How do you turn a lifetime as a scholar of the ancient world into a full-time career as a novelist? My Tell Me Your Story guest for July is my friend, California author Judith Starkston, who has spent, in her own words, “too much time exploring the remains of the ancient worlds of the Greeks and Hittites.” Early on she went so far as to get degrees in Classics from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Cornell. She loves myths and telling stories. She says, “This has gotten more and more out of hand.” Her solution is her brand: Fantasy and Magic in a Bronze Age World. Hand of Fire was a semi-finalist for the M.M. Bennett’s Award for Historical Fiction. Priestess of Ishana won the San Diego State University Conference Choice Award. Judith’s characters and their world-views are fascinating, unique, and compelling. Check out Judith’s website at https://www.judithstarkston.com
The Seduction of History
My novels are grounded in the 13th century BCE empire of the Hittites and the legendary city of the Trojans. It’s a world where myth and history wind around each other without clear boundaries. Real people such as priestesses, healers, and queens believed in magical rites and supernatural beings. I work hard to get the archaeology of my world building correct, but I also honor my characters’ ideas of the fantastical and use them as historical jumping off places into the imaginary. In short, I write historical fantasy with powerful women as the central characters.
When writers tell their “origin” story, they often describe a drive starting in childhood. In contrast, I didn’t imagine myself as a writer until much later. But looking back, I see the DNA strands of the hidden writer.
My first reading obsession gave a clue. After gobbling up the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I drove the librarian crazy uncovering every “pioneer” book ever published for young people. I broadened my historical scope over time. However, I didn’t see myself as someone with a fascination with the past. I set off to college with a vague and highly misguided idea that I’d become a dancer. Never mind that the university I’d worked hard to be admitted to did not have a dance program (my research skills were apparently undeveloped). Never mind that I had no movement skills whatsoever. I had admired the woman who taught dance in my high school, and such are the wavering influences of the teenage heart as it stumbles on its way to identity. Fortunately, during freshman orientation a cheerful English professor happened to say that his one regret in life was not having studied ancient Greek. I signed up for ancient Greek and inadvertently stumbled upon a career as a classicist. I’m sure my inner psyche gave a sigh of relief and settled in all comfy and snug.
I studied and then taught Greek and Latin literature and history. I raised children. I was very busy, and I certainly didn’t contemplate fitting novel-writing into my life. But the breadcrumbs fell along the trail.
There was that summer when my husband and I took our small children to Europe. I walked through the British Museum with my toddler son on my shoulders. I was retelling the myths painted on the Greek vases in front of us. We were happily lost in our imaginative world. I turned to go to another display case and discovered a crowd behind me listening in. I must have looked flummoxed because one of the uniformed guards stepped forward and said, “You’re a very interesting unintentional docent.”
When that toddler son of mine had grown up and gone on to high school, for various reasons I stepped back from teaching. I wasn’t motivated by a desire to write. Not yet. It was more a dread of grading endless piles of convoluted student essays. My brain couldn’t take it anymore. A side effect of this early retirement was to create a little more space for imagination in my exhausted head.
The next indication that there was a writer inside of me was more direct. I was walking my big, sweet golden retriever Socrates on one of the desert trails near our house. I got to thinking about a question that had come up in my classroom over the years when I taught the Iliad, the epic poem about the Trojan War. The central conflict of that poem revolves around a young woman, Briseis, who is granted almost no voice. The one startling detail the poem seems to insist on is that this woman, taken captive by the Greek hero Achilles, has somehow fallen in love with this man who has destroyed her city, killed her family, and made her a slave. Why? Tracking down a believable answer put all my skills as a historian to test, but more so, it made me develop my storytelling instincts into fiction writing. Telling her story, like those I’d “unpacked” from the Greek vases in the British Museum, gave me a path to channel both my overactive imagination and my passion for history.
And like that children’s story, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, one tasty temptation led to another. Researching Briseis’s tale revealed to me another ancient woman whose story was buried in the sands of time, a Hittite queen I could not ignore. Seduced by history, I became a passionate teller of ancient tales—and a full-time writer.