Writing superheroes: Judith Starkston

 A superhero dressed as a Hittite Queen and her sidekick Socrates? Read on and find out more…


superhero copy

If you were to write the ‘origin’s episode’ of your writing what would be the most important scenes?

My “origin episode” scene would open on a rocky desert mountain trail with my golden retriever at my side—our morning walk. Ideas were floating around my mind in that amorphous way that they do and suddenly a very specific question crystallized. It was a question I’d asked before with my students while teaching Homer’s Iliad, but this time my mind threw down a challenge, “Write the answer as a novel. That’s how you’ll figure it out.” For years I’d wondered how Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, could possibly have loved Achilles.

Judith Starkston

The Greek had killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. She is central to the plot of the poem and yet she gets only a handful of lines. In those few words, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow when she is forced to leave Achilles.

I should say I always liked Achilles, the existential hero who calls the whole war into question—which shows he’s no brainwasher—so the answer wasn’t some ancient version of Stockholm Syndrome.

My early versions of Briseis’s story showed the usual learner’s mistakes. I took classes and workshops, studied excellent historical fiction models, and clung to the boon of having excellent critique groups. There are some embarrassing early drafts where I tried out different voices and methods of narration. I learned in the process and each draft was necessary. But I don’t think there’s blackmail material lurking in there. I’m pretty willing to own up to the gradual process of learning the art of writing.


 All super heroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.

When I’m not seated in front of my laptop in superhero writer mode, I assist with the marketing efforts of Fireship Press and cook good food for my husband and me. (You need something after a day of banging away on a computer.) I used to masquerade as an English teacher while attempting to make high school students think and write coherently, but at a certain point I could no longer bear the stacks of ungraded essays screaming at me and I departed from this most worthwhile but underpaid of jobs.


 Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?

My golden retriever, Socrates, lies on my feet under my desk and makes sure I get my books written because I can’t get up without disturbing him. His other contribution is loud snoring, which really doesn’t help much.

My other partners are my critique groups, one made up of my friend Diane and me, and my “big” one. All these critique partners have the ability to point out what’s going wrong in any draft. I’d be nowhere without their astute editorial skills, especially Diane, who reads everything I write. We can add endurance to her superpower list.


 Where do you get your superpowers from?

 Many years ago, 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 guess this deeply ingrained need to tell ancient stories is the source on any superpowers I have as a writer.


 Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?

 My secret lair is a beautiful inlaid wooden writing desk that faces a window into our yard. I can watch the birds and lizards when I need to think. You would be amazed at how similar the lizard battles are to battle scenes in Greek epic. Quite inspiring.


 What kind of training do you do to keep your superpowers in world saving form? How do you insure they are used only for good?

 I listen to my editors and critique partners with an open mind. It keeps the superhero humble and makes for much better writing. I also read other historical fiction authors as much as I have time for. Learning from great examples is powerful training. I can’t vouch for the “good” part, but I do my best not to go over to the dark side too often.


 Granted, you probably don’t’ get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?

 Yoga pants or shorts and an old tee-shirt. I wear it an awful lot. I wish my inner superhero would dress up like a Hittite Queen or one of those elegant ladies on Minoan frescoes, but I’m so sartorially challenged that even my superhero can’t put together a costume.


 What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?

My kryptonite is that brain ache that happens every time I face the empty screen and have to fill it with words. Not sure how the biggest challenge can be a daily one, but ouch! As for many historical writers, it’s a big challenge to strike the balance between essential details needed to make a convincing world, and adding in that detail you love but really isn’t required by the story. A friend of mine says she tells herself, “I’ll save that for my PhD,” which I think is hilarious because if there was ever anything opposite to good fiction it’s the scholarly PhD, so that’s a good reminder not to kill the story.


 What was the supervillian that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?

 A lot of people think the ancient world and my piece of it in particular—the Trojans and Hittites—is too small a niche to be worth writing about. Fortunately I found a press specializing in historical fiction that doesn’t believe all of human history worth reading about falls into two or three periods only.


 What important lessons have you learned along the way?

 Give your writing time to sit. Don’t trust an early draft no matter how lovely you think it is five minutes after you write it. It will need major reworking, but trust that process and let the layering happen. I think of writing in terms of those pictures with colored tissue paper we used to make as kids, as the colors get added on, a complex intriguing picture comes into shape. You can’t do it all in one pass.


 What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?

 I love meeting other authors and developing friendships with them. Sometimes I get to know someone purely online and then we get together face to face at a conference and it’s amazing how inspiring those conversations are. If there’s a smarter, more intriguing group of human beings than historical fiction readers and writers, I’m not sure I’m ready for them!


 If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change?

It’d be lovely if I’d been faster at generating my debut manuscript, but realistically, as my first, it needed a long incubation. Much as I found agent and editor rejections tough at the time, I wouldn’t change that overall process because of the strength their critiques and suggestions brought to my debut and to my skills overall as a writer. Not all good things in life are painless.


 What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why.

 Once an agent told me “Your dialogue isn’t fresh.” She was right. I rewrote every word of dialogue and sorted out in the process how to do it “freshly”!


 Tell us about your new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.

book cover hand of fire

Here’s the “blurb” pitch: In the Iliad, Homer gives only a few lines to Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. Hand of Fire brings Briseis to life against this mythic backdrop. Thrust into leadership as a young woman, she must protect her family and city. Sickness and war threaten. She gains much-needed strength from visions of a handsome warrior god, but will that be enough when the mighty, half-immortal Achilles attacks? 

 Hand of Fire is partly a romance—Briseis and Achilles fall in love but in an unconventional manner that includes a mystical element. Achilles is half-immortal and I made full use of that half of his conflicted personality.

In addition to the romantic element, Hand of Fire explores why some people, women especially, can survive great tragedy and violence against them, even managing to take delight in what life still has to offer.

It is a coming of age tale featuring a smart, strong-willed teenage woman in an ancient culture that, counter to our modern stereotypes of the past, expects Briseis to be powerful, literate and a leader. Briseis succeeds in rising to those expectations despite the circumstances arrayed against her—and she’s strong enough to take on the mightiest of the Greek heroes.

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.


 What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?

I’m in the middle of a historical mystery featuring the Hittite Queen Puduhepa as “sleuth.” She would be as famous as Cleopatra if she hadn’t been buried by the sands of time. On the first extant peace treaty in history, Puduhepa pressed her seal next to her foe’s, Pharaoh Ramses II. She didn’t know until now that she’s a sleuth. I’m having a lot of fun!


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