#SPFBO6 Interview – Judith Starkston

Welcome to Lavender Lass Books, Judith. Thank you for agreeing to this interview and best of luck in the competition!

Priestess of Ishana is the first book in the Tesha series.  Here’s the blurb:

This time the throne is bronze. -Tinney Heath
What George R.R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’ did for the War of the Roses, Starkston has done for the forgotten Bronze Age Hittite civilization. Mystery, romance, political intrigue, & magic… – Amalia Carosella

A curse, a conspiracy and the clash of kingdoms. A defiant priestess confronts her foes, armed only with ingenuity and forbidden magic.

An award-winning epic fantasy, Priestess of Ishana draws on the true-life of a remarkable but little-known Hittite queen who ruled over one of history’s most powerful empires.

A malignant curse from the Underworld threatens Tesha’s city with fiery devastation. The young priestess of Ishana, goddess of love and war, must overcome this demonic darkness. Charred remains of an enemy of the Hitolian Empire reveal both treason and evil magic. Into this crisis, King Hattu, the younger brother of the Great King, arrives to make offerings to the goddess Ishana, but he conceals his true mission in the city. As a connection sparks between King Hattu and Tesha, the Grand Votary accuses Hattu of murderous sorcery. Isolated in prison and facing execution, Hattu’s only hope lies in Tesha to uncover the conspiracy against him. Unfortunately, the Grand Votary is Tesha’s father, a rash, unyielding man, and now her worst enemy. To help Hattu, she must risk destroying her own father.

If you like a rich mixture of murder mystery, imperial scheming, sorcery, love story, and lavish world-building, then immerse yourself in this historical fantasy series. See why readers call the Tesha series “fast-paced,” “psychologically riveting,” and “not to be missed.”

And now to the interview:

1. Is this your first time entering #SPFBO? Why did you decide to enter this book?
I’m excited to enter #SPFBO for the first time. I decided Priestess of Ishana would be a contender after receiving great reviews and positive reader response. By entering, win or lose, I am hoping to reach a wider audience. I base my world-building on the Bronze Age Hittite world, which is new to most readers. Without a familiar framework that readers have sampled before—Tolkien’s medieval world, for example—it can be challenging to draw readers to try my historical fantasy. Stepping outside the traditional European model offers so much in a genre that is open to diversity and variety, and fortunately, when people jump into my fiction, they are enthusiastic. I’m looking forward to meeting new readers along the way during this competition year.

2. Why do you write in the fantasy genre? What make this genre particularly appealing to you?
I started my fiction writing career with a mythological fantasy novel set in the Trojan War. From there I became intrigued with a neighboring Hittite queen largely lost to history (now my main character in Priestess of Ishana). The widespread beliefs in magic and the supernatural that are essential to the Hittite (and Trojan) world are way more fun to write as fantasy. I start with the Hittite “rules” from their historical records—every good magical system in fantasy needs structure. Then I allow the story to take flight as needed for maximum excitement and fast pacing. That includes in the second book in the series, bringing to life the griffins that appear in Hittite royal art. I moved them from historical, painted throne backdrops to magnificent, terrifying characters in my series. Throughout my fiction there’s an interplay between history and the fantastical.

3. Why did you decide to self-publish?
I started with traditional publishing and have a great agent, but for all the power a big press can offer, there are limits to them. As I mentioned above, my fiction breaks new territory and that takes time to build readership. I wanted to give my fiction plenty of room to grow its fan base without a press killing the series because they didn’t see instant results. I am passionate about this series and didn’t want to switch to whatever a publishing house told me to write. The decision moment with my agent came during a year I was battling cancer (now won and done), and I decided that I wanted life on my terms, writing my own brand of historical fantasy. That’s what a happy life would be. My “write it and they will come” seems to be working in the gradual-build form I hoped for. I’ll publish the third in the series this fall and keeping on writing after that. No one but me (and an essential community of writer friends) controls my future. All face-plants will be my fault entirely!

4. Are there advantages to self-publishing? What about the challenges?
The primary advantage to me, as I said, is the freedom to work on a series as long as it appeals to me and keeps selling. There are a ton of challenges, especially at first—finding a cover artist whose style fits and meets genre expectations, building marketing platform, discovering and learning production software, etc. Producing a professional book and then repeating that regularly requires a good group of talented people. Some I hire and some I work trades with.

5. As a reader, and now author, how has the fantasy genre changed over the last several years? How has it stayed the same?
I think fantasy has always been the genre where writers can explore human diversity. An earlier example is the subject of androgynous sexuality in Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 The Left Hand of Darkness. On the other hand, fantasy has some pretty deep roots in White, European storytelling. I’ve been excited to see outstanding books with new settings, tropes and types of characters. Two hugely successful writers that I love reading who are showing the way are N.K. Jemisin and Ken Liu.

6. Do you write (or plan to write) in any other genres?
I have also written historical fiction and occasional contemporary short stories. I enjoy both, but I feel most alive and excited as a writer when conjuring up some wild magical rite or tying my characters up in the mix that works for epic fantasy: international intrigue, political threads, mythic creatures, romantic elements, murder mystery and whatever else the plot demands. You can’t pull off that kind of cross pollination in most other genres.

7. What do you look for in a story? Especially in the fantasy genre? (Original ideas, plot lines, character development, world building, etc.?)
The baseline requirements for me are believable, multi-dimensional characters and a plot that grabs me. I really enjoy great world building that takes me somewhere utterly new and surprising. When an author also works in, on the sly, some seriously thought-provoking themes, I’m hooked. I think Guy Gavriel Kay’s books come to mind as the ones that best accomplish all that.

8. Are you working on a new book? Can you share any details?
This week I handed over for developmental edits the manuscript of the third book in the series that Priestess of Ishana begins. In my latest newsletter I described it this way: The griffins are coming . . . and a belligerent, unstable Great King, a mysterious plague, hidden sorcerers and international intrigue, all set in the Bronze Age world of the Hittites. We are living through challenging times on so many levels. I am fortunate that my circumstances permit me to carry on writing full time. Through writing fiction, I find a productive way to address the issues we are all grappling with as a society. My stories entertain and transport my readers to another world, but they also echo and examine the current world around us.

9. Do you have any advice you would offer to writers who plan to self-publish in the fantasy genre?

Build a community of fellow writers to whom you can turn to when you hit a snag in the writing or production process. You need friends who can cheer you along louder than all the self-doubt that eats at every writer I know, certainly me. The great thing about being a writer today is that your friendships can reach across the globe. I depend on both my face-to-face friends in my local community (unfortunately less so under covid) and my far-flung friends. Without their talents and support, I’d never get a book written or produced for publication.

You can find Judith Starkston’s book on Amazon!  https://www.amazon.com/Priestess-Ishana-Tesha-Book-1-ebook/dp/B07KNYWT36

priestess of ishana