Hello Madeline! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Song of Achilles. Can you tell us what it is about?
A: Thank you! And thank you very much for inviting me onto your blog.
The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the myths surrounding the Greek hero Achilles, from the point of view of his best friend and lover, Patroclus. It follows the two men from boyhood all the way to the Trojan War taking Homer’s Iliad as its inspiration.
Where did your interest in Greek history and mythology stem from? What made you choose Achilles as your protagonist?
A: I have loved Greek myths since I was a little girl. My mother used to read them to me at bedtime, and as soon as I could read myself, I devoured every book on the subject that I could find. There was something about the world that was, and is, incredibly compelling to me. I think some of it is the alluring darkness of the world—the gods are terrifying and unfair, the heroes are flawed and the monsters vicious. Even with all of the fantastic elements the stories always felt very real to me: there are no simple, or safe happy endings.
Because of this, I had always been particularly drawn to the myths of the Trojan War, which contain some of the most human and most flawed heroes. And also the most moving: Achilles is a young man, who knows he’ll never return home again, and who finds the only two things he cares about in the world, his reputation and his beloved Patroclus, threatened. Then a friend of mine asked me to co-direct a production of Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan War myths. It was so much fun creating the characters on stage—especially Achilles and Patroclus—that when the production was over I didn’t want to stop. I sat down at my laptop and Patroclus’ voice came out.
How much research did you carry out? Did you complete all of it in advance so that you could then dive into the writing process undisturbed or was it more a research-as-you-go sort of process?
A: I was very fortunate that, as a Classics student, I had already done a lot of the research—though at the time I didn’t know it was going to go into a book! I had actually thought, at one point, about writing my honours thesis on interpretations of Achilles, and in preparation read everything I could find. I ended up writing about something else, but all that research was still there in my mind.
The downside to this is that there were some scenes I knew quite well from the Iliad—nearly word for word—and those were some of the toughest to turn into fiction, because I couldn’t get the original out of my head. So in that case, it was a matter of tuning out the research and trying to really listen to the characters I had created. I probably went through twenty drafts of the confrontation between Achilles and Agamemnon before I found my version of it.
The Song of Achilles is your debut novel. How did your book deal come about and how did you feel to finally see your first novel in print?
A: It is absolutely amazing. Especially because the book took such a long time gestating (ten years), to see it now in finished form is beyond thrilling. I keep expecting to wake up!
Once I was satisfied with my final draft, I began researching agents and sending them query letters. I heard back from the wonderful Julie Barer, who was enthusiastic about the manuscript, and we started working together. She gave me some incredibly helpful notes, and the book went through one more draft. Then she began submitting it to publishers, and the book went to auction in the US, where it was purchased by Ecco, followed by Bloomsbury’s pre-emptive bid in the UK. That part all happened very quickly (within a couple of weeks), and I was completely speechless through most of it with excitement and disbelief.
Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?
A: Like everything, social media has parts about it that are wonderful, and parts that are more challenging. In the wonderful category, I completely love interacting with readers; it is always one of the highlights of my day. In the challenging category was figuring out how everything worked (I was a total neophyte when it came to Twitter, blogging, websites) as well as learning to manage my time so that I wasn’t overwhelmed by all the possibilities. It helped to realize that, at heart, social media is really about expanding one’s world, which I think is always positive. Twitter especially is a very strong and welcoming community.
All that said, sometimes there are days when I need to shut it all off and just focus on my writing!
Are you already working on your next writing project? If so, could you please tell us anything about it?
A: I am just starting to work on something new which is inspired by the Odyssey, much as the last book was inspired by the Iliad. I had such a good time writing about Odysseus that I wanted to finish telling his story. I am also intrigued by the many strong female characters in the Odyssey, from Penelope, to Athena, to Circe, the witch who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs. It’s this last that I find myself particularly drawn to. We will see how it all evolves!
What one fundamental piece of advice would you give to those who want to follow in your footsteps?
A: Writing takes time. I know that there are people out there who can whip up a draft very quickly, and I am in awe of them. But for most of us, I think it’s really important to give yourself the space to work on a piece, then let it sit for a while, and come back to it with fresh eyes. That process gives me perspective that is completely indispensable.
And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked?
A: Thank you so much for having me on your blog, and for asking me such thoughtful questions!
Thank you for your time!
To win a copy of The Song of Achilles, please fill out this form. The competition will end on the 28th May.