I mentioned yesterday that Madeline Miller, author of the acclaimed The Song of Achilles, was to be in Edinburgh briefly for a bookshop event. Although this is a flying visit for her, I got the chance to meet her this morning for a private chat over coffee, and I'm so glad I did because what a delight she is!
We talked of many bookish things including what has influenced her writing and, fascinatingly, her book's gestation. An interest in Ancient Greek culture stemming from childhood visits to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and an ear for the epic tales of Homer, read to her by her mother at bedtime, sowed the seeds of her love of the classics, seeds which have flowered by way of a teaching career and now a major work of fiction - a re-telling of the story of Achilles, Patroclus and the Trojan War.
Ten years in the making, Madeline's book is testament to a philosophy of rigorous refinement. She says she spent the first eight years 'essaying': writing and rejecting much of what she wrote, constantly editing, eventually finding her voice, and then from the material she had so patiently assembled, producing the novel as such in two years. She pays tribute to the friends who were trustworthy, sensitive critics at that time, and she says that enforced breaks away from her work to concentrate on her teaching commitments meant that she would come back to the page with a fresh eye, able to spot flaws and cut or polish as necessary.
Madeline is a great admirer of Ann Patchett's work, and we discussed her essay/memoir on writing, The Getaway Car, in which, among many pieces of sound advice to the aspiring writer, she says "Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art, you must master the craft. If you want to write, practise writing ..." [this post made a similar point], and "Novel writing is like channel swimming: a slow and steady stroke over a long distance in a cold, dark sea. If I thought too much about how far I'd come or the distance I still had to cover, I'd sink." Madeline herself had read somewhere that a novelist has to get ten million words down on the page before they can really start writing (she says the exact quotation may be ten thousand words, but in her case it was more like ten million!).
We went on to talk about the influences on her writing, and these were not just favourite books but works from which she had learned 'how it's done', writers whose mastery of craft produced art. Virgil's The Aeneid was an early example, then on to Richard Adams' Watership Down; David Mitchell is there as is Ann Patchett, as I've said, and Barbara Kingsolver. Donna Tartt's The Secret History makes this list for its "authority and audacity", as does John Updike's Gertrude And Claudius, the book which shows the power of a literary re-telling. For practical advice on writing and the publishing business, Madeline highly recommends The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner.
As to current reading, Madeline's very much enjoying George Eliot's Middlemarch and A.S. Byatt's latest book Ragnarok: the End of the Gods while under 'current writing', let's just say that she's looking at Homer, but with a view to putting a female character centre stage this time.
Before I left Madeline, she kindly signed a copy of her novel (see above) and I have it here to give away. I can post it anywhere in the world - American readers may like to note that it won't be published in the US until next March, so here's your chance to get it ahead of time - and all you have to do to put your name in the hat is leave a comment on this post giving the name of one of your own favourite childhood books, something of which you have particularly fond memories.
One last thing, and this is specially for you, Sandy - I told Madeline that you'd said in your comment that there was something you'd like to have asked her had you had the chance, and she said she'd be delighted to hear from you, so by all means contact her via her website.
I was sorry to have to say goodbye to Madeline who was just a joy to meet, but I hope she'll come back to Scotland before long, and if she's appearing anywhere near you over the next few months, do take the chance to go and hear her talk about her work. Meanwhile, please enter the draw to win that signed copy of The Song of Achilles (about which there's more here).