Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Out of Oz, interviews Madeline Miller on the forthcoming publication of her magnificent first novel, The Song of Achilles. (Spoiler Alert: It's a bit of a lovefest between these two authors.)
Gregory Maguire: Ms. Miller, you write with the confidence of the zealously inspired, taking as your material one of the great foundation texts of world literature. In three millennia or so, The Iliad has garnered somewhat wider attention than The Wizard of Oz, with which I have played, so I have to ask in admiration and in real curiosity: where do you get the noive? I would almost be tempted to bandy about the word "hubris," just to prove some point about not having lost my notes from tenth grade World Civ, but really, you handle the material so alertly, so respectfully, that hubris doesn't enter into it. But nerve does. How did you come to dare to take on such a daunting task, and for your first book? And without training wheels?
Madeline Miller: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and in my case it was just dangerous enough to get me started writing. If I had stopped to ponder, I think I might have been too intimidated. But I had a few things working for me, which included the fact that Patroclus is such an underdog. Giving him voice felt a little like standing up for him, like some kind of Lorax of ancient Greek mythology. I had been intensely frustrated by a number of articles I had read that kept side-stepping the love between him and Achilles, which to me felt so obviously at the story's heart. There was even one article"”I've repressed who wrote it"”that kept commenting that Achilles' grief and anger at Patroclus' death was out of character, and they couldn't understand why he was so upset. So partially I was propelled by a desire to set the record straight, as I saw it.
The other thing that helped me, I think, was the fact that I never imagined the book as re-writing Homer. Instead, I made the Iliad a fixed point on the horizon and wrote towards it. I knew what Achilles and Patroclus became; I wanted to describe how they got there, and what went on between them in the scenes that Homer doesn't show.
I will say that at some point a friend of mine"”let's be honest, an ex-boyfriend"”referred to the story as "Homeric fan fiction." That was fairly dampening. But I decided: so be it. If it's fan fiction, it's fan fiction. I'm still going to write it.
GM: The novel tells the story of the rise and the fall and the immortalization (in history and legend) of the golden Achilles, on whose prowess and wrath rests the prosecution of the Trojan War. You approach his famous story from a sideline, that of Patroclus, his bosom companion and lover, and you make of Patroclus a foil, a scarred and lonely witness to Achilles's folly and fury. Therefore, despite history and legend, despite deities and fate, prophecies and strategies, you center your novel on a human relationship. Was it hard to keep the mighty arc of historic legend from overwhelming shadowy Patroclus, and did you write much more of him than you ended up using, just to be sure you had him firmly grounded in your mind?
MM: Definitely yes to the second. I actually spent five years writing an entire full first draft of the novel, took a good long look at it, then threw it out and started from scratch. Even though not a word survived, that draft was an absolutely essential first step"”my novel-writing monkey bars. It helped me understand the story and characters from the inside out, and really broke me of any possible pride I might have had towards individual sentences. However pretty one thing or another might have been, the foundation was unsound and it had to go.
Throughout all of the rewriting, it was Patroclus' character that kept me steady: his personality and relationship with Achilles was always the absolute dead center of the work. There were moments when I would find myself straying away"”I had a particular weakness for the snake-bitten archer Philoctetes"”but my desire to give Patroclus his spotlight always pulled me back.
You're absolutely right that there were times when the legends felt overwhelming. Achilles has many more myths about him than I included in the story, and deciding which to leave out was one of the most important structural decisions I made. Some of the ones I cut were actually quite well-known stories"”like Achilles' vulnerable heel. For some reason (and I know this sounds silly, given that there is a centaur in my novel), I have always found that story very unrealistic. After all, who dies from being shot in the heel? And it's not a story that's in Homer; it was added later. I learned recently that there's a Norse myth where one of the heroes, Sigurd, bathes in dragon blood, which makes him immortal, except for a place on his back where a leaf falls. Now that makes sense to me. If you got shot in the back, you'd die.
All of which is to say, I tried to be guided by human plausibility as much as possible, and when in doubt, I went back to Homer.
GM: Many conundrums face modern readers of the ancient myths and legends of Attica and Hellas and Troy. Though I am one who on a daily schedule pays obeisance to any number of household saints and domestic imps, I too find difficult the business of trying to picture mentally, organizationally, a world of action in which all of the following must play a part: human sufferers, semi-divine heroes, minor deities, major Olympic gods. The need for discernment, what Robert Frost once called "range-finding" can, in this cosmological mayhem, make one call for Dramamine. So you restrict yourself pretty much to one ultra-human character, that of Achilles's sea-nymph mother, Thetis. I find her compelling and terrifying, the Angelica Huston of the Aegean, in her seaweeds and campaigns. Did Thetis have to crowd out the other gods of Ancient Greece to get this part? In other words, how did you find for yourself the range of this story--just how far you would go in the inter-nexus of gods, monsters, and mortals, and no farther? (Almost no glimpse of Helen of Troy, for instance; and if the Trojan Horse came through it did it at such a gallop that I must have been rubbing my eyes in astonishment, and missed it.)
