Join Madeline Miller to talk about THE SONG OF ACHILLES, November's Book of the Month, on Tues 4 December, 9-10pm

(105 Posts)

It is non-stop prize-winners this autumn... November's choice is the 2012 Orange Prize-scooping THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller, a hugely enjoyable, rip-roaring tale that zips along with great pace. Miller has taken The Iliad and reimagined it through the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, his best friend. All the set pieces are here: Helen choosing a husband, the gathering of kings to go to war, the fight for Troy, the death of Hector. And all the familiar faces too: cruel Agamemnon, cunning Odysseus, vengeful goddess Thetis. But the truly epic nature of this novel comes from the relationship that grows between the two young men, first as young boys, then as adolescents and finally as lovers. Even though the story is as old as the hills, Miller's imaginative power gives it a rollickingly fresh approach. Gloriously good fun.

Our book of the month page has lots more about THE SONG OF ACHILLES and Madeline, including our 50 copy giveaway...

If you're not lucky enough to bag one of those, you can get a Kindle edition or paperback copy here

We are thrilled that Madeline will be joining us to discuss the book and answer any questions about THE SONG OF ACHILLES, the Orange Prize and her writing career on Tuesday 4 December, 9-10pm. See you there...

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:09:28

ladydepp

I LOVED this book, which really surprised me as it didn't seem my kind of thing when I was given it by a friend. I found it incredibly moving, really pacey and gripping. Two amazingly likeable characters with VERY different personalities. I confess I didn't know the story very well, but would read loads more classics if they were written like this!

My only very dull question is : When's your next book coming out and is it based on mythology too???? Here's hoping.....

Thanks for wanting to know! Unfortunately, there’s no timeline yet on the next book but I am working hard on it. And yes, it is mythology-inspired. One of the characters I most enjoyed writing in The Song of Achilles was Odysseus, and I’m hoping to finish his story, while also exploring some of the amazing women of the Odyssey.

werewolvesdidit Tue 04-Dec-12 21:09:50

Hi Madeline,
I am 3/4 of the way through you book and I absolutely LOVE it. I am reading it slowly as I just don't want to reach the end. I was wondering if you had read Margaret George's novel about Helen of Troy? I also really loved it but in her version Achilles was a horrid spoiled brat smile Anyway, please, please write more Ancient Greek stories. Don't stop! I adore The Song of Achilles and desperately want to read more!

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:11:02

HullyEastergully

Here is my question so far (please feel free to ignore my tasteless ramblings on homosexual practice, above): I am now at the war bit, (much more interesting than all the earlier yearning), and it occurred to me in the insomniac wee hours, that were it not for the writing (eg quote by Badvoc earlier), the whole episode would be nothing more than another tawdry Boys Own Punch-Up. Rape and pillage by one misogynistic violence-worshipping lot against another in the interests of land grabs and wealth. As it ever was.

Do you think that were it not for the beauty of Homer's writing (and the addition of a few gods here and there) elevating it out of the common war-lust realm, it would not have come down to us as a glorious tale of brave deeds and derring-do, but as another sorry tale of the greed, folly and violence of humans?

Hello, and thanks for this great question. What’s amazing to me about Homer is how I think he does get some of that greed and folly in there. It’s true that Homer’s world is often focused on glory, but I think it’s also impossible to finish the Iliad with the idea that war is a totally positive thing. He doesn’t flinch from the brutal, physical cost of war: the damage done both to families, and to individuals—weeping parents, mutilated bodies. Likewise, Homer doesn’t sugarcoat his main characters. Agamemnon and Achilles are both deeply flawed, and behave in ways that cause monstrous suffering.

But you’re right that the epic register of the poetry is mostly concerned with heroic, aristocratic male perspectives, which is part of what I wanted to address in this novel—Patroclus doesn’t naturally identify with that world, and is pulled into it only reluctantly by his love for Achilles. Because of this, he’s slightly more aware of things like the slow, grinding, cruelty of the raids that sustained the Greek camp, and the horrifying experiences of the women who are taken as slaves.

