Zenobia Neil and I talked for over two hours, and honestly I could have talked to her for the rest of the day. She is fun and hilarious and smart as hell and just plain interesting. Not only that, but the book she chose immediately went on my list of Top Ten books. It was a great read, and an even better bookish conversation.
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Books discussed in this episode:
Skylight is a beloved Los Angeles treasure. Though they are currently closed to in-store browsing, they are still open for online orders. Check out their fantastic lineup of author events, their signed first editions club, or the Coyotes Book Club.
A Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Circe by Madeline Miller
Zenobia of Palmyra
Carroll Avenue (the Victorian neighborhood in Los Angeles where Zenobia grew up)
The Helms Bakery Truck (not book related, but Angelenos of a certain age remember the Helms Bakery Truck with great affection)
The A Team
Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths by Edgar Parin D’Aulaire
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
The Iliad of Homer (Zenobia recommends this one on audio)
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (Look at this awesome graphic adaptation!)
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
Luster by Raven Leilani
(Note: If you shop using my affiliate links, a portion of your purchase will go to me, at no extra expense to you. Thank you for supporting indie bookstores and for helping to keep the Best Book Ever Podcast in business!)
EPISODE 035 TRANSCRIPT
ZENOBIA NEIL ON “A SONG OF ACHILLES” BY MADELINE MILLER
Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m so pleased to talk to my friend Zenobia NeIl. Zenobia was born with a shock of red hair and named after an ancient warrior woman who fought against the Romans. In college, She studied ancient Greece, voodoo and world mythology. She writes historical fantasy about the mythic past and Greek and Roman gods having too much fun. I had a blast talking to her about why “A Song of Achilles” by Madeleine Miller is the Best Book Ever. And I’ll tell you this. I enjoy most of the books I read for this podcast, but I don’t often call them my Best Book Ever. They’re my guests’ favorite books, but they’re usually not mine. This book, however, is for sure one of my top 10 books of the year, even though it’s early in the year, and will probably go down as one of my top 10 books ever. It was a great book. I’m really excited to hear what you think of it.
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Julie Strauss: Hi, Zenobia, welcome to the Best Book Ever Podcast.
Zenobia Neil: Hi, Julie, thank you for having me.
JS: Thank you for joining me again. We’ve been through this once before and the gods of technology did not agree with us. This time you’ve got me praying to whatever Greek God controls the Internet. I don’t know who that is. But I’m assuming, you know, there must be someone.
ZN: Sure, there are several people.
JS: Zenobia, can you tell me about your beautiful name?
ZN: I was named after Zenobia of Palmyra. She was a Syrian who fought the Romans, and that was a pretty big deal. They had a treaty with her husband and then he died and then they kind of reneged on it and she fought for her land. And then she was captured and taken back to Rome in chains where she lived out the rest of her life in a Roman villa.
JS: That is a big and unusual name to give to a child. What are your parents that they came across that name?
ZN: My parents are into a lot of ancient things. I don’t really know why my father chose that name for me, but I mean, it is a big name to give a baby, but , they never were going to give me any kind of normal name. So I feel I kind of got lucky it wasn’t worse.
JS: So you’re never going to be a Jane, but at least they didn’t give you something really terrifying. I’ve always wondered: is it exhausting or is it super cool to have every single person say, oh, that’s a neat name?
ZN: You know, I think it’s a lot having red hair. when you’re a child, it’s such a drag. But when you get older, it becomes more interesting.
JS: It almost seems you were destined to be someone who reads and writes about the ancients. What was your reading life when you were a kid?
ZN: I read a lot as a kid. I grew up in a Victorian house and we didn’t have a lot of modern things…
JS: Wait, hang on. We’re going to back up. What do you mean you grew up in a Victorian house. What does that mean?
ZN: My parents bought a Victorian house in Echo Park in the ‘70s, and that’s where I grew up. So we would have house tours and once a year, we’d have house tours and other , people who are really into Victorian stuff would come. the people on the one-wheeled bicycles and a woman who dressed as a man smoking a pipe.
JS: I’ll bet you a hundred dollars my parents have toured your house.
ZN: Probably at some point I should write about Victorian stuff. the woman who we said was our ghost, Lola Estrada, who died in the cosy corner talking on the phone to her boyfriend. She was 90 and he was 70.
JS: Oh, my God, this is real, or something your family made up?
