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Interview with Judith Lindbergh

A mounted warrior atop a hill; against an orange sky is emblazoned a drawing of a stylized deer with elaborate antlers; cover of Judith Lindbergh's Akmaral

As someone who has been reading about nomadic life on the Eurasian steppe since my undergraduate days and writing novels about that life focused on women for more than a decade, I am always on the alert for fiction set in the grasslands that run from China to the Black Sea. Vast but scarcely populated, subject to extremes of climate, inhospitable to agriculture but perfect for maintaining large herds of grazing animals, the steppes gave rise to a warrior culture based on archery and horses that maintained itself almost unchanged until modern weaponry and industry imperiled the ancient ways. In the last seventy years or so, archeologists have uncovered burial grounds that go back millennia, adding to our knowledge of the earliest stages of this long-lasting way of life.

Judith Lindbergh’s second novel, Akmaral, revolves around a leader among the Sauromatae, a people who may have given rise to the myth of the Amazons, recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century BCE. We meet her heroine, Akmaral, in her final hours, when she is reminiscing about the events that brought her to her present state—queen of a united people forged from what she calls “a disparate multitude of wandering herders.” Find out more from this interview with the author.

Akmaral is your second novel. Tell us a little bit about your first, The Thrall’s Tale.

The Thrall’s Tale tells the story of three women battling fate and survival in the first Viking Age settlement in tenth-century Greenland. Katla is a slave, the daughter of a Christian woman captured in a Viking raid on Irish shores. Upon first arriving in Greenland, she is brutally raped by her master’s son. The child of this union is Bibrau, whose nature reflects the savagery of her conception—so much so that many in the settlements believe she is a changeling. Thorbjorg, a much maligned and persecuted healer and prophetess, takes them both under her wing. But she is a priestess of the Old Norse gods, and Christianity is about to penetrate the pagan Viking sphere. All three of them are outsiders—shunned, misused, and misunderstood.


In this remote, icy setting where survival is difficult, even in the modern day, their struggles mirror the staggering Greenlandic landscape. And the schisms and sacrifices each must face reflect the pain of a dying culture and the birth of a different world.


And how did you get from Vikings to ancient Sarmatians—Sauromatae, in your novel?


I’ve always been fascinated with ancient history and archaeology, particularly to obscure cultures and unfamiliar places. With The Thrall’s Tale, it wasn’t so much the Viking Age as the idea that women—real women, not the cliché “shield maidens”—lived and died on those remote shores. I was mesmerized by the landscape, which is always a critical aspect of anything I write. I traveled to Greenland as part of my research and the fjords, mountains, and glaciers have an otherworldly power that truly drew me in—as did the folklore and mysticism embodied by the Volva, or seeress, upon whom Thorbjorg is based.


When I finished Thrall, I searched for some time until I discovered the Sauromatae. It started with a documentary on PBS about the amazing Siberian Ice Maiden discovered in Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains—a stunning landscape of high, lonely mountain pastures just where southern Siberia meets Mongolia, northwestern China, and Kazakhstan. Again, it’s a remote, difficult landscape—just the kind that catches my breath and makes me fall in love. The Ice Maiden was likely a spiritual leader or shamaness—which was fascinating enough. But as I dug deeper into the archaeology of the region, I also discovered countless women warriors’ burials found all across the steppes. Slowly, as I put together these remarkable burials, artifacts, and other details, I began to sense Akmaral, a woman warrior and eventually a military and spiritual leader, forming in my mind.


Introduce us to Akmaral. What traits of hers make her the ideal center of your story?


At the beginning of the novel, Akmaral sees herself as an ordinary girl. But a shamaness predicts that she has a destiny far beyond her imagining. Soon after, she experiences a devastating loss. For someone living today, this might mean decades of emotional struggle, but Akmaral is supported by her small, tight-knit clan and a clear, unquestionable obligation—to learn to be a warrior to protect her people. This duty gives her stability and a strong sense of belonging. Also, because women are unquestionably equal in their matriarchal clan, she never doubts her value or purpose. Unlike many stereotypical warriors in fiction, Akmaral does not relish battle or violence. And she never wants power. Her goal is solely to do her duty to protect and defend. But she understands violence’s inevitability. They are a tiny cluster of families traveling together with their herds on the vast, vulnerable steppes. Her primary objective throughout the novel is safety, comfort, love, and respect. Her dedication to these core principles lead her toward her destiny.

A gold-plated deer with huge, spiraled antlers, from a Sarmatian tomb in Central Asia, circa 500 BCE

She lives in a world that, if not completely matriarchal, gives women a role they did not enjoy again for centuries. Talk about the Sauromatae and the relative roles of men and woman among them.


