From Literary Protégée to Competition Rival: our interview with Madeline Miller

We were drawn to the friendship between Nora Lefurgey and L. M. Montgomery because it endured despite marked differences in their literary standings: while Anne of Green Gables propelled Montgomery to international fame, Lefurgey’s novel gathered dust in the proverbial drawer.

Of course, the prospect of rivalry does not end when both friends are published. Then there are questions of sales and reviews and awards. We’d been intrigued, therefore, when it was announced that both debut novelist, Madeline Miller, and multi award-winning author, Ann Patchett, had been shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize since Madeline had previously been one of a Ann’s protégées.

 

Ann Patchett. Creative Commons License.
Ann Patchett. Creative Commons License.

We met Madeline to ask her about the transition from literary mentorship to competition rivals.

Madeline explains that she had always been a great fan of the established author’s work, and that she counts Truth and Beauty, Ann’s memoir about her friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, as one of her favourite books of all time.

Early in her career, Madeline had been thrilled to receive a glowing blurb from Ann for the publisher’s proof copy of her debut novel, The Song of Achilles. At this stage, Madeline had never met Ann, this novelist who had unexpectedly done her such a good turn. Evidently still touched by the older author’s generosity, she tells us about how they finally came face-to-face.

Fortuitously, Ann had been due to give a reading at Madeline’s local book store, and so Miller bought tickets, intending to introduce herself after the event. When, on the night, an audience member asked for a reading recommendation, Madeline was delighted to hear the celebrated author single out the forthcoming Song of Achilles for praise. She was even more surprised when Ann suddenly looked up, right into Madeline’s eyes, and introduced her to the crowd.

Ann proceeded to share the limelight with the younger author, who couldn’t fathom how she had been recognised. She jokes that she had been ready to put it down to Ann’s magical powers until her fiancé later confessed that he was the one to have pointed her out. ‘But she does have magical powers,’ Madeline laughs, ‘I stand by that!’

Ann’s kindness didn’t stop there. The pair struck up an email correspondence, and Ann generously shared the benefits of her own longer experience as a published author. Madeline is particularly grateful for Ann’s advice to steer clear of reviews, which give an exaggerated sense of both the positive and the negative, encouraging the writer to focus on the outward expressions of literary “success” rather than drawing on internal inspiration. Ann also shared her secret to a fulfilled writing life: There are times for writing and times for living, Madeline remembers Ann once saying, and one feeds the other.

The next time the pair met in person, it was on Ann’s instigation: she invited Madeline to read at Parnassus Books – the independent store that she co-owns in Nashville, Tennessee. It was there the two novelists discovered that they’d both made it onto the short list for the 2012 Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women’s Prize) – an award that recognises the work of female novelists.

It could have been a situation fraught with stress: although a game-changer for the debut author, Madeline now found herself pitted against her mentor.

But, instead, Ann, who had already won the prize back in 2002, took great pleasure in the opportunity this time to share the limelight with her protégée. When the date of the prize ceremony was announced, Ann realised that she couldn’t make it over to Britain at that time. She was glad that Madeline would be able to attend, and she even loaned her competitor one of her own outfits that she felt might be particularly suitable for the Orange Prize do: a beautiful dress of tangerine silk.

Madeline Miller wearing the dress she loaned from Ann Patchett.
Madeline Miller wearing the dress she loaned from Ann Patchett.

When the judges revealed that they were awarding the prize to Madeline Miller for The Song of Achilles, the young writer keenly acknowledged her indebtedness to her mentor in her acceptance speech. ‘I got to go and help represent her book as well,’ she says.

The competition seems to have actually strengthened their relationship. In fact, Madeline tells us that Ann was not the only one eager to congratulate her. The award, she says, ‘fostered a sense of collegiality’ amongst all its female nominees.

The friendship of Lefurgey and Montgomery taught us that creative rivalry can be endured, while the example of Miller and Patchett shows that it can even be enjoyed.

A shorter version of this interview was originally included in our feature in Mslexia Issue 57. 

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