Transcript: Madeline Miller and Sabaa Tahir

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 2 Episode 5.

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today we’re joined by Madeline Miller, discussing Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, and Sabaa Tahir, recommending The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

JENN:

Madeline Miller is the author of the New York Times bestseller and 2012 Orange Prize winner The Song of Achilles. Her essays have appeared in a number of publications including the Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Lapham’s Quarterly and NPR.org. She has taught and tutored Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students for more than fifteen years. Her second novel, Circe, was an instant number 1 New York Times bestseller. A reimagining of The Odyssey, Circe is an epic tale of family rivalry, palace intrigue, love and loss, as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world.

MADELINE MILLER:

My name is Madeline Miller and Shakespeare’s, “Troilus and Cressida,” is my recommended.

Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s version of the Iliad. It starts off with this prologue that sets us up as being in the Trojan war. The very first line of the play is, “In Troy there lies the scene,” and then we have the set up.

The war is going on throughout the whole play, but within that there’s also this love story that’s happening. The youngest Trojan prince is named Troilus, and he has fallen in love with Cressida. Now Cressida is a young Trojan maiden, but her father has recently gone over to the Greek side.
He is working, she doesn’t know this, but he is working to get her sent to the Greeks to do a swap to send back a Trojan prisoner and have them send her over. You can see there’s tragedy brewing, so Troilus and Cressida get together with the help of her uncle whose name is Pandarus, from which the term panderer comes, because he sets them up.

They fall in love, she gets traded to the Greeks, she hard to tell falls in love with, throws her lot in with Diomedes, who is a Greek King. Troilus is devastated, challenges Diomedes, and then there’s a huge climactic series of battle scenes. It ends with Achilles killing Hector, and everyone being grief stricken. It’s a very dark play, but at the same time it’s also incredibly funny and nasty and satiric.

It’s called a problem play, it’s one of Shakespeare’s three problem plays along with, “All’s Well That Ends Well,” and, “Measure for Measure.” You can really see why when you read it, because it’s not a straight comedy, it’s not a straight tragedy. It’s not really a history, it doesn’t fall into any of those convenient categories, and the ending although it is sad, is much more messy than the typical ending.

There isn’t really any closure. This character that you’ve laughed at all the way through, this uncle Pandarus who brings Troilus and Cressida together, ends with this bizarre speech about how he is dying of venereal disease and the whole world is infected, and everything is horrible and ugly and gross, which is a real hard thing to land as a director and as an actor.

It’s as if Shakespeare’s saying, in a world this ugly, in a war this ugly, there is no closure, there’s only more ugliness, which again now makes it sound really depressing when I’m trying to recommend this book to you.

It is not depressing, it’s just really interesting, and as I said it’s incredibly funny all the way through.

One of the reasons that I picked this play, aside from the fact that I love to direct it, and I love to read it, is that it really changed my life. I was a senior in college, and a good friend of mine had been associated with our college Shakespeare troupe, and he had proposed to direct. He had proposed to direct this play, Troilus and Cressida.

I was one of those kids who had always loved theater, and wanted to be involved in theater in some way, but I was too shy and I was nervous and I didn’t really know anything about theater. If he had proposed King Lear, or Twelfth Night, I would never have had the guts to co-direct it with him, but because it was Troilus and Cressida and I was a classics major, I probably wrongly assumed that I had something to say about it.

When he asked me to co-direct, I said yes. It was such a revelation to finally get to work in theater, which is something I had always wanted to do. I loved directing, it was such a wonderful way to tell stories. I had been working as a writer on contemporary fiction before that, but theater is storytelling with a group. You’re not alone in your room with your computer screen, the actors are helping you tell the story, and the designers are helping you tell the story.

Everyone is working together, but as the director you shape the backbone of what that story is. You bring everyone together, it was just such a beautiful and exciting creative project. On top of that, it allowed me to finally make the connection that I’ve loved classics since I was a child. I loved writing since I was a child, maybe I should work with the myths creatively. It led directly, that was what working with Shakespeare’s version of the myths led me directly to writing, “The Song of Achilles,” and into my writing career.
I was able to connect the thing I was most passionate about with my writing.

