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.

miller flowers 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.”


miller trollope
Madeline Miller is embraced by judge chair Joanna Trollope as she collects her award

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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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  • Madeline Miller poses with her book The Song of Achilles during the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 at the Royal Festival Hall, London.

  • Madeline Miller poses with her book The Song of Achilles during the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 at the Royal Festival Hall, London.

  • Esi Edugyan poses with her book Half Blood Blues during the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 at the Royal Festival Hall, London.

  • Anne Enright poses with her book The Forgotten Waltz during the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 at the Royal Festival Hall, London.

  • Esi Edugyan poses with her book Half Blood Blues during the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 at the Royal Festival Hall, London.

  • Georgina Harding poses with her book Painter of Silence during the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 at the Royal Festival Hall, London.

Looking back on 17 years of brilliant fiction - what did the winners do next?

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  • 1996 winner: 'A Spell of Winter', Helen Dunmore

    Since winning the inaugural Orange Prize, Dunmore has published a number of children's literature titles, including the five Chronicle of Ingo series - the last of which was published this year. She was shortlisted for the prize again in 2001 with <em>The Seige</em>, as well as writing National Poetry Competition-winning poem 'The Malarky'. Her latest work of fiction, a ghost story called <em>The Greatcoat</em>, was published in February.

  • 1997 winner: 'Fugitive Pieces', Anne Michaels

    10 years after it took the Orange Prize, Michael's <em>Fugitive Pieces</em> was made into a film. She has also published another novel, <em>The Winter Vault</em>, in 2009, and two poetry collections since winning the prize.

  • 1998 winner, 'Larry's Party', Carol Shields

    Despite being diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in the same year <em>Larry's Party</em> won the prize, Shields continued to publish regularly until her death in 2003. She produced three plays, her famed biography of Jane Austen and collections of short stories. Unless, her novel published in 2002, won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and made the shortlist of the Man/Booker Prize and the 2003 Orange Prize. IMAGE: CP CANADIAN PRESS/The Canadian Press/Press Association Images

  • 1999 winner, 'A Crime in the Neighbourhood', Suzanne Berne

    Having won the Orange Prize with her first novel, Suzanne Berne has continued to publish three others: A Perfect Arrangement, The Ghost at the Table and, most recently, Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew. She currently teaches at Boston College after being a Briggs-Copeland Fellow at Harvard University.

  • 2000 winner, 'When I Lived in Modern Times' Linda Grant

    Grant's been no stranger to literary prizes since <em>When I Lived in Modern Times</em> took the millenial Orange Prize. Two years later, novel <em>Still Here</em> made the Booker Prize, and the prize-winning non-fiction <em>The People On The Street: A Writer's View of Israel</em> followed as did<em> The Clothes On Their Backs,</em> which won the South Bank Show award and was Booker Prize shortlisted. Grant has also written for radio. IMAGE: Clive Gee/PA Archive/Press Association Images

  • 2001 winner, 'The Idea of Perfection', Kate Grenville

    Australian author Grenville has continued to write novels after The Idea of Perfection. The Secret River was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and forms a trilogy with its successors, The Lieutenant and, published in 2011, Sarah Thornhill. The Idea of Perfection and The Secret River are currently in pre-production as films. IMAGE: MATTHEWT TIM MATTHEWS/PA Archive/Press Association Images

  • 2002 winner, 'Bel Canto', Ann Patchett

    As well as being nominated a decade later in this year's prize for <em>State of Wonder</em>, Ann Patchett has published Run in 2007 and nonfiction works <em>Truth & Beauty: A Friendship</em> and <em>What Now? </em> IMAGE: Myung Jung Kim/PA Archive/Press Association Images

  • 2003 winner, 'Property', Valerie Martin

    Martin has produced two books since her Orange Prize success in 2003. <em>Trespass</em>, in 2007, which puts American surburbia side-by-side with Iraqi refugees, and <em>The Confessions of Edward Day</em> in 2009, about 1970s Manhattan theatre.

  • 2004 winner, 'Small Island', Andrea Levy

    After winning the Orange Prize, Levy's <em>Small Island</em> also picked up gongs for the Whitbread Novel Award, the Whitbread Book of the Year award, the Orange Best of the Best, and the Commonwealth Writer's Prize. The novel was also dramatised for TV in 2009. She has since written short stories for radio and newsprint, judged the Orange Prize for Fiction, and, most recently, published <em>The Long Song</em>, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and was the winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. IMAGE: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/Press Association Images

  • 2005 winner, 'We Need to Talk About Kevin', Lionel Shriver

    Notably, Shriver's prize-winning novel was made into a film in 2011. However, the author has published three books in between; <em>The Post-Birthday World</em>, <em>So Much for That</em>, which critiques the US health care system, and <em>The New Republic</em>. Shriver wrote a short story, called 'Long Time, No See' in 2009, which was donated to Oxfam's 'Ox-Tales' project. IMAGE: John Stillwell/PA Archive/Press Association Images

  • 2006 winner, 'On Beauty', Zadie Smith

    While <em>On Beauty</em> also won the Somerset Maugham Award, Smith has yet to produce another fiction novel since. Instead, she published non-fiction book<em> Fail Better</em>, about writing, in 2006, and a collection of essays <em>Changing My Mind</em> in 2009. She is currently a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University. IMAGE: Steve Parsons/PA Archive/Press Association Images

  • 2007 winner, 'Half of a Yellow Sun', Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    Adiche followed up her prize-winning novel with a collection of short stories called <em>The Thing Around Your Neck</em> in 2009. It was revealed in February that <em>Half of a Yellow Sun</em> was to be made into a film starring Thandi Newton, Dominic Cooper and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

  • 2008 winner, 'The Road Home,' Rose Tremain

    Tremain contributed to Collins and Brown-published short story collection, <em>Great Escapes</em> in the same year her novel <em>The Road Home</em> won the Orange Prize. In 2010, she published <em>Tresspass</em>, which was longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. <em>The Road Home</em> is being made for television. IMAGE:Carl Court/PA Archive/Press Association Images

  • 2009 winner, 'Home', Marilynne Robinson

    Since her novel <em>Home</em> took the Orange Prize, Robinson has gone on to produce two non-fiction works. <em>Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self</em>, published in 2010, and a collection of essays about religion: <em>When I Was a Child I Read Books. </em> IMAGE: John Stillwell/PA Archive/Press Association Images

  • 2010 winner, 'The Lacuna', Barbara Kingsolver

    A year after winning the Orange Prize for The Lacuna, Kingsolver was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for the body of her work. She lives with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia. IMAGE: Alastair Grant/PA Archive/Press Association Images

  • 2011 winner, 'The Tiger's Wife', Tea Obrecht

    The Tiger's Wife was Obrecht's debut novel, so she's had a pretty whirlwind 12 months since last year's prize. Since then, however, it has been a finalist in the 2011 National Book Award, and become a <em>New York Times</em> Bestseller.