Monday, June 27

Madeline Miller on The Song of Achilles: ‘Helped People Talk to Their Parents’ | How i wrote

SUBWAYany seed grew to make this book. My mother read me myths when I was a child. The teacher who taught me Greek. An independent LGBTQ + bookstore near my home in Philadelphia called Giovanni’s Room, full of bright and powerful stories.

But if I have to name a single beginning, it was the first months of 2000. I was about to graduate with my classics degree and start a master’s degree. I was already working on my thesis, on a topic that had frustrated me for a long time: the way some scholars dismissed the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, calling them “good friends.” I read Plato’s Symposium, where Achilles and Patroclus are not only presented as lovers, but as the ideal romantic relationship. He knew that interpreting their relationship as romantic was a very old idea, and he was angry at the way homophobia was erasing this reading.

During this time, a good friend called me. He was involved with a Shakespearean theater group, which presented plays each spring. He planned to direct that year and wanted me to direct with him. He had no theater experience, but said he was directing. Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s version of the Iliad. Achilles and Patroclus were in it.

I took the opportunity and that leap changed my life. Leader Troilus and Cressida it was a revelation. I had always loved talking about these old stories, but for the first time, I was part of telling them myself. I realized that the things he wanted to say about Achilles and Patroclus weren’t a master’s thesis after all. They were a novel. Besides being a classicist, she had also dreamed of being a writer. Books and poetry were a lifelong refuge for me, and I had been writing since I was a child. I even wrote a contemporary novel while I was in college, but it all came out anemic, without spirits. Until I realized that I could write about what I was most passionate about: the story of Patroclus.

The Song of Achilles

That summer I began to write with his voice. As I wrote, I felt dizzy but illicit. I was afraid my classmates and classics teachers would hate the idea. There is a long history of surveillance in the classics. Attempts to expand the lens of scholarship have at times been met with open hostility, and women and scholars of color have been undermined and belittled. One of my teachers had started his course with the following salvo: “This is a Greek history class, so I don’t want to hear any questions about women or slaves.” A young woman who takes the revered and traditionally masculine epic material of the Iliad and centering it as a gay love story might not thrill people.

But I kept writing. Because while I hoped that at least some classicists might like the book, I wanted this story to be for everyone, whether they knew the classics or not, maybe even especially if they didn’t. For so many years, books had been my home, places that pleased me when I couldn’t find them elsewhere. I wanted this book to be that kind of story: one with open arms, with room for everyone who wanted to enter.

In the decade since it was published, I was honored to hear from readers who put up excerpts of their wedding vows, who made tattoos with quotes, who taught it in their classes. (My fears about a classic backlash never happened; the classics community has been wonderfully supportive.) I heard from people who said it helped them talk to their parents, and others who said it inspired them to get their Ph.D. or to start your own novels. Every writer wants his book to have his own life, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that my Achilles and Patroclus would have one so rich and rewarding.

Achilles’ song is published by Bloomsbury. (£ 9.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, purchase a copy at Shipping charges may apply.

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