An Interview with Madeline Miller
Circe is Madeline Miller's follow-up to the 2011 New York Times Bestseller The Song of Achilles. She says the characters in Greek mythology, and Circe, in particular, are relevant today because they have the same joys and struggles – even dysfunctional families. Miller adds, "I am wishing everyone very happy, epic, reading!"
Our full interview with Madeline Miller follows. Watch for details about her April 11, 2019 visit and other related programs.
That was something that I thought about explicitly – making the book a way to bring people into the world of myth for the first time. In the ancient world, these stories were for everyone – they were passed down from generation to generation as entertainment. I wanted to honor that fact in the way I told the story.
And the ancient myths lend themselves to rediscovery, because they tell such eternal human stories, still relevant today – parents and children, love, vengeance, hope, despair, war. Gods and monsters aside, they are intensely human. At its heart, the "Odyssey" is about an exhausted man who is desperate to get home to his family. These stories have lived so long because they still have something to tell us about the human condition!
The Greek myths have been rewritten and retold in nearly every generation since they were created. Homer is the oldest version of these stories that we have, but Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides revisited them, as did Plato, Vergil, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, James Joyce, Margaret Atwood, Derek Walcott, and thousands upon thousands more. Myths live because they are told and retold – there is no such thing as a definitive myth, and that's a good thing! All of those authors offered new perspectives, adding to the story over the years. It's an honor to be part of that tradition, and to do my part to help keep these stories alive.
For me, many of Circe's experiences are timeless – dealing with a dysfunctional family, working to find your place and your voice, raising a child (Circe's a single mother), learning how to stand up for yourself, how to find your passion, how to persist in the face of setbacks. As a woman, Circe struggles with being silenced, abused, undermined and kept from the halls of power. It is startling how often women still have to contend with those things today, three millennia later. This is also a story about empathy, which is a timeless human good. Empathy is what allows us to understand each other, and find common ground.
In the "Odyssey," Circe is an incredibly vivid figure: a goddess with tame lions and wolves, with the power to turn men to pigs. That is unusual for an ancient Greek woman, and I was interested in how she came to be in such an extraordinary situation. In the "Odyssey," Homer doesn't give any explanation or reason for her turning men to pigs, and later authors seemed to imply that it was just because she was evil by nature. I think that's a dull answer: people have reasons for doing what they do, and I wanted to try to reconstruct her history and what those motivations might be.
Also, Circe has several fascinating myths about her that have nothing to do with Odysseus or pigs: she's the daughter of the sun-god Helios, the cousin to Prometheus, aunt to Medea and the Minotaur. And then of course there's the fact that she's the first witch in Western Literature. She's born a nymph with no control over her own destiny, and literally invents her own path!
As a writer, I enjoy digging into all of my characters, even the villains — in order for each character to feel like a fully fleshed person, I have to imagine myself inside their head and grapple with their desires and hopes and motivations, however unpleasant those might be. That said, there are always characters that are a special pleasure to work with. Penelope, Odysseus' brilliant wife, was one of those. Like Circe, she is a veiled figure in the Odyssey, but I would argue that Homer shows her as even more clever than her clever husband — certainly more self-disciplined.
Daedalus was another favorite, and Telemachus. I appreciate their willingness to follow their own path, and their integrity.
I don't identify with her very much, but I loved creating Pasiphae, Circe's sister! I can't believe she hasn't had her own novel yet – the mother of the Minotaur can't help but be an interesting person!
The Greek myths are engaging on lots of levels. For one thing, they are just great stories: exciting, passionate, tragic, terrifying. They're filled with larger-than-life heroes, monsters, catastrophe, and derring-do. All that aside, they are our stories. We don't go to war in chariots anymore, but we still go to war. We grieve, hope, love, and despair. The combination of that humanity and the exciting trappings has kept us coming back for millennia.
I spent a lot of time reading and rereading Circe's section in Homer's "Odyssey." I was looking for two things: hints about her character, and also moments where I could reframe and reinterpret the action, moving it from Odysseus' perspective to hers.
One of the most intriguing details about her in the "Odyssey" is Homer's description of her as the "dread goddess who speaks like a mortal." To me that suggested that she was a person caught between two worlds, the divine and the mortal, belonging fully to neither. An outsider.
I was also interested by the fact that Circe's gotten such a bad reputation in pop culture—Circe is usually remembered as a villain and man-hater. But that's actually not Homer's Circe at all. Yes, she turns his men to pigs, but after she and Odysseus come to an understanding, she invites him and his men to stay on her island and recover from their travails, and offers Odysseus vital advice for his journey ahead. She ends up being one of the most helpful characters he encounters. I wanted to restore that fullness to her personality, making her both menacing and benevolent.
Most of all, I tried to put Circe at the center of everything. In the Odyssey, she's only a cameo: everything is filtered through Odysseus' story. She's first an obstacle to him, then an alluring reward, then a helper. But Circe would naturally see those moments quite differently. In her story, Odysseus is the cameo!
Circe is born into a society that structurally doesn't grant her any power. In fact, at every turn she's belittled, disrespected and objectified. So she has a choice: she can live with that, or she can find a way to fight for herself. She chooses to fight.
It's the old story of those who are disenfranchised. No one was ever going to give women the right to vote — women had to raise their voices and demand it. No one was ever going to stop slavery without a fight either. Even some who believed slavery was ultimately wrong still supported it because it made them money, and made their lives easier. It took lots and lots of people speaking up and putting their lives on the line to cause change. They were determined, and they didn't give up on what they knew was right. Those people aren't made of steel like Superman, but that's what makes them so heroic: they stood up, even knowing the cost to themselves. I wanted Circe's story to come from that tradition, though I agree that it resonates with the world of comic book origin stories too. Circe even has an actual comic book role — she's the villain in some of the Wonder Woman storylines.
I think that Odysseus has gotten a better reputation in the modern world than he deserves! Today he's the most beloved of the ancient heroes. He's an underdog with a great wife. He's also the smart one, who resonates with our preference of brains to brawn. All of that makes him very appealing to the modern sensibility.
But if you go back to the ancients, they had a much more mixed view of him. All the unflattering stories that I tell about him in the novel are directly from ancient mythology - I didn't make up any of them! He's the ultimate pragmatist, not afraid to kill sleeping, unarmed enemy soldiers if that makes his life easier. He's short-tempered, often lets his pride get the better of him, and lies his way across the Mediterranean, even when he doesn't have to. When we talk about heroes today we mean people who are moral exemplars. The ancient heroes had faults as great as their strengths. Both Achilles and Odysseus make disastrous decisions in their respective epics, and rain down destruction on those around them. I think that moral ambiguity actually makes them more interesting characters to explore!
My academic background and training is in Classics, so in a sense I feel like I've been researching this novel for much of my life. I spent a lot of time reading my primary sources in their original Greek and Latin. I spent a lot of time reading secondary scholarship on them as well. I also did significant research into material culture—ancient looms for instance, or the type of jewelry someone might wear on Crete in the Bronze Age. I wanted to find specific ancient artifacts to inspire me, and help me make the world more vivid for readers.
I also did some travel that helped with writing the book. I've spent time in Greece and Turkey, and I also toured the Amalfi Coast, which is one of the areas where the ancients believed that Aiaia, Circe's island, was. I didn't want the island to be any one place, but I wanted it to have elements of all those places, and visiting them helped me conjure the smells and sounds of Aiaia for myself, and readers too.
Thank you so much to the Springfield-Greene County Library for choosing Circe for the One Read, and for all they do to connect readers with books! I am wishing everyone very happy, epic, reading!