Madeline Miller has a bright future in literature. Her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction and it’s hard to do better than that when just starting out.
The Song of Achilles is a tale of Troy and particularly focuses on the complex relationship between the Greek heroes Achilles and Patroclus. Miller is American, born in Boston and educated at Brown University. While writing her first novel, she paid the bills by teaching and tutoring Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students.
Enjoy our interview with Madeline Miller where she discusses Achilles, the power of grief in literature, the Illiad, Watership Down and the thrill of winning the Orange Prize in London ahead of the likes of Ann Patchett, Esi Edugyan and Anne Enright.
AbeBooks: Do you think Achilles, with his legendary exploits, falls into the superhero category?
Madeline Miller: "I don’t claim to be a superhero expert by any means, but to my amateur eye it seems that in many superhero stories the line between good and evil is fairly clearly drawn: the heroes, despite some flaws, are ultimately out for the greater good, and the villains work against it. But ancient heroes, Achilles included, are much more individualist—I can count on one hand the Greek heroes who sacrifice in order to make the world better for others. Achilles goes to Troy solely to win fame for himself, not to help the war effort, and when that fame is threatened, he stops fighting. Agamemnon might be called the Iliad’s villain, but he’s hardly trying to destroy the world, only scrabble a bit more glory and fame for himself. Meanwhile, Hector, the great Trojan warrior who is theoretically Achilles’ antagonist, is probably the most sympathetic figure in the entire Iliad. Impressive physical exploits aside, I think that the narrative is actually a bit different than the traditional superhero narrative.
"It’s this very ambiguity, though, that makes these stories so appealing to me. The first line of the Iliad - Sing, goddess, of the terrible rage of Achilles" - does homage not to Achilles’ greatness, but to his human faults. I love that he’s presented as a real, messy, difficult person, not an idealization."
AbeBooks: What other stories about grief have interested you?
Madeline Miller: "Grief is a huge part of ancient literature, and there are so many ancient authors who excelled at portraying it. I love all of Sophocles’ plays, and am particularly moved by Philoctetes and Ajax, both of which portray the grief of growing old and feeling forgotten by the next generation. I am also drawn to Vergil’s grief for the cruelties of conquest and history. In more recent fiction, I loved Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking as well as Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which is based on King Lear. And speaking of Lear, few people do grief as fully, richly and honestly as Shakespeare. No matter how many times I read it, Lear’s primal, obliterating grief for Cordelia’s death brings tears to my eyes:
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
AbeBooks: Outside of academia, does The Iliad get enough exposure these days?
Madeline Miller: "I think that the Iliad oftentimes gets the wrong kind of exposure. It’s usually treated as a holy object of high culture, as something that should be read from a great distance, with a highlighter in your hand. But I think that treatment does the work a disservice. These poems were meant to be performed and shared with others—to be experienced in a group, with the bards picking and choosing the pieces that would best please that night’s audience. It was also quite exciting - beautiful poetry combined with pulse-racing action sequences. Often when people ask me if they should read it, I say yes, absolutely, but they might consider listening to an audio version, which captures more of the original experience."
AbeBooks: The Song of Achilles was a remarkable debut novel. What will be your second novel?
Madeline Miller: "My second novel, currently in progress, is inspired by the Odyssey. One of my favorite characters to write in The Song of Achilles was Odysseus, so I am looking forward to finishing his adventures. I have also always enjoyed the terrific female characters of the Odyssey - Circe, Penelope - so I am looking forward to writing about their lives as well."
AbeBooks: Why was writing Song of Achilles such an epic 10-year journey for you?
Madeline Miller: "The pedestrian answer is that I was teaching and directing Shakespeare plays full time, so writing often had to wait for weekends or vacations; I simply didn’t have the mental space for regular days. But it wasn’t just about not having time - I was also learning how to write, trying to work through all my new author tics, figuring out how to tell a story. All the practice I was getting directing was a huge help, actually, since it’s hard to find a better teacher of storytelling than Shakespeare. I learned so much from him about pacing and characterization."
AbeBooks: Why was Watership Down such an important book in your childhood?
Madeline Miller: Thank you for asking, I’m always glad for a chance to rave about Watership Down! It’s hard to say exactly what it was that moved me so much as a child, but I think it was how real and adult the story felt, despite the fact that it was about rabbits. There is no dumbing down in Watership Down’s world: it is full of adventure, yes, but also accidents, cruelty and loss. Every corner of it is brilliant and deeply imagined, filled with amazing characters, psychological insight, politics and heroism. And, as you pointed out, it has some of the most impressive and epic dramatic confrontations I’ve ever seen on the page. Richard Adams drew on authors like Homer, Vergil and Shakespeare, and it shows: the book’s enormous but effortless depth holds up to many rereadings."
AbeBooks: The evening of your Orange Prize win, can you describe your emotions just before the announcement and immediately afterwards?
Madeline Miller: "I went to the reception walking on air. I was thrilled and honored to have been nominated with authors like Ann Patchett and Anne Enright, and so full of gratitude that this story - which had been with me for ten years - was finding its way out in the world. I had absolutely zero expectation of winning, and in fact had ignored a friend’s advice to write an acceptance speech just in case. So when Joanna Trollope said my name, I was totally overwhelmed with joy and shock. I have no memory of what I said on the podium, but I do remember wishing that I could go on thanking people for another hour at least."
AbeBooks: What book or books are on your bedside table?
Madeline Miller: "As always, my bedside is a teetering battlement of books. These divide into roughly three categories:
AbeBooks: Are you still teaching or have you become a full-time writer?
Madeline Miller: "I’m not teaching in a school this year, but I am doing lots of tutoring, which I love nearly as much. I am hoping to get back to the classroom once things have settled down a bit. Working with high school students is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, and I don’t want to imagine my life without it."