Ask the Author: Madeline Miller

“Hello, and thank you for your interest in my work! I will be answering as often as I can.” Madeline Miller

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Madeline Miller Great question! And you're absolutely right, Circe has been portrayed as a two-dimensional villain in most post-Homeric works. In the Odyssey itself, however, she's actually a much more balanced and complex character. Yes, she's frightening, and yes, she turns men to pigs, but after she and Odysseus become lovers she offers to help him and his men, giving them shelter and helping them heal from their griefs for an entire year. Her house is the only place in the Odyssey that Odysseus doesn't agitate to leave--his men have to come and remind him that it's time to go.

Then, when he tells her he's leaving, Circe doesn't try to keep him, nor even complain about his going. She instead offers him vital help and advice on the difficult road ahead. She ends up, in fact, being one of the most helpful people he encounters! So I think it's very interesting that she's been made into such a villain. It has much more to say about our fear of powerful women than it does about Homer's poetry. Even the detail of Circe's connection to humanity comes from Homer--he calls her "the dread goddess who speaks like a human." I wanted to return to that complexity, and expand it further.
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Madeline Miller
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Madeline Miller Hello, and thank you for keeping the Latin flame burning! I still tutor as much as possible, but with full-time writing, kids, and travel for events, I can't really teach right now. I hope to come back to it in a few years, because I miss it!
Madeline Miller Thank you! I conducted all the research on my own, but I did have an assist from years of Classics courses. Having that foundation made it a lot easier to know where to go to find what I needed, and which sources were reliable. Most of the deep research that I did for Circe was on things like loom construction, weaving, jewelry, ship-construction--small details that help me to imagine the world more vividly. I also love to read commentaries on Homer, and hear how many different interpretations there can be of a single line (or word!).

In terms of deciding which variation of a myth to use, I learned from the ten years I spent writing The Song of Achilles there is no "right" answer. It is just what I feel passionately about. There is one myth (SPOILER-ish) where Penelope and Circe's son Telegonus end up together, which I didn't use for several reasons. One was that I never saw Telegonus as straight, and another was that the story of the Odyssey is obsessed with what man she's married to. I wanted her ending in my book to be for herself.
Madeline Miller Thank you! And it was always going to be Patroclus. He was the one who fascinated me--the most beloved companion of Achilles, the so-called minor character whose actions are the turning point of the entire Iliad. He is called "gentle" in Homer, and "kind to everyone," which makes him an outlier among the other Greek soldiers. And of course, he is the only thing that matters more to Achilles than his reputation. I wanted to understand him, and why he meant so much to Achilles. And I'm very grateful: he was a wonderful person to spend ten plus years living with. The only time I considered switching narrators was towards the end, after the---spoiler, but it is in the Iliad---fateful encounter with Hector. I briefly considered moving to Briseis, or Achilles as a narrator. But that was only for a moment. The Song of Achilles is Patroclus' book, and his voice is its heart, and he deserved to tell his story to the end.
Madeline Miller My first answer is: read. Read absolutely everything you can find, in great quantity and variety. And when you find something really wonderful, read it first as a reader, and then again as a writer: where you're watching to see how the author makes the magic happen.

2) Write what you are passionate about. I sometimes hear people talk about trying to catch the market, and write the perfect on-trend smash hit. Maybe there are some few who can really do that, but for most writers I know, if you're trying to write a bestseller, you're wasting your time. Write what you love, write the story you are obsessed with, that you've been boring your friends with for years. Write the thing that won't let you go until you give it shape in the world.

3) Don't give up if you write a bad draft. Bad drafts are completely normal, and part of the process. You have to write the bad drafts to get to the better ones. Don't be afraid to throw things out.

4) When you are feeling low, reach out to other writers. Attending workshops can be a great way to remind you that you are not alone. Or go to a reading at a wonderful bookstore.

