It’s certainly less painful to experience vicariously as a reader than actually to become a war captive after losing everything and everyone you love. But that’s a pretty universal goal for a book, not a feminist one. It’s also true, though, that one of the themes that bubbled up out of Briseis’s story and gradually became central to me was the resilience (or not) of women subjected to personal violence such as rape. I became intrigued with what allowed one woman to take control of these horrific experiences and go forward to shape a productive life despite the suffering she has endured. Other women—and I wondered why—become fragmented shells unable to feel genuine happiness when life offers new experiences. Human response, male or female, to tragedy could have been my focus, but I looked more specifically at the innately female experience of the intimate violence of rape. So that theme, through the sympathy and deeper understanding for women it might create in the reader, could make this a feminist novel.
Then there’s the relationship between Briseis and Achilles—which Mary’s next question seems to suggest appears as an equal relationship, so I’ll keep pondering feminism in the next question.
4. When Briseis kills, the narrator tells us, “She didn’t feel repulsed by what she had done, but exhilarated….This must be how warriors felt in battle.” She understands Achilles, and the two appear equals. How does this essentially contemporary view inform your work?
I think there is perhaps an arrogance of ours as modern progressive people to assume no woman and man faced off as personal equals in each other’s sight before the 20th century. I’m not suggesting, nor is my book, that Briseis thinks she can take on Achilles in battle. Her experience proves tragically otherwise. But later, when she must choose to defend her own again by an act of violence, she can hear the truth of what Achilles has said to her—that his fellow warriors are his brothers and he must defend them with all his strength or feel he has betrayed them. He cannot choose to leave the violence of the war away from his men and their needs. To understand what drives another human being is to share an equality of empathy with that person even if the two people do not share an equality of power within the world. Achilles is a king. Briseis a slave. But I think they look into each other’s hearts as equals. I don’t think this is an “essentially contemporary” view. I think it is an “essentially human” view. I’m not convinced this qualifies as feminist!
5. Your novel offers an alternative view of the Iliad. In this way, it lets speak a voice generally silent. Do you plan to write more books whose protagonists have historically not been the tellers of their tale?
I enjoyed giving voice to an apparently powerless and certainly voiceless woman. That she turned out to be anything but powerless according to the historic record, was a special joy. I am looking forward to writing the sequel to Hand of Fire and continuing with this appealing voice that, now that I’ve let her out of the closet, so to speak, just keeps talking to me. There’s no way Briseis will let this be the last book!
Before the sequel, I’ll finish the book I’m now writing. It’s a historical mystery about a Hittite queen who has not been able to tell her tale previously because she, quite literally, got buried by the sands of time. She is Queen Puduhepa, who placed her seal next to her foe’s, Pharaoh Rameses II, on the first extant peace treaty in history. Now that’s she’s been dug out, I’ve discovered in her letters and royal correspondence, a woman perfectly suited to be a “sleuth” and I’m launching a mystery series featuring this indomitable woman. She enters the stage of history at about age 15 and lives to past 80, so this series may outlast me!