I feel like this play really gave me everything.

Working with Shakespeare’s texts is a privilege I think for any storyteller, and certainly was for me. I learned so many things from Shakespeare, his psychological acuity, his ability to see into people’s motivations, and to beautifully express those motivations.

His characterization is brilliant and fascinating, and I think one of the things that I really learned from Shakespeare, is how to tell a story that people already know. to tell the story in a way that the audience is on the edge of their seat, even though they know what’s going to happen, you’re hoping against hope that this time the tragedy will be averted.

I think practicing that really again gave me so much just practical know-how when approaching Song of Achilles, where a lot of people who are reading story did know the ending, but I wanted to make it feel fresh, so that when you got to the end, hopefully people would still be very invested.

I recommend it all the time, and I’m not sure people necessarily listen to me, but yes. I mean I just I think it is so, if you love the classics, it is worth a read. Even if you don’t love the classics, it’s just very interesting.

I think there’s this whole misogyny aspect that runs through it. Cressida is I think one of the … I believe she’s the only Shakespeare heroin who loses her virginity during the course of the play to someone she’s not married to.
She at the end is miserable, she’s trapped in this relationship with Diomedes. The man she loves, she’s betrayed the man she loves, and does a woman who takes command of her sexuality and chooses to sleep with her lover, does she need to be punished? Is that an integral part of the story? I think Troilus is a fascinating character as well just in his own right unrelated to his relationship to the ancient myths, because he idealizes Cressida so much.

He puts her on this pedestal where she has to be perfect and innocent and sweet, but I don’t actually think he sees her as a person at all. She’s much, much smarter than he is, and much savvier and much edgier than he is. He doesn’t see any of that, he just sees his shining vision in his head, the perfect woman that he has created and projected onto her.

Then he’s of course completely betrayed, “Oh, she’s so terrible,” and it’s as if she can only be one or the other, she could only be perfect or terrible . Again I think that, that is the bind that women often do get put in, instead of seeing her for who she actually is, which is this person who’s in a very tough situation who’s very smart as I said very edgy.

That’s interesting too that you can look at it from that aspect.

I appreciate that too that Shakespeare has a lot of political points in this about the corruption of leaders, and that’s a theme throughout Shakespeare’s work, is it can you be a good person and be a leader? Can you be a good person and be a good king at the same time? Does power necessarily corrupt? If power doesn’t corrupt you, are you then completely ineffective as a leader?

Now I’ll talk about something that’s funny, because none of that is funny. There’s this character of Thersites who shows up in the Iliad, and in the Iliad he’s this scurrilous soldier who tries to stand up and talk back to the Kings, and Odysseus ends up beating him basically into submission.
He’s the voice for taking down a lot of these heroes, and he’s always calling Achilles and Ajax stupid, and just making fun of absolutely everyone. There’s this great line he has about Agamemnon, ” He has not so much brains as earwax,” and that type of cut downs all through the play. He’s wonderful, and then he has this amazing encounter with this random soldier.

He’s a total coward of course, with a random Trojan soldier who threatens him in battle. Thersites plays for time and says, “Who art thou?” This Trojan soldier says, “I’m a bastard son of Priam’s.” Thersites launches into this amazing speech where he’s like I’m a bastard too, I love bastard’s. He led into this whole thing about I’ve been a bastard forever, I’m a bastard in every possible way.

Then he talks his way off stage and out of the fight. There’s so many wonderful acting moments as well.

I love to reread Shakespeare. One of the things that I love aside from loving the text, is that I get to hear the layers of all the actors who I’ve directed in it over the years, I can still hear some of the lines tinged with their voices, which is really nice. I’m hearing it in two ways, I’m hearing it as a director, and I’m also finding something new in it.

That’s what is so brilliant about Shakespeare and this play, is that you always find something new. There’s always something that you haven’t quite missed, or that hit you in a new way. These works are endlessly complex and beautiful and interesting.

JENN

Thanks again to Madeline Miller for joining us and recommending Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare. You can find Miller’s newest novel Circe, published by Lee Boudreaux Books, wherever books are sold. You can find her on Instagram at madeline.e.miller.

