SOMA Spotlight: Novelist Judith Lindbergh, Uncovering Stories as Archaeological Exploration

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HistoryNusantara’s Spotlight series aims to help the residents of SOMA — or MapSO — get to know their neighbors better. HistoryNusantara asks the questions; the Spotlight personality does the rest! Read more Spotlights here.

Name?

Judith Lindbergh

What town do you live in, and how long have you lived here?

West Orange, since 2003

SOMA or MapSO?

SOMA.

What do you do and what are you currently working on?

Most people in SOMA probably know me as the founder and director of The Writers Circle where we teach creative writing to kids, teens, and adults. But The Writers Circle only exists because I am a novelist myself. It’s been years since my last novel, but I’m finally releasing a new one! It’s called AKMARAL and is about a nomad woman warrior on the ancient Asian steppes who must make peace with making war.

I love writing about ancient history, especially focusing on people and places that are unfamiliar to most readers. I discovered a moment in history when women really were warriors. Archaeological evidence from countless burials from the Ukraine to the heart of Mongolia proves that the Amazon women of ancient Greek legends were real. In my novel, Akmaral must struggle through torn loyalties, love, and great loss to become a leader of her people.

Why do you live/work/interact here?

We moved here when my husband and I were both still working in New York City. We were drawn to the area by the easy commute, good schools… all the usual reasons. It took me a while to get over leaving Brooklyn where I really felt that I had found my place. It wasn’t until I started hiking regularly in the South Mountain Reservation that I realized, Hey, I couldn’t do this in the City. Now I truly embrace living here. We are blessed to live in a lively, creative community where everyone is doing something fascinating—just like Brooklyn, but with backyards and hiking. So, to my mind, it’s better!

Did you always dream of doing what you’re doing now and why?

My original career was on the stage. I was a professional dancer for the first seven years of my adult life. I had wanted to be a ballet dancer, but my body shape wouldn’t conform. Eventually I wanted something a bit more challenging. I ended up working as a temp in corporate offices in the City, and found myself often bored to death. So I started writing just to “look busy.” When one of my short stories expanded beyond my expectations, I realized that I was writing a novel.

What is one thing people wouldn’t be able to guess about you?

In my classes, I give off a very laidback, even slightly crazy vibe. In fact, I am obsessively controlled and organized. I keep lists for everything—what needs to be done for my business, for my writing, for my family. And when I write, I work with obsessive attention to detail. In history, details matter. And in historical fiction, you never know what insignificant factoid might become crucial to your story. It’s critical to me to be accurate.

How do you hope to change the world (or your small part of it)?

Through my writing, I hope to open people’s eyes and minds to the ancient and unfamiliar. I love writing about times and places that no one else really thinks about. Uncovering their stories is a sort of archaeological exploration as I dig deep to reveal what life might have been like, while discovering our common humanity.

You have an unexpected day off. How do you spend it?

Being a writer and a small business owner means that I never really have a day off. But I do hike as often as I possibly can. There are some really magical spots up in the Res. In the spring, the vernal pools are filled with spring peepers. There are places I visit every spring when I know trout lilies and mayapples will be in bloom. And of course, beyond the Dog Park along the ridge, there are wild raspberries and blackberries ripening in late summer. There are even a few spots where you can’t hear the traffic.

Do you have a hobby and if yes, what is it and what do you get out of it?

I am a landscape and nature photographer, and have shown my work in several solo and group shows. It began quite by accident when I was traveling in Greenland to research my novel, The Thrall’s Tale. I didn’t even have a good camera—just a little point-and-shoot that I’d borrowed from my mom. This was back when you shot with film, so I couldn’t even tell what I was taking until I got home and developed the photos and—wow! They were beautiful. So I took them down the block to a local gallery in Brooklyn and walked out with my first exhibition.

These days, I take photos mostly for myself, often focusing on small, insignificant details—tree roots, a fallen leaf of unusual color, mushrooms and lichen, seedpods and the reflections of branches on water. I post them on my Instagram feed, hoping to remind myself and others of the fragile beauty of the earth even in our suburban woods or backyards.

What superpower would you like to have? Would you use it for good or evil? And would you use it to get a parking spot?

I would love to be able to write more quickly, maybe to finish a book and see it published every couple of years. It takes me an incredibly long time to finish a novel to my satisfaction, especially with all the research I do. But I would give up that superpower if it meant sacrificing the quality of language and imagery that I strive for—that give my books the feeling and tone of the past, as well as a good story and well-developed characters. That kind of writing takes time and draft after draft of refinement, like a good wine that needs to age in the dark for years.

The official book launch is: Thursday, May 9, 2024, 6:30 PM: Millburn Public Library, Millburn, NJ – in conversation with Art Historian and President of Friends of the Millburn Library Dorothy Kelly with live music by Cooper Davis & Friends

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