5) Every writer is different, so in the end, set all advice aside, and do whatever works for you.
Madeline Miller Yes! Circe is already out in France, it's coming out this February 2019 in Spain, as well as later this year in Germany and Italy, and many more places (including Greece, which always makes me happy).
Madeline Miller Hello Lindsey, and thank you so much for the very lovely note! It's true that I completely scrapped five years of work, and a finished draft, of The Song of Achilles. I still have the file somewhere, about three computers back at this point, but I'm not sure that I could fish it out without serious technological assistance. So it's sort of like it's deleted. I'm actually okay with that, because the draft was completely wrong. I had found Patroclus' story, but I was still shaping his way of speaking, and I was relying too much on the diction of epic literature. I see Patroclus as a character who is dragged into the world of epic because he loves Achilles, not because it is his natural place. I wanted him to be shaped instead by the world of ancient lyric poetry, the poetry of love, friendship, internal emotion, daily life. So that was the next five years!
Madeline Miller Hello Jason, and thank you for writing. I'm thrilled that you liked the audiobook. I did have input--I actually spent many (many) hours listening to samples of readers, trying to imagine them as Circe. The tricky thing is that you don't get to audition the voice actors, and hear them read your work, you just have to take a leap of faith based on what they've done in the past. It was definitely a test of my directing/casting skills! Perdita emerged as my clear favorite, and I was so happy when she agreed. I've heard she did an absolutely phenomenal job. (I'm going to confess here that I've only listened to bits of Perdita's narration--all of which I thought were wonderful--because it's too strange for me to hear Circe, who has been talking in my head for seven years, in someone else's voice--even when they are doing a terrific job! The perils of writing first person narratives.)
Madeline Miller Hello, and thank you for such kind words! And the reason you can't find Galatea by itself in hard copy is because it doesn't exist. It's a single short story, so it was only released as an e-book single. BUT, if you prefer to read it in hard copy (I am a hard copy person myself), it's one of the stories in XO Orpheus, a collection of stories inspired by myth, Greco-Roman and otherwise, and edited by Kate Bernheimer. Thank you for wanting to read it!
Madeline Miller Hello Lucy, and thank you! I have been getting a lot of questions about Medusa lately, and I love that the women of Greek mythology are getting re-evaluated--especially the ones that have been vilified. There are different versions of Medusa's story, but in one, she is raped by Poseidon in Athena's shrine, then turned into a monster by Athena as punishment for defiling (!) her temple. Medusa is a character rich with so much resonance--as a victim of injustice, as well as a perpetrator of it. But she isn't the character who has taken up residence in my brain for this next novel. Maybe she'll appear later, I never know, but in the meantime, I hope that others will tackle her story.
Madeline Miller Hello, and thank you for your note! I am the type of writer who believes that once a book is published and out in the world it belongs to its readers as much as to me--and whatever you find in the text is yours to interpret as you see fit. So if that's your take on Pasiphae, I think you should stick with it! (In my own imagination, I agree that I think Pasiphae never does anything by accident). And that's interesting to draw a parallel to Medusa, another maligned and dangerous woman from Greek myth. Circe's flashing eyes come from her father Helios--all of the sun-god's children have them.
Madeline Miller It's important for me to touch base with the story every day. Even if I know I don't have time to write, taking ten minutes to think about it, or reread a chapter, helps to keep the fictional dream firmly in my mind. At the same time, I think there's nothing like perspective--taking a break from a particular scene, and coming back to it a week later. I also swear by long walks outside. No matter how stuck I am, I always figure something out from a walk-- something about the motion of my body gets my mind moving as well. And finally, I love to read literary criticism of ancient texts. Hearing scholars argue with each other helps to clarify my own thinking, and spark new ideas.
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Madeline Miller Thank you so much! And yes, I didn't go with the heel legend because I was using the Iliad as my primary source of inspiration, and it isn't mentioned there at all. In Homer, Achilles is simply an extraordinary warrior, not invulnerable. Our first surviving reference to the heel story is actually quite late. But it seemed like exactly the sort of legend that would grow up around a person like Achilles--someone so gifted that we can only describe them in magical terms. Especially when he's beating you in battle every day! I can just see the Trojans telling each other that of course they can't beat him, haven't you heard? He's invulnerable...

On a completely different note, I once had an orthopedic surgeon tell me that wounds to the heel are quite dangerous, particularly in the time before modern medicine. They are prone to bad infections (being close to the dirty ground), and it would have been quite easy for a warrior to die of one.
Madeline Miller Thank you for putting me in such wonderful company, I am honored! And for recommending my book onward as well. I am indeed looking towards the Roman world right now. Vergil's Aeneid is one of the great loves of my intellectual life, and I would love to work within its world from a creative angle.
Madeline Miller Dear Yawar,

