For Madeline Miller, Greek mythology is personal. Her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, covers familiar territory from The Iliad but breaks new ground in its retelling of the lives of the Greek heroes.
Why do you think the time is right for a new take on The Iliad?
I have always loved The Iliad. I find it intensely gripping. I think right now a lot of people are weary of war, so it speaks to what’s going on in the world. The Iliad is always waiting in the wings, ready for a new generation to discover it. I wanted both people who loved the classics and people who didn’t know The Iliad or The Odyssey to be able to jump in and read and enjoy the book. It took me 10 years to write. By the time I got to Yale Drama School, I was in year nine. Yale helped me clarify that I wanted the book to be accessible. I didn’t want it to be didactic.
Why did you choose Patroclus as your narrator?
I was fascinated by the effect Patroclus’ death has on Achilles. He comes out of nowhere, does a very brave thing where he puts on Achilles’ armor, and then dies. Achilles is completely mad with grief and rage, Achilles who’s so famously self-involved and focused on his reputation. The only thing more important to Achilles than his reputation is Patroclus.
Thetis and Briseis are strong women characters. Homer mentions them only in passing. Where did these characters come from?
Thetis has a very sad story. She’s a minor goddess, terrifying to humans but in the spectrum of gods not that powerful. It’s her strength of will that makes her powerful. The only thing that matters to her is her son and she’s going to lose him. She goes about things the wrong way, perhaps, but I find her sympathetic. As for Briseis, her relationship with Patroclus is a cornerstone of the novel. In The Iliad, she mourns over Patroclus’ body, weeping. She says, “You were always gentle.” That’s not a word that gets thrown around much with Greek heroes. They had a friendship; there was a strong tie between them; she really knew him.
Which writers influenced you?
I steeped myself in Homer, but also Virgil. The Aeneid is more antiwar, antiviolence, crying for people to treat each other with greater gentleness. I also took my cue from Virgil’s portrait of Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son. I don’t know if I could say they influenced me, but around year five of writing the novel I read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. I love her work. As I was editing, I read David Malouf’s Ransom and Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of The Odyssey. They’re very different, but I enjoyed them both.
What are you working on next?
The hardest part of having a first-person narrator was there were a lot of stories I didn’t get to tell. If Patroclus wasn’t there, I couldn’t write about it. So I am going to return to the world of Homer, particularly The Odyssey.