ZN: No, that’s a real person who died in the house. And then we also had a lot of movie shot in the house when I was growing up. , once it was a bordello, and in the TV remake of “East of Eden.” And they made gold and orange flocked wallpaper.
JS: So you grew up there and you were saying you don’t you didn’t have TV?
ZN: Well, I mean, we had , you know, I had, , basic TV. We watched, , The A-Team. That was a big one. But it wasn’t a TV-centric family culture. So I read a lot of books. I think “Clan of the Cave Bear” was probably my first historical fiction. I read a lot of Stephen King. And then they actually filmed “Salem’s Lot,” a TV version of Salem’s Lot in our house and on the street.
JS: Oh, my God. That house is so haunted.
ZN: By ghosts of grips and best boys. So, I mean, I just I read a lot and I always just really enjoyed reading.
JS: When did you get into mythology?
ZN: When I was little, my parents got divorced and took me to Paris to try one more time to make it work. But they told me that it was my fourth birthday present. So, you know, I thought that that was normal for us to just take a trip to Paris. My mom and I would go to the Louvre and she would just sit there and tell me the stories behind all the paintings. I mean, not all the paintings are we would still be there, but, you know, the mythological paintings. So I had a great love of it, as a kind of bedtime story situation. And then in seventh grade, we studied D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek myths.
JS: Is this still yours from seventh grade that you’re showing me?
ZN: Yes, it is. And the funny thing is that that my seventh-grade English teacher was Katie McGovern, who’s Elizabeth McGovern’s mother. Lady Grantham’s mother, was the English teacher who taught me to love mythology.
JS: Oh, my God.
ZN: Yeah. It’s kind of funny.
JS: Los Angeles is a magical place.
AN: Yeah, it can be.
JS: How did you come across this book that we’re talking about today? A Song of Achilles.
AN: I got an ARC, an advanced reader copy in 2012. My husband worked at Skylight Books, (support independent bookstores!)
JS: … one of the best ones.
ZN: Yeah, it’s really great. It’s such a great bookstore. He saw the cover and he knew that I d stuff this. So he brought it home for me and I read it and loved it and didn’t realize that it was so popular until much later.
JS: I have the same front cover that you have and that’s actually one of the things I wanted to bring up to you, because I the whole time I was reading this, I was thinking this is a paperback copy and it’s got sort of this raised gold, which is the name of this gold helmet. Is it Greek?
ZN: It’s just a helmet. I mean, I’m sure that there are specific names for that, but it’s just a basic helmet.
JS: OK, so it’s got this warrior’s helmet in gold and it’s embossed. And the whole time I was reading it, I was thinking this is a book for book lovers. It’s going to sound bizarre, but you are a book lover, so you’ll understand: it is such a pleasure to hold this in your hands. It feels very tactile and it has this great feeling of being shiny and new. But also the bumpiness, it feels very ancient. I was absolutely charmed by just the way this book felt. And also, I had just read “84, Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff, and she has a big section about the buttery leather of some books that she ordered. So I was already thinking anyway about how books feel before I read this. And as I was reading this, I was thinking, oh, my gosh, it’s just perfectly made.
ZN: Yeah, and it does feels really good and solid in your hands, , you know, you’re going to go on this amazing adventure.
JS: So tell me, how do you describe this book? how do you hand it off to people?
ZN: I mean, it’s a love story between Achilles and Patroclus told from his from Patroclus’ point of view. In the first person, and it’s sometimes present tense. It’s the song of Achilles told by the person who loved him the most.
JS: You obviously knew the myth very well going in. The myth of Achilles. So were you were still intrigued by this?
ZN: Totally. Because I mean, the first person present tense, it gives you this immediacy to something that took place so long ago. And I feel reading this, one of the things that really is so cool about the myth of Achilles is that it can be interpreted in so many different ways, and it doesn’t get old.
JS: What does that mean, that it can be interpreted in different ways?
ZN: Well, so I’ve been looking at this this story and I’ve listened to “The Iliad” somewhat recently, and I watched the movie “Troy.” And I also have been reading “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker, which is the total opposite of this version of Achilles. Achilles is a monster in that book. So it’s interesting to see him as this lover and best friend in this book. I feel , you know, I really believe that there’s no one truth, that there are just many different versions of different people have different perspectives on everything. I’m not saying that there isn’t truth, but , you know, some people it’s the one truth. And it’s , well, no, because everybody has a different life experience and everybody has different ways of looking at things. And so I love seeing this story told in this loving perspective.
