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

(105 Posts)
TillyBookClub Tue 06-Nov-12 22:35:29

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...

gazzalw Tue 04-Dec-12 08:00:55

Haven't started I'm ashamed to say - just too busy this last week or so. But it seems to me that it's a brilliant way to introduce the Classics to a non-classically educated generation and to encourage them to seek out Classical tomes to fuel their interest.

HullyEastergully Tue 04-Dec-12 11:17:22

Finished now.

I can't remember much of the Iliad (Latin and Ancient Greek school days so long long ago), so I can't remember how much detail there is or isn't about Achilles', Patroclus' et al as personalities. I assume not much. Once you had decided on the frame for the retelling ie the relationship between A and P, did you then find yourself constrained by inventing personalities for them in the light of both lack of information, and the fact that the legends are so well known and hence you run the risk of constant sniping about your invention?

I ask this as I continue to feel that Patroclus in particular was insubstantial, I have no physical picture of him, nor much idea of him beyond him loving Achilles, being a bit good at wounds, and kind to Briseis. It was hard to feel for either he or Achilles as they remained out of grasp. In fact Patroclus was very irritating, just mooning about after Achilles. I found I wanted to shout at him to go and get a life.

Or were you staying closer to the original by focusing on deeds and events rather than psychological attributes?

HullyEastergully Tue 04-Dec-12 11:19:29

I won't be here this evening (fortunately, you think...), so I also wanted to add well done. It does indeed do what gazzalw says ^.

Badvocsanta Tue 04-Dec-12 12:43:13

Oooooooooh is it tonight?
Must try and stay awake! (Mother of young children alert!)
I really loved your book Madeleine and am recommending it to everyone I know...
Do crack on with the next one smile

Badvocsanta Tue 04-Dec-12 12:46:53

....oh, and I wanted to say that your book has inspired me to buy the Iliad and read it.
Thank you.

Janimoso Tue 04-Dec-12 12:55:50

Sorry guys, got to chapter 8, not too keen ended up switching to somehthing else :-/

HullyEastergully Tue 04-Dec-12 15:03:57

I have another question. I have been thinking a great deal about why the book felt so much like a book of two distinct halves, and I wonder if you felt more confident once you got onto the war and documented events rather than the invention of the early years, and also whether you waited (or it was suggested you wait because of our present day mores), for A & P to be "old enough" before their relationship became physical?

Badvocsanta Tue 04-Dec-12 16:08:10

I have been spelling your name wrong madeline.
I do apologise blush
Hully...historically nobility and royalty were espoused and married off at a very young age. Something to do with high infant mortality and shorter life expectancy maybe?
Henry 8ths grandmother gave birth to Henry 7th when she was 13.
I think this would have been the same in ancient times?
Also, I don't think it unusual for young teenage boys to be sexually aware/active?
No point in ascribing current/modern thinking to a situation that happened thousands of years ago....

fifide Tue 04-Dec-12 17:03:13

Just here briefly to say I can't join in tonight but I am loving the book. Only half way through so far but all that in 2 days! I would never have chosen it without it being book of the month. Not my usual subject matter but am enthralled.

toni76 Tue 04-Dec-12 18:44:46

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.

Badvocsanta Tue 04-Dec-12 18:47:28

....and it was refreshing to read of breseis. She is such an integral character - she is used by Agamemnon to get revenge in Achilles - and this is the first time I have read much about her at all.
I would love to read your take on the Clytemnestra/Agamemnon and Odysseus/Penelope story!
<hint hint>

Badvocsanta Tue 04-Dec-12 18:51:30

Toni...I don't agree at all!
I think Patroclus comes across as very likeable in the book...kind, selfless, loving.
Do you mean he didnt come across as heroic?

jenniferanistonjenniferani Tue 04-Dec-12 19:00:48

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jenniferanistonjenniferani Tue 04-Dec-12 19:00:58

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SunshinePanda Tue 04-Dec-12 20:16:30

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?

toni76 Tue 04-Dec-12 20:52:19

Hi Badvocsanta,
Selfless, loving yes....
but a bit whiny, a bit unfocused on his own life and his own honour. The outsider. I had thought of him as the shining, popular one; the counterbalance to Achilles' more complicated tortured, sulky genius...
In Miller's take Patroklos is the more tortured fella, for whom everything was filtered thru his relationship with Achilles'.
(this is not a criticism by the way, I loved Madeline's take, it was just different)

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 20:58:59

Hello, and thank you all so much for reading my book! I look forward to answering your questions in the hour ahead. Here are two from Tilly and Mumsnet to kick the chat off:

1) Which childhood book most inspired you?