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:12:25

thehamburglar

Hi Madeleine

I just wanted to say that I absolutely adored the book. I am too flu addled right now to think of any pertinent and penetrating literary questions but wondered if you could recommend a translation of The Iliad for those of us wanting to go back to the original.

As an aside, the novel made me think of Wolf Hall - the retelling of a tale centuries old as a personal narrative. Did you take any encouragement from Mantel's success (I read that TSoA took you 10 years to write)?

Thanks

Sorry to hear about the flu, and hope you’re feeling better. I absolutely adore Hilary Mantel’s work on Cromwell, and am frankly a bit glad that I didn’t start reading it until my book was finished—I might have been a bit intimidated!

Gigondas Tue 04-Dec-12 21:13:24

Are you finding that you are using the same patterns of research /writing for the new novel that you used on song of Achilles ? How has process of having done it once helped you?

Gigondas Tue 04-Dec-12 21:14:12

And have you read Mary Renault and did her style influence you at all?

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:15:40

werewolvesdidit

Hi Madeline,
I am 3/4 of the way through you book and I absolutely LOVE it. I am reading it slowly as I just don't want to reach the end. I was wondering if you had read Margaret George's novel about Helen of Troy? I also really loved it but in her version Achilles was a horrid spoiled brat smile Anyway, please, please write more Ancient Greek stories. Don't stop! I adore The Song of Achilles and desperately want to read more!

Hello, and thank you for the kind words! I have read Margaret George's novel, and actually met the lovely woman herself. She got in touch with me because she was going to be in Cambridge, and we had lunch together. I didn't actually read her version of the story until my novel was completely finished--while I was writing I tried to stay away from other adaptations because I was concerned they might influence my thinking. One of my treats to myself when I was finished was getting caught up on all of those!

I've read in a previous interview that you wrote an entire first draft for five years and threw it all away to start again - are we allowed to know a bit more about that early version? Did you have major plot changes? What were the most important things that you altered?

Hello Madeline.

I know absolutely nothing of ancient history and it is a big gap I feel the need to fill.
Any suggestions what I could read as an introduction?

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:22:33

toni76

I totally adored this book - Madeline, thank you so much for writing it. And I read it before it was shortlisted and told all my friends to read it [smug face]
I have 2 questions
1) were you influenced at all by Mary Renault? She's my favourite writer of all time, and I thought I could hear echoes of her work in your book.
2) I thought it was really interesting that you made Patroclos unlikeable and not particularly warlike - my image of him from the iliad was of a more noble, heroic figure. Have I remembered my Iliad all wrong, or have you deliberately moved away from Homer's admittedly thinly sketched character?
and please, please, please write more.

I am so appreciative for your early support! I'm often asked about Mary Renault, and the horrifying truth is that I hadn't read any of her books aside from The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea until after I was finished writing. Then, of course, I thoroughly enjoyed them! A few other people have mentioned that they see resonances between my work and hers, which I take as a huge compliment--and attribute to the fact that we were most likely reading the same ancient sources.

As for Patroclus' personality, I knew that I did not want him to come from the world of epic--part of what appealed to me about him is his outsider status, the way he's an exile, almost an hanger-on. He does have his own standing in the camp--in the Iliad, Menelaus notes that he was "kind to everyone" and Briseis famously describes him as "gentle." But I was struck by the fact that, in this culture that is obsessed with excellence, Patroclus seems happy to be in Achilles' shadow. Unlike, say, Ajax, who eventually kills himself over being named second best.

WomanlyWoman Tue 04-Dec-12 21:27:55

Hi, I have only very vague recollection of anything to do with Greek Myths from school. Wasn't sure if I'd like this but am really enjoying it, also feel I am being educated. Am about 3/4 of the way through and looking forward to cup of hot choc and bed to read some more in half hour...smile Also would love to read future work re women in myth. My question is, is this book giving me a grounding in Greek Myth or do I need to go and read some 'proper stuff?'

knitaholic Tue 04-Dec-12 21:28:12

Hi Madeline
I received your book as part of a set of Orange Prize nominees and was surprised at how different it was from the rest. It was easily the best and a justified winner. Did you anticipate winning a prize when you published the novel? How does this affect the writing of your next novel? I wonder if you feel under pressure to perform, and write to a deadline this time?

