Book club webchat with Madeline Miller
Madeline Miller joined book club in November 2013 to discuss The Song of Achilles. Based on Homer's epic poem the Iliad, the novel took Latin and Greek teacher Madeline 10 years to write. Her hard graft paid off when the book became only the fourth debut novel to win the Orange Prize for Fiction.
In our book club webchat, Madeline shared her thoughts on Greek mythology, explained how she went about reworking a work of art, and offered Mumsnetters a gold-plated reading guide to historical and mythological works.
Q SunshinePanda: As you were writing did you feel that Achilles' and Patroclus' relationship was equal despite Achilles' status?
A MadelineMiller: 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 addresses Achilles as an absolute equal, and vice versa. I was also touched by how domestic some of their scenes are together.
Q Katisha: I think it is interesting the way the gods and demigods are depicted as a normal part of society, eg Thetis, Chiron etc. Was it tempting to explain them away - make them human - rather than incorporate them as supernatural beings into the story?
A MadelineMiller: To be honest, no! From the very beginning, there were always going to be gods in it. I knew I didn't want to recreate an actual, historical Mycenaean Greece - instead, I wanted to try to summon what it would be like to live, realistically, in Homer's world. And an integral part of that are the deities, who are at once fascinating and terrifying.
Q Pinkforever: I love this book - probably my favourite read this year! Did you always intend for the main love story to be same-sex?
A MadelineMiller: Thank you for the kind words. And yes, the novel was always, from its earliest beginnings a love story between Achilles and Patroclus. I never considered writing it any other way.
In the Iliad, Patroclus is an intriguing figure, both incredibly minor and incredibly important - we barely see him speak, yet he serves as the linchpin for the entire plot because his death is so devastating to Achilles. The question I wanted to answer was: Why? What is it about him, this seemingly ordinary person that is so important and compelling to Achilles?
Q Lilibet: I now want to read the Iliad. Is there a translation that you would recommend which is more accessible than others? I started the book fully expecting to read about Helen of Troy, ie was she happy with Paris? Did she leave her husband willingly? I thought we'd have a full description of the Trojan horse episode. When I got further into the novel I didn't mind at all that this was bypassed, as I only cared about Achilles, Patroclus and Briseis' story. Did you decide that Helen's backstory and the horse were irrelevant, or (hopeful) are you leaving those particular threads for another novel?
A MadelineMiller: In terms of translations, I think it's very much a question of individual taste. My most honest recommendation would be to head to a good bookstore and read the first few pages of several different ones, and see which appeals the most.
I often like to recommend the Fagles translation, which I think is quite strong, fairly literal, and includes a dynamite introduction about all things Homer by Bernard Knox. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I enjoyed Stanley Lombardo's translation, which is less literal, but has a poetic forcefulness that is incredibly appealing.
As for Helen, part of what I have always found intriguing about her is how much of a mystery she is. We never quite know how much she wanted to run off with Paris, or what she's thinking. The Greeks go to war in her name, but most of them have never seen her. I liked keeping her motives (and her face) deliberately veiled - as they would have been from Patroclus. So there aren't any scenes of her that got left on the cutting room floor. Now, Hector, that's another story...
Q Gigondas: I 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. How did you balance using some very old myths with creating your own story? Your Achilles is quite different to the man in the Iliad.
A MadelineMiller: 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?
Q Calypso: Like others here I was totally unfamiliar with the Iliad and loved the fact the book was so accessible despite this. My favourite parts 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. I was so disappointed that Chiron never came back. Which part of the book are you most proud of?
A MadelineMiller: 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 40 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...
Q Tilly: Which childhood book most inspired you?
A MadelineMiller: It's hard to pick just one, because there were so many books I read as a child that shaped me, as a person, a writer, or something else entirely. I was absolutely bowled over by The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was about 12 years old. Most of the book went way, way over my head, but the parts that I understood completely devastated me - Hugo's visions of injustice and cruelty were overwhelming. I ended the book feeling like I wanted to pick up a (metaphorical) sword and fight for justice.
On a somewhat lighter note, I also loved Watership Down, which has an absolutely breath-stopping last 100 pages. I remember thinking: if I ever write a book, I hope it has an ending half as good as this.
Q Afussyphase: I have favourite books that I return to for comfort, too. What are a few of yours? Are you willing to share them?
A MadelineMiller: Absolutely, I always love to talk about beloved books. I mentioned Watership Down, 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 favourites.
Q toni76: I have two questions: 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. And I thought it was really interesting that you made Patroclus unlikeable and not particularly warlike - my image of him from the Iliad was of a nobler, more heroic figure. Have I remembered my Iliad all wrong, or have you deliberately moved away from Homer's (admittedly thinly sketched) character?
A MadelineMiller: 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.
Q DuchessofMalfi: Did you imagine that your readers would come to your book with prior knowledge of the Iliad or did you think that your novel made the story more accessible and would lead readers back to the Iliad?
A MadelineMiller: The answer is really both. I very much hoped that people who loved Classics would engage with the novel, but I also was very clear from the beginning that I didn't want this to be the sort of book where readers felt like they had to do homework before they could start reading.
In the ancient world, these stories were for everyone, not just a particular group. I wanted to honour that in the way I wrote the novel.
Q TaggieCrimbleBlack: I know absolutely nothing of ancient history and it is a big gap I feel the need to fill. Any suggestions on what I could read as an introduction?
Q Trishawisha: I have only a vague recollection of Greek Myths from school. Is this book giving me a grounding in Greek Myth or do I need to go and read some 'proper stuff'?
A MadelineMiller: 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!
Q HullyEastergully: 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, the Iliad 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 the violence of humans?
A MadelineMiller: Thanks for a 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.
Q Werewolvesdidit: I am 3/4 of the way through your book and I absolutely LOVE it. 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.
A MadelineMiller: 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!
Q Ladydepp: When's your next book coming out and is it based on mythology too?
A MadelineMiller: 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.
Tilly: What would be the first piece of advice you would give to someone attempting to write fiction?
MadelineMiller: Try not to spend too much time looking over your shoulder. Often writers worry about how certain people in their life might react to their writing, sometimes it's a writer's parents, or children, sometimes their friends. In my case, it was my professors, the very teachers who had encouraged and inspired my love of Classics. I was worried that if they knew what I was writing, they would absolutely hate it. In order to write the book, I had to very consciously set that fear aside and say to myself: okay, maybe this book will end up being a disaster, but I'm going to write it exactly as I think it should be written first, and then I'll worry.
Whatever those voices are that might be holding you back from your voice or vision, give yourself permission to ignore them. Also, the truth is that people often don't react as negatively as we might think they will. When I finally worked up the courage to send the finished book to my professors, they were incredibly lovely and supportive.
• Iliad translations
Q Thehamburglar: 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?
A MadelineMiller: 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!
Q Knitaholic: 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?
A MadelineMiller: 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.