Author Q&A: Madeline Miller, Winner of 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction
The Independent discusses Madeline Miller's book The Song of Achilles winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction.
Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.
The “best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess and a man — Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences and the fury of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals, the boys become steadfast companions, their bond deepening into love as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine.
When word comes that Helen, wife of Menelaus, has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and Patroclus follows, little knowing that the cruel Fates will test them as never before, and demand a terrible sacrifice.
For some readers, The Song of Achilles will be the first book they’ve read set in ancient Greece. What other works, ancient or modern, would you recommend to a reader whose appetite you’ve whetted?
On the modern side, I always enjoy recommending Zachary Mason’s terrific Lost Books of the Odyssey, which is a brilliant and witty collection of alternate adventures for Odysseus, and Margaret Atwood’s terrific Penelopiad.
I also love the works of the poet-classicist Anne Carson, in particular her beautiful and devastating Autobiography of Red. On the ancient end, her translation of Sappho, If Not, Winter, is excellent.
And of course, the Iliad itself. I think that both the Lombardo and Fagles translations make beautiful and powerful introductions to the poem. I would also recommend practically any of the tragedies, but for those in a Trojan War hero frame of mind, Agamemnon’s Oresteia trilogy and Sophocles’ Philoctetes are particular favorites.
You’ve said that writing the novel took 10 — as long as the Trojan War was fought. What was it that made it such an epic process — research, finding time to write, and so on — and what brought it to a conclusion?
It was a lot of things, the most mundane being hours in the day. For many of those years, I was also teaching full time and directing Shakespeare plays, both disciplines that I deeply love and which took up a lot of mental space. So my book needed to fit around the edges: weekends, vacations and, of course, summers, where I wrote pretty much wall to wall.
It also took a while because I was struggling to find Patroclus’ voice. The character and story were vivid in my mind, but it was the actual words that I didn’t quite have yet. I started off writing the story very much in epic mode, but realized about five years in that while the story was epic, Patroclus’ vision of the world was essentially lyric — concerned with love and friendship and beauty, more than grand destiny or glory. Once I understood that Patroclus was closer to Sappho than Homer, things began to hum along.
Why Patroclus? I think it was an interesting choice, but it would be nice to know what led you there.
The strange thing is that it didn’t really feel like a choice — there was no moment where I sat pondering, which character would make a good narrator? It was Patroclus from the beginning, and the story wouldn’t have happened without him.
I had always been fascinated by the intensity of Achilles’ grief over Patroclus’ death. It’s a deeply moving moment, and also a bit mysterious, since Patroclus is such a minor character. Homer doesn’t tell us why he means so much to Achilles, only that he does. I wanted to imagine the beginning of their story, the type of bond that could be worthy of the devastating ending that Homer shows us.
Do you agree with Carolyn Alexander’s idea that the Iliad is an anti-war epic (found in Alexander’s The War That Killed Achilles)?
I agree that it is very difficult to come away from the Iliad thinking that war is a positive thing. Homer shows us battlefield glory, certainly, but always undercut with human cost — smashed-up bodies, and shattered families. I think it’s quite telling that the end of the poem isn’t a scene of martial triumph, but a funeral, filled with the grief-stricken and very personal laments of the dead Hector’s family.
What led you to present Thetis as such a chilling figure? It made for good drama, and I don’t remember seeing any other depiction of Thetis in this way.
One thing I have always loved about the ancient gods is how utterly terrifying they are. Even though they can sometimes provide comic relief (Hera boxing Artemis’ ears in the Iliad), when it comes time for them to deal with humans, they are deeply frightening and unpredictable figures — just as likely to smite you as come to your aid. The ancient storytellers did an incredible job of invoking that sheer and merciless power. In particular, I think of myths like Artemis and the poor hunter Actaeon, where the goddess has him devoured by his own dogs, simply for stumbling upon her in the bath, or Zeus, who reveals himself in his full power to the mortal Semele and incinerates her. I wanted to capture that feeling of the gods as profoundly alien, beings to whom the fragile life or pain of an individual human means nothing. On top of that, Thetis has her own personal reasons to despise humans.
