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Interview: Madeline Miller, turning the camera to female in classics

Devina Heriyanto
Devina Heriyanto

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, April 25, 2018  /  04:35 pm
Interview: Madeline Miller, turning the camera to female in classics

Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles and Circe (Bloomsbury/Nina Subin)

Greek mythology is no stranger to Madeline Miller, whose debut book The Song of Achilles tells the story of the hero Achilles and his relationship with Patroclus. The bold approach earned her the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2012 and then the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Miller’s newest book, Circetells the stories of women who are often forgotten in epic tales, centering on Circe, a minor god who appears in the Odyssey by Homer. 

In the age of #MeToo, Miller’s Circe is a fitting and astonishingly powerful example on what happens when women get to tell their stories.

The Jakarta Post talks to Miller about her newest book, women in classic stories and plans for future work.

First thing’s first, among all the characters in Greek mythology, why Circe?

She has fascinated me since I was a child. She is neither villainous nor saintly, but complex. When Odysseus first meets her, she turns his men to pigs, but then she changes his men back, and aids him on his journey. I wanted to dig into the mysteries surrounding her: Why is she transforming men to pigs? Why is she drawn to Odysseus? How has she come to live on her island among tame lions and wolves?

And of course, she’s the first witch in Western literature. She literally makes her own spell-craft, through hard work and knowledge of herbs, and she also stands at the nexus of a number of powerful ancient myths. Aside from her relationship with Odysseus, she is the daughter of the great Titan sun-god Helios, and aunt to Medea, Ariadne and the Minotaur. In the Odyssey, she’s a cameo in Odysseus’ journey. I wanted to flip the story, and set her life at the center of the narrative.

What was the most difficult part of writing Circe?

The first five years! As with The Song of Achilles, I spent a lot of time writing pages and throwing them away, trying to understand my protagonist. After many false starts, I finally saw my path through her story. I need to be able to hear her in my head, as if she is standing before me, narrating the progress of her life.

The most astonishing thing about Circe to me personally is how complex the female characters are, especially Circe and Penelope. How much is from the source material and how much is your own creation?

Unfortunately, we don’t see very much—if any—of Penelope or Circe’s inner lives in the ancient poems, which is partially why I wanted to write the book—I wanted these characters to have the same scope and fully-fleshed lives that the men have traditionally been given. But the ancient literature does give a few tantalizing hints that I built upon. 

Circe has been vilified as a scheming witch for centuries, but Homer is more even-handed. Yes, she turns men to pigs, but she also helps Odysseus, allowing him to stay on her island for a year, and offering him vital advice in navigating his path forward.  Penelope shows tremendous cleverness and strength of will in surviving years of the suitors occupying her house. So they aren’t just ciphers as some of the ancient heroines are. 

Often it is seen as a revolutionary thought: That women in fiction should be just as interesting, conflicted, messy and noble as the men. Of course they should be!

Your debut book The Song of Achilles is also a retelling of Greek mythology. Can we expect the next book to come from Homer as well?

I don’t think so. I loved writing in Homer’s vivid, expansive and thrilling world, but these were the two characters of his who possessed me, and now that I’ve finished their stories, I’m being drawn in a different direction. I’m interested in Vergil’s Aeneid, and also Shakespeare’s Tempest, so my next novel may be inspired by one of those.

You told the Wall Street Journal that you discarded a manuscript after five years of writing and began The Song of Achilles from scratch again. Did you do the same thing for Circe? How different is the finished book from the first draft?

I didn’t have a finished manuscript of Circe that I discarded, but I certainly threw out a manuscript’s length of pages. I work my way through the story by trying things out, realizing they don’t work and getting rid of them. The first attempts are completely different from what ends up in the book.  One or two things stick around, but even those are substantially reworked. One of the oldest ideas in the book is the episode where Circe visits her sister on Crete. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say: if you have the chance to write a Minotaur birth scene as a writer, I feel you are obligated to take it!

In writing a modern retelling of a classic, how do you find inspiration?

I am drawn in by the desire to tell a story that has been overshadowed or hidden. With The Song of Achilles it was giving voice to the passionate bond between Patroclus and Achilles. With Circe, I wanted to turn the camera from Odysseus to this powerful, clever woman, and try to learn how she was able to carve out so much independence in a world which was hostile to her.

Read also: Book Review: 'Circe' weaves female perspective into Greek mythology

You have a bachelor's and master's in Classics. How much does this influence your writing? If you had studied something else, what would you have been writing about instead?

When I write, I have to be passionately in love with the story I’m telling, and I have so much love for the Classics, that it makes sense to me that it has inspired my writing. But other things inspire me also—theater and Shakespeare, family, and human complexity, which is eternal through the centuries. I go anywhere the stories lead me, which may not always be in the ancient world. (mut)