An Interview with Judith Lindbergh

Author of AKMARAL

1.  Akmaral takes place in Central Asia in 500 BCE. It’s a really unfamiliar place and time. What inspired you to write about such an obscure topic?

Obscure, yes, but fascinating! There is so much history and culture that people don’t know anything about. I love to discover and share it through my novels. For Akmaral, I started with the Pazyryk Ice Maiden burial. She was discovered in Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains, a stunning landscape of high, lonely mountain pastures between the borders of Southern Russia and Northwestern China. It’s the middle of nowhere, but just the kind of landscape that catches my breath and makes me fall in love. The find itself was extraordinary: a well-preserved woman’s body buried in ice for over 2400 years. She was laid in a massive larch-wood coffin wearing a tall headdress decorated with rich gold ornaments. Six horses were sacrificed in her honor, their ornate felt saddlecloths still preserved by the ice. The Ice Maiden’s body was covered with tattoos of wild animals, including a “flying deer” which is an important spiritual symbol for the horseback riding herders of far eastern Scythia. I discovered the connection between these horseback warriors and the Amazons of ancient Greek myth in my research. Herodotus tells that the Amazons joined with a group of Scythian warriors and eventually went off on their own to become the Sauromatae, my characters’ cultural group. Then I read about the “Issyk Gold Man” found in 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. Putting together these remarkable discoveries and details, I started to sense my woman warrior priestess Akmaral forming in my mind.

2. You say that, at its heart, Akmaral is a story of loyalty, love, and motherhood. Can you explain what motherhood has to do with mounted Amazon warriors?

The power or compulsion of motherhood is to nurture, care, protect. I experienced this feeling strongly when raising my sons. If anyone would have threatened them, especially when they were very young, I absolutely would have done whatever was necessary to protect them. The same is true for a small, vulnerable band of nomads, nurturing their families and herds on isolated mountain pastures. If threatened by another band—taking their grasslands, their animals, their children or their lives—what would they do? What would you do? For Akmaral’s people, defensive and even offensive strikes were a necessary part of survival and a cultural obligation that all—including women—were required to participate in. Akmaral is trained from a very young age to protect and defend her people. She is only excused from her martial duties when she becomes a mother. This tracks closely with what Herodotus wrote about the Amazons, and what the archaeological record shows in female warrior burials. But later, as Akmaral matures through love and great loss, she discovers that the power and passion of motherhood extends to her entire people.

3. Akmaral is based in ancient history, but you prefer to call your novel “archaeological fiction.” What is the difference? And how do you turn all those facts into a novel?

“Historical” means that there are written records of what happened in the past, whereas “prehistoric” refers to the time period before recorded history. There isn’t a lot of contemporary source material about the Scythians, and even less about my characters, the Sauromatae. Most of what’s come down to us is from Homer’s tales of the Trojan War in The Iliad or Herodotus’ Histories written around 430 BCE. But these ancient writers generally disparaged the wild, horseback riding Amazon warriors who were an aberration compared to the Greeks’ docile, house-bound, feminine ideal.

I had to dig into archaeology to discover who the Sauromatae really were. This involved picking through dense archaeological reports, reading about bones and burials and iron arrowheads and bronze blades to try to find a story. It’s always there; you find little tidbits—an interesting necklace buried beside a woman with a dagger or spearhead. Or a bronze mirror found with woman who appeared to be a priestess. That kind of discovery always makes me think…. Who was that priestess? What were their rituals and beliefs? Often artifacts can’t tell you, so I’d dive into folklore from the region, or reports of shamans (women and men) who still practice in these remote places. Along the way, I discovered traditions like horse-racing games used for courtship. I fit all these details and traditions with my characters and slowly a real story and world came into focus.

4. There are many vivid scenes of hunting and battle in Akmaral. Did you have difficulty imagining your characters committing such savagery?

It’s true. Writing those the battle scenes was a real challenge. I’m generally a pretty peaceful person. I do a lot of yoga, hiking, and meditation. So getting ready to kill a lot of people, even on paper, was hard! I’d put on some music, specifically a somber folk tune featuring traditional Tuvan throat singing of the Altai Mountains to set the proper atmosphere. The rumble of the voice and the slow, rising tension of the music was my way to prepare for battle and to embody Akmaral as she faced the same challenge. Akmaral isn’t bloodthirsty. She doesn’t want to kill. She doesn’t even want to become a leader. She does all that because she must—because she knows that it’s the only way to keep her people—her family—safe.

But there were other times when writing Akmaral that felt as natural as breathing. I love the outdoors, wide open spaces, horseback riding (though I’m not particularly skilled). I loved embodying the daily work of my characters and putting my own understanding of their lives to work. I loved learning how to build a yurt—at least in theory—and to make cheese by placing the curds on the roof to dry out in the cold sun, and how to fletch arrows using feathers and strong, flexible branches. I even practiced archery in my backyard—until I shot a hole through my neighbor’s brand new PVC fence! Luckily, my neighbor knew that I was doing research. He was very understanding.

5. It’s been many years since you published a novel. What took so long?

Yes, it’s been a startlingly long time since I published The Thrall’s Tale. Part of the reason is that I take a long time to write, especially given all the research. But part of it was also timing. An early version of Akmaral was completed in 2009, just when the Great Recession was causing massive changes in the publishing economy. My agent and editor simply couldn’t take a chance on a story about such an obscure place and time. A few years later, I tried again, but the market was moving away from historical fiction. In fact, my agent at that time begged me to write something else, something she could sell. So I wrote a more commercial contemporary novel, which taught me a great deal about the range of my literary voice. Unfortunately, this new book still hasn’t found a home. Publishing is very fickle and there are countless factors that go into a book getting published that the author and agent cannot control. I had almost given up on traditional publishing when a friend, Stephanie Cowell, told me about Regal House. She was also publishing a beautiful novel with them and thought they might like Akmaral. So I tried and it landed in just the right place. I’m honored and thrilled that it’s finally found a home.

6. What have you been doing in the meantime?

Between various versions of Akmaral, my contemporary novel, and a couple of other projects that ended up in a drawer, I realized that I needed a writing community to support me through the dry years. I had already started teaching creative writing in my area. Eventually that teaching grew into The Writers Circle, a creative writing community that I’ve been running since 2010. We have lots of fantastic teachers who are all published authors, too, and classes for writers from age 8 to over 80. I had no plan to start a business, but The Writers Circle grew of its own volition. I’ve sometimes struggled with the attention that it requires and how much time it takes away from my own writing. But then I discover how much our program means to so many students, especially to the young people who discover their own creativity and voices with us, and I realize that I’ve had a truly significant and positive impact on real people in my life. I’m grateful for everything that The Writers Circle has brought to me and all our of wonderful writing community.

7. What are you working on now?

I have two projects in the works—one centering around a group of aging, independent, artistic women trying to find their relevance in a changing world, and the other a completely experimental novel or novella or something about the purpose and value of art in the heat of climate change. Both are in nascent stages and I’m not sure where either of them will go. Along with that, I’m writing a lot of short work to “cleanse my palate” and breathe new life into my creative soul.