Madeline Miller is an American novelist. Her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 for its portrayal of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in Ancient Greece. She spent ten years writing the book while working as a Latin and Greek teacher.
1. Who were your literary influences and heroes as you were growing up?
One of the first books to really affect me was Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I was thirteen when I read it, and most of it went over my head, but Hugo’s condemnation of hypocrisy, and his passionate empathy for those who are treated unjustly, struck deep.
Then as a teenager I discovered Lorrie Moore and Margaret Atwood. I read everything they’d written, and fell in love with their sharp and poetic use of words, their complex characters (particularly their complex women), and their obvious pleasure in language itself.
T.S. Eliot was another pillar of my early literary life. I must have listened to his reading of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock a hundred times in high school; I can still hear his intonations on every line.
And I have to mention Watership Down, by Richard Adams, which is one of those wonderful books that can make the jump from childhood to adulthood. It’s steeped in the ancient epic tradition, but it’s also just brilliant, engaging story-telling. After reading it, I hoped that if I ever wrote a book it would be half as exciting!
2. When was your first exposure to the Classics, and when did you think ‘I’d really like to write something like that’?
My mother used to read me pieces of the Iliad and the Odyssey as bedtime stories when I was a child, and I completely fell in love. I can still remember the shiver that went through me at the first line of the Iliad: “Sing, goddess, of the destructive rage of Achilles.”
I read everything I could find on Greek myths, and began to study Latin and Greek in school, eventually getting my degree and Master’s in Classics. All that time I was also writing, but the pieces were contemporary. I never considered writing fiction based on Homer until I was asked to direct a production of Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s version of the Iliad. It’s such a wonderful play: acid, angry, and incredibly funny. It was a revelation to bring these famous heroes to life on the stage. It made me realize that I didn’t just want to write papers about Achilles and Patroclus, I wanted to write a novel.
3. Circe is a secondary character in the Odyssey. What attracted you to write about her?
She’s such a wonderfully vivid figure in the Odyssey: a terrifying and beautiful witch-goddess who keeps tame lions and wolves, and turns men into pigs. But she’s just a cameo: no sooner does she appear than Odysseus is already sailing away. Homer tells us nothing of her inner life, or how she got to be the way she is.
I wanted to explore those mysteries, to expand her story and set her at the center of her own epic. I also loved Homer’s description of her as “speaking like a mortal.” I was immediately intrigued: what does it mean to be a goddess who speaks like a human? To me it suggested that she was a figure caught between worlds, belonging to neither, the ultimate outsider.
Circe is also fascinating because of the way she relates to so many other famous myths: she’s the Titan Helios’ daughter, the Minotaur and Medea’s aunt, and Prometheus’ cousin.
Last but definitely not least, there’s the fact that she’s the first witch in western literature. She’s born a nymph, one of the lesser goddesses, into a society that treats her like a pawn, giving her no agency or control over her destiny. So she literally invents her own power. Gods and monsters aside, to me this is the story of a person who rejects the identity given her by her family, and instead fights to carve out her own.
4. At what point did you feel you had found the voices of the main characters in Circe?
Somewhere around year five, out of seven. I mentioned my theatre background, and for me finding the voice of my narrator is something like the process of an actor getting into character. I have to be able to fully inhabit her skin, see through her eyes, speak with her voice. I spend a lot of time writing and throwing things out, trying to find my way in and one day it just clicks, usually after I figure out the first sentence.
Once I do, the other characters also tend to emerge. I like how sometimes characters surprise me — Daedalus, the master craftsman of the ancient world, was originally going to be a cameo. But he just kept drawing my (and Circe’s) attention.
5. If you could rewrite anyone else’s book in your own style, which would you choose?
There’s an old bit of writing advice (I’m not sure who said it first) that you should write the novel that you, and only you, can write. Novels come from such deep ore, I think it would be a trespass to rewrite someone else’s with my style.
Retellings, however, are a different matter. Taking a story and speaking back to it by changing the perspective is an old and esteemed tradition. I love Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Geraldine Brooks’ March, which is an expansion of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women from Mr March’s perspective, and John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, which among other things makes the case that Hamlet is a self-absorbed, destructive pill. And the Aeneid, which is Virgil’s Roman version of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
So, in that tradition, I would love to retell stories from the Aeneid, and from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
6. Do you have a message for your many readers in Suffolk Libraries?
Thank you so much for reading! It is always an honor that someone would choose to spend their time with my work, especially in a world where we are all so rushed and have so little time to spare. It’s because of you that I have been able to live immersed in my two oldest and greatest passions, Classics and the written word. I am very grateful — we writers are nothing without you!
I also feel a special connection to libraries: my mother was a librarian, and I spent many happy hours as a child wandering stacks and discovering treasures. So thank you also for supporting libraries by continuing to use them!
7. Can you tell us one thing that your readers might not know about you?
Such a tricky question, because it involves guessing what my readers might have guessed about me. Here goes:
For someone who loves Greece as much as I do, I have a terrible tolerance for the sun. I burn in about two minutes. So I am the owner of several gigantically-brimmed and sun-blocking hats that I wear in nearly all weather. I don’t know about the UK, but in America that’s definitely weird. Luckily, I’m an author, which seems to carry with it expectations of a certain amount of wardrobe eccentricity.