An Interview with Judith Lindbergh

The novelist talks research, women warriors, and the vagaries of publishing.

An Interview with Judith Lindbergh

I met Judith Lindbergh through our mutual publisher, Regal House. Lindbergh’s sweeping 5th-century BCE epic, Akmaral, set on the Central Asian steppes, centers a woman warrior and spiritual guide. In this immersive novel, readers travel Akmaral’s path to leadership via meticulous cultural details and descriptions of lavish, majestic landscapes. I caught up with Lindbergh by email.

Tell us how you found the character Akmaral.

I’ve always been fascinated with ancient history and archaeology. I dig in deep and explore them, trying to understand how people lived, thought, and felt, always searching for our common humanity. After my first novel, The Thrall’s Tale, focused on women in the first Viking Age settlement in Greenland, I happened upon a documentary on PBS, “Secrets of the Dead,” about the Siberian Ice Maiden discovered in Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains. A woman’s body was perfectly preserved in ice for over 2,400 years, laid to rest in a massive larch-wood coffin wearing a headdress with gold ornaments. Six horses were sacrificed, their ornate felt saddlecloths still intact. The Ice Maiden’s body was covered with tattoos of wild animals, including a “flying deer,” which was an important spiritual symbol for the horseback-riding herders of the steppes. I began to sense Akmaral, a woman warrior and military and spiritual leader, forming in my mind.

What fiction inspired you when it came to writing Akmaral?

Very few authors have written about the ancient nomads of the steppes as far as I’ve discovered. Years ago, Alice Hoffman wrote a young adult novel called The Foretelling within the same cultural context that figures in Akmaral. I avoid reading other novels that take on my subject matter until I’m certain I’ve created my own voice and interpretation. Instead, I dig deep into research and ask the guidance of experts, many of whom are listed at the end of my book.

Akmaral’s life is framed by relationships with Erzhan, a member of her tribe, and Timor, an enslaved Scythian warrior. Tell us more.

At the beginning, Erzhan feels deeply threatened by Akmaral’s prowess at horsemanship and battle. Akmaral’s connection with the spirit world makes [her] both powerful and a potential threat. Akmaral and Erzhan must trust each other when the clan is under threat. It is only when they capture Timor that Akmaral begins to understand the power of true attraction. With these three characters’ intertwined relationships, the novel wrestles with questions of primacy in a matriarchal culture. And what does it mean to trust or love someone who is an enemy and enslaved?

Is there precedent for women warriors in history?

Joan of Arc and Boudicca come to mind. Mulan may have been based on a real woman. And there’s truth behind the movie “The Woman King.” What makes Akmaral’s time remarkable is the undeniable physical evidence of warrior women, whether called Amazons, Scythians, or Sauromatae. From the archaeological record across the Central Asian steppes, [we know] women fought in battle, died of their battle wounds, and were buried with their weapons and battle gear. They were tribal leaders.

Tell us about your business, the Writers Circle.

I started the Writers Circle because I needed to make a little money while I justified staying home writing and raising my two sons. I’d been lucky to sell my first novel but I sent my next novel to my then-agent in 2009, the height of the Great Recession. Nobody was buying. Around that time, our eldest son came home from third grade with an assignment: a five-paragraph essay that required no curiosity, no inquiry, no thinking. Just fill-in-the-blanks. I was appalled. My first classes were with neighborhood kids. We sat on the floor and pretended we were animals and wrote about the experience. We put on plays where everyone wrote their own parts. We drew superheroes and came up with origin stories. The kids had a blast. A year later, my business partner Michelle Cameron (also a novelist) joined me. The program grew from there. Now, we have a wonderful roster of brilliant instructors — all published authors — teaching children, teens, and adults in person and online. Writing is a gift we give first to ourselves and then, sometimes, to others. We share our words in our classes, and if that’s as far as it goes, that’s enough. When we write out of love and share our love with others, we get the deepest and most pure satisfaction from our work.

Can you talk about the time between your two novels?

It was a long and challenging time. The Thrall’s Tale was a big book from Viking, a prominent imprint at Penguin Random House. But it came with sales expectations that were impossible to achieve. So, when I sent an early draft of Akmaral to my Viking editor, she graciously declined. Publishing, in the end, is about numbers. My agent suggested I set Akmaral aside and write a contemporary novel. I learned a lot, but that novel is still looking for a home. I was thrilled when my author friend Stephanie Cowell introduced me to Regal House and the publishing magic happened!

What about your writing process?

I start with at least three to six months of pure research to get the facts right. I read hardcopy books and mark up or tag the passages that speak to me, searching for details that might suit a character, event, or location. I type up my notes in a research document. In a separate document, I draft character details, using tidbits of fact and then adding more as I go. Finally, I start writing. The key is to be completely familiar with all of it, especially the history, so that I don’t pause to wonder about the world.

[Photo by Sarah Lyman Kravits.]

Martha Anne Toll is a book critic and a novelist. Her prizewinning debut novel, Three Muses, was published last fall. Her second novel, Duet for One, is forthcoming in early 2025.

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