Writing is an art form that weaves together words that tell a story. My passion at Layered Pages is to capture their essence and to further explore the craft so people will have a deeper understanding of reading, writing and their importance to our society. Today, Judith Starkston is here to discuss with us her Tesha book series.
Thank you for visiting with us, Judith. Before we talk about your story, “Of Kings and Griffins,” what is your favorite childhood story and why?
There were many. I was a bookworm from the get-go, but “The Wind in the Willows” was a particular favorite, partly because my older brother did such a lively job reading aloud the voices and personalities of Mole, Ratty, and Toad. Friends messing about together outdoors, which is its main theme, appealed to me. That was back when a kid could wander unsupervised around the hills, canyons, and waterways near her house. At least, my mother never knew where I was or what I was up to. Also, I was a cautious child, and I think the main plot suited me. Toad receives his come-uppance for wild and absurd behavior, and he realizes that treating his friends kindly mattered most. So much of that book meanders rather than races—not how books are paced these days, but I loved it.
Has your love for reading influenced you to become a writer?
Absolutely! I have to get lost in a story on a regular basis or I get buggy in the head. I love that sensation of being drawn compulsively forward through the pages inside a twisty, layered plot amid characters I can’t stop caring about. To make that happen for someone else is such fun. And doing that wouldn’t be possible for me if I didn’t have a lifetime of models bombarding my imagination with every word I write.
Tell me a little about how you became interested in ancient worlds and historical fantasy?
My career before I became a fiction writer was as a scholar and teacher of Greek and Roman languages and literature. So, I had the knowledge base and enthusiasm for ancient worlds. When writing my first novel, set at Troy, I discovered the culture of the Hittites, powerful neighbors of the Greeks. The archaeology of this massive empire (roughly today’s Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon) had only begun to emerge when I was a graduate student, and I didn’t learn about it then. It’s very exciting for a whole people to step from historical obscurity with the help of all the brilliant, contemporary archaeological tools. It helps that this literate people left behind archives that are gradually being translated.
No one was bringing the Hittite world alive in fiction at that point, so I couldn’t resist. All the more when I met in the written record the most respected and unusual of the Hittite rulers, a queen named Puduhepa, whom I renamed Tesha in my fiction. (Tesha is the Hittite word for “dream,” and this queen was known for her divinely inspired dreams.)
The fantasy aspect flowed naturally from there because the Hittites believed in rites and practices that we call magic. This queen was also a priestess, and she excelled in all these supernatural skills. Allowing the magic full expression inspires my plots with creative power. The framework remains historically grounded and accurate.
If a reader came up to you and asked about, “Of Kings and Griffins,” how would you describe your story?
A Bronze Age queen takes on a vicious king, vengeful griffins, and a scheming goddess.
The somewhat longer version is this:
For Tesha, priestess and queen, happiness is a world she can control, made up of her family and the fractious kingdom she and her husband rule within the Great King’s empire. But now the Great King is dead, and his untried son plots against them. Tesha fights back with forbidden sorcery and savvy. In yet another blow, the griffin king lures Daniti, Tesha’s magical blind sister, into a deadly crisis that Daniti alone can avert.
As danger ensnares everyone Tesha loves, her goddess offers a way out. But can Tesha trust this offer of divine assistance or is it a trap—one that would lead to an unstoppable bloodbath?
Does, “Of Kings and Griffins,” make a good stand alone or should readers start with your first book in the series?
“Of Kings and Griffins” is the third in my Tesha series, but readers will have no trouble starting with this book if they wish—especially if they are drawn to mythical beasts! “Priestess of Ishana” is the first book in the series for those who like to start at the beginning. I am careful to write each book as a satisfying stand alone.
My interest was sparked when I read on goodreads that your series is inspired by the Hittite empire. For those who might not be familiar with that particular empire, can you please tell us a little about it?
The Hittites ruled Anatolia and parts of the Near East from 1650 to 1200 BCE. Their capital, Hattusa, now a World Heritage site, lies about an hour northeast of Ankara. Kingdoms like Troy on the western coast shifted over time from loosely allied to vassal states subservient to the Hittite Great King. The primary rival of the Hittites was Egypt. During Puduhepa’s reign, she and her husband sealed a peace treaty with Ramses II, the Pharaoh in the Biblical Moses story. The Hittite language is related to Greek, although it’s written with the Near Eastern writing system of cuneiform, groups of wedges made with a reed stylus in clay that represent words and syllables, so it doesn’t look anything like Greek. Their culture borrows a lot from Mesopotamia, but it also has a significant core of distinctly Hittite religious and ethnic traditions. In many ways, the Hittites are the bridge we’d lost between the Greeks and the Near Eastern world. Historians now recognize how much “Western Civilization” owes to the cultures further east.
Will there be another book in the series? If so, when can your readers expect the publish date?
Fortunately for me, Queen Puduhepa (my Tesha) ruled from her teens into her eighties, so there is almost never-ending inspiration for more books, and the Late Bronze Age was a time of great turmoil and international political scheming—all great raw material for epic historical fantasy. I end each book with a satisfying sense of completion, even while the next “chapter” in Tesha’s life beckons, so no frustrating cliffhanger endings that require the next book instantly to cure the pain. No one has to “wait until the series is complete” with mine—a comment I hear a lot about some books.
The fourth Tesha novel will hopefully come out next Fall/early Winter. I say hopefully because I’ve taken a short detour and haven’t started it yet. I am working at the moment on a novella set in the land of the griffins because I’ve been having such fun with those characters, and I wanted to explore them entirely in their own terms. They live for centuries, so my main griffin character in “Of Kings and Griffins” has some seriously grand life stories to dive into. I will publish the novella in a month or so and give it to my newsletter subscribers as a present before I make it available to buy. This is a good time to head over to JudithStarkston.com and sign up!
Thank you for such an intriguing interview, Judith. Where can reader purchase your books?
My books are available in the “real world” at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore (They’ll mail you signed copies, which are also sealed with my reproduction of Puduhepa’s actual seal) and online at Amazon. “Hand of Fire” is my Trojan War book told from a woman’s point of view. The three Tesha series books are “Priestess of Ishana,” “Sorcery in Alpara,” and “Of Kings and Griffins.”
Judith Starkston has spent too much time reading about and exploring the remains of the ancient worlds of the Greeks and Hittites. Early on she went so far as to get two degrees in Classics from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Cornell. She loves myths and telling stories. This has gradually gotten more and more out of hand. Her solution: to write fantasy set in the exotic worlds of the past. 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 has two grown children and lives in Arizona with her husband.