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 twelve 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 hundred pages. I remember thinking: if I ever write a book, I hope it has an ending half as good as this.

2) What would be the first piece of advice you would give to someone attempting to write fiction?

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.

TillyBookClub Tue 04-Dec-12 20:59:30

Evening everyone

Well, here we are, the final bookclub chat of the year, and I feel it is only fitting that we are ending on one of the Greatest Stories Ever Told.

I am delighted that Madeline is joining us tonight from the US to talk about the research behind THE SONG OF ACHILLES, the epic ten year battle to get the novel written and the resulting victory in winning the 2012 Orange Prize.

We already have many questions to get through, so off we go...

Madeline, firstly, thank you very much indeed to taking the time to be here. And many congratulations on such a successful, hugely enjoyable book. We'll kick off with the advance questions from further up the thread. And then we'll aim to get through as many new ones as possible over the next hour (although getting through all the posts above may take a good chunk of that...)

I'd also like to add our two standard MN Bookclub questions (which we like to ask all authors):

Which childhood book most inspired you?

What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?

Over to you...

TillyBookClub Tue 04-Dec-12 21:00:44

Sorry, we've crossed posts already!

Will leave you now to answer the other questions...

Badvocsanta Tue 04-Dec-12 21:01:01 see I don't see what is so glorious about Achilles at all.
He was spoilt, rich, arrogant and cruel.
Brave, yes. And I guess that's what counts in war, but I can't like him iyswim?
Whereas I liked Patroclus in the book...he was just...human. Frail and with fears and dreams like all of us.
Achilles has always seemed a very Unlikeable hero to me tbh...but then again I hate wuthering heights too (much to my english teachers dismay)Such awful characters! So little to commend them.
I think Patroclus could have been happy with breseis...but his love for Achilles doomed them both in the end sad
And was it just me or did the passion seem between them seem to fade towards the end of the book? The love was still there, but not the passion?

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


I love this book-probably my favourite read this year! I got it when it was the Times book of the week.

My question to the author is-did you always intend for the main love story to be a same-sex one?

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?

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:06:55


I suppose my question to Madeline Miller would be - 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? Either way, I think it works, and I loved it.

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 honor that in the way I wrote the novel.

Badvocsanta Tue 04-Dec-12 21:06:55

Madeline - as a writer do you think tortured/unrequited/doomed love is the best kind to write about?
Am thinking if books like yours (which I loved btw!) and others by the bronte sisters, jane Austen etc
Why do we love a love story that ends badly?

MadelineMiller Tue 04-Dec-12 21:07:59


Hi Madeline.

Thanks for coming onto mumsnet and thank you for writing such a wonderful book. It made me sob :-) Sadly I'm not around for the webchat on Tuesday but have a couple of comments and questions for you.

I have very little knowledge of Greek Mythology, all I knew before was about Helen, the horse and that Achilles had a heel and some tendons! I now want to read The Iliad, is there a translation that you would recommend which is more accessible than others?

As I started the book I fully expected to read about Helen's kidnapping, was she happy with Paris, did she go willingly and to have a full descrption of the Trojan Horse episode. When I got further into the novel I didn't mind at all that that was bypassed, as I only cared about Achilles, Patroclus and Briseis's story. Did you decide that Helen's back story and the horse were irrelevant, or did you put them in and then take them out, or (hopeful) are you leaving those particular threads for another novel?

Thank you again


Thanks for your questions! 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….

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


I think it interesting the way the gods/demigods and co are depicted as if they are a normal part of society, or kind of. Thetis, Chiron...Was it tempting to explain them away, make them human, away rather than incorporate them as supernatural beings into the story?

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.

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