Interview with Madeline Miller, Author of Circe

Madeline Miller is the author of The Song of Achilles (Ecco, 2012), a novel that won the Orange Prize for Fiction and had me hooked from page one. On the surface it was a retelling of the famous warrior’s life, but at its heart, it was a romance told from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’ lover. I read the book in one long sitting and so when her new novel, Circe (Little, Brown, 2018) came out I devoured it, too. Could it be as good? YES. Just published and already it’s a New York Times bestseller, an Amazon April Spotlight Pick, the #1 ALA Library Reads Pick for April, and on, and on. To say it’s being heaped with praise is an understatement. And I get it.

Under Miller’s spell, Circe is transformed from the crusty witch I thought I knew (the one who transformed Odysseus’ men into pigs) into a Goddess who is as powerful as she is weak, and revealing both sides makes her irresistible. Miller traces Circe’s life from her childhood in Helios’ halls where she meets Prometheus, to her exile on Aiaia where she is launched into meeting Daedalus, Odysseus, Medea, the Minotaur and more. Circe grows stronger with each confrontation and this strength enables her to achieve the most difficult transformation of all – becoming human.

While the story is tremendous, what really got me was the way Miller brought a modern, feminist reading to so many of the ancient tales I thought I’d known, showing that women’s struggle for power and independence is as timely now as it was in the days of the Odyssey. Read this book. You’ll learn from it. And you’ll love it. We at Dead Darlings were thrilled when she agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff:

Most of our readers are writers—and we want to know: Madeline, are you an outliner or a pantser?

I confess that I had to Google “pantser.”  My previous association with the word is someone who pulls another person’s pants down, which didn’t seem right!  For the record, I am definitely not that sort of pantser, but it turns out that I am a bit of the other kind. In writing Circe I used four major plot touchstones from mythology, plus the ending which I had in mind from my earliest conception of the book.  Other than that, everything else was pantsing. For me, the most important thing is getting the character’s emotional arc right, which means that I can’t imagine chapter eight until I’ve written chapter seven. I don’t know who Circe is going to be, and therefore what she will do, until she gets there.

How long did it take you to write this book?

Seven years.

How often did you consult original sources v. write from what you already knew and imagined? And, was your goal to honor the myth or create a new myth?

I’ve come to realize that I’ve been describing Circe incorrectly for months. My one sentence description of The Song of Achilles was: “A retelling of the myths around the Greek hero Achilles from the perspective of his lover Patroclus.” So when Circe came out, I started off calling it a “retelling” too.  But I realized that this was misleading people. I saw numerous write ups of my book calling it a “retelling of the Odyssey”—which it definitely is not!  It does retell the Circe episode from the Odyssey, but that’s only two chapters of the novel.  Just as Circe is a cameo in Odysseus’ story, so he is a cameo in hers.

I think the novel is more accurately a “re-imagining” or a “re-invention.” I do use those four myths I mentioned—Circe, Scylla and Glaucus from Ovid, Circe and Medea from Apollonius of Rhodes, the Circe and Odysseus from Odyssey, and Circe and Telegonus from the lost epic Telegony. Everything else is invention and extrapolation. I wanted to create a new myth, a new epic specifically, since women’s lives have traditionally not been considered important enough for epic. Epic poetry always centers on traditionally male stories, war, inheritance, death.  But one of the most epic things I can imagine is birth—which has been excluded from epic poetry because it’s traditionally female. So very deliberately, there are birth scenes in this novel. (Also, given the chance to write a minotaur birth scene I think you pretty much have to take it.)

I wanted the novel to be grounded in one woman’s experience.  Gods and monsters aside, this is a story of a woman coming of age, and into her power.

Our readers LOVE this one. What was the biggest editorial change you made while editing Circe?

In very early drafts I had given Telemachus a narrative chapter of his own.  In many ways I see him as a mirror to Circe—just as she struggles with the constraints that society places on her as a woman, he struggles with the constraints of being a hero’s son.  He doesn’t want to follow in his father Odysseus’ bloody footsteps, but that’s the only path that society wants him to take. If he wants to defy that, he has to, like Circe, strike out on his own. All of those ideas remained, but having him narrate his own chapter broke the novel.  The whole point of the story is that it’s Circe’s! As soon as I cut that chapter, the novel started working again. And Telemachus still tells his story, he just tells it to Circe. That puts the emphasis on their interaction, and on Circe’s experience of him, which is where it should be.  However, I’m grateful that I spent so much time writing out the whole chapter from Telemachus’ perspective, even though it didn’t make the novel. It helped me hear his voice and understand his character with more nuance.

Moving along to content. Or should I say to translation? One thing that struck me in Circe, that was also true in Emily Wilson’s Odyssey (WW Norton, 2017) was the unabashed look at Odysseus’ household. In particular, you and Wilson are deliberate in saying the women in the household were raped by Penelope’s suitors – in direct opposition to the traditional/ romantic portrayal of these women as maids who willingly took the suitors to their beds. What made you decide to take that stand? Have readers/ critics challenged you on this? And any chance you’re starting a trend?

I love that Emily Wilson emphasized that, and I wouldn’t have written the novel any other way.  It is tradition to refer to those women as “maids” but the word in Greek means female house-slave.  As in, property.  People who literally don’t own their own bodies.  These epic stories are largely about aristocrats, whose society functions on slave labor. I didn’t want the ugliness of that whitewashed out.  The suitors are male aristocrats, in the prime of their lives. What’s going to happen to these female slaves with no status if they refuse them? Given the situation, I think consent is impossible. And Circe, who has been treated as a pawn and prey for much of her life, recognizes that.