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JENN:

Sabaa Tahir grew up in California’s Mojave Desert at her family’s 18-room motel. There, she spent her time devouring fantasy novels, raiding her brother’s comic book stash and playing guitar badly. She began writing An Ember in the Ashes while working nights as a newspaper editor. The Ember Quartet is a New York Times bestselling fantasy series, inspired by ancient Rome, that follows both the soldiers and rebels of the Martial Empire, whose destinies will change the fate of the Empire itself.

SABAA TAHIR:

My name is Sabaa Tahir, and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is my recommended.

I first picked up The Sparrow probably eight or nine years ago and you know, one would think it was like the books of our childhood that are formative, right? You know, fairy tales and scary stories and those very first forays into storytelling, but even though I came to The Sparrow in my adulthood, it’s left this indelible mark, probably as deep as the ones from those first stories, because it’s the book I turn to over and over again whenever I seek the courage to write honestly.

I found the book probably eight or so years ago in a Borders, which was a bookstore chain, which has since closed. I quit my job at the Washington Post six months earlier, and I was totally despairing that I would ever finish this young adult fantasy I was working on. I was at the store, I had my one-year-old with me, and he was gnawing on his favorite board book nearby, and I was perusing this table of paperback fiction, and I came upon this really compelling cover.

It had a clock and a bird and this deep blue background punched with gold stars, and it was so beautiful, but this was also speculative fiction, which that’s not usually my bag. So I read the New York Times blurb on the cover, which called it “a startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction.” And it was this word “moral” that got me because I was asking myself at the time, what does it mean to write a moral book? It’s something that I had struggled with as I worked on that young adult fantasy, which of course is An Ember in the Ashes, which is my first book. And I was writing about oppressors and the oppressed and occupiers and the occupied, and complicity and morality and generational trauma, but I had no idea how to put all those things together in a young adult book respectfully while also having an actual plot.

So I flipped open the first page of The Sparrow because whenever I’m hunting for a good book, I usually read one page at the beginning and two in the middle to see if I like the writing. And I got to the bottom of the first page and I found the following lines. “The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reasons Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm.”

And if you know the history of the Jesuits, you know the significance and tragedy of that last line “they meant no harm,” right? And that’s really what hit me. That’s what hooked me. I read through the book once and then immediately started rereading it again.

The Sparrow switches between two time periods. It follows humanity’s first mission to space in one timeline, and it tells of the aftermath of that mission in another timeline. The primary character is the Jesuit priest by the name of Father Emilio Sandoz, and he’s the only survivor of this mission. And he arrives back on Earth and he’s broken and horrifically traumatized by his experience in space, and on this sort of alien planet. And the book takes us all the way from the origins of the space mission to the journey itself to the first human encounters with alien life, and Russell explores how the simplest decisions that humans make, made with the best of intentions, lead to totally disastrous consequences.

And that’s sort of something I think I needed to see, sort of the cause and effect of decisions that we make as humans. She also explores how very specific cultural mores that we think we understand can have meaning and depth that we have just no concept of. And the book sort of combines science fiction with philosophy and theology, and it takes on a lot of our oldest questions with intelligence and grace.

So it had a particular impact on me because I was on my umpteenth draft of An Ember in the Ashes and I had no hope in sight for when I would finish this book. I could see what I wanted it to be but I didn’t know how to get it there. And the questions I was grappling with were things like “How do you write about war? How do you write about pain? How do you write about generational trauma? How do you write about the rejection of identity? How do you write about a difficult parent child relationships? How do you write about complicity?” And reading The Sparrow and sort of finally understanding the answer to that question through her writing is really what got me to a point where I could finish my own book. And the answer was very simple actually, and it was to write honestly, no matter how difficult the subject matter.

It gave me permission. So she somehow manages to convey truth with every word, right? Whether that truth is beautiful or horrible or scary or enlightening, she kind of explores the complexities of religious faith, which isn’t exactly, I don’t know, coffee table reading. And she does it critically, but she also does it with empathy.

And seeing that nuanced story executed so well helped me learn, for one just that it could be done, right? But that I had to tell the truth in my own writing even if it was uncomfortable, and that meant telling the truth about wars and the terrible things that happened because of war. And it meant telling the truth about the oppressed and how it might feel to live as an oppressed person, which basically meant a ton of research.

