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Q+A with Madeline Miller, The Author behind The Song of Achilles

Credit: Reuters.
Please, welcome Madeline Miller, whose debut novel The Song of Achilles won Orange Prize For Fiction in 2012!

 Summary
 Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.

Achilles, 'best of all the Greeks', is everything Patroclus is not — strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess — and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative companionship gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel and deathly pale sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men 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, Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate.

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.

Introduction from Madeline

I have loved ancient Greece since I was five and my mother began reading me the Greek myths. I was enthralled: by the larger-than-life gods, the epic adventures, and most particularly by the stories of the Trojan War, with its noble and deeply flawed heroes.
 “Sing, goddess, of the terrible rage of Achilles,” begins The Iliad. 
The words resonated in me, lingering long after my mother had closed the book and turned out the light.


Years later, when I became a student of Greek and Latin, I immediately sought out The Iliad. The poetry and language were gorgeous, the story even more compelling than I remembered. I spent a summer in Greece working on an archaeological dig, and my copy of the The Iliad came with me. There, wandering in olive groves and swimming in the beautiful Aegean, I began to think of how I, too, could sing of these ancient tales.

I had always been especially moved by Achilles, and his desperate grief over the loss of his companion Patroclus. But who was Patroclus? I searched the ancient texts for every mention of his name, and discovered an amazing man: exile and outcast, loyal and self-sacrificing, compassionate in a world where compassion was in short supply. I had not thought The Iliad had a love story; I was wrong.

It has been the deepest privilege and pleasure to spend the last ten years sailing in Homer's wine-dark waters. I very much hope you will enjoy reading this book as much as I have loved writing it.


Madeline, are the Greek myths really relevant in our day and age?

Human nature and its attendant folly, passion, pride and generosity has not changed in the past three thousand years, and are always relevant. And especially at this fractured and shifting historical moment, I think people are looking back to the past for insight.

These stories have endured this long, moving generation after generation of readers—they must, still, have something important to tell us about ourselves. Every day on the front page of the newspaper is an Iliad of woes—from the self-serving Agamemnons to the manipulative, double-speaking Odysseuses, from the senseless loss of life in war to the brutal treatment of the conquered.
 It is all there, in Homer too: our past, present and future, inspiration and condemnation both. 
 I would also add, more specifically, that I think the culture is ready for the kind of love story that transcends gender and time. I did not deliberately set out to tell a “gay” love story; rather, I was deeply moved by the love between these two characters—whose respect and affection for each other, despite the horrors around them, model the kind of relationship we all can aspire to.


How much of THE SONG OF ACHILLES is based on the classics and how much did you create in order to tell the story? And, can you tell us about your research for the book?

In some ways I feel like I’ve been researching this book my whole life! I have loved the ancient Greek myths since I was a child, and studied Latin and Greek throughout high school, college, and graduate school. My professors gave me an incredible and electrifying education in ancient history and literature, and all of it helped provide the foundation for the book—though at the time, of course, I had no idea that I would one day use it for fiction.

Once I started writing the novel, I inevitably discovered that I needed to know more: What exactly did ancient ship sails look like? What kind of flora and fauna does Homer mention? My background in Classics helped there too; I had a lot of the answers already on my bookshelf, or I knew where to go to find the information I needed. It was also extremely helpful that I had spent time in parts of Greece and Turkey.

It was very important to me to stay faithful to the events of the Homer’s narrative. The central inspiration behind the book is the terrible moment in the Iliad when Achilles hears about Patroclus’ death. His reaction is shocking in its intensity. The great half-god warrior—who carelessly defies rules, and condemns a whole army to death—comes completely unglued, desperate with grief and rage. I wanted to understand what it was about Patroclus and their relationship that could create that kind of crisis.
 Although Homer tells us what his characters do, he doesn’t tell us much of why they do it. 
Who was Achilles? And why did he love Patroclus so much? Writing the novel was my way of answering that question.

The biggest changes to the mythology came with the stories about Achilles’ life before he came to Troy, which the Iliad doesn’t cover. There are many, many variations on these, so part of what I was doing was figuring out which ones added to the novel’s arc, and which ones I should omit.

Most of us don’t know much about Patroclus and his relationship with Achilles. How did you come up with your theory that their friendship grew into love?

I stole it from Plato! The idea that Patroclus and Achilles were lovers is quite old. Many Greco-Roman authors read their relationship as a romantic one—it was a common and accepted interpretation in the ancient world. We even have a fragment from a lost tragedy of Aeschylus, where Achilles speaks of his and Patroclus’ “frequent kisses.”



