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I worked on 'The Song of Achilles' for ten years: Madeline Miller

Updated: February 4, 2013, 5:40 PM IST
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I worked on 'The Song of Achilles' for ten years: Madeline Miller
The author, Madeline Miller, joined IBNLive readers on her book 'The Song of Achilles'.

Profoundly moving and breathtakingly original, this rendering of the epic Trojan War is a dazzling feat of the imagination, a devastating love story, and an almighty battle between gods and kings, peace and glory, immortal fame and the human heart. In this stunning re-imagining of Homer's Iliad, Patroclus, an exiled young prince becomes friend and companion to Achilles, prince of Phthia, destined to be Aristos Achaion, best of the Greeks. As the two young men learn the skills that will make Achilles legendary their friendship blossoms into something far deeper, much to the displeasure of Achilles's mother, the cruel sea goddess Thetis. But when Helen of Sparta is kidnapped, Patroclus, motivated by love and fear for his friend, must follow Achilles to Troy, unaware that the long war that follows will test everything they hold dear.

The author, Madeline Miller, joined IBNLive readers on her book 'The Song of Achilles'.

Q. What was the inspiration or force that made you write it? Asked by: Kamya

A. Hello, and lovely to be here! Thank you for your question. I've loved the Iliad since I was a little girl, when my mother used to read it to me as a bedtime story. In particular, I was fascinated by the story of the great hero Achilles and his terrible grief over the loss of his beloved, Patroclus. In the Iliad, Patroclus is a very minor character, but his death is the turning point of the whole plot, because it's his death that makes Achilles return to war. I wanted to write a novel exploring who this man was, and why he meant so much to Achilles. Homer tells the end of their story, but I wanted to tell the beginning.

Q. How has the response been to The Song of Achilles? As you expected? Better? Worse? Asked by: Sonia

A. I feel incredibly grateful for how supportive the response has been. After spending ten years working on the novel in solitude, it has been so rewarding to see it begin to find its way in the world. And of course, the Orange Prize was a tremendous honour! Before the book was published, people warned me that I might get some negative reactions, because of the love between Achilles and Patroclus. But I'm very happy to report that those have been minimal.

Q. Reimagining a classic is a brave decision! Did you ever fear a backlash from purists? Asked by: Charolette

A. Thank you, and yes! When I started writing the novel I was still in graduate school, and I didn't mention what I was doing to any of my professors or fellow graduate students, because I was concerned that they would be offended. But in retrospect, I should have realized: Classicists know that these stories live on because they're retold. And retelling myths isn't something new--it was already an important tradition in the ancient world. Aeschylus retold Homer, and Vergil retold them both, and then you have Ovid, and on it goes. The happy ending is that when I did eventually work up the courage to tell my professors (ten years later) they were incredibly supportive.

Q. How was your Jaipur Literature Festival experience? Asked by: Roopa

A. Absolutely amazing. So many terrific events, and so much enthusiasm for literature. The passion and commitment of the audiences was palpable.

Q. Who were your favorite professors at Brown? Asked by: Lyndsey

A. No one has ever asked me that before, and I'm glad to get the chance to sing the praises of people who were so important to me! My favorites were Michael Putnam (in Classics), Joseph Pucci (in Classics) and Susan Harvey (in Religious Studies). I also had an amazing and inspiring high school Classics teacher, David Rich.

Q. What is the thing you loved most about India? Asked by: Farah

A. It's hard to pick just one thing, because India is such a rich and diverse country. The Jaipur Festival was absolutely a highlight, as was getting to travel around and see the stunning forts, palaces and monuments that are everywhere. Also, people have been so incredibly warm and welcoming to me. And, of course: the food! Among many other treats, I have fallen in love with Rasmalai.

Q. 10 years is a long time! What motivated you to keep going? Asked by: Sonia

A. The characters. I was determined to give Patroclus a chance to tell his story. Any time I felt like giving up, my commitment to his voice pulled me back.

Q. I have seen the movie, Troy, many times.. looking forward to read your book :) Asked by: Prasad

A. Thank you! I hope that you enjoy it.

Q. Which is the last book you read? Asked by: Supriya

A. The last book I read was actually something I was re-reading: The Hobbit. I admire J. R. R. Tolkien's commitment to mythology, and how he draws on so many different story traditions.

Q. Do you have any specific place or time when you write best? Asked by: Piyu

A. When I write I need absolute quiet, which means that I usually write at home. At coffee shops there are too many distractions! In a similar vein, I tend to write best early in the morning or late at night, when the world feels less hectic. I need to be able to hear the voices of my characters speaking, and things like music or chatter drown them out.