JS: All of the versions that you just mentioned, are they all takeoffs on “The Iliad” or are they all takeoffs on the myth of Achilles, which was just handed down orally?
JS: That’s a really good question. I think that the bulk of it is from “The Iliad,” but there’s a bunch of extra stuff. So the crazy thing about “The Iliad,” when I listen to it, which was so fun to listen to it. It was meant to be told instead of read. I think it was meant to be sung. It was really fun to listen to it while I was walking around and stuff and imagine this oral story happening. The Iliad itself stops way before the Trojan horse. It stops with the funeral games for Hector. I feel that should be spoiler alert. But, you know, I think I think we got it. It’s a combination of stuff from “The Iliad,” but also the myth of Achilles that everybody knows.
JS: No, I didn’t know, going into it. I’m not kidding when I say I had a glancing knowledge of it. I was thinking, oh, Achilles, yeah, he’s the one who was dipped into the ocean. Right?
ZN: The River Styx.
JS: The River Styx. Oh, of course. And so I didn’t know how it was going to end. I mean, you always figure with mythology, someone’s probably going to die. Right?
ZN: It’s a good guess.
JS: But I have to say that going into this without being completely sure how it ended up made it heartbreaking. I didn’t know it was going to end that and it broke my heart.
ZN: We have to give a spoiler alert. I want to talk to you about the end, but I don’t want to.
JS: Let’s talk about it. It’s an ancient myth. I think I’m the only person on the planet was surprised. I was , God damn, he died.
ZN: That was the thing for me when I was reading it in 2012. I was , wait a minute, this is a first person narrative, right? How will she make this work?
JS: What a trick to pull off, too. But I would highly recommend it whether – well, now you know the ending, whoever’s listening.
ZN: But you know what, it’s funny. I feel there have been times when I’ve watched “Romeo and Juliet,” and even though I know what’s going to happen, I’m still , don’t! Maybe somehow this time will work out! Some stories are just so compelling throughout time, even though, you know the story, getting to the end isn’t the thing. It’s the journey that’s the thing. So it’s even when you know the end of some books, you start to wonder, how did we get here and how is this person going to interpret this story in their own unique way?
JS: Tell me again the name of the one that was sort of a negative portrayal of Achilles?
ZN: It’s called “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker. And it’s told from Briseis’ point of view. She was his prize for conquering her city. And then when Agamemnon took Chryseis, who was the daughter of the priest of Apollo, was Agamemnon’s War Prize, and then when the priest of Apollo came to take her back, Agamemnon’s said no. And then Apollo sent a plague upon the Greeks. That’s where “The Iliad” begins. Apollo is shooting his arrows of plague at the men. And so Agamemnon has to give up his girl, his war prize, his slave, back to her father. In revenge, he takes Achilles’s woman Briseis. And then Achilleas sulks in his tent.
JS” In “A Song of Achilles,” when Achilles took Briseis, that was very much set up as a heroic act. Because he was saving her and did not rape her. Is he portrayed that way in in the one that you read that is told from her point of view?
ZN: Oh, yeah. He’s this horrible rapist.
JS: Oh, interesting. So there really are a lot of different interpretations out there.
ZN: Yeah, definitely. The ancient Greeks were such a patriarchal society. Such a patriarchy. They were , was it rape? Was it sex? Was there a difference? It’s just so messed up and hard for the modern woman, and hopefully, man, to wrap their mind around, you know? In this and in that other book, “The Silence of the Girls,” it’s just living in this horrible situation where women have little to no value. I definitely prefer the more compassionate Achilles and a more compassionate ancient man.
JS: Yeah, I loved him in this book. I just thought and I thought their relationship was beautiful. And I assume that’s, you know, the truth. I get that we don’t know what truth is in terms of mythology, but I was really surprised at how many people said “I thought this was a retelling of Achilles, but t’s just a gay love story!” And I was , what do you think Achilles was? Do we not all already know that, even with my miniature knowledge of Greek mythology. But that’s not known, I guess.
