Interview by Tizzy Brown
Circe was the Girls’ Night In book club pick for October. We sat down with author Madeline Miller to learn more about her inspiration behind the book, and how she practices self-care.
Writing & Career
How would you describe Circe’s character in one sentence?
Circe is a passionately empathetic and strong-willed woman who is determined to find her place, and keep transforming herself.
What drew you to Circe’s story and what compelled you to tell it in a different light?
Since I was a child reading these myths, I have been drawn to Circe’s complexity and mystery: why is she turning men to pigs? How did she come to her power? Why does she decide to help Odysseus? I was fascinated as well by the fact that she is the first witch in Western literature, and has a rich life outside the Odyssey. She is related to numerous Greek gods, and her story touches many other myths, including Medea, the Minotaur, and Daedalus. But in the Odyssey, she is only a cameo. I wanted her to be at the center of her own story, to be interesting in her own right, not just as part of Odysseus’ adventure.
Perhaps most of all, I was drawn to the fact that she is a self-made woman. Circe starts her life as a nymph, essentially a pawn and prey to greater gods. But she finds her calling and becomes someone that even the most powerful Olympians are wary of.
What are some of the other untold stories in Greek mythology that intrigue you?
I’d love to see a Medusa novel, though I don’t think I’m the one to write it. I would love to see more about Hector, the great Trojan Prince, and his mother, Hecuba, who is a fierce woman in her own right. Right now, I’m looking at Vergil’s Aeneid, the story of Aeneas and the band of Trojan refugees who escape from Troy, and must find a new homeland. There are so many stories there that I want to explore.
With the success of Circe, Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, it seems that 2018 has been a real moment for the female-centric retelling of Greek mythology. Why do you think these stories are being told like this now?
More and more people are understanding what novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “The danger of the single story.” If there is only one narrative, that narrative becomes law, silencing all other perspectives. The ancient literary voice is generally male and aristocratic, but there are so many other perspectives hinted at, and I’m thrilled we live in a time where people want to explore them.
Witches are also having something of a moment right now, with television reboots like Sabrina and Charmed receiving wide praise. Tell me about what you see as the power and danger of witches in myth and legend?
Circe is the first witch in Western literature, so I did a lot of thinking about witches and their history as I was writing this. There are several different strains of witches throughout literature, but I think that the one thing they have in common is that witches are women with more power than society thinks they should have. In The Odyssey, Circe is the incarnation of male anxiety about female power—the fear is that if women have power, men are getting turned into pigs. That’s an absurdly zero-sum way of thinking, and I completely disagree with it. More freedom for women means more freedom for men too. We need women’s power, intellect and gifts, and indeed, many witches were proto-doctors in their villages, in a time when most people didn’t have access to good medical care.
One of the reasons I loved this book so much was because you gave reason to Circe’s myth, whether referring to Scylla’s hunger for human flesh, Circe’s braids, or her infamy for turning men to pigs, you told the story behind the legend. How did you come up with some the stories behind the story?
I had four major ancient literary sources that were my touchstones: the love triangle between Glaucus, Scylla and Circe, her meeting with Medea, her meeting with Odysseus, and how Telemachus and Penelope come to her island. They gave me a basic structure, but even with them, I was often inventing, pushing back, creating, filling out the story. Everything else I invented, using more general inspiration from the myths. For me the most important part of the story is the psychological dimension. Monsters are fun to write, but they have to serve the main character’s story. At its heart, this is a novel about a woman born into a horrendous family, who has to fight her way out, at great cost, and make a life for herself.
In Song of Achilles you tell the love story between Achilles and Patroclus. While the official story of their relationship is that of deep friendship, many have alluded to and speculated that the two were lovers. Circe’s backstory had far less speculation and, frankly, interest surrounding it. How was it different writing about a character with less of a foundation of legend this time around?
Before I get to the Circe part, I will say that actually the Homeric version of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is ambiguous. In the Iliad, Homer doesn’t explicitly say that they were lovers, which some say means that therefore they aren’t. But others argue that he didn’t need to say it—it would have been obvious to an ancient audience.
What we do know is that later authors like Plato and Aeschylus absolutely assumed that they were lovers and portrayed them that way. It is only in more recent years that that portrayal has dropped out as a reading.
With Circe, I could invent more, and I loved that. Her relationship with her sister, and with Daedalus, the minotaur birth scene, the visit to Trygon, the final scene with Scylla, her relationship with her lion, these were all things that I invented. I wanted Circe to have a full and complex life!
Here at Girls Night In, we’ve been discussing Circe as the ultimate story of self-care. What does self-care mean to you and do you think Circe practices self-care in your book?
For me, self-care is about creating space to listen to yourself. Circe’s life is controlled and defined by the gods around her, usually men. No one is going to give her power, she has to take it for herself. Also, no one else is going to care for her, if she doesn’t care for herself. She rejected the path she was expected to walk, and found another one that nourished her. That to me is self-care.
Circe’s isolation really enabled her to grow in her practice. Do you find that being alone can help your craft as well?
Absolutely. Virginia Woolf talked about female artists needed a room of their own. That is true for me–I need space and time away from the demands of the daily business of life for the dream of the novel to take over. Lots of writers work at coffee shops, but I need to be in a room completely alone, preferably in the dark!
How do you practice self-care when you’re on a book tour or in the middle of writing?
Working out is key for me. It calms me, gives me energy, sparks new ideas. So I always try to stay at hotels that have gyms, and I take a lot of walks. I also love to read, so that’s a pleasure. And sleep!!! I am not very good at standing up for my own sleep, but I am trying to get better about that.
What is the first thing you do when you wake up and the last thing you do before bed?
The first thing I do when I wake up is hug my four year old, who has woken me up by hurtling into bed with me. Before going to bed, I like to try to read a physical book. It’s a great way to slow down, and I love filling my head with words and stories.
What is inspiring you right now, both in your writing and your life?
Being on book tour, I get to hear a lot of other authors speaking about their work. I always like to hear how they talk about craft—it makes me want to keep challenging myself! I’ve taken up rock-climbing. I love the problem-solving aspect of it, as well as the chance to get stronger, and use new muscles.
What are some of your favorite books you’ve read recently?
Pachinkoby Min Jin Lee, which is stunning and gripping, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, which made me cry on a plane, Swing Time by Zadie Smith, which bowled me over, and Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey, which is all around brilliant and very accessible.
Outside of writing and the Classics, what are some of your other interests?
Reading, of course. I love theater, and directing, particularly Shakespeare’s plays. Hanging out with my family!