You know, reading human rights watch reports and interviewing police officers and warriors and trying to understand the legacy of colonialism which is something that still has an effect on me, on my own people, my family, being that I’m Pakistani. And you know, this question of, does it give you permission? Does a book give you permission? It did. The Sparrow gave me leeway to write a book that was dark.

I did think that if you can write with honesty and you can write about morality and you can write about all of these things that I’ve discussed in speculative fiction, that is essentially adult fiction, that it’s perfectly fine to write those things in young adult too. I actually think it might even be more necessary because you’re writing for children as a young adult author, and children will call you on your BS. So they can tell when a writer is being dishonest, and I think that makes it especially important to be very, very honest. They need it and they deserve it. They deserve that honesty.

So when you’re talking about war in a young adult book, you do have to be honest, but it was really reading this book, reading The Sparrow that helped me understand that that was okay, and particularly with this idea of darkness. So there’s this … An Ember in the Ashes is a dark book, and I like dark books. I’ve always been drawn to them, which is probably why I was drawn to The Sparrow as well. There’s a line at the end of The Sparrow where Father Emilio Sandoz, the main character, says “Would you like to know precisely how dark the night of the soul can get?”

And this idea of the darkening of the soul is reference to a crisis of faith. It was first coined in a poem by St. John of the Cross like, a billion years ago. But that line has always haunted me, and it really resonated, and as I wrote, because of The Sparrow I started kind of letting the darkness in. I started pushing my characters to get to really dark places, and then I started trying to look at this idea of finding meaning and hope in life, even in the darkest times. And that’s a weird sort of hope, right? It’s like a weed in the desert. It’s sort of strong and plucky and unexpected, and that’s the hope that I found in The Sparrow, and just finding it there, discovering it there is what allowed me to try to put it in my own work, whatever it is that I do, and to try to find it in life, right? You know, to try to find light in the worst circumstances.

I recommend it quite a bit. You know, there is a great deal of … there is a lot of sexual violence in the book, and I think that I am thus careful about recommending it to younger readers. I mostly recommend it to adult readers. And I do recommend it usually now with a bit of a trigger warning, and just say “Hey, just be prepared for that. That is in the book.” But I do recommend it all the time, yes.

I was just looking at The Sparrow and thinking “I’ve got to re read this,” because I wonder how I’m going to feel about it having gone through sort of the writer’s journey now. I wonder how I’m going to feel about how the actual story is told. I found it gripping at the time. I thought it was great that it had this really propulsive plot, and these characters that you’re so worried for and stressed out for, but I didn’t think about structure at that time when I was reading it. I just sort of delved into the book, and I thought about sort of philosophical aspects of it. But I didn’t think about structure. Now I’m curious to read it and see if I can see a structure.

I love this book. It’s fantastic. I wish it was required reading and everyone would read it. There’s also so many things I didn’t even delve into as that younger reader who was reading as she desperately tried to figure out how to write a book, and I think that the theology and the philosophy are actually two of those things. I would love to go back and reread this book and just examine that.

She really inhabits these characters really, really powerfully, and with a lot of authority, and I think that’s why we are willing to go with her on this journey. And I think she does that with most of her books. I read Epitaph, which was another one. It was more of a western, and it was wonderful, and it’s just the sort of breadth of work that she’s able to … the worlds that she’s able to step into, it’s pretty incredible.

JENN

Thanks again to Sabaa Tahir for joining us and recommending The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. The third novel in Tahir’s Ember Quartet, A Reaper at the Gates, published by Razorbill, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at sabaatahir.

JENN:
Next week on Recommended, one author talks about the first book that made her feel seen:

UNNAMED AUTHOR:
I remember just being blown away by a book that finally had my family in it. People who looked like me, who had an immigrant experience like mine. And it didn’t matter that they were Chinese-American and I was Korean-American. What mattered was that, for the first time, there was a book that said that my experience was actually not that strange. That it wasn’t something that I should be ashamed of, because I had spent most of my formative life ashamed of being Asian.

OUTRO:

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