Last month American author Madeline Miller was awarded the Orange Fiction Prize for her first novel The Song of Achilles, a book that focuses on the relationship between Achilles and his doting boyfriend Patroclus as they grow up together and enter the Trojan War. The day before the award was announced we interviewed Miller in the library room of a boutique Bloomsbury Hotel:
The gay love story in The Song of Achilles is so powerful and touching. As a non-gay female author we have to ask you - where did this incredible book of yours come from?
I felt so strongly that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers that I really wanted to tell their story. The way Achilles grieved physically when Patroclus died, embracing his corpse all night long, not being able to let go, I felt so moved as a person. The whole Iliad turns on Achilles’ love for Patroclus. To read essays saying “No, no, they weren’t lovers” was frustrating and I felt like standing up for their story, something clicked in me. So that summer I opened my laptop and went into a kind of trance and began writing!
When writing the book did you look at any other gay writing as well as academic research?
Well I love gay literature anyway, it’s something I’ve always been interested in. I don’t want to speak for gay men, I just became obsessed with these two characters. But my love for gay literature started when I was fourteen and I found a copy of Paul Monette’s memoir Borrowed Time in my local library.
Do you think your book will inspire a younger generation in the way that Paul Monette’s writing struck you?
If my book encourages others to consider their sexuality and realise what is possible then I would be honoured and so glad.
As an America teacher would you say America is a very homophobic place?
It depends on where you are and what group of kids. I love working with teenagers and it’s definitely changing. I ran the Gay Straight Alliance at my school and doing that was amazing because across seven years I noticed real change, not that I would want to take credit for the students’ efforts. Being visible in a community makes such a difference.
It seems there’s a tribe mentality to social behaviour, and that goes for straight people as well as gay people?
Right, it’s a way of socialising and connecting. With gender identity it’s been interesting for me recently as I’m getting married this year and although I’m not really a person who takes a huge interest in dresses and hair friends have suddenly all started talking about it. They’re just being nice of course but it’s a social convention, and I suddenly find myself engaging in a conversation about make-up even though that it isn’t really me and so I’m putting on a gendered thing.
So were Achilles and Patroclus gay, or did they just fall in love with each other? Was there such a thing as being “gay” in 1200 BC?
Both “gay” and “straight” are modern ideas. The norm at that time was bisexuality with a few exceptions. People thought the Emperor Claudius was strange because he only had sex with women. Achilles isn’t interested in anyone other than Patroclus, but there wasn’t any notion in the Ancient World of being gay, nor was there one of being straight. I was just focusing on their intense feelings for each other rather than trying to lay laws down, I wanted to stay within the cultural context.
Did original readers of the Iliad assume that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers?
Some did and some didn’t. Plato looked at it and assumed there was a relationship there. We also have fragments of a lost play by the great tragedian Escalus where Achilles talks about how he frequently kissed Patroclus and how he misses those kisses, I wish the whole play was still with us it’s incredible. Shakespeare thought they were gay. In Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare is very nasty to all of the Greeks calling them hypocrites, then Achilles and Patroclus are made fun of for being lovers. But as always there are those who say “No, they were just companions”.
So was Shakespeare highlighting gay rights or criticising Achilles for being gay?
It’s always difficult to know what Shakespeare intended. In this case I guess he’s allowing for the possibility of both. He’s saying look, these two characters are gay, here’s how people would have responded to it. He’s being descriptive not proscriptive.
In your book is Patroclus is quite feminine. He doubts his masculinity. Is he genetically queer?
Patroclus is an unreliable narrator. It’s one of the things I loved about writing this book. He’s a very good observer of others, he can pinpoint things and tell what is going on but he’s not so good when it comes to himself. His experience of himself as being awkward isn’t necessarily the world’s experience. That’s why I love Briseis because she sees a different man in him.
And is he beautiful? I imagined Patroclus to be quite a normal looking boy?
In my mind he’s quite beautiful. Sure, he’s not Achilles, but there are a lot of realms of attractive that aren’t Achilles! So yes, I imagined him as handsome.
It’s odd that Achilles falls for an inferior and exiled Prince when he could have anybody?
Unlike others boys in the palace who obsess over Achilles and desperately want to be liked by him, Patroclus really stands apart because he is more suspicious of Achilles. So Achilles e is intrigued by Patroclus because he can’t get his attention, so he selects him to be his companion.
Achilles’ mother Thetis seems to hate the fact that her son chooses a boyfriend for himself?
