The Three Rs: Madeline Miller

July 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Todays Three Rs guest, Madeline Miller, recently won the Orange Prize for her debut novel, The Song of Achilles.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I have been writing ever since I could hold a pen, but for a long time never dared to imagine that my stories might once day turn into books.  The first time that I remember really claiming that desire was my senior year of high school. Our yearbook had this page where they did “destinies” for all the seniors, and mine was to be a literary critic.  I remember indignantly thinking: I don’t want to be a critic, I want to be the writer they’re critiquing!

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book? 

I suspect it will be a little different for this second book, compared to my first.  Back then I was teaching and directing full-time, which meant that writing was mostly for weekends and vacations.  When it did come time to write, I would do it in huge binges: wake up, start writing, and not stop for the next fourteen or so hours, besides snack breaks and maybe some exercise.  Nowadays, I’m a bit more balanced.

Do you type or write?

Type.  And I think very warm thoughts towards my ninth grade typing teacher, Mr. Barrett, when I do.  Long-hand, I can’t always keep up with my thoughts, so ideas fall through the cracks.  On the computer, I’m much faster, and it makes it easier for me to revise.

What do you read while you’re writing?  The same as what I read when I’m not writing: anything and everything.  I have always been an indiscriminate reader, from genre to literary, high concepts to pure thrills.  As long as it’s a good story and well-told, I read it.  Though while I was writing The Song of Achilles, I did avoid other modern retellings of Achilles’ story, just so that they wouldn’t spook me or interfere with my imagination.

What have you read recently that you really loved?  

I devoured Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies,” her extraordinary follow-up to “Wolf Hall.”  The prose, characterization and story-telling are all absolutely incredible.  I also loved “The Sisters Brothers,” by Patrick DeWitt, which is a dark and hilarious novel about a pair of hitman brothers in the old American west.

What are your all-time favourites?

It’s an ever-changing list, but always near the top is Vergil’s Aeneid—his poetry is profound and beautifully precise, and I love his empathy and humanism.  Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is definitely also up there, as is Anne Carson’s gorgeous poem-novel “Autobiography of Red,” and, David Mitchell’s “Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.” Two favorites I have probably read fifty or a hundred times at this point: Elizabeth von Arnim’s hilarious “Enchanted April” and Richard Adams’ gripping rabbit version of the Iliad and Odyssey, “Watership Down.”

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

Read.  I can’t imagine my life without a book in my hands.  (But I would cheat and get my story-telling fix by directing plays.)

What’s your third R, and why?  

Directing plays, particularly Shakespeare.  I love the psychological complexity of Shakespeare’s characters, the richness of the language, and the power of the stories that he tells.  So much of what I learned about narrative and pacing I learned from him, and when I write, it’s as if I’m watching the scenes play out in front of me.  Another thing I love about theater is the fact that it is so collaborative: the actors, directors and designers are all working together to bring the story to life, which  makes a wonderful balance to the solitary life of creative writing.


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