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.