'The most rewarding thing'

29th June 2012 at 01:00
Madeline Miller has achieved literary success, winning the Orange Prize for her debut novel The Song of Achilles. But she also feels passionately about her 10 years as a teacher and is keen to go back to the classroom. Adi Bloom finds out why

I hope this is coherent," Madeline Miller says. "I'm not used to talking about my teaching."

This is understandable. While a lot of people want to speak to Miller at the moment, very few want to talk to her about teaching. The 33-year-old's first novel, The Song of Achilles, a tale of the love affair between the Greek hero Achilles and his companion Patroclus, has just won the Orange Prize. It trumped works by better-known, longer-established writers such as Cynthia Ozick, Anne Enright and Ann Patchett.

The subsequent articles, press releases and blurb all make mention of the fact that the Massachusetts author spent 10 years teaching high school pupils Latin, Greek and Shakespeare. But this is an aside: it is what she did while she was writing the novel.

Speak to Miller herself, though, and it becomes immediately clear that it is not an aside at all. "Teaching is really the most rewarding thing I've ever done," she says, barely a week after picking up the pound;30,000 Orange Prize. "Teaching and directing plays with teenagers is really incredible. As strongly as I feel about my fictional characters, when you come right down to it, they're just characters. And my students are people. So getting to participate in their lives and their growing up and their intellectual development - it's just really powerful."

She discovered this when she was still a teenager herself. Her first school had taught Latin "in an unusual way", she says. When she started at a new school, therefore, she struggled to keep up with other pupils. Her Latin teacher suggested that she might benefit from being set up with a student to tutor. "I said, `I think you mean you want to set me up with a student to tutor me.' And he said, `No. I want to do it the other way.'"

She was so terrified of passing on incorrect information that she immediately began cramming up on the subject. "I had never learned anything so well as when I had to teach it. And I loved working with her. It was so rewarding - such a pleasure. That was really the beginning."

A pleasure and a privilege

Studying Classics at university, she continued to offer tuition at a nearby independent school. After university, she was so eager to go straight to the classroom that she chose not to take the teaching certificate required by US state schools. (Her entire career has been spent at independent schools: as in Britain, these have a near-monopoly on classical education.)

"Seeing a student who's maybe struggling with the language, and by the end they've won the Classics prize, or they've translated Virgil beautifully, or they've decided to become Classics majors themselves - it's just so exciting. And such a privilege," she says. Then: "I feel like I keep saying that." This is not simply self-consciousness. There is, notably, no difference between the adjectives she uses when talking about her novel's success - "amazing", "exciting", "thrilling" - and those she uses to describe working in the classroom. This, for example, when talking about a school production of King Lear: "The students were just extraordinary. They threw themselves into it. It was amazing. I mean, teaching is such pleasure for me - coming in every day and feeling, `Oh my goodness, these students are entrusting themselves to me.' What a privilege."

It was while directing her first school play, Troilus and Cressida, that the first notes of The Song of Achilles sounded. "I'd had writing over here." She holds out one hand. "And I'd had Classics over here." She holds out the other hand, at a distance from the first. "And doing Troilus and Cressida, I realised, `Oh my goodness. I could put those things together. I could participate in telling the story.'

"I loved doing the play so much. And then it ended, and I just felt so bereft. I really wanted to be a part of that still. And I remember opening my laptop and starting to write in Patroclus' voice, and then realising" - she takes a deep intake of breath: a gasp of epiphany - "`What am I doing?' Then: `No, keep going.' So it wasn't something that I'd planned. It was just that I was so gripped by his story, and I really wanted to interact with it."

It was the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus that gripped her particularly. Little mention is made of Patroclus in the Iliad, beyond the fact that he is Achilles' companion. Then, when the Trojan warrior Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles not only takes Hector's life in revenge but wilfully mistreats the body, attaching Hector's heels to his chariot and driving it through the dust.

"I had always loved the story of Achilles," Miller says. "I was just really moved by the fact that he was destined to die young. That he had this horrible fate hanging over him." Before he leaves for Troy, Achilles is given a prophecy: he will establish his reputation as a great warrior on the battlefield, but he will not return alive.

"A lot of people talk about, `Oh, he's so whiny in the Iliad.' But I feel like he's whiny because of this prophecy hanging over him. His reputation is all he has left, and that's the thing that's most important to him. And then you get to this moment where Patroclus dies, and he's just completely shattered and destroyed. That's so surprising - you expect him to be upset, but not as upset as he is. And so I wanted to understand who Patroclus was: who is this person who could cause that kind of reaction in Achilles?"

