Yesterday I told you about my current favourite book of 2012 ‘The Song of Achilles’ the debut novel by Madeline Miller. Well thanks to Madeline my love for classics, Greek myths and legends has been reignited (my Mum will be thrilled) and I am now keen to read ‘The Iliad’. Well, Madeline has kindly agreed to do a Savidge Reads Grills to talk about just those things, how being a debut novelist has been and how it feels to be short listed for The Orange Prize 2012…
Can you describe the story of ‘Song of Achilles’ in a single sentence?
The Song of Achilles retells the story of the Greek hero Achilles from the point of view of his best friend and lover Patroclus, beginning when the two are boys and following them through the events of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War.
The story is about Patroclus and Achilles, whilst Achilles is a main character in The Iliad Patroclus isn’t. What made you want to focus a whole story on the two of them? Was it the fact it was vaguer so you could do more with it?
I have always found myself gripped by that terrible moment in the Iliad when Patroclus is killed, and Achilles is overwhelmed by grief and rage. It was fascinating and moving, and also mysterious because Patroclus has, up until then, been a fairly minor character. I wanted to understand why he meant so much to Achilles, and who he was; I felt compelled to tell his story. As it turned out, it was a wonderful form, allowing me all this freedom to invent within Homer’s grand structure. But that wasn’t what made me tackle the story in the first place—it was about giving this forgotten, vital character a chance to speak.
Were you worried that with the heart of the story really being the love story between two men people might be put off by it?
There was a very small part of my brain that knew that some people might be discomfited, but I didn’t really think about them. What was much more important to me was doing right by these two men, and the depth and complexity of their relationship. Also, in terms of making them lovers, I felt like I was on pretty steady scholarly ground. Though Homer never says one way or another, many ancient authors interpreted them that way. If people didn’t like it, I figured they could take it up with Plato or Aeschylus.
You have such a love of classics how much fun was it to be able to write and include gods and goddesses, centaurs and the like?
A lot of fun! I know that many modern retellings of ancient stories leave the gods out, but for me they were integral to the ancient worldview. To be honest, I was a bit intimidated at first. Though there are gods that act like clowns and fools in some of the ancient poems (ahem, Zeus), both Thetis and Chiron are very serious characters. I wanted to be sure that I was doing justice to the terror and awe that they would have evoked, as well as the ancient sense of how profoundly alien they were.
Where did your love of classics and ancient Greek history come from?
My mother. She used to read me the Iliad and other Greek myths as bedtime stories, and the stories about the Trojan War were my particular favourites. I loved that the heroes weren’t just cardboard perfection, but filled with rage and pride and grief. Even with all the gods and centaurs, it felt more real than a lot of the other stories out there. I felt like I was being let in on the secrets of the adult world: it was messy and violent and unfair, but also beautiful.
What would you say to recommend the Iliad to anyone who hasn’t yet read it (like me though don’t tell my mother as she is a Classics teacher, oops) for whatever reason?
I promise not to tell! I would absolutely recommend these stories to anyone. One of the things that I find sad is how Homer has gotten a reputation for being high-brow, fusty and intimidating. When these works were composed, they were intended for everyone, not just an elite, educated audience, and most of all, they were intended to be gripping—entertaining, funny (at times), and moving.
I think the key to enjoying them is two-fold: first find a translation you like. Everyone has different taste, and what feels grand and solemn for one person might be creaky to another. If Fagles or Lattimore doesn’t appeal, try Lombardo; he’s less literal, but I love the fast-paced poetics of his translation.
The other thing I would recommend is listening to them rather than reading them. After all, that’s how these great poems were meant to be experienced, and I think it really brings them to life in a way that the page sometimes doesn’t.
Why do you think the Greeks were so fascinated by the gods and goddesses and myths? Why the need for the marvellous stories? Would they have been like our modern day soap operas maybe?
There were absolutely versions of the stories that were like our modern day soap operas; there were also versions that were more like great novels, and others that were like great, mega-musicals, and others still that would been mini-series on the BBC. These stories—just like the stories we tell today—are ultimately about human experience and human emotion. Some of them have more bells and whistles, some are more literary, but it’s the same impulse: understanding ourselves and our place in the world, entertaining, debating and connecting with each other.