ZN: Well, I think that it’s really been covered up. You know, I think that there’s been a real movement, especially with the Victorian archeologists, to change the narrative that they were not lovers but friends. And to pretend that homosexuality wasn’t a thing, when it so clearly was. Anybody who really studies the ancient world knows that was a sexual fluidity to it that we don’t have now. But there’s been a real movement to kind of hetero-wash, I’ve heard, the narrative to say that they were all what we would now call straight, even though there is no such thing back then.
JS: Madeline Miller, who wrote this, she’s really changing the tide of thought on that, isn’t she?
ZN: Well, I mean, she’s she’s really a classicist who tells the stories according to the myths. And so, it depends on who the audience is. I think of this as a love story. But, you know, if somebody says it’s a gay love story, it’s , that’s the marked language that you need to know that person’s uncomfortable with it. I mean, this is a truer version of Achilles.
JS: As I was reading this, I kept thinking this book should be given to high school students first.
JS: Do you think so? So you don’t think that they need to start with the source material?
ZN: I really feel the most important thing is for it to be accessible. Especially now when nobody can pay attention for more than two seconds. I feel people who are older and more serious can go to the source material and the poetry is really beautiful. It can be, depending on your translator. It’s really nice to get some of those sound bites in, but I feel the more important part is for it to be compelling, you know, to to spark interest, to find some commonalities. I was thinking in the beginning how Patroclus, he’s nobody. And then the really cute guy s him and he’s suddenly the special one. Which is , you know, every YA book or romance storyline. You’re just a regular, plain person and the vampire loves you. He sees what’s so special about you and nobody else does. Everybody loves that story because everyone can relate to that story, because we’ve all been that nobody who wants to be acknowledged by the hottie. I mean, it’s ridiculous. But, yeah, I totally thought about “Twilight” or hundreds of books that have that same theme: you’re the special one, but he’s the only one who can see it.
JS: It really does hit that trope. Even though we’re talking about an ancient story. I have such admiration for authors who have this skill, too. Because I did learn against my will, but also, she can tell a story. I could not put this book down.
ZN: So beautifully. Her language and her significant details – the soles of his feet. All the little details. It’s so beautiful. I felt parts of the book felt like poetry.
JS: I’ve never thought of listening to “The Iliad” on audio. That is a brilliant idea.
ZN: It blew me away because I just didn’t really have the time to sit down and read it like I had in the past. But while I was listening to it I was just picturing Homer gathered around some campfire or brazier and telling the story. And I was just getting groceries are getting out of my car or walking the dog or putting the kids to sleep. But it was so cool to have that in my ear, something that has been told for thousands of years.
JS: It really makes you part of a very ancient tradition.
ZN: Yes. Hearing it the way it’s supposed to be heard.
JS: Are your kids into the ancients at all? Do they do they pay attention to Greek mythology?
ZN: No, not really. Every generation rebels against the previous generation. I saved all my “Percy Jackson” books for them and they have very little interest. But they do know the stories. They had no choice. I tried to make them watch, try with me because I thought it would be fun. And it was they just kind of ruined it by talking the whole time. They only know about the Trojan horse. They didn’t know how it got there, who won, or what it was all about. But, you know I wasn’t really either at their age. It came out later. So there’s still hope.
JS: The other thing I want to ask you about is how is the Drunk Book Club doing? What are you guys up to? Tell me all about it.
ZN: Drunk Book Club is going five years going strong. We’re reading “Luster” by Raven Lelani ext week and I’m almost done with it, which is pretty good because most Drunk Book Club members read it the night before. It’s pretty impressive that an idea that came about at a party – hey, it’d be so much fun to have a book club, we can call it the Drunk Book Club! – actually is still happening.
JS: I would imagine they are drunker now that you’re meeting on Zoom?
ZN: Right. In many ways they are drunker.
JS: That is through the bookstore, right?
ZN: My husband used to work at Skylight. And then one of the members of DBC, as we call it, a couple of them worked at Skylight and one is the manager of Skylight. It’s great because some of them are in other book clubs as well. And so it’s just really nice to talk about books with people whose whole careers are about books.
JS: What do we know about Madeleine Miller? What she writing? She’s one of those authors who takes a long time between books, right?
ZN: I don’t know what she’s doing now, but I have heard that there’s supposed to be an HBO show on “Circe.”
JS: Oh, that’s such a good idea.
JS: Did you like “Circe”?