Sticking to feminism, let’s talk about the incredible conversation between sisters Circe and Pasiphae, the one that happens just after Circe helps Pasiphae give birth to the Minotaur. This was my favorite scene in the book. Hands down. Circe says: For once in your life, speak the truth and Pasiphae does. She says the only thing that makes men listen is power. It is not enough to be good, to please them in bed. And for them, the sisters, their only power can come from witchcraft. Why did you create this conversation? And tell us more about how you connect sorceresses to monsters.

That scene was a linchpin of the novel for me.  Circe spends the first part of the novel looking at the women around her with some degree of internalized misogyny.  Pasiphae and Scylla are, in her opinion, both shallow and unsympathetic. She feels her own constraints acutely, but doesn’t see how those would chafe other women the same way. In this scene she begins to understand that they are all struggling with the same thing. She has spent her life defining herself against her sister, but now she sees that they have simply taken different paths to the same goal: independence, autonomy, control over their own destiny.  It’s one of the signs of psychological maturity to be able to have more than one feeling about something: Circe can dislike her sister’s behavior, but still also understand and even empathize with her reasoning.

I also wanted to highlight the poverty of choices available to women then (and often now).  If women act in traditionally approved ways they get stepped on; if they wield power like men, they’re reviled.  The only way that Pasiphae can have any agency in the world is to make men afraid of her—to leverage her witchcraft and charisma against them. To become a “monster.” But that means she has to live her life in a constant battle, using her power as cruelly as possible.  One of the things I wanted to explore in the novel is the abuse of power. Is it possible to have power, and not abuse it? Is there a model for benevolent strength?

Circe has another, similar and incredible, conversation about the place of women in their world with the great witch Medea after she helps cleanse her niece of her crimes. Why did you include this conversation instead of just letting Medea and Jason sail away?

It was such a treat to imagine this meeting—two such powerful, intelligent and complex women at such completely different times in their life. The two great witches of ancient literature!  I think Circe sees in Medea a chance at true connection, and also the chance to offer someone the sort of help she wishes she had gotten. But that sort of hard-won experience can’t be passed on through advice.  Medea, like all of us when we are young, has to make her own mistakes.

I also wanted to look at different reactions to trauma. Both Circe and Medea grew up around hideous violence.  This has helped Circe to be more empathetic, while Medea has learned that no one else will look out for her, so she has to do it herself.  I think those are both very common ways to respond to childhood abuse, and as with Pasiphae, I wanted to show that they are both struggling with the same ugliness, but attempting to deal with it in different ways.

One more content question. I can’t help it. Circe seemed mostly passive, hiding on her island, until her son sails away under Athena’s eye. As he embarks, for the first time, Circe challenges her father and takes control of her future. Why did it take her son leaving to make this change? What were you thinking about as you wrote through this final chapter in Circe’s life – and what do you want us to think about as we read it?

There is so much going on in Circe’s life at that point, so many threads coming together.  I do think that there is something about seeing a child off into the world that provides a certain freedom and change in perspective.  So much of Circe’s attention has been consumed with the minutiae of child-raising, the head down, daily grind of parenting. Now suddenly she can stop and look around her.  She has time to think in a way she hasn’t before, to take stock of the changes that have crept over her.

A character observes that Telegonus closely resembles his mother. It is of course part of why Telegonus often drives Circe wild with his impulsiveness—because in her life she’s had to pay dearly for that kind of trusting innocence.  In allowing him to set off for adventure, she is able to acknowledge that that impulse is not just a liability but a gift as well.

But it’s not just Telegonus that helps her change, I think it’s also the connection with Penelope, and with Telemachus too.  And some of it is simply feeling, finally, like a grown up.

As they came to the final chapter, I wanted people to be thinking about change.  The Greek gods do not change: they are always the same, selfish, absorbed only in themselves, cruel, grasping.  Circe has come to see such stasis as death. As life moves around us, we must move and learn with it, or else we are not truly living.

Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?

I just finished How to Be Safe, by Tom McAllister.  It is the perfect book for the moment, laying bare the deadly hypocrisies of our culture.  Angry, darkly funny, feminist, down to the bone. I’ve just started The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, which based on the first two chapters, I am going to adore. Great story-telling.

In general, I love to recommend Lily King.  What a tremendous, beautiful writer. I love her novels The Father of the Rain and Euphoria. I also love the works of Mary Doria Russell.  James Baldwin has been a touchstone all my life—any book by him is wonderful.  And Hilary Mantel. Everyone knows that her Cromwell novels are brilliant, but her other writing is terrific too.  I particularly enjoyed her memoir, Giving up the Ghost.  And I loved The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, as well as his very (very) different, Zone One.

About Madeline Miller: Madeline Miller has a BA and MA from Brown University in Latin and Ancient Greek, and has been teaching both for the past nine years. She has also studied at the Yale School of Drama, specializing in adapting classical tales to a modern audience. The Song of Achilles, her first novel, was the winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012. Her new novel, Circe, is a New York Times bestseller, an Amazon April Spotlight Pick, and the #1 ALA Library Reads Pick. Find out more at Madeline Miller.

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