In Judith Lindbergh’s new novel, Akmaral (Regal House Publishing, forthcoming May 2024), a nomad woman warrior on the ancient Asian steppes must make peace with making war. Inspired by Greek myths of Amazon women warriors and modern archaeology that proves that they were real, Akmaral follows one woman’s struggle through loyalty, love, and loss to become a leader of her people.
The first of Judith’s numerous publications, The Thrall’s Tale, about women in Viking Age Greenland, was an IndieBound Pick and praised by Pulitzer Prize winners Geraldine Brooks and Robert Olen Butler. She also contributed to the Smithsonian’s exhibition Vikings: The Norse Atlantic Saga and was an expert commentator on the History Channel’s documentary series MANKIND. Judith is the Founder/Director of The Writers Circle, a New Jersey-based creative writing center where she teaches aspiring and accomplished writers from ages eight to eighty.
Fellow author and friend Kerri Schlottman interviewed Judith about how her youngest son inspired Akmaral, her obsession with all things ancient history, and the time she accidentally shot an arrow into her neighbor’s fence trying to get into character. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Kerri Schlottman: I’m so excited to talk about this complex and beautiful book. Let’s start with what inspired you to write Akmaral.
Judith Lindbergh: When my boys were little, I used to take them to New York City every week. We loved to explore different exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One day, we picked the medieval wing. My youngest was two then, sitting in his stroller, marveling at the knights on horseback. Suddenly, and for the next several years, he became a knight in shining armor. He wore a plastic helmet and would joust in our backyard using a swimming noodle as a lance. As a young mother, I was against weapons and encouraged gender-neutral toys. But there I was, wondering how to cope with this child who thought he was a warrior. Like any sane writer, I decided to work it out by writing a novel.
Akmaral started with a documentary about the Pazyryk Ice Maiden. The mummy was buried in the permafrost and was incredibly well preserved, with her skin covered with twisted animal tattoos. She was found in the Altai Mountains, where Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Siberia, and China all meet. When researchers did genetic testing, they discovered a link that led all the way back to Greece and the historian Herodotus, who wrote about the Amazons. The story goes that when they were defeated at the Battle of Troy, the Amazons were put on a ship back to where they’d come from. Well, they hijacked the ship and killed the crew, but they didn’t know how to sail. So they crashed into some cliffs where Crimea is today in the heart of the Ukrainian steppes. There they stole some horses, and as they rode off, they ran into a band of Scythian warriors. According to Herodotus, the Scythians attacked, but when they realized they were fighting women, the battle turned into courtship. The Amazons accepted the men as lovers, but refused to go to Scythia where women had no freedom or power. They insisted that the men had to come with them. Together, they migrated to the east and became a new tribe, the Sauromatae. Some researchers believe that these are the people buried in the Altai Mountains. And they became the subject of Akmaral.
KS: Wow, that’s fascinating! My next question is a little tongue-in-cheek, but I imagine you in your writing process trying to inhabit this world, and you have a bow and arrow next to your laptop and your hair in a big long braid, some kind of warrior outfit on. In all seriousness, what was it like to get inside this world? As you noted, you were a pacifist mom and suddenly, you’re going deep into the history of a fairly violent culture. What was it like for you?
JL: As a mother, especially when my children were little, if anyone had tried to hurt my kids, I would have killed them. Thank god I never had to face that experience, but I understood the feeling in a really visceral way. Suddenly, I was this fierce mama bear. So, I thought, what would a woman like me fight and die for? And it was for her family.
As I delved into the culture of these nomads living in the remote mountains, I began to understand how they felt. These were not nations or even tribes. They were just a handful of extended families traveling together, surviving by cooperation against the elements, against hunger and cold, and against anyone trying to take what was theirs. I started thinking of how vulnerable they were. Of course, anyone with a spare hand would fight to defend the family, including the women. That was an empowering realization. It goes against the presumption that women were always treated as weak and incapable. You will act when you have to protect yourself or your family, whether you pick up a frying pan or a sword. Even the pacifist in me understood that.
KS: How else did you try to understand your characters?
JL: I tried to embody some of my main character, Akmaral’s, traits and even to learn some of her skills. I got a bow and arrow—just a little kid’s one, nothing fancy—and I put my son’s outgrown toddler mattress against the plastic slide in our backyard. I taught myself how to shoot. Not terribly well, though! I tended to aim too high, and one time, my arrow went over the mattress and into my neighbor’s brand-new PVC fence. I can still see the little hole it made! So, that was the end of that. I also went horseback riding whenever I could. I’m not a great rider, but I took every opportunity.