Q. Do you ever dream of your books being made into movies? Asked by: Krish

A. That would be a fascinating development, but I'm not holding my breath for it. After all, Troy came out less than ten years ago!

Q. Describe 'The Song of Achilles' in one line! Asked by: Rahul

A. A retelling of the myths around the Greek hero Achilles from the perspective of his best friend and lover, Patroclus.

Q. What will you write next? Asked by: Ayush

A. I don't think I'll stay in Homer's world forever, but one of the characters I most enjoyed writing about in The Song of Achilles was Odysseus, so I'm planning on finishing his story for the next book. The Odyssey also has some really dynamite female characters, and I'm excited to tell their stories as well.

Q. What is your most memorable memory of JLF? Asked by: Girija

A. I have many wonderful memories, but I think what really stands out is the people: the incredible authors and equally incredible readers. There's a lot of talk right now about the death of literature, but spend one hour at the festival and it's obvious that that's not true!

Q. Do you take critics seriously? Asked by: Shobhana

A. I've been reading critics my whole life, so, yes, I do take them seriously. But as an author, I think it's important not to get too invested in your own reviews. To paraphrase the wise Ann Patchett, as a writer you have to stay focused on the integrity of your work. Too much focus on external response (both praise and criticism) damages your ability to hear your own voice.

Q. I want to be a writer too. Can you give some tips? Asked by: Reena

A. My first and most important piece of advice is: read. Read everything and anything, whatever you can get your hands on, not just those things that might apply to the type of writing you want to do. Read Classics, read contemporary novels, in all genres. Secondly, 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 parents, or children, sometimes friends. As I mentioned previously, my fear was my professors, the very teachers who had encouraged and inspired my love of Classics. In order to write the book, I had to very consciously set my fear of disappointing them aside and say to myself: all right, 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, give yourself permission to ignore them, at least for a little while.

Q. Would you consider writing stories set in a culture that you're interested in, but perhaps not too familiar with? What would come to mind? Asked by: olessia

A. I am absolutely interested in writing about how cultures come together, and how people navigate their way in a new places and among new customs. So, I would certainly consider this and in particular I'd love to write a book that incorporated Ancient Egypt, as well as more about the Minoan civilization of Crete.

Q. Who are the 'dynamite female characters' in the Odyssey who you find most interesting? Asked by: Lyndsey

A. Penelope, Odysseus' wife, who is every bit as clever as he is (maybe even more so). Also, the witch Circe, the princess Nausicaa, and (of course) the goddess Athena.

Q. Who would you dedicate your book to? Asked by: Rani

A. I dedicated my last book to my husband, Nathaniel, and to my mother. I have no idea about the next one, but I suspect that I'll probably just want to dedicate it to Nathaniel and my mother again. I owe my love of books and Classics to my mother, and Nathaniel is a brilliant supporter (not to mention editor) of my work every step of the way.

Q. What are the instances in the novel where you took artistic novel, inventing facts or details of characters because of a dearth of information, that may be controversial (esp. to scholars)? Asked by: Lyndsey

A. Hello Lyndsey and thank you for posting again! Although I tried to follow the myths in most respects (particularly once I got to the part of the story that Homer tells in the Iliad), I also felt free to invent in order to fill in the gaps or flesh out the emotional story. One of the changes I made was depicting the slave-woman Briseis as a farmer's daughter, rather than a princess, as she is in Homer. The Iliad is full of aristocrats, and I wanted to hear the perspective of someone from a completely different life experience--someone who is totally innocent of the conflict around her, but whose life is destroyed nonetheless. As far as I know, no scholars have minded the shift--and the fact that this is mythology and not history gives me more freedom. After all, there's no such thing (and there should be no such thing) as a definitive myth!

Q. Congratulations on winning the Orange Award! Would your life have been the same without it? Asked by: Sumi

A. Thank you very much! It was a thrilling honor, and one that has changed my life by bringing my book to so many more readers, as well as giving me the freedom to travel. I can't wait to see their 2013 long list, coming in a few months!

Q. What is your take on other genres like popular fiction, horror, romance, etc? Do you read them? Any favourites? Asked by: Nayana

A. I grew up reading all sorts of genres (particularly fantasy and mystery), and I'm very glad that there is such a great variety of literature in the world. It keeps us from getting stagnant! I also really appreciate books that cross genres, and one of my favorites is Watership Down, which is often classed as a children's book, but is definitely also for adults. Thank you all for your terrific questions, and my apologies if I didn't get to yours! All my best, Madeline.

First Published: February 4, 2013, 5:40 PM IST
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