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Author Interview - Madeline Miller

Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Today, I am delighted to be interviewing with Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles!

Achilles, "the best of all the Greeks," son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful-- irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods' wrath.

They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
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Author Interview with Madeline Miller

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into writing.
I knew from an early age that I loved putting pen to paper. My mother tells a story that one of my grade school teachers pulled her aside and said, “Well, she doesn’t talk much, but as long as she can write she’ll be fine.”

For a long time, I didn’t dare to imagine that my stories might one day turn into books. The first time I remember really claiming that desire was my senior year of high school. Our yearbook had this page where they did “destinies” for all the seniors, and mine was to be a literary critic. I remember thinking: I don’t want to be a critic, I want to be the writer they’re critiquing!

It was also a surprise to realize that I could connect my love of writing with my love of Classics. It seems obvious now, but up until I began the book, the two were totally separate disciplines in my mind.

It's awesome how you were able to bring together your love of writing with your love of Classics! What research did you do for The Song of Achilles?
I was very fortunate in the fact that most of the research for the book was done before I had even started writing. I had been studying the Iliad since high school, and had even considered writing my senior thesis on depictions of Achilles in ancient literature. So I had a lot of background at my fingertips, and when I did need to look something up, I knew where to find it.

A key part of my research was also getting to see Greece itself. I spent a summer on an archaeological dig on the island of Corfu, and then traveled around afterwards. It was an absolutely amazing experience and I couldn’t have written the book without it. There is simply no substitute for being there: sitting in the olive groves, swimming the sea, and feeling the Mediterranean sun on your shoulders.

Nothing beats experience. Greece is one of the top places on my list of places to visit in Europe! What challenges did you face in retelling the story of Achilles and Patroclus while keeping it true?
Achilles was a very popular figure in the ancient world and there are a wealth of stories about him. One of my greatest challenges was figuring out which ones I wanted to include and which ones I was going to cut. In general, I tried to go back to Homer as much as possible—which is why my Achilles doesn’t have an Achilles’ heel. That particular myth entered the tradition quite a bit later. In the Iliad, he’s simply an amazing warrior, but not invulnerable.

One of my favorite parts about working with this material was the fact that there is no such thing as a definitive myth. If Achilles and Patroclus had been documented historical figures, I would have felt an obligation to tell every detail of their lives I could find. But because their stories have been told so many times and so many different ways, I felt I had the freedom to create my own path.

I love how you kept true to the original tales. Many of these have become overshadowed by popular myths. Why did you decide to tell the story through the perspective of Patroclus?
To be completely honest, it didn’t really feel like a choice—there was no moment where I sat pondering, which character would make a good narrator? It was Patroclus from the beginning, and the story wouldn’t have happened without him.

I had always been fascinated by the intensity of Achilles’ grief over Patroclus’ death. It’s a deeply moving moment, and also a bit mysterious, since Patroclus is such a minor character. Homer doesn’t tell us why he means so much to Achilles, only that he does. I wanted to imagine the type of bond that could be worthy of the devastating ending that Homer shows us.

Patroclus is also a fascinating figure in his own right. He’s born a prince, but exiled from his kingdom for accidentally killing another boy. He becomes the closest companion of Achilles, learns medicine, and is admired by many of the other Greeks. He’s also called “gentle” in the Iliad—a startling adjective for an ancient warrior. I wanted to give this unusual character a chance to tell his own story.

I was tearing up over his death as well. You did a wonderful job conveying the emotion. The boys are still young and somewhat idealistic when they go into war. What went into the development of themselves as individuals and their relationship as the war progresses and they learn more about war and about themselves?
In imagining Achilles and Patroclus’ story, I drew not just upon the ancient stories, but also my background in theater. At the same time that I was writing the novel, I was also directing two to three Shakespeare productions a year. I can think of no better teacher than the Bard himself when it comes to character and character arc. Getting to practice on Prince Hal, Rosalind, Cleopatra and King Lear helped me realize that I needed to approach these characters from the inside out—to fully understand them before I could begin writing.

Wow. You were one busy girl at this time! If you could participate in the Trojan war with an invincible suit of armor, would you go? If so, by whose side would you choose to fight?
I think it would much too upsetting for me to have to witness the deaths of so many beloved characters—and to take part in the killing would be even worse! Also, I could never pick a side. One of the things I love about the Iliad is how evenhanded Homer is towards the Trojans and Greeks. Though Hector and his family are ostensibly the antagonists of the poem, they are completely sympathetic and fully realized—in some ways more so than the Greeks. If I was there in my invincible armor, I would probably ending up trying to intervene to save people—and we all know how well that sort of thing generally works out in Greek myths!

I agree. Both sides are just as relatable as the other. They're all human and have their own reasons for fighting. I'd probably end up finding my way to the Underworld in spite of the suit of armor! We know how the Trojan war ends and what the fate of Achilles and Patroclus will be. Where do you feel the heart of the story lies?
In my novel, the heart of the story was always Achilles and Patroclus’ deep and mutual bond. Patroclus’ death is the turning point of the entire poem—the only thing that Achilles cares about more than his reputation. In writing the novel, I set that moment from the Iliad—Achilles’ great and terrible grief for Patroclus—on the horizon and wrote towards it, keeping their relationship always in the forefront.

It was definitely the turning point in the novel as well. As much as I teared up over it, it was one of my favorite scenes. It was so well done. What are you working on right now?
One of the characters I most enjoyed writing in this novel was Odysseus, and I wanted to get to tell a bit more of his story. I have also always been fascinated by the female characters of the Odyssey, particularly Circe and Penelope, and am looking forward to exploring their perspectives as well.

Madeline's Website | Facebook | Twitter
Madeline Miller was born in Boston and grew up in New York City and Philadelphia. She attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in Classics. For the last ten years she has been teaching and tutoring Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students. She has also studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and in the Dramaturgy department at Yale School of Drama, where she focused on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA, where she teaches and writes.

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