Thursday, May 9, 2024

Q&A with Judith Lindbergh



Judith Lindbergh is the author of the new novel Akmaral. She also has written the novel The Thrall's Tale.  She founded the creative writing center The Writers Circle.


Q: What inspired you to write Akmaral?


A: I’ve always been captivated by ancient history and archaeology, particularly discoveries that reveal obscure cultures and unfamiliar places. My first novel, The Thrall’s Tale, focused on women in the first Viking Age settlement in Greenland.


For Akmaral, I happened upon a PBS documentary about the amazing “Siberian Ice Maiden” burial found in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia.


It’s the middle of nowhere, but the burial was extraordinary: a woman’s body perfectly preserved in the permafrost for over 2,400 years. She rested in a massive wooden coffin wearing a tall headdress decorated with gold ornaments. And her body was covered in tattoos. One on her shoulder was the many-antlered deer that now graces the cover of my novel.


I was fascinated and started researching her origins, discovering her very real connection to the Amazon women warriors of ancient Greek myth.


Soon I found another burial, the “Issyk Gold Man” from Kazakhstan. Along with thousands of gold ornaments, the body was buried with weaponry, so archaeologists assumed that it was male. But more recent scholarship suggests that the warrior may have been a woman.


This set my imagination on fire as I discovered hard evidence of women warriors all across the Central Asian steppes. Slowly, I began to sense Akmaral, a warrior woman and eventually a military and spiritual leader, forming in my mind.


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I always start with general interest nonfiction or documentaries, as in the case of Akmaral. I like to ground myself in the basics before diving into scholarly papers and archaeological dig reports.


I look for key elements that pique my interest. Sometimes it’s just an artifact that intrigues me, or a tidbit of history that brings a character to mind. After the general reading, I dig into primary sources.


For Akmaral, I turned immediately to the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus. He wrote about the fate of the Amazon women after the Trojan War and how they eventually became the Sauromatae, a small tribe who are Akmaral’s people.


Perhaps the most surprising discovery was how such an ancient people could cover such a vast landscape so long ago. The steppe region where Akmaral takes place is over 3,300 miles from east to west.


Though Herodotus mentions many tribes, archaeology shows that they were all part of the Scythian cultural complex. They were nomadic herders, but also magnificent craftsmen and peerless mounted archers whose expertise at warfare formed the foundation for later steppe cultures like the Huns and even the Mongolian Empire.


One archaeologist helped me understand it this way: The steppe nomad tribes were like waves washing across a vast, shallow sea.

Q: The writer Christina Baker Kline said of the book, “Fans of Madeline Miller and Natalie Haynes will relish how Lindbergh weaves fact and fiction to craft a convincing portrait of a time and people lost to history.” What do you think of that description, and what did you see as the right balance between fact and fiction as you wrote the novel?


A: I love Christina Baker Kline’s quote and I’m so honored to have her support. She’s such a wonderful writer. And the comparison to Madeline Miller and Natalie Haynes—both remarkable novelists who plumb the depths of history and mythology to create gripping tales. That is exactly what I’ve tried to do with Akmaral.


When I write historical fiction, I always strive to honor the facts as closely as I can. And I avoid reinterpreting the past through the lens of modern values or sensibilities. But how can I make such a distant time and place relatable? By focusing on the humanity of my characters.


Ancient people had the same desires and struggles as modern people do. We all want food in our bellies and a peaceful night’s sleep. We all want acceptance, friendship, family, and love. And we all want to pass on something, however small, to those who come after us.


By following these deeply human aspirations, I can spin an exciting, evocative tale while staying true to the unique challenges of the past.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I want readers to realize that there really was a time in the ancient past when women were equal. And they didn’t have to be outliers or go against social norms to be powerful, independent, and valued for those qualities.


If ancient people could honor women’s agency, maybe modern cultures can learn to do that, too. Being a strong woman doesn’t mean that we have to give up our femininity or our desire to have children. We can be leaders and also mothers. We can be lovers and also friends—with men as well as women.


Western traditions have put men and women into very distinct roles. But in a time and place where everyone must pitch in to survive, those narrow roles lose their value.


If we think about our modern world as a little bit smaller, and all of us as a little more connected that we currently feel, maybe those deeply divisive boundaries between genders can disappear, too.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have two projects in the works, though they have been somewhat back-burnered with all the excitement over Akmaral.


One book is essentially eco-fiction. I’m deeply connected with our relationship with the natural world, which is reflected in almost everything I write. My other project is “contemporary historical fiction,” meaning that it takes place in a past that some people might remember.


Both stories deal with themes of what we leave behind and why that matters. I also hope to dip back into ancient history at some point. But right now, the state of the world with our countless conflicts and challenges is calling me and I truly want to answer.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I also teach writing through a creative writing center that I founded, The Writers Circle, based in New Jersey. Through teaching, I’ve found ways to understand my own creative process better and I get to inspire others to discover the joys of putting their own stories onto the page.


I’m blessed to spend my days thinking about and sharing my love for writing with others, even when I’m not out talking about my book. And I’ve been lucky to celebrate many of The Writers Circle’s students as they go on to publish their own work.


It’s a joy to be able to do more than share my own stories by midwifing so many more wonderful works into the world.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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