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:30:33

Gigondas

How did you balance using some very old myths with bringing your own story ? Your Achilles is quite different to the man in the illiad.

Loved the book- have read it twice , the second time when I was particularly stressed and unhappy and have found it gave me a great deal of comfort.

Thank you so much, and I agree with you about the solace to be found in books. I have many old favorites that I return to in times of trouble.

When you’re adapting an ancient, known text, there’s definitely a balance to be struck between following the original and finding your own way. I tried to stay as close to Homer as possible in many ways, but I also kept in mind that the Achilles of the Iliad is an Achilles in extremis. The Iliad begins with a blow-out fight between Achilles and Agamemnon that threatens the thing Achilles holds most dear: his reputation. He’s literally given up everything else, including his own future, in service of his fame. So, we’re not exactly seeing him on his best day. And then, he loses his most beloved companion. But we do get some intriguing hints of another Achilles—an Achilles who plays the lyre and sings beautifully, an Achilles who longs to go home again, and who sees no reason to kill Hector until Hector does something personally to him. Part of what I wanted to figure out was: who is Achilles when he isn’t angry?

afussyphase Tue 04-Dec-12 21:36:13

I'm almost finished and I am really enjoying this book! (Thanks Mumsnet and Bloomsbury for the free copy, too smile ) I'm particularly enjoying that the book seems faithful to the (quite brutal) world in which it's set but Patroclus in particular retains a very human, sensitive, and real character which makes him likeable and makes the whole much more palatable - at least to me. He has a sense of ethics. I don't think I'd enjoy this nearly so much, for example, if Patroclus too had a primary drive for honour, glory, killing, status. For me this is a huge part of why this book is such a pleasure to read!
I guess my only question is: is this a balance that you aimed for or had to work towards at all, given the violent context, or did it emerge naturally as you developed the story and characters? I guess another question is: given that you acknowledge the quite harsh reality of women's lives, were you tempted to dwell on this aspect more (or perhaps dwell is the wrong term - to emphasise it more)?

afussyphase Tue 04-Dec-12 21:37:25

Ooh - just saw your last post. I have favourite books that I return to for comfort too. What are a few of yours, are you willing to share them?

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:38:10

knitaholic

Hi Madeline
I received your book as part of a set of Orange Prize nominees and was surprised at how different it was from the rest. It was easily the best and a justified winner. Did you anticipate winning a prize when you published the novel? How does this affect the writing of your next novel? I wonder if you feel under pressure to perform, and write to a deadline this time?

I definitely did not expect to win. I was thrilled just to be shortlisted, especially since my fellow shortlistees are such incredible, brilliant authors. If you look at the video of me walking up on stage, you can tell that I'm hyperventilating!

When I write I put everything out of my mind but the story itself. Novels need privacy to grow (or, at least, my novels do), and if I was thinking about awards or expectations, I would never write a word. I am aware that there are certain hopes for my next book out there, which is of course lovely and flattering, but what's most important is for me is to do the story all the justice I can do, in my own way, in my own time.

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:42:23

afussyphase

Ooh - just saw your last post. I have favourite books that I return to for comfort too. What are a few of yours, are you willing to share them?

Absolutely, I always love to talk about beloved books. I mentioned Watership Down in an earlier post, that's definitely on the list. At least once a year I reread Elizabeth von Arnim's amazing Enchanted April. Also, Vergil's Aeneid--its humanity, empathy and poetry always soothe and inspire me. Nora Ephron's Heartburn is another old favorite of mine. And I can tell that Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies will be new favorites.

Just quickly flagging up questions earlier in the thread from badvocsanta and Sunshine Panda - apologies if you're already onto them...

GeraldineMumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 04-Dec-12 21:46:56

Madeline, we did Enchanted April in 2009 as a previous book of the month. So you're in company you approve of smile

toni76 Tue 04-Dec-12 21:47:03

Thanks for answering my question Madeline! - I think that Mary Renault's Hephaistion would recognise your Patroklos....
I will book the day off work and a shift-team of babysitters when your next book comes out smile

Gigondas Tue 04-Dec-12 21:49:08

Thanks from me- and good luck with next book

Calypso2 Tue 04-Dec-12 21:50:08

Hi Madeline, I've been following this webchat with interest. and also want to thank you for such a fantastic book. Like others here I was totally unfamiliar with The Iliad and loved the fact the book was so accessible despite this - I couldn't' put it down for 2 days. My favourite part and one that still stays with me were the scenes in the mountains with Chiron. I guess this was when Achilles and Patroclus were at their happiest and I just loved the domesticity of the scenes - and written so beautifully. I was so sad that Chiron never came back. Which part of the book are you most proud of?

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:51:13

TaggieCrimbleBlack

Hello Madeline.

I know absolutely nothing of ancient history and it is a big gap I feel the need to fill.
Any suggestions what I could read as an introduction?

trishawisha

Hi, I have only very vague recollection of anything to do with Greek Myths from school. Wasn't sure if I'd like this but am really enjoying it, also feel I am being educated. Am about 3/4 of the way through and looking forward to cup of hot choc and bed to read some more in half hour...smile Also would love to read future work re women in myth. My question is, is this book giving me a grounding in Greek Myth or do I need to go and read some 'proper stuff?'

My apologies for putting both your questions together, but they seemed related! In writing the novel, I very much hoped that the book could serve as an introduction to Iliad, but the Trojan War stories are actually only a small part of ancient mythology. Fortunately, there are many wonderful novels out there that cover everything from mythology to history.

If you're looking for history, Mary Renault's Alexander novels are a great place to start. There's also Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean, which is told from the perspective of Aristotle and includes a fascinating portrait of the young Alexander. I also enjoy Robert Harris' books about Rome, in particular Pompeii, which is about the eruption of Vesuvius. Roman hydro-engineering has never been so interesting!

In mythology, I always love to recommend Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which is a terrifically clever alternate history of Odysseus' travels, and David Malouf's "Ransom" a retelling of the moving meeting between the Trojan king Priam and Achilles. I love Anne Carson's "Autobiography of Red" which is beautiful and brilliant and basically indescribable. On the Roman side, I don't want to leave out Ursula K. LeGuin's "Lavinia," a fascinating take on a previously silent character in the Aeneid.

And then there's Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad, and Christa Wolf's wonderful Cassandra. I could go on and on!

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:54:04

Calypso2

Hi Madeline, I've been following this webchat with interest. and also want to thank you for such a fantastic book. Like others here I was totally unfamiliar with The Iliad and loved the fact the book was so accessible despite this - I couldn't' put it down for 2 days. My favourite part and one that still stays with me were the scenes in the mountains with Chiron. I guess this was when Achilles and Patroclus were at their happiest and I just loved the domesticity of the scenes - and written so beautifully. I was so sad that Chiron never came back. Which part of the book are you most proud of?

Thank you so much. I loved writing Chiron, and am so glad that that came across. (Also, speaking of mythology, I appreciate your chat handle!) I think the parts of the book that I'm most proud of are the ones that I struggled with and didn't give up on. It took me about forty drafts to get the Agamemnon/ Achilles confrontation scene the way I wanted it. Though now that I think about it, maybe the emotion is less pride and more like relief...

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:57:41

SunshinePanda

Absolutely loved this book! I keep reflecting on the dynamics of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and how the strength of their love and dependency on each other varied, as at times both seemed to need the other with a greater passion. I guess my question is as you were writing did you feel that theirs was an equal love and relationship despite of Achilles' status?

I did feel that way--and I think that Homer suggests that equality in Patroclus' appearances in the Iliad. He doesn't speak much, but when he does he address Achilles as an absolute equal, and vice versa. I was also touched by how domestic some of their scenes are together.

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