Thank you so much for reading, for the generous words, and for the question about Athena! She has always been a fascinating figure--a woman, as you say, in a world of men. She can be noble and decisive, raging, spiteful, wise, merciful, even playful. I always liked her appearance in book V of the Iliad, where she tells Diomedes not to accidentally stab any gods in his battle-spree--unless he sees Aphrodite, then he should go for it. (The follow up to this is that he does actually wound Aphrodite on the wrist, who then goes crying up to Olympus, where Athena and Hera wait to make fun of her.) For someone so wise and rational, she certainly goes in for a lot of vengeance! But I think there could be a great story there: perhaps she feels that her position rests on people's respect for her power, and if she allows anyone to get away with any insult to it, she will lose everything. I don't have any plans to write about her, but there are so many rich myths to draw upon, and I hope that others will!
Madeline Miller Thank you so much, Carly, it is always an honor to hear that one of my books is a favorite! Being able to feel my way through the character's journey is like an actor getting into character--I have to put on the person's skin, be able to speak with their voice, and live their life with them. I always write my drafts chapter by chapter with no skipping around because I have no idea what Circe will be like in chapter 9, if I haven't written chapter 8 yet. And if I make a change in chapter 2, then every single chapter after it has to be revised. Even a small nudge can have big implications for a character down the line. I always want to make sure I'm keeping each character's story in my head, and where they are on their arc. I credit my background in theater with being a huge help in this regard. I direct Shakespeare plays, and it's so important that each character has their own personality, and feels alive on the stage--even the minor ones. It's boring for an audience if an actor is just standing there. They must bring their own thoughts, reactions, pathos, to every moment--they should be living onstage, developing scene by scene. Even if you're just playing one of King Lear's hundred knights with no lines, the character will have gone on a huge journey from the first scene of Lear's power to the last scene of Lear's death. Working so intensively with actors to develop that helped me to visualize it in my fiction--I always want to bring that same vividness to the characters on the page. Which includes being open to moments which surprise me. When I started Circe, I knew I wanted her and Daedalus to meet. But the way that their relationship developed, and the bond between them, came very organically from Circe's life at that moment, and ended up being a formative episode. Ditto for Chiron. I knew I wanted him to be their teacher, but the ways that he influenced Patroclus and Achilles throughout the novel again grew out of me living in the moment in each of those scenes. I rely on my first several drafts to provide those moments of impulse and inspiration. All the later drafts are about shaping it, and making sure I'm being consistent and precise in what I say, and cutting anything that's getting in the way of that journey. I'm a big believer in the quote (I unfortunately can't seem to pin down exactly who coined it--Voltaire, Mark Twain?) which goes something like: "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead." The more I edit, the shorter the book gets, and that's a good thing.
Madeline Miller Thank you! I love both Norse and Egyptian mythology, and if there was a character or story that was calling to me from either, I would certainly go for it. It would take a lot of research, since I don't have the same foundation in them as I do in the Greco-Roman world, but that can be a good thing. And I always enjoy looking at epics from different traditions: recently, I've been rereading the fascinating Icelandic Sagas. But currently, my writing attention is still on Greek myths (and Shakespeare).
Madeline Miller Hello, and thanks for the question! Deidameia was one of my favorite minor characters to imagine. Personally, I find her situation extremely sympathetic. She is clever, passionate, lively and curious about the world, but she's trapped on a backwater island without any real companionship or opportunity. She longs to join the world, experience excitement, and have some control over her destiny, but as a woman she's barred from all of that, and she's being raised by a father who doesn't represent her interests very well. When Patroclus first meets her, all he can see is that she's a childish princess, and an obstacle to him. As a young man, he has very little idea of what it's like to be a woman in this world, and how constricting it is; men are simply not taught to imagine women's lives. Meanwhile, Deidameia is trying to use every bit of power she has to affect her future, but she's also very young, and unsophisticated in the ways of the world. By marrying Achilles, she thinks she's going to be part of a grand love story, a grand adventure tale, but she's just a pawn in Thetis' plot to keep Achilles from war, and produce an heir. When she realizes that she's been tricked, and is now more trapped than ever, she's devastated with anger and grief, and acts out in self-destructive ways, which, especially at her age, I find totally understandable. And then Thetis takes her child from her. That's a very very long way around to say that: I never found her unlikable at all! She and Thetis are both antagonists at moments to Patroclus, but I never thought of them as villains in any way. We see them only through Patroclus' eyes, and he is often blinded by his own assumptions and desires. Later he is able to begin understanding both of them, and to feel empathy, and even connection. If you want to know a character that I found personally very unlikable, Agamemnon tops the list!
Madeline Miller Hello Dana,

Thank you for reading! And it doesn't matter at all. These are stand-alone books, and I've had lots of readers read them in reverse order. The only character who appears in both is Odysseus, so you'll get to see him as his younger self after seeing his older self, but I think that can be just as fun as the other way around!

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