I have a lot of sympathy for Thetis, she has a miserable life and for a Goddess she doesn’t have much control. Achilles is the only thing that Thetis has yet the prophecy states he is going to die so he has to become as famous as possible. She sees her son’s love for Patroclus as an annoying distraction that is polluting her son’s destiny.
The characters are so vivid, do you think The Song of Achilles will become a film?
That would be amazing, I would love that. I don’t know anything about film though, only about the stage. So much of the novel is from the perspective of Patroclus it might be hard to do that with a film?
Did the Brad Pitt film Troy irritate you?
I have complex feelings about that film. I loved their attention to detail, like how the Trojan Horse was made from junk leftover from the burnt ships – that’s exactly how it would have been made. I was a little disappointed by what they did with Achilles and Patroclus though. They were looking for a love story and instead of the one that was there they turned Briseis into a weird combo character who is supposed to be a Trojan priestess like Cassandra. Even if Hollywood couldn’t have Achilles and Patroclus as lovers, which is a shame in itself, they should still have made them better friends. What are people so afraid of?
Is it true that Alexander The Great was allegedly inspired by Achilles when considering his own homosexuality?
Yes. Alexander visited Achilles and Patroclus’ tomb. He sacrificed to Achilles and his male lover Hephaestion sacrificed to Patroclus, so he thought he was the next Achilles and his lover was the next Patroclus. He was clearly a gay egomaniac!
In your book Achilles and Patroclus are reunited as spirits after death. Can they hang out properly or is it just a kind of death-like whispering thing going on?
There’s this amazing scene in the Iliad where Odysseus goes down to the underworld and he sees Achilles and Patroclus together. Odysseus greets Achilles, congratulating him on his fame and status in the underworld and Achilles says “Don’t say that, I made the wrong choice. I should have chosen a long life, it’s better to be alive and nobody than be dead and famous.” So in my mind the two boys are together. You have to realise that Achilles was only 16 years old when he died.
The Orange Fiction prize is for women authors. How do you think women come across in your novel? I felt they suffered a bit. Deidameia is fantastically bitchy but I felt sorry for her falling in love with the beautiful Achilles.
The two main female characters are Briseis and Thetis. The two of them were present from the beginning in my head as supporting pillars in the novel to Achilles and Patroclus. Briseis comes from the Iliad, there’s a bit where she makes a speech after Achilles’ death and says “You were always gentle” - and that really stuck out. I’m glad you feel sorry for Deidameia, I have sympathy for her too. She’s very young.
It disturbed me in the novel when Achilles and Patroclus are both forced to have sex with women.
That was a strange thing about the Ancient World. Even when you had great lovers, like Alexander the Great, it was culturally expected that you had a wife and created an heir. It was OK to be homosexual but you had to help your family too by marrying a woman, which was a social thing as that was how families formed alliances.
I hear your next book will focus on women more?
I’m focusing on the character of Circe, yes. She is an island witch who turns men into pigs that Odysseus comes across on his voyage. What’s interesting to me about Circe is that she’s a Goddess but the other Gods are a bit afraid of her. She never marries but she does have a child and she lives on this crazy island doing whatever she wants.
It sounds brilliant already. Are you a fast or slow writer?
I’m extremely slow. This first book took me 10 years!
Talking of slow writers, Alan Hollinghurst recently said that he doesn’t like being called a gay author, even though all of his plots are centred around homosexuals. How do you feel about it all?
I’m just starting to experience this from the inside of the industry and it is a weird thing being put into “gay fiction” definitely because it suggests that your work isn’t for everyone.
Have you felt with Bloomsbury and your American publisher Echo that they’ve tried to play down the homosexuality in your book?
At the meetings that I’ve been to everyone has been very excited that there’s a gay story at the centre. I was worried that people might want to pretend it isn’t about a gay love story but everyone was very supportive, so no, thankfully.
Do you think you’ll return to gay fiction in the future?
Well if I stick in the Ancient World then it’s very likely! For me it’s the characters and the story that come first.
Would you like to invent your own characters or are you sticking by reinterpretations of classics?
I would love to invent characters at some point, but the reason I like adaptation is because it reminds me of theatre which is the other thing that I love. You have a set text and then you play around with it, it’s similar to putting on a play.
24 hours after this interview took place Madeline Miller had been announced as the winner of the 2012 Orange Fiction prize, incidentally the last ever prize of its kind. Congratulations Madeline, we love The Song of Achilles and we hope that some of the £30,000 prize money goes towards a troupe of hot Trojan dancers on your hen night later this year!
Words: Jack Cullen - @jackcullenuk
Photo: Nina Subin