Tell us about getting the call that you were a finalist for the Orange Prize. And what was it like hearing your name announced as the winner?
Surprising, thrilling and such a deep, deep honor. Hearing Joanna Trollope, the Orange Prize chair, say my book’s name was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ moments. I remember this ripple of shock running through me, some combination of adrenaline, disbelief and joy. As a number of people told me afterward, I was trembling as I walked up the steps and to the podium. I was grateful that the “Bessie,” which is this amazing bronze statue that the winner receives, was so heavy; it felt like all that was anchoring me to earth.
And learning about the shortlist was almost as intense. I remember waking up one morning and seeing a missed call from my wonderful U.K. editor, Alexandra Pringle. I couldn’t figure out why she might call — and so early — so of course I immediately started worrying that something had gone horribly wrong. When she told me what it was about, I’m pretty sure I screamed right into her ear.
Why do you think The Song of Achilles resonated so much with the judges and the reading public?
It’s always hard for a writer to answer that about her own work, but one of the things the judges mentioned in particular was the book’s accessibility, which was absolutely in my mind as I wrote it.
One of my frustrations as a teacher of classics is that Homer’s stories have gotten a reputation for being both fusty and elitist. But in the ancient world, that couldn’t be further from the truth; back then they were a thrilling and unifying cultural force, meant for and loved by everyone. So when I was writing this novel, it was incredibly important for me to honor that heritage. I wanted the book to be able to offer things to those who did know the ancient stories, while also providing a good introduction for those who were coming to them for the first time.
What was the most challenging part of The Song of Achilles for you to write? What was the most fun?
One scene that really challenged me was the huge fight between Achilles and Agamemnon that kicks off the Iliad. It was a section I knew quite well in the Greek — too well, as it turned out, since I had to go through about 20 drafts before I could find my own way into it.
Maybe the most fun part was the entire section where the boys are living on Mount Pelion with the centaur Chiron. I got to include a lot of interesting details about the boys’ education, as well as their developing bond. And of course, there was the fact that the main figure was a centaur. I had this giddy, naughty feeling the whole time I was writing, as if I was getting away with something. Am I really putting in a centaur? Oh, yes, I am!
Who would you cast as Achilles and Patroclus in a movie version of The Song of Achilles? What about Briseis? Thetis?
This is a terrible question to ask a writer who is also a director! Terrible, that is, in the sense of making me want to sit down and spend about five days answering it, going through every movie I know, calling friends for advice, drawing up charts. …
So, I’m going to take a slightly easier way out and say that while I was writing the novel, Achilles, Thetis, Patroclus and Briseis were all entirely their own people in my mind. Lots of readers have asked if I imagined Brad Pitt as Achilles, and the answer is that I didn’t. If I had to name someone in retrospect, I think Heath Ledger would have come much closer to my Achilles — there was a youth and innocence to him, a tragedy mixed with playfulness. I’m not thinking here of his character from “Brokeback Mountain,” but of some of his earlier films. And of course, he was gorgeous.
What is your favorite part of the writing process, anywhere from first conceiving of the book to your publicity tours, or anything in between?
There are lots of favorite parts, but the oldest is the writing itself: I love the feeling of being utterly immersed in the characters, of living with them so closely that their story just starts unrolling at my feet.
A new favorite is getting to meet readers. After all those years of telling this story in solitude it has been such a pleasure for me to get to speak with fellow book lovers, myth lovers and people who have connected with my characters.
Can we look forward to another book from you soon?
Soon is such a slippery word. But yes, I’m currently immersed in writing the next book, which will finish Odysseus’ story from the perspective of some of the great female characters of the Odyssey.
Jud Ashman is the Founder and Chair of the Gaithersburg Book Festival (www.gaithersburgbookfestival.org), one of the DC area’s premier literary events, and an occasional reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Becky Meloan is a senior review editor for The Independent and co-chair of author recruitment for the Gaithersburg Book Festival, held every spring (the 2013 date: May 18).
Alice Padwe has reviewed fiction, history and memoirs and has edited all kinds of books, from college texts to spy thrillers. She is currently the coordinator of the Wellesley Literary Circle.