I would say that her culture is matriarchal, in that it is ruled primarily by women. Men do have a say, however. I couldn’t simply emasculate half the human race the way men have disregarded women for millennia. We’re better than that! As for the facts, I took my cue from Herodotus’ Histories (Book IV) where he relates the origin story of the Sauromatae. They descended from the joining of Scythian male warriors and Amazon women who fought in the Trojan War. It was a consensual arrangement after they had become lovers to travel to the east and create their own new tribe. Though the way Herodotus states it, it does seem that the women made most of the decisions.


An even more important clue comes from the hard evidence of archaeology. There are numerous warrior burials—male and female—across the steppes. And both men and women have been found as central figures in their burial mounds. Sometimes the male has the most prominence and the richest grave goods, and sometimes the woman. There are even burials that contain couples, side by side. And then there are men buried beside infants or children. What does that say about the way these people lived? Of course, we can only speculate, but I interpreted this as evidence of a fairly equal society where everyone fought, ruled, nurtured, and died. Women in my novel are never treated as lesser. They have total bodily autonomy and choose their own mates, but only after—as Herodotus writes—they have killed an enemy in battle.


Akmaral has a good friend, Marjan, whose destiny takes her along a different path. Who is Marjan, and what role does she play in your novel?


I’m glad you asked about Marjan, because her character is critical to showing Akmaral her own path. Marjan is an extremely skilled hunter which, in this world, means she’s also fully prepared for war. But she questions the difference between killing for food and killing another human being. She isn’t squeamish in the least, but she gives voice to this significant moral dilemma. As she waits for her chance to fulfill her cultural responsibility, she struggles because she’s also fallen in love. So her desire to fulfill her obligations and become an “ana-woman”—essentially, a mother—is very strong. As Akmaral witnesses her friend’s longing and despair, she starts to question the moral imperative herself. But Akmaral’s decisions about how to handle this question only come to fruition after she has fully matured and understands the incredible power of love and loss.


Akmaral also interacts with—should we call him a frenemy?—Erzhan. What can you tell us about him and his relationship with her?


Erzhan is tricky. He’s another warrior in their tribe—a peer, but also a fierce competitor. He is intimidated by Akmaral—her prowess in battle skills, but also perhaps her reluctance to take his bait and compete directly with him. She would rather just do her best and be left alone. Erzhan comes at her again and again, taking different angles to get into her head. And eventually he does, but not in the way you might think. Over the course of the novel, their relationship goes through many different incarnations, from enemies to allies to something much more complicated. What binds them from beginning to end is their dedication to preserving and protecting their clan, even if they interpret that obligation in very different ways.


The richness of detail in Akmaral is impressive. I’ve been writing about the steppe for years, and I can attest that it’s hard to find information—especially historical information—about the details of daily life. What sources did you use?


I had to dig deep, as I’m sure you have, too. I always start my research with some general nonfiction before diving into the academic research. I’ve read countless archaeological reports, anthropological studies on related contemporary cultures, exhibition catalogues, and more. And I turned to contemporary traditions of Central Asia to breathe life into all the dry, scholarly research, like horse racing, archery, wrestling, eagle hunting, and the way modern-day nomadic families still live. I read traditional folktales to learn about the culture, legends, myths, and their connections with the natural world. And I studied what I could find of traditional shamanism and spiritual practices—both ancient and modern. Of course, I adjusted the modern traditions, trying to trace their origins and connections back to the ancient artifacts and evidence. Ultimately, the world of my novel isn’t based on any specific Central Asian culture today. But I borrowed details from many of them so that my ancient world would feel as real and alive as possible.

This novel will be released on May 7. Are you already working on something new?


With all the promotional work and articles I’ve been writing, I haven’t touched my other works-in-progress in a while. But I do have a couple of novels on the back burner. One I would call eco-fiction, which is a theme that runs through everything I have ever written. My other project is “contemporary historical fiction,” meaning that it takes place in a past that some people might remember. I also look forward to dipping back into ancient history. But right now, the state of the world in the face of climate change is calling me, and I truly want to answer.


Thank you so much for answering my questions!

A woman with curly gray hair and brown eyes smiles at the camera; head shot of Judith Lindbergh

Judith Lindbergh, founder and director of The Writers Circle, teaches aspiring and accomplished authors of all ages. Her novels are Akmaral and The Thrall’s Tale, about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in Greenland. Find out more about her and her books at

Images: Gold-plated Sarmatian deer © Oleg Nabrovenkov, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons; photograph of Judith Lindbergh © Sarah Lyman Kravits, reproduced with permission from the publisher.

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