The book has now been shortlisted for The Orange Prize 2012 and is getting praise here there and everywhere, being your debut novel does this all feel quite bizarre?
It is absolutely surreal. I am so honoured and awed to be in the company of the other short-listees, and honestly keep waiting to wake up. Especially after ten years of writing alone, it is wonderful and head-spinning to have the book suddenly be so public. One of my favourite parts has been getting to connect with readers and other writers.
Before we discuss books further, let us discuss writing! When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?
I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a pen. In second grade, I was obsessed with telling stories. They were totally absurd of course, filled with dinosaurs and explosions and leopards, but I can still remember that giddy joy of pure invention whenever I opened my notebook. Unfortunately, I was not as passionate about editing. After you wrote a story, you were supposed to get it edited by the teacher, then copy it out nicely. Instead, I would just go back and write another story. Everyone else had dozens of pages copied out and pinned to the walls, and I had maybe one or two. Luckily, I’ve gotten better about revising since then!
As for being a writer, that was something that I found much harder to claim, because it felt so presumptuous. It was easier to think: I want to write.
Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?
I tend to be a binge-writer, which I think comes from all those years of fitting my writing into my teaching and directing. I’m not one of those people who can sit down every day and write x amount of words. Instead, I’ll take days off here or there, then find myself writing round the clock for a week. I keep meaning to try the other way, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Also, going for walks is a huge part of my writing process. Whenever I find myself really stuck I know it’s time to go for a good long turn through the neighbourhood. There’s something about the motion that seems to shake things loose.
Right, back to books… Which current contemporary authors do you really rate?
There are a lot, enough that I hesitate to say any. I’m sure that as soon as I list one, I’ll immediately feel bad for leaving someone else out. But, if you twist my arm: the amazing Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett and James Baldwin (I know, it’s probably cheating because he’s dead, but I just read Giovanni’s Room for the first time, and I’m still reeling from it, so I’m saying it anyway). Also, Ian McEwan, Lorrie Moore and David Mitchell, Anne Carson and Toni Morrison.
What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?
There are books I read that could definitely be classed as guilty pleasures, but I honestly try not to think of them that way. Why should I ever feel guilty about immersing myself in stories? As a reader, as long as I am loving the book, I think it should be embraced. And as a writer there is always something to learn, no matter what.
For example, I have always loved to read fantasy, which is a genre that a lot of people look down on. But some of our great modern masters are fantasy authors (Ursula K. LeGuin, for instance, or Tolkien). And, if we’re really being honest, Homer’s stories would be on the fantasy shelf if they were published today. So up with pleasures, I say, and down with guilt!
Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?
Phew, this might be an even harder question than the one about authors! Okay, can I cheat and name three? The first is Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson which is gorgeous and amazing and indescribable and you should go read it right now. The second is any book by David Mitchell, but especially Cloud Atlas or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. That man is simply a marvel. The third is Watership Down, which is a book that I have reread probably a hundred times. Maybe more. People always laugh at me when I recommend it, but truly it’s a first-rate adventure story, and Richard Adams was wonderfully clever about making it a true Homeric-style epic.
Can I add one more? I absolutely LOVED The Sisters Brothers.
What is next for Madeline Miller?
More teaching, more reading, more writing. Although I don’t think I will stay in the ancient world forever, I would like to stay there for one more novel. One of the characters I most enjoyed writing was Odysseus, and I would love the chance to finish his story. I have also always been interested in the women of the Odyssey (Penelope, Circe), so I am looking forward to exploring their stories as well.
On another note, I would like to start directing Shakespeare plays again. The hours I have spent doing that are some of the most rewarding, intellectually stimulating and enjoyable of my life. I have learned so much from it, both as a story-teller and a person. In particular, I’m feeling the itch to take on Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s dark, angry, and hilarious Trojan War play. I’ve done it twice already, but I never get tired of it.
A huge thank you to Madeline for taking time out in her bonkers schedule to take part in Savidge Reads Grills. I have everything crossed for her with the Orange Prize. If you haven’t read ‘The Song of Achilles’ then you should… in fact you can win it here today! Simply leave a comment below saying what your favourite myth, legend or fairytale is and why and five of you will be pulled out of a hat at random next Saturday. Good luck!