Riot Asks: Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller was born in Boston and grew up in New York City and Philadelphia. She attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in Classics. For the last ten years, she has been teaching and tutoring Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students. She has also studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and in the Dramaturgy department at Yale School of Drama, where she focused on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA, where she teaches and writes. The Song of Achilles is her first novel.


BOOK RIOT: What are you reading?

MADELINE MILLER: So, I am right in the middle of (when I read, I tend to be in the middle of several things) Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. I can’t believe I didn’t read this book before now. It’s just pure pleasure to read; I absolutely love it. I am also reading Pnin by Nabokov–I always forget how funny he is. I also just finished Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik, part of her series that is sort of Jane Austen meets Christopher Paolini–it’s the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons! It’s so smart, well crafted and well written. The Austen comparison is not made lightly–there are lots of complex moral issues in Novik’s books. Sometimes I wonder why this kind of stuff doesn’t rise up to higher literary estimation. I have always read very indiscriminately; I think it was a blessing when I was a child. I didn’t really have any idea of what was appropriate and what genre was, I didn’t really pay attention to “junky” versus “good.” I just read it all. I’m really glad that I did just that.

BR: Which book do you wish you had written?

MM: Definitely, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red–it’s almost a poem, not a book, and it is retelling in a way of the myth of Heracles and Gereon as a gay love story and a coming-of-age novel. Words do not do it justice; you have to read it, because she comes at this type of story in an experimental way; it’s not a straightforward narrative. Her book is set in the modern world, but it showed me that someone was willing to wade fearlessly into the old myths.

I have to mention one more book, because oh, Watership Down–the first time I read it I couldn’t look away from the book, it was such an intense emotional experience in such an unreal yet believable world. I don’t think I had ever read anything so intensely up to that point. It still holds up. I have re-read it and re-read it and it totally is still great every time.

BR: Which book do you recommend again and again?

MM: I’m an inveterate book pusher, constantly pressuring people to read things. David Mitchell’s novels are ones I recommend again and again, and so is Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April–so smart and satirical, yet also uplifiting.

BR: Since you mentioned you’ve “re-read and re-read” Watership Down, are there other books you’ve read multiple times?

MM: I love to re-read. It’s a huge thing for me, a constant tension, because there are so many good new books that I want to read, since it’s always interesting to see which books are just as good or better than the older ones!

One book I can never, ever go back to too much is Virgil’s Aeneid. He was the consummate writer-poet and took ten years to write this great work, which is a careful piece of composition and rewards all of the re-reading. Reading The Aeneid in Latin in high school taught me to appreciate English poetry. As you read The Aeneid slowly, you see that this amazing epic is full of all kinds of subtle things: adventure, tragedy, political commentary and more–but it’s Virgil’s intense sympathy for human failing that hooks me every time. I have several different editions of it on my desk at any moment, and I always have at least one by my bedside.

BR: Has a book ever changed your life?

MM: A couple different answers: When I was maybe around 12 or so, my mom was very kind and just give me free rein at library or bookstore, her attitude being “If she wants to read it, she can read it.” I had picked up Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it just wrecked me. I did not even grasp most of what was going on, but  the injustice of the world he described and  the visceral raw experience of it overturned my whole world. I was in tears for days. It was a total awakening for me as a reader and a writer.

Then, in high school, I had a similar experience with The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s so good it’s just… That’s another book I could re-read forever.

BR: Has a book ever disappointed you?

MM: I think there’s always a book that doesn’t hit you at the right time. I tend to think of those books as disappointments. Sometimes I say “Maybe I’ll try again in a year.”

BR: Where do you read?

MM: I definitely read all over, including when I’m walking. This is a bad habit from childhood. I read while I’m walking and I’ve practiced it for a long time–but don’t try this yourself if you don’t want to take a few falls. By my sofa I have a great green bookcase filled with all of my “comfort books,” which include my classics books, Shakespeare books, and many, many others. When I was growing up, books were so precious to me that I couldn’t even crack their spines–I’ve relaxed a little bit about that, especially on books that I’m using for research.

BR: Speaking of research, what are you reading for the new novel you’re working on now?

MM: My new novel is about Odysseus. I loved The Odyssey, and I wanted the opportunity to finish his story, and write about the women in it, particularly Circe and Penelope. I think it’s just as much reading as possible–I’m completely buried in The Odyssey right now going back through and reading and trying to listen to it and get to the core of that story and just anything I can find, reading academic books about the subject. I tend to stay away from modern re-tellings of the works I’m working on. One of the books I just read is Odysseus in America by Jonathan Shea, which is a non-fiction title about working with veterans and having them read these ancient texts to help them understand war trauma and their experiences–fascinating.