Lucy Holden catches up with the newest member of the global literati, Madeline Miller, this week to talk everything books over transatlantic airwaves.
Madeline Miller’s head is spinning. In May this year Miller won the Orange Prize for Fictionwith her debut novel The Song Of Achilles and has been swept into a whirlwind of literati ever since. She’s in New York, I’m in Leeds: we’re on Skype.
“When I was growing up I loved reading so much that I of course wanted to be a writer” Miller asserts. After spending ten years with her characters alone, Miller is overjoyed to have her now-prestigiously-acclaimed debut out in the world; a novel she feels she was accidentally researching her entire life.
There were of course a couple of first attempts, a “juvenile disaster” of a novel that Miller describes as “truly terrible” and attempted to draw autobiographically on her experience as a teacher. Although Miller disagrees that everyone might have a “juvenile disaster” in their canon she does believe most writers have a thousand unbrilliant words in their system that need to be cleared before a successful writing career can uncurl. “When you begin to write you look first to your own life experience for a story but often it is difficult to get perspective on events that are so close to you.” Although Miller believes writing from the middle of an experience can often be interesting, it is the ability to reflect on events that provides the distance you need for a powerful perspective. Does that come with age? Yes, even if Miller does describe her confidence as a writer as a constant state of back and forth. “It’s one step forward and one step back; you revolve around your work. Almost every writer has those days when they think ‘what am I doing?’”
It is believable then that Miller’s decision to read every other novel shortlisted alongside her own for the Orange Prize for Fiction was one that left her in awe of the other writers. Is it difficult to believe the hype that surrounds your debut novel? “Well yes: whenever I read parts of The Song Of Achilles now I remember where it started”. Where it started was in fact Miller’s graduate student dorm in Providence over-looking Rhode Island trees; the last 30 pages written whilst house-hunting in Boston. On the sidelines of Miller’s own life Patroclus gradually formed on the page; when time allowed Miller would go on writing-binges for days and days slowly breathing life into her new protagonist.
Her inspiration? That moment in The Iliad where Patroclus hears about Achilles’ death; the shock struck Miller as something which could be explored and she saw a space in Homer’s text that other classic texts were void of. “There was mystery to me in that moment and it was powerful to think about it as an intellectual puzzle. I knew the end of the characters’ stories but not the beginnings”; rather like Mantel’s relationship with the characters of the Elizabethan court in Bring Up The Bodies, an author, and novel, Miller greatly admires. Surprisingly though Miller considered the fate of her characters a freedom rather than a restraint, despite sometimes wishing, like Mantel, that it didn’t have to end the way it did. “I had the myth of Achilles and the end-point and had to create the emotional arches that allowed the story to fit together. It was a perfect structure; a really inspiring way to work.”
Miller believes the classics stay relevant because essentially human nature hasn’t changed. “We have the same griefs, hopes, loyalties; the context has changed around us but that is why great art endures: great artists understand human nature.” Miller’s influences though are not confined to the classics, she reads “completely indiscriminately”, purely favouring a good narrative and firmly believes it is inevitable that the stories writers’ read throughout their lives gradually filter into what they do.
So how is Miller responding to literary fame? She was ecstatic to have even made the Orange Prize shortlist and met the announcement of her win with a wave of total shock; “exhilarated, joyful shock”. Every word drips with modesty; Miller grateful to have been accepted by a group of such established writers and to receive some invaluable advice: primarily that she should not get overly involved in reviews. “Whether they are good or bad reviews, they place your focus on the outside world looking in and in order to work on your next book you have to put the idea of a critic looking over your shoulder out of your mind and focus on the interior world of the story”.
Whilst a couple of characters Miller touched on in The Song Of Achilles remain tempting for further exploration, she would love to explore a corner of the carefully-crafted world of Shakespearean romance; a rich, expansive world, but one which Miller is remaining secretive about for the time being. Still, she’s hard at work: she’s trying to beat her record of ten years this time.