Chances are, if you've been to one of our book buzzes over the last few months you've heard all about The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller's elegant, intimate retelling of Homer's The Iliad. Told from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles' companion and lover, The Song of Achilles is "full of love and feats of glory" (Library Journal) and happens to be one of the most cathartic, satisfying love stories I've ever read. Recently I chatted with Madeline about her writing process, her love of libraries, and her next project.
KG: One of core emotional anchors of the story is Patroclus as narrator—were there any challenges to writing in his voice?
MM: From the very first time I sat down to write, I knew I wanted Patroclus as my narrator. I knew also that I didn’t want his voice to come from the world of epic, with all its grandness and glory. In my mind, Patroclus was always someone who sought smaller, daily beauties over destiny, and who valued personal connection over fame and power. He was, essentially, lyric: more Sappho than Homer.
Within that framework, his voice still went through a number of evolutions. In the beginning, I kept feeling like I needed to be the one steering the ship at all times, imposing my own flourishes upon his words. Once I let go of that, everything came much more easily. This is where my theater background came in handy: it was a matter of learning to get in character, and letting Patroclus speak for himself.
KG: So many readers have loved The Song of Achilles and have never read The Iliad or anything mythology-related. What should they read next? Any recommendations?
MM: There is a wonderful wealth of books available right now about ancient mythology and the Iliad. If a reader is interested in the Trojan War specifically, I would recommend David Malouf’s “Ransom,” which retells the story of Priam’s meeting with Achilles. Then there is the “The Lost Books of the Odyssey” by Zachary Mason, which is playful and terrific, and which I enjoyed tremendously. I would also recommend “Lavinia” by Ursula K LeGuin, a lovely retelling of the Aeneid from the perspective of its silent princess. And the novels of Mary Renault are a Greek myth institution, particularly “The King Must Die” and “The Bull from the Sea.”
KG: The Song of Achilles came out first in the UK—what’s the experience been like supporting the novel overseas?
MM: Wonderful and thrilling, and also a bit terrifying—I was a new author, and these were the very first readings and interviews that I had ever had. But everyone was incredibly supportive, and it was truly a pleasure getting to travel to so many different places, and speak to so many different readers. It has whetted my appetite to have the book come out here in the US!
KG: Your next book stars The Odyssey’s sorceress/enchantress Circe. Anything you can tell us about your version of Circe?
MM: Circe has always fascinated me. She is a very independent figure—not a mortal, but not one of the classic Olympian gods, either. She stands outside many of the normal hierarchies of the ancient world, living alone on her island with her magic, having plenty of love affairs, but never marrying, and eventually raising a child by herself. She is also connected to several famous figures in mythology, including Odysseus, the Minotaur, Medea and Scylla. I am very much looking forward to exploring her world.
KG: You’ve got quite a library pedigree—how have libraries impacted your life, and your writing?
MM: My mother was a librarian, before going into business, and took me to libraries at a very early age. I can remember carrying great stacks of books up to the counter, and feeling like I was getting away with something—they were really going to let me take all of these home?! For free?? Aside from feeding my addiction, libraries also introduced me to all sorts of older books that I would never have found otherwise. As a child I stumbled upon the “Freddy the Pig” series at my elementary school library. The books were out of print, but I absolutely adored them—I think I took them out every single year from second through eighth grade. When I left for high school, the very kind librarians actually gave me my two favorites as a gift. I treasure them!Likewise, in college, one of my favorite things to do was walk through the stacks, particularly in the Classics section, and just pick out book after book—anything that caught my eye. I had a chair where I liked to sit, up on the fourth floor, next to a window. I spent many happy hours there, poring over my latest haul.There is no doubt in my mind that my writing sprang directly from my reading, and that my reading in turn was immeasurably enriched by the libraries of my life. They gave me absolute freedom: unlimited access to books of every possible sort, regardless of print status or price, place of publication, or the obscurity of the author. I am very, very grateful.