MM: This was where having a fairly ordinary person as my narrator really came in handy. Except for his association with Achilles, the Greek gods found Patroclus completely uninteresting and never bothered with him, so that limited the range quite a lot. Beyond that, I was lucky that Achilles' story doesn't really have recurring gods other than Thetis and Chiron, both of whom were incredibly enjoyable to write.
But I do know exactly what you mean about range issues, and I had one big instance of it: Athena. In the Iliad, when Achilles is enraged at Agamemnon, he reaches for his sword to kill him. But Athena"”invisible to everyone else"”restrains Achilles, urging him to attack with words instead. I experimented with writing the scene that way"”with Achilles telling Patroclus about it afterwards, with Patroclus noticing something strange. But all of it was completely distracting to the central drama of the moment, which was Achilles' break with the rest of the Greeks. So, I decided to interpret Athena as a psychological manifestation, and let her go.
As for Helen"¦I hesitate to admit this, since I know it's not a popular position but"¦I have always found her one of the least vivid aspects of the story. Ultimately her personality is unknowable. There are so many contradictory portraits of her that she ends up completely opaque. I liked the idea of her remaining that way: she's this mysterious cause of war that has no actual meaning or reality to most of the people fighting.
GM: The matter of authorial decision. Having glancingly heard of this legend before, I knew more or less how it would end, or how it would look as if it was ending, anyway. I had no idea how you might handle the loss of perspective and point of view when tragedy would, inevitably (that's fate for you) strike into the lives of Patroclus and Achilles. You managed to narrate an almost impossible transition from life into myth in part, I think, by your instinctual use of a combination of present and past tense, to say nothing of a masterly combining of authorial and first person observations. The reader never pauses for a sentence over this. How many slaughtered bulls did you sacrifice, and on whose altar, to deserve the talent to risk such dangerous technique? Are there any bulls left in that particular neighborhood for lesser writers to cozen up to with an apple and a letter-opener and a rather unworkable manuscript?
MM: It was a lot of bulls. And whatever ended up working, I give all the credit to my background in theater. When I first started writing, I had this idea that I should be in control of the story, forcing it forward, step by step. It never worked. What I needed to do was learn how to get in character"”to put on Patroclus' skin and try to type his story as he lived it. That doesn't mean I didn't go back and edit, a lot, but I always tried to do it from inside, rather than out.
As for the ending, I experimented with a couple of different ideas, and none of them worked at all. I kept at it, writing and throwing away, writing and throwing away. Then, in the middle of trying to find an apartment I came up with a new idea. All the others had started out well, but would gum up before they got anywhere near the finish line. But this one kept humming right along. And it was the simplest, so there you go.
P.S."” I think you did an amazing job of framing that question without spoilers.
GM: Your bio says you have taught Ancient Greek and Latin, and I'm not surprised. You've also done some work in the theater. Is there something on your laptop you are already pushing around for us to wait for? Odysseus, perhaps, Odysseus polytropos and also, I remember, suffused with polymetis--Odysseus of many turns, but also Odysseus of slicing wit and ingenuity, even cunning? French writer Raymond Queneau remarked, "Every great work of literature is either the Iliad or the Odyssey." So is there any Odyssey companion to The Song of Achilles? How long will we have to wait? If I stand outside your front porch, will you pass me pages as you finish them?
MM: This is absolutely the nicest series of questions anyone has ever asked me, and I am delighted to be able to say, yes! I am very interested in the Odyssey, and our friend Odysseus polymetis. I'm also pushing my luck on the hubris front, since the character I find myself writing about most is the witch Circe. So, when you see me plummeting from the sky in the near future, you know why.
As for how long it will be, I wish I knew. It took me ten years, all told, to finish this last one, so I'm definitely hoping to knock a few off of that. But I am not making myself any promises, because then it would end up being twenty or something. Which, now that I think about it, is how long it took Odysseus to get home again.
And you are very welcome on my porch any time.
GM: Oscar Wilde said something like, "The Odyssey was written by Homer, or another Greek of the same name." But Oscar Wilde had clearly not met you yet. This is not a question. It is a salute.
MM: You are amazing! Thank you for writing the funniest, loveliest, most charming, and most thoughtful set of interview questions I will ever have.