ZN: I did. And I was surprised because that was one of the Drunk Book Club books that everybody liked. Which is very rare, you know, people in a room and different opinions and stuff. I liked it a lot, but I was surprised to see that there were a lot of criticisms of it, you know. Circe wasn’t involved in all of those myths or it was too much of a span, but I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the point of view. My only issue is that these myths were retold by the last city standing. So we get the Athenian viewpoint for a lot of stories. And so I’m interested, in my own writing, in looking at it from a different perspective. But that didn’t stop me from really enjoying reading Madeline Miller’s more traditional Western Greek version.
JS: Do you mean that in your writing you’re writing from the conquered city point of view?
JS: A lot of times, yeah. Or the city that didn’t get to write the stories down. I’ve been really interested in the story of the Minotaur. Do you know the story?
JS: I know what a Minotaur is. That’s the bull right?
ZN: The story is the King Minos wanted to be king of Crete, and he had a dispute with his brothers. And then Poseidon sent him a bull from the sea to acknowledge his kingship of Crete. King Minos’ thought this bull was so beautiful that he sacrificed another bull in its place. And in revenge, Poseidon made Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, who is Circe’s sister, crazy in lust with the bull.
JS: As you do.
ZN: Which is what happens when your husband’s an idiot. And so she got Dedalus to build her a cow and she went inside the cow and had sex with the bull. And that’s how the Minotaur was born.
JS: because she was actually human inside the cow’s body.
ZN: Well, she’s – she’s a titan. Or, no, she’s a demi goddess.
JS: OK, so the person who interests you most in that story is Pasiphae?
ZN: Well, what interests me most in that story is the idea that the Athenians made up that story to slander her. They called her an enemy. A powerful woman, because she’s a witch queen, she had some magic. Right. So the thing in this story that interests me is that the Athenians basically made up the story to be she’s a bull fucker. How do we reframe that into making her the other thing? The gods don’t punish the guy who’s the jerk, right? They punish his wife. So, I mean, there’s that whole part of their pantheon. There’s a lot we don’t know about the Minoan world, but we know that they did have they did worship goddesses and women had a kind of power that women didn’t in Athens. I’ve started looking at these stories more. What does this actually mean? Looking at it at a deeper level and from a different perspective. So that’s what’s been really intriguing to me. But again, all of this doesn’t take away my enjoyment of reading the book, Circe, even though she fucked a bull.
JS: I love how you do that, how you take you read the story and then you go. I want to hear it from her point of view.
Z : That’s right.
JS: That’s so great.
ZN: Why would the Athenians be telling this story? It’s because there’s this powerful woman across the sea in this culture they don’t really understand. And so, you know, let’s make her look really bad. It’s just such a funny way to insult a group of people that worship a woman.
JS: Not only is she a slut…
ZN: I mean, it was a really hot bull.
JS: First of all, we do not slut shame on this show. Second of all, we haven’t seen him. No shame.
ZN: So that I mean, I just started looking at that story and wondering who told the stories about these ancient people and why.
JS: I want to thank you, first of all, for introducing me to this book, because I could not put it down. And it immediately went on my top 10 of the year, where I’m sure it will stay. Probably top ten of my life. I loved it so much the whole time I was reading, I was telling my kids, oh, my God, you got to read this book. I’ve got a son who’s a Percy Jackson maniac.
ZN: This is definitely the next level.
JS: Oh, yeah, he’s going to love it. And my daughter loves a good love story, so I cannot wait to pass this on to everybody. So thank you for putting this book in my hands. Why don’t you tell our listeners all the places they can find you online?
ZN: OK, I am almost everywhere online. My books are available on Amazon. I have an author page on Facebook and on Twitter, Instagram, and I have a website which is www.zenobianeil.com.
JS: Well, I want to thank you for joining me today. It is always so fun to talk to you and I can’t wait till we can actually do this in real life. So I don’t know. 2025, maybe?
ZN: Right. Yeah. Sounds good. Thank you for having me. It’s so much fun to talk about books with you.
JS: Thank you Zenobia. It’s been a delight and I hope you will come back soon.
ZN: Yeah. My pleasure.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, please go to our website BestBookEverPodcast.com, or follow the podcast on Instagram @BestBookEverPodcast. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me everywhere @JulieWroteABook. Remember when you’re doing your book shopping, please help support indie bookstores and this podcast by using my affiliate link at Bookshop.com/Bestbookever.
Thank you for joining me today and I will see you at the library.