There is a lot of support for their relationship in the text of the Iliad itself, though Homer never makes it explicit. For me, the most compelling piece of evidence, aside from the depth of Achilles’ grief, is how he grieves: Achilles refuses to burn Patroclus’ body, insisting instead on keeping the corpse in his tent, where he constantly weeps and embraces it—despite the horrified reactions of those around him. That sense of physical devastation spoke deeply to me of a true and total intimacy between the two men.



If one wanted to walk in Achilles and Patroclus’ footsteps, and “re-live” the Trojan War, what modern Greek cities should they visit and what might they find there?

Thessaly. Attribution
The journey would begin in northern Greece, in the region of Thessaly. We aren’t sure where Peleus’ palace may have been (if it was a real place), but certainly Mount Pelion is still there. It is a gorgeous spot to go hiking, and there’s even a mountain train that runs on the weekends. Nearby, the major port town Volos is a wonderful place to visit and, given its excellent location, could very well have been a good Phthian settlement in antiquity.

Next up would be the island of Scyros, where the goddess Thetis hid her son Achilles from the war, disguising him as a woman. Scyros is in the middle of the Aegean, the most southern of the Sporades island cluster. It’s quite rocky, especially in its southern region, and also has some wonderful Byzantine and Venetian monuments, along with its stunning landscapes and beaches. If you want the full Achilles experience, cross-dressing is a must.

After that, it’s off to Aulis, (modern Avlida), in Boetia, due north of Athens. This is where the Greek fleet gathered before setting off to Troy. It’s quite a small town, but there are beaches, of course, and you can sit on them and pretend that you’re there waiting for that kid Achilles to finally show up so you can sack Troy already….

Lion-Gate. Attribution
Though Achilles and Patroclus didn’t actually go there, now is a good time to take a quick detour to Agamemnon’s palace at Mycenae, in the northern Peloponnese. It’s one of the few Homeric-era ruins that we do have, other than Troy itself. You can see the famous “Lion-Gate” entrance to the city, as well as the circular graves where the golden “Mask of Agamemnon” and “Cup of Nestor” were found. As you tour the site, imagine that you’re the proud son of Atreus himself, and bully some subordinates. But don’t go too far: Agamemnon was killed with an ax in the bathtub by his fed-up wife.

Now, back to Aulis. After joining up with the fleet, Achilles and Patroclus would have made their way to Troy, stopping several times along the way. Since we don’t really know where they stopped (even in mythology), I think that this gives you the right to land at pretty much any fabulous Greek island that you wish. If you take the southern route, you can drop by Lesbos, where the famous poetess Sappho (whom Plato named the tenth muse), lived and wrote. Farther north is the island of Lemnos, which was infamous in ancient mythology as the home of the venomous snake that crippled the hero Philoctetes. Watch where you step!

Personally though, I would recommend choosing the most northern route, which takes you, with just a little detour, by the incredible city of Istanbul. I had the good fortune to visit Istanbul this past spring, and it is breathtaking. Everywhere you look there is some priceless piece of history, from the Hittites to the Ottomans, not to mention its many modern attractions. So, you heard it here first: Patroclus definitely went to Istanbul.

Attribution
Last stop: Troy itself, perched just below the Dardanelles. The nearby city of Canakkale is a great place to stay and boasts the full-size prop of the Trojan Horse used by the 2004 movie Troy. Brad Pitt himself arranged the donation, the rumor goes!

A short bus ride south brings you to the ancient archaeological site. Stand amid the ruins of five thousand years of history, and look out over the plains where the Greeks and Trojans fought. Though not much is left but stones, the feel of the place is unmistakably epic. Be sure to bring a jacket: not for nothing did Homer call it ‘Windy Ilios.’ Find the highest point—all that’s left of one of the ancient city’s famous towers— and remember the Iliad’s immortal first line:
Sing, goddess, of the rage of Achilles.

What do you hope readers will gain from reading your book?

I certainly would love to hear that the novel inspired some interest in Greek mythology in general, and the Iliad in particular. I hope too that it might help to combat the homophobia that I see too often.

In writing this novel, I thought a lot about personal responsibility. Patroclus is not an epic person, the way Achilles is. He’s an “ordinary” man. But he has more power than he thinks, and the moments where he reaches out to others and offers what he sees as his very modest assistance have huge positive ramifications. Most of us aren’t Achilles—but we can still be Patroclus. What does it mean to try to be an ethical person in a violent world?

Thank you, Madeline!

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. The Song of Achilles is her first novel.

Find Madeline:

Disclaimer: This is a slightly shorter version of Q+A with Madeline as a part of her book promotion. Find full version on her website.

Thank you!
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