Hello to all! I am Madeline Miller, author of CIRCE and THE SONG OF ACHILLES. AMA!
BIO: My background is in classics and classical literature, and my novels were inspired by the Iliad and the Odyssey. I'm also a theater-lover, Shakespeare director, former high school teacher, and current new kitten owner. You can find me at www.madelinemiller.com, and also sometimes on Instagram as @madeline.e.miller, Facebook and Twitter as @MillerMadeline.
In Greek myth, Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios, who infamously turns Odysseus' men into pigs. She's also the aunt of the Minotaur, the aunt of Medea, and one of the first witches in literature. But there's more to her than that...
UPDATE: Thank you so much to everyone for coming, and for the great questions and very kind comments! I'm sorry I can't reply to them all!
If you want more myth talk, I have two Circe events upcoming: 1) A live-stream talk tomorrow night at 7PM with indie bookstore Midtown Scholar, where I'm being interviewed by Classics Professor Helen Morales. https://www.midtownscholar.com/calendar/2020/4/17/live-with-madeline-miller-circe
And 2) Little Brown has chosen Circe as their readalong book for the next month! Details for how to join in: https://www.littlebrown.com/articles/circe-read-along/
Those chapters about Circe discovering her witchcraft in CIRCE were not intended to be a description of my writing process... but they kind of ended up that way. Lots of trial and error. Lots of writing and throwing away. Lots of trying things out, getting frustrated, and trying again. For me the breakthrough came when I got the first line of each novel. Then it was just a matter of following that thread. I had the anchor line.
A lot of it was instinct. As they say in theater, "follow the heat." If I am not interested in a story (like Circe turning Picus into a woodpecker), I can't make it interesting for the reader either. If I am obsessed with something, I trust that. I couldn't get the strange detail of Circe arming her son with a sting-ray tail spear out of my mind. That small detail turned into one of the most significant episodes in Circe's journey--a portal she has to go through. I had no idea why I needed that idea so much, or why it meant so much to me or where it would go--but when I got to the right moment, there it was.
Margaret Atwood says (I'm paraphrasing badly): If you realize you're lost, don't sit down in the middle of the road. Retrace your steps until you find where you have gone astray. I try to do that. I try to make sure that my characters are always acting like themselves.
My friends joke that I'm a "method writer"--that I put on my characters like an actor does. I think that's actually a pretty good way to describe it. All the hard part of this is up front--finding that voice, finding that character. Lots of times they surprise me. Patroclus was much more impulsive than I thought he would be. But I came to cherish that part of him. His impulses were always towards kindness and connection.
Hi Madeline, I really enjoyed both The Song of Achilles and Circe -- thank you for your sharp prose and nuanced depictions of such interesting characters.
Wanted to ask, who are some of your favorite characters from Greek myth who you feel are surprisingly underrepresented in modern media for how compelling and relevant they are?
I've been working on a video game called Hades that's from the point of view of the Underworld, and find it surprising that chthonic gods such as Nyx and Thanatos are so rarely portrayed (though I guess it's to our project's benefit!). I feel like there are many others.
Oooh, great question! And thanks for working to give attention to overlooked voices! I don't know if Medusa counts as underrepresented, but I would love to see a really deep dive into her story. There is a lot of resonance there: anxiety about female power, plus blaming victims. In one story she is raped by Poseidon in Athena's temple, and Athena turns her into a Gorgon as punishment for defiling the temple. Poseidon of course is not punished.
Pandora, who is an Eve figure. A woman who gets blamed for all the troubles of the world because she is THINKING TOO MUCH (that's how I interpret being "too curious". I am working on a short story about her currently).
Hera. Yes, I know she get a lots of attention in many stories, but it's all such negative attention. She's always the shrew/harpy/nag/scold/fill-in-the-sexist-stereotype-here. I'd love to see a complicated and three-dimensional portrait of her.
Juturna from the Aeneid, who is sexually assaulted by Zeus then forced to take a pay off she doesn't want to stop talking about it.
I'm sorry all I can think of are depressing ones!
Hi, I love your work! How involved are you on the HBO adaptation of Circe?
Basically not at all! But that is okay with me. I know nothing about the small screen, nothing about screenwriting. I spent a lot of time talking to the people I gave the book to, and a lot of time in the beginning speaking to the writers. They were so passionate about the book, and Circe's story, and were thinking so deeply about it. I felt like they "got" it. I can't wait to see how it comes out!
I would love to hear about what kind of story you writing now! I really loved Circe and The song of Achilles (cried a lot at the ending too) Do you plan an other greek mythology book?
Thank you so much for the kind words! I have two things I'm working on: in the far distant future, a novel inspired by the Aeneid. I find Vergil the most personally moving of all the ancient poets, because of his deep humanism.
And currently, a novel based on my other love: Shakespeare. A story inspired by The Tempest has been bubbling away in my brain for about ten years. I’m focusing on Caliban and Miranda. And of course, there’s a nice Circe connection, since The Tempest is also about magic and witches and islands!
Do you have any recommendations (books, online resources, etc.) for other writers who want to explore ancient Greece and/or the ancient world in general?
Yes! Emily Wilson's translation of the Odyssey is a must. Truly wonderful, and so smart. And the forward and introduction are both gems in their own right. And her twitter feed is amazing! She's working on the Iliad currently and posting her thought process as she composes. What a treat to see a brilliant scholar and artist at work.
I love Anne Carson's translation of Sappho, IF NOT, WINTER. While we're on the topic, Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red is one of my favorite myth adaptations.
Mary Beard is a wonderful place to dig in--she has lots of books, and also lots of TV segments.
Bettany Hughes' Helen of Troy.
www.theoi.com is a great online resource that cites all its sources.
I can tell I'm going to be editing this with more, but will stop there for now!