One of the hardest things about this book was getting ready to write battle scenes. I knew Akmaral would face warfare, but unlike a cliché blood-thirsty warrior, she has no desire to kill. She acts in defense, which becomes a central conflict as the book progresses. To get into the mood every time Akmaral faced battle, I would play a particular recording of music from the Altai region. The sadness and heft of the music empowered me to write with gravity about what Akmaral was about to do. The mood helped me to take the violence seriously. I didn’t want to glorify it. I wanted it to carry the weight of something no one should ever have to do.
KS: Tension and violence are ever-present in the book, yet there are beautiful moments of intimacy and tenderness, particularly as Akmaral becomes a mother. How did you balance those moments, and how did you know when to bring in the lightness—friendship and love and motherhood?
JL: I think the lightness comes because Akmaral never doubts her agency. In her culture, she was an equal from the start. Often with female heroes in historical fiction—or any female protagonist—they are aberrant outliers who go against cultural norms. That was the opposite of what I was portraying. In Akmaral’s community, she never had to doubt her value. All women had value, had a place, and had power.
At one point early in the book, Akmaral encounters a man who’s attracted to her. She says no, and he backs off. There are cultural reasons that forbid him to do otherwise. Also, early in the book, they go on a boar hunt as part of their training. But it’s serious. If they don’t do well or if they get injured, they could die. There were no hospitals or emergency first aid. Akmaral had to rise to the occasion, hold her own, and become empowered, and her male and female friends all had to do the same. So Akmaral never has a feeling of oppression. She always knows she is an equal.
KS: Akmaral is set in a very different time from ours and supposedly removed from our experiences. But is it really? The themes, especially around women and their power and the universality of struggle, are relevant today. There is a sense of feminism and female power that strongly comes through in the book. I’m curious about how intentional that is.
JL: One opportunity in writing Akmaral was exploring a culture that honors the hearth goddess over the war god. The hearth goddess in my novel is Rada Mai, equivalent to Hestia in the Greek pantheon. The hearth was everything—life, heat, safety. It provided food. It protected them from wolves. The war god, Targitai in the book, is secondary. He serves the hearth goddess because he and his warriors must protect the home, the hearth, and the family. It was an excellent opportunity to invert patriarchal assumptions of our own culture. In Western culture, we traditionally have clear divisions in male and female roles. But in a culture that is implicitly matriarchal, there is opportunity for equality.
KS: I love that about the book: the fact that it’s just implicit that the women are powerful, and not only because they have physical strength and engage in everything that the men do, but they also create. They are mothers. And they perpetuate the families and the communities. This is something that’s honored. I think that’s really special.
JL: That’s why it was vital for me, as a pacifist mom, to break it down to my characters’ most elemental motivations: protection and survival, which make sense in a tiny clan. But when you grow beyond that compact imperative to our global community and all our complex interactions and territories with their invisible boundaries that somehow mean something impenetrable and “other,” all of a sudden it gets really complicated. Our economies and modern politics feel very removed from those essentials of protection and survival.
At a certain point, Akmaral grows into her own leadership role when she says we’re not going to attack; we’re going to share. And we’re going to build loyalty based on that sharing. It felt possible to me in the context of the narrative and for this small group. I don’t think that would work in the modern world. We’re too many and too different. But as we face climate change and social and cultural collapse on so many levels, perhaps if we found a way to share and protect, we could all survive on this planet. We need to recognize our responsibility to each other and find a way to help each other.
KS: That’s such a strong point. We need an Akmaral! What else would you like to share about the book?
JL: Something I found in Herodotus regarding Amazon warriors and marriage: “It is their custom that no maiden weds until she has killed a man in battle, and some grow old and die unmarried because they cannot satisfy this need.” In essence, before you add to the burden of those to be protected, you must prove that you can protect.
So many times, Akmaral struggles with being a mother when she used to be a warrior. Yet she is torn because she wants to be a mother. For those of us who choose to be parents, there are times when we lose track of ourselves. We wonder: where am I in this? I had a career. I had ambitions. Now, all I do is change diapers, run errands, and drive back and forth to the preschool or whatever it is. I really wanted to represent that struggle. Akmaral loves her child, but she also longs to be herself. What does it mean to relinquish one power for another, and are those powers equivalent?