Last night a new star of fiction was born out of an ancient story.
In a quiet room in the back of London's Southbank Centre, where moments before she’d been awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction for her debut novel The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller is excited and animated - particularly as she discusses her love of the classics.
“When I was very young, my Mother used to read the Iliad and the Greek myths to me as bedtime stories,” she explains.
Madeline Miller receives the Orange Prize for Fiction at an awards ceremony last night
“Then, when we lived in New York, she’d take me to the Metropolian Museum of Art to see the amazing statues there. My love for the period just grew and grew.”
The Song of Achilles develops the story of Patroclus, the brother-in-arms of Achilles who appears briefly in Homer’s Illiad.
Inevitably, Miller’s victory has already been cited as evidence of a cultural classics revival, as David Malouf’s Random (which retells the Iliad from books 16 to 24) did last year after it was shortlisted for the Dublin Literary Award.
If we are about to undergo a revival of interest in the stories of the ancient world - something that certainly appears to be happening in film and computer games - the unassuming Latin teacher from Boston will be as pleased as anyone.
“Some of these old stories, like Homer, have developed a reputation for being a bit elitist. That’s not how they were when they were written and composed - they were for everyone. I’d love to see that become the case again,” she says.
“I remember hearing the opening line from the lliad for the first time – ‘Sing, goddess… [the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles]’ - and feeling it was very... real.
“It wasn’t just some story about a perfect hero, it was about anger and pride and humans trying to things and not succeeding. That’s what I loved about it.”
Any Brits feeling sore that last night’s prize went to an American for the fourth time in a row might take a crumb of consolation from the fact that it was the greatest British writer of them all who inspired Miller to write her winning novel.
“I’d always written stories and characters in contemporary worlds. I never thought about combining my writing with my love of the classics.
“Then I directed Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare, and it got me thinking that I could write my own story about the Trojan War.”
Madeline Miller is embraced by judge chair Joanna Trollope as she collects her award
It was from that simple thought that Miller ended up sat here clutching ‘Bessie’, one of the most coveted trophies in literature, having seen off veteran writers like her compatriots Cynthia Ozick and Ann Patchett at the first attempt.
It’s obligatory for winners of anything to insist they didn’t sense victory, but in Miller’s case you believe it.
“I just feel so excited and happy, and deeply, deeply honoured.
“I only came here to meet the other authors and have a good time - I had no expectation that I’d win. The other people on the shortlist are amazing women.
“I didn’t plan anything to say if I won, and at this point I can’t remember what I did say – it could have been jibberish!”
Whatever she said, I remind her, it will be all over newspapers and websites very soon, a prospect that appears to daunt her ever so slightly.
“I’m going to try and put all of this out of my mind and focus on my next book,” she says.
“I just love immersing myself in stories. Whether it’s as a write or a theatre director, I’m always looking forward to the next time I can tell a story.
“I’m very interested in the Odyssey. There’s a lot of richness there I want to work with. But I don’t think I’m going to stay in Homer’s world forever.”
Nor, after tonight, will she be staying in the world of anonymous writers. Madeline Miller’s own Odyssey has just begun.
Pictures from the evening:
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