So we've seen a pretty big shift in how popular culture views queer/LGBT stories over the last 10 years, but do you feel the academic world has changed its attitude re: Achilles and Patroclus since The Song of Achilles was released? Or have they been slower to adapt?
I'm only tangentially in academia right now, so I can't promise that I have my finger on the pulse of this (those more knowledgeable please speak up!) but my outsider perception is that it has absolutely changed. For one thing, students are making it change--hooray for the next generation of Classicists! But I think that change is being welcomed and supported by professors--and in many cases beautifully led by professors.
An anecdote about this: I was very nervous to tell my beloved mentor that I had written a novel about Achilles and Patroclus, because I was worried he would think it was frivolous/blasphemous to rewrite a myth. His first reaction was: "I certainly hope you made them lovers!" (He loved the novel).
Did you always know you would start with the story of Achilles and Patroclus? Or did you change your mind at all?
It was always Achilles and Patroclus. Or really, Patroclus. He grabbed hold and wouldn't let go. I never considered anything else.
Is there any new news about the Circe miniseries that’s being developed?
Still in progress, via virtual means!
How do you feel when reading other re-interpretations of The Iliad or The Odyssey? Do you enjoy them, or do you just find yourself thinking something like "That's not how my version of Achilles/Odysseus/Penelope/etc would behave."
Usually I enjoy them! Because what I love about these stories is that they belong to all of us, and there is no definitive version. And I love being shown something new about characters that I haven't seen before. Recently Madeleine George's play, HURRICANE DIANE, a retelling of the Bacchae, blew me away. Her view of Pentheus is the opposite of mine, and I have always thought I'd write about him one day, but I loved having her show me something I'd never considered!
I do sometimes get frustrated if I feel the version hasn't done battle intellectually with the story, hasn't gone deep enough. But I think that's true for any story, not just adaptations of myth!
How do you find hope and stay optimistic in these times? Is there anything in classical literature you turn to?
The ancients had a saying: there is nothing new under the sun. The Iliad begins with a plague, and King Agamemnon’s refusal to deal with it is what kicks off the entire plot. There is some comfort for me in knowing that we are not alone here. Humanity has walked these paths before, even if we personally haven’t. Of course, sometimes that thought is depressing too!
I am finding comfort in stories of courage—of our ability to work together to solve a terrifying problem. I was researching Egyptian mythology the other day and found resonance in the story of the Goddess Sekhmet, a terrifying lion with an endless appetite for drinking human blood. (Stick with me here, the comfort part is coming). After she is loosed on the world, people set aside their differences and work together. They make a giant vat of beer (!!) which they dye red to make it look like blood. She drinks it, and calms down. Human ingenuity, human courage, caring for each other, working for the greater good. That is what comforts me right now. And there is so much cause for comfort and hope. I see kindnesses around me every day--people banding together, people helping each other, and of course the tremendous courage of all those out there risking themselves to keep us fed, safe, and healthy.
What was it like stringing together the magic in The Odyssey that Circe uses and the magic Circe uses in your novel?
The Odyssey is very vague about the herbs Circe uses, and focuses only on the effect of the spells, not the mechanics themselves. So I made lists of all the plants that showed up in ancient sources: myths, healing texts, even recipes. I tried to use spell components for Circe which had significance to the ancients that resonated with her intentions for the spell, even if that resonance was going to be invisible to everyone but me. I treated the spells a bit like poetry.
And then there's moly. In the Odyssey it's used against Circe to protect Odysseus--so I took its effect as generally apotropaic and allowed Circe to use it in other spells for her own protection.
In the Odyssey, Circe's power is a threat. But witchcraft comes from dedication, experience, skill, knowledge. In other words, it's an art.
How did your time at Brown shape your career as a writer? Do you have any favorite memories of Brown?
Brown had so much to do with my becoming a writer, even though I didn’t take a single writing course there. For one thing, it fed me as a thinker and as a reader. There were so many passionate professors there who were role models to me. In particular my two mentors, Michael Putnam and Joseph Pucci, who were brilliant scholars and teachers, and who believed in me from the beginning. I still refer to my notebooks from their classes.
Also, my friends. We all lived within twenty feet of each other freshman year, but that random beginning gave way to lasting, deep friendship. All of them suffered through drafts of novels which will never see the light of day, but which were how I learned to tell stories. The fact that they continued to cheer me on despite the dreck I made them read helped me keep faith in myself.
Endless trips to our favorite restaurant, Kabob and Curry (seriously we ate there so much that when we came back for our ten year reunion, the host remembered us and brought us champagne!) I’m crediting them with writing brain fuel.
And of course, it was at Brown that I decided to co-direct a production of Troilus and Cressida for the Shakespeare group, Shakespeare on the Green. That production changed my life profoundly, by making me realize that 1) I needed Shakespeare directing in my life and 2) That master's thesis about Achilles and Patroclus should really be a novel.
Phew, sorry I am writing novels here! Now you see why Circe took me seven years….
Is there a Chance that TSOA will make it into the series as well?
No plans for this currently. I will say that my dearest wish for TSOA is to see it on the stage!
Hello! 2 questions, 1) As an author, when you're writing a book how exactly do you know that a story is done?
2) Also, will the Circe series be having open casting calls or is there someone my agent can get into contact with for casting?
I know I'm done when I'm down to the level of fiddling with punctuation. (And this stage can go on a long time if I don't stop myself!)
I don't have any information about casting, or anything like that, I'm so sorry! I am not even sure where that all is. But I promise if I get some I can share, I will!
You've often talked about the effort it took you to find Patroclus and Circe's voices. I'm wondering if you can speak about how you thought about their journeys--how did you go about plotting the chapters of their narratives, and filling in the biographical gaps left behind from ancient myth?
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