author of The Song of Achilles
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Boston, MA, but moved to New York City when I was still a baby. I spent my early years there, within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My mom would take me there twice a month, and let me choose the exhibit I wanted to see. I alternated: Egyptian or Ancient Greek.
For high school I moved to Philadelphia, PA, where I began taking Latin in earnest, and was lucky enough to have an absolutely terrific and inspiring teacher, who also offered extra-curricular Greek. I jumped at the chance.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve, I loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian. Unfortunately, I wasn’t big on the idea of giving shots or drawing blood, so that didn’t pan out. At eighteen, I wanted very much to be either a teacher or a therapist. And at both twelve and eighteen, I knew I wanted to write—though I would never have dared to hope I could actually be a writer.
At thirty(ish), I would say that I still want to be a teacher (which I am), and a writer. I also want to continue to pursue my interest in theatre. I spent a year studying dramaturgy at Yale School of Drama, and also ran a Shakespeare program at the school where I taught Latin. I love working with high schoolers on theatre, because it gives them a safe space to explore different parts of themselves that sometimes get shut down in the hurly-burly of adolescence. My ideal life would be tutoring Latin and Greek, directing Shakespeare plays with high school students, and writing.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
This is one of the most thought-provoking questions I’ve been asked!
I always idealized my teachers. I would have followed them off a cliff. I still have trouble calling my long-time mentor by his first name. But now that I am a teacher myself, I understand that teachers are fallible (in my case, VERY fallible) along with everyone else. There is no one with all the answers—except for maybe Chiron…
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
I mentioned above my mom taking me to the Greek exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This absolutely helped to further my love of the ancient world, particularly its mythology. I used to love looking at the statues and trying to guess who they were. However, I think I would need to cite as a personal inspiration Vergil’s Aeneid. Homer’s work influenced me also, but there is something about Vergil—his care with language and imagery, his beautiful characterizations, and his passionate pleas for mercy and forgiveness. Reading Vergil in high school and college was a revelation: finally the idea of “close-reading” made sense to me. Here was an author who took so much care in each line, that I could never over analyse it. Even now, every time I look at it, I find something new. The character of Pyrrhus in my novel is inspired very much by Vergil’s interpretation of him in Book 2 of the Aeneid.
Watership Down. The Iliad and Odyssey with rabbits! From when I first read it (at thirteen), it became my “comfort book” travelling with me to college, and sitting near to hand even now. On my version of the book, one of the blurbers remarks that “I read the last hundred pages at a gulp.” I wanted to write a book like that, with the ability to appeal to both adults and young adults, and to still be just as gripping on the fiftieth reading as on the first. And with a smash-bang ending!
Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees. I bought this book on a whim, browsing the writing section in the bookstore. It is amazing. The first half is a witty, well-written and thoughtful account of the different writing habits of famous writers. She categorizes these into various “types”—the self-promoter, the ambivalent writer…After reading the chapter on the ambivalent writer, I swore I didn’t want to be one. If I was going to write, I needed to take it seriously, and seeing the different models of writing, from so many of my writing heroes, helped to give me the inspiration to do that.
The second half of the book is all about editors, agents, and the publishing business. Reading it was fascinating, and made it all seem real, and possible: maybe someone might one day want to read this story I had been obsessing over about Patroclus….
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I have always loved reading and writing. I credit my mom with a lot of this. She was a librarian, and spent countless hours reading aloud to me, and supporting my love of books. I remember in second grade they gave us free writing time, where we were supposed to write stories, then show them to the teacher, then edit them, then copy them out in cursive. I never got past the writing and showing to the teacher part. Once I had done that I just started a new story—so my classmates had stories to hang up neatly on the walls, and I just had pages and pages of filled notebooks. Luckily, I have learned the value of good editing since then!
I have also been very fortunate to have a number of teachers who supported my writing in its early stages, from middle school through high school. Their belief in the value of my work helped me to keep at it.
The Song of Achilles takes the story of Achilles and the Iliad, and tells it from the perspective of Patroclus, an exiled prince, and Achilles’ lover/best friend. Patroclus finds himself pulled along by Achilles’ grand destiny as the greatest warrior of the Greeks. The two men go to Troy, where Patroclus finds himself torn between his conscience and his love.
The novel follows the events of the Iliad closely, though it starts much earlier, with the childhood of the two men. It also extends beyond the Iliad’s end, drawing from other ancient sources, such as the Aeneid. I see it as a story of love and adventure. Or perhaps, adventure and love? Depends on how you read it!
Why Patroclus? I had been deeply moved by Achilles’ story ever since I first read The Iliad. His grief over Patroclus’ death is shockingly raw, and I was fascinated by this man whose loss had so devastated the great Achilles. I wanted to understand their connection, and why such an “ordinary” man mattered so much.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
This is a difficult question to answer. Certainly, I hope that it might inspire some interest in Greek mythology in general. I also hope that it might help to combat some of the homophobia that I see too often.
Beyond that, I hope that it provokes some thought about personal responsibility. Patroclus is not an epic person, the way Achilles is. He’s an “ordinary” man. But he has more power than he thinks, and the moments where he reaches out to others and offers what he sees as his very modest assistance have huge positive ramifications. Most of us aren’t Achilles—but we can still be Patroclus. What does it mean to try to be an ethical person in a violent world?
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
There are so many authors whose work I admire and adore that I feel guilty naming any in particular, and leaving others out! But, if I was really hard-pressed, I would certainly cite David Mitchell, whose story-telling, characterization and exuberant love of writing I find totally transporting. I loved “Cloud Atlas,” and then fell even further in love with “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.”
I also very much admire and enjoy Ann Patchett (her blurbing my book was a DREAM COME TRUE) and Barbara Kingsolver for their beautifully lyrical and humanist writing. I love George R. R. Martin’s ability to spin a tale out with seeming effortlessness.
One of my favourite books of all time is “Gertrude and Claudius,” by John Updike, which is the story of Gertrude’s life before Hamlet begins. It is absolutely steeped in the source material, and pulls off the trick of remaining exquisitely faithful while simultaneously offering illuminating new details. It completely changed the way I read the play, and helped show me the power and potential of literary re-tellings.
Castle Freeman Jr. I love his flair for dialogue—he is so perfect at evoking character through speech. His novels are incredibly taut, with not a word wasted.
Lorrie Moore. Her razor-sharp eye and word precision have inspired me since high school. I probably read “Anagrams” fifty times.
Shakespeare. From directing his plays, I have learned so much about story-telling, characterization and language. And my first Shakespeare play, Troilus and Cressida, was part of what inspired me to finally start writing about Achilles. Until then, I hadn’t really thought that I could tell my own version of these old stories.
These are my answers for today—tomorrow it might be a different list!
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Keep improving my writing, and maybe not take ten years to write the next one! Read, read, read. Teach. I would love to be the artistic director of a Shakespeare theatre.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Set your work aside. For me the best way to find the false notes is to let the piece sit for a while, and come back to it with fresh eyes. Keep at it, and try to find people whose opinions you trust to give you feedback.
Madeline, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.