Category Archives: Madeline Miller

Savidge Grills… Madeline Miller

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!

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The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller

When I was first sent Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ as a very early unsolicited advance proof copy last summer I swiftly passed it onto my mother. You see she is a classicist and indeed teaches classics, as well as English literature, so I knew she would love it. I also assumed being about the Greek gods, myths and legends it would therefore not be mine. I am sure my mother’s passion for the subject is contagious for her students but as her own child it occasionally got a bit much. I think it was the 12 endless hours in Pompeii during my bolshie early teens, when I was so bored I had the biggest sulk ever (even a rather rude painting my mother dragged us to find didn’t have the desired effect of cheering me up) that could have put me off. Or maybe it was getting 100% in my Classics exam at the school my mother taught at and having the mickey taken out of me that was the final straw? Either way I completely shut the subject out of my life. Hence why I thought ‘The Song of Achilles’ would be highly unlikely to win me over. Yet I heard Michael Kindness rave about it on Books on the Nightstand, it then got longlisted for the Orange Prize 2012, and so I read it. I didn’t expect it to be a book that would reinvigorate my love for classics again or have me sobbing like a baby…

9781408821985

Bloomsbury Publishing, hardback, 2011, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (but borrowed from the library as gave my Mum the one was sent, oops)

No doubt you will know the name Achilles whether you have read ‘The Iliad’ by Homer or not (and I haven’t) and indeed will probably have heard the tale of the Trojan War. That said, whether you have or not doesn’t actually matter because with ‘The Song of Achilles’ Madeline Miller retells you the tale but in doing so gives it a new perspective from one of the most unsung heroes of the tale itself, Patroclus.

Born a rather frail specimen, in fact somewhat an embarrassment to his father Menoetius (one of the Argonauts no less), he is involved in a terrible incident that sees him banished to Phthia, the land of King Peleus, he soon becomes a very unlikely friend to Peleus’ son Achilles, who he couldn’t be less like. It is from here, and through Patroclus, that Miller brings us the tale of the Trojan War and all its adventure, it’s also here that she gives us a love story too. It is both the adventure and this love story that makes us read on.

Though it is never officially stated in The Iliad, it is believed, and inferred, by many that Patroclus was not just simply Achilles’ closest confident and right hand man but that they also became lovers. It is this dynamic of their youthful friendship that gives the book its sense of adventure and the love story what gives the novel its emotional punch. I don’t normally love a love story, but I really loved this one. I can’t quite put my finger on how, which is probably why it works so well, Miller creates such a believable and touching relationship between these two men starting from pre-pubescent friendship that becomes post teenage love because she does it so deftly but you’ll be rooting for them, even though we soon learn the gods have stated a prophecy which isn’t going to reach a happy conclusion for anyone concerned. Have a tissue ready, seriously.

‘After that, I was craftier with my observation, kept my head down and my eyes ready to leap away. But he was craftier still.  At least once a dinner he would turn and catch me before I could feign indifference. Those seconds, half-seconds, that the line of our gaze connected , were the only moment in my day when I felt anything at all. The sudden swoop in my stomach, the coursing anger. I was like a fish eyeing the hook.’

Now here I must mention the Gods and the mythic creatures that do appear in the book. Some people choose not to mention them in modern twists on classics but I was relieved to see Miller was keeping them in (I mean why wouldn’t you as they make up so much of these old legends). That said, I knew that if she didn’t make them ring true, or make me conjure them in such a way as I believed in the unbelievable (a small ask) then she would have lost me. I needn’t have feared, as soon as Achilles mother Thetis appeared on the page I was sold hook, line and sinker.

‘The waves were warm, and thick with sand. I shifted, watched the small white crabs run through the surf. I was listening, thinking I might hear the splash of her feet as she approached. A breeze blew down the beach and, grateful, I closed my eyes. When I opened them again she was standing before me.
She was taller than I was, taller than any women I had ever seen. Her black hair was loose down her back and her skin shone luminous and impossibly pale, as if it drank light from the moon.  She was so close I could smell her, sea water laced with dark brown honey. I did not breathe. I did not dare.
‘You are Patroclus.’ I flinched at the sound of her voice, hoarse and rasping. I had expected chimes, not the grinding of rocks in the surf.’

It simply gets better and better from here on in. What was truly wonderful, and this is just a personal thing I guess, was how it made me want to go back to all the Greek and Roman myths and legends that my mother used to tell me and re-read them. It sort of brought out a passion for these tales that I had long forgotten. I actually cheered when Chiron the Centaur appeared on the stage, seriously I was so excited, ‘a centaur!’, and found myself smiling as I remembered the names and the tales of other characters mentioned in the novel.

‘At night we lay on the soft grass in front of the cave, and Chiron showed us the constellations, telling their stories – Andromeda, cowering before the sea monster’s jaws, and  Perseus poised to rescue her; the immortal horse Pegasus, aloft on his wings, born from the severed head of Medusa. He told us too of Heracles, his labours, and the madness that took him. In its grip he had not recognised his wife and children, and had killed them for enemies.’

I wouldn’t normally say that I was a reader who subscribes to adventure stories or love stories and yet Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ is easily my favourite read of the year so far. The reason for this is simple, she’s a bloody good storyteller, a great writer and I think the enthusiasm she has for classics becomes contagious somewhere in the way she writes. It’s now made me want to read ‘The Iliad’ (watch out for a read-a-long with Michael Kindness and I in due course) which I would never have thought of reading before. I also want to dust off my copy of ‘The Greek Myths’, dig out Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’ and get my hands on David Malouf’s ‘The Ransom’ too. Madeline Miller has made me want to run out and read more books with this book, what more can you ask from an author than that?

Have you read this and if so what did you make of it? What novels based on Greek Legends, or reworking them, have you read and would recommend? Oh and, Madeline Miller will be on the blog tomorrow, as will the chance to win some copies of this marvellous book. In the meantime thoughts and recommendations most welcome.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2012, Madeline Miller, Review