Miller's Achilles and Patroclus are only 17 when they set sail for Troy: this is a story of teenagers, and of first love. She insists, however, that no part of the novel is lifted from her teenager-filled classrooms: "Maybe that was happening unconsciously, but it was never conscious. My students were always their own people, and Achilles and Patroclus were their own people."

Learning from the master

One of the reasons Miller took so long to write the novel was that she was ruthless in her determination to keep life and art entirely separate. "I discovered that writing and teaching use the same parts of my brain," she says. She would be editing a paragraph in the evening after school and find herself thinking instead about the minutiae of school life: the need to email a parent or bring in a belt for a pupil's costume. And, equally, she would begin wondering mid-lesson whether a sentence might not read better with one adjective in place of another.

"If I'm really giving my students my full attention, it's difficult for me to also go home and give my characters my full attention," she says. "So I ended up splitting it up: I would write on the weekends, or on holidays, or mostly in the summer, when I would just shut myself in my room and write for hours and hours and hours. Because during the school year I couldn't be present for both those worlds at the same time, and I always want to be present for my students."

Much of the decade was also spent teaching herself how to write a novel. And this was where the day job did come in useful: "Shakespeare is such a master storyteller, and here I was immersed completely in his work. As a director, your job is to help the play tell its own story. So, on stage, if you have dead time - if you have five seconds, that's an eternity of dead time. So it's things like that: just being really aware of pacing, of where the high moments are. The rehearsal process was like the editing process.

"Shakespeare is such a master of character, and of characters interacting with each other. And so, when I would come to my writing, I would be visualising a scene as if it were happening on stage in front of me. It taught me to rely on the movement, the gesture - that you don't have to say everything. You can understand something based on a look that a character gives. And that can be quite potent."

Zero tolerance of homophobia

Some of The Song of Achilles' most striking passages come when Miller is describing the depth of the relationship between its two protagonists: "He stirs, and the air stirs with him, bearing the musk-sweet smell of his body. I think: this is what I will miss. I think: I will kill myself rather than miss it. I think: how long do we have?"

She was staff representative on her school's gay-straight alliance; none of her pupils was surprised at her decision to depict a gay relationship in her writing. In part, she says, her choice of subject matter was a response to the persistent homophobia that she had witnessed in her job. In US schools, as in their British counterparts, "that's so gay" is often pupils' default insult.

"Pushing back against homophobia is something I'm really passionate about," she says. "It can be really easy as a teacher to say, `Well, that kid was just walking by me and now he's gone,' and not say anything. But it's incredibly important to stop that student and to do it in a way that's not about reducing them to a cloud of ashes but saying, `You really need to think about what you're saying. Is this what you mean to say? Because you're helping to create a really negative environment, where you're making some of your fellow students - maybe some of your close friends - feel really uncomfortable.'

"Students know when teachers will let things slide and they will just keep pushing those edges. So you say: `In this room and in my hearing I don't want to see any of this at all. Period. Zero tolerance.'"

She gave up full-time teaching when her book was published: it was not fair on her pupils, she says, to be taking off repeatedly on book tours during term-time. But she is still tutoring - "which I love, so at least I have that" - and fully intends to return to teaching, despite her writing success. "I would like to see if there's some way I can do half and half, if there's a school that's willing to be creative with me."

Asked to compare the thrill of watching her novel succeed against the thrill of watching pupils succeed, she wavers, but only briefly. "I guess, in some ways, I thought that, if the book doesn't do well, at least it's just me. You know? Whereas if it was my students and they really wanted something, then it's someone else. You really want them to succeed. And so, in a way, I think my heart is a little bit more in my throat for them.

"But, on the other hand, I think that they were all wonderfully set. There were moments when someone was struggling a little bit. But you think, `you're going to be just fine in life'. I think it's important that, as a teacher, you keep that perspective. You want them to do well in your subject, but sometimes there are students who don't need the A, because they are thinking about something else. A lot of teachers were themselves high-achieving students, and so they come to this from the A+ perspective. But if students are getting Bs and they are working and challenging themselves, and they have this really full life outside school - good for them. That's OK. Being a well-rounded person is also important."

It sounds a little as though she views her pupils as characters: protagonists in their own life-novels. "I think it's the opposite," Miller says immediately. "I think it's that I see my characters as people."

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