Author Q&A: Madeline Miller

Circe (Bloomsbury, £7.99)

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Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 for her debut novel The Song of Achilles, American novelist and academic Madeline Miller revisits Greek mythology for her second novel, an epic tale of family rivalry, love and loss.  

Give us a little bit of background on the myth of Circe. Who was she and how has she been portrayed in the past?
Circe is most famous for her appearance in Homer’s Odyssey where she turns Odysseus’s men into pigs and takes Odysseus as a lover. She is the daughter of the sun-god Helios, and the first witch in western literature. Outside of Homer, she’s generally been treated as a villain – an alluring, irrational man-hater. That villainisation is interesting to me, since she’s one of the most helpful characters that Odysseus encounters in the Odyssey. Her island is the only place that he doesn’t want to leave on his entire voyage home.

What drew you to her and made you want to write this book from her point of view? 
I’ve been drawn to Circe since I was 13 and first read the Odyssey by myself. I loved her power, her cleverness, her strength and her benevolence. But I remember being disappointed that she only had a brief cameo in Odysseus’s story, and that we learn very little about her. Homer doesn’t even tell us why she’s turning men to pigs. As much as I love writing about Odysseus and Achilles, these are characters who have been given a lot of airtime over the years, and I feel strongly that we need to hear from many different voices, particularly those who have been historically overlooked or silenced. I wanted to give Circe her own epic journey, with the same scope that the male heroes have by right.

Circe’s relationship with mortals, particularly Odysseus, is a fascinating element to the book. Tell us a bit about this and what you wanted to explore with these relationships.
Homer calls Circe the “dread goddess who speaks like a mortal.” That fascinated me, since it makes her an outcast among her own kind. In order to find acceptance, she moves away from her cruel family and towards the world of mortals, with whom she finds she has much in common. Circe’s power comes from her effort, from the herbs and potions that she painstakingly gathers and mixes. I wanted my Circe to be searching and longing for home just as Odysseus does. She eventually finds that home amid the mess and complexity of humanity.

What challenges are there in taking well-known mythology and updating it, particularly from a female perspective?
There is no such thing as a definitive myth. By nature, myths are changeable, interpreted and reinterpreted anew with each generation. I wanted to address many of the obstacles that women have faced for millennia – being silenced, kept from the halls of power, undermined, abused and assaulted. I didn’t have to do anything to update this; we’ve made some progress, but these things are very much still with us.

For me the psychological depth of the characters is always primary. Why is Circe turning men to pigs? How did she start? How did she get that sort of power? I always want to be digging into the characters’ motivations, which the original is usually silent on.

What other figures from mythology capture your imagination and what are you working on next?
There are so many mythological figures who would make wonderful novels. Cassandra, Medusa, Hector, Philoctetes, Eumaios, Penthesilea – I could go on and on, but right now I’m focused on two projects, one mythological, and one not. The first is inspired by the Aeneid, Virgil’s profound epic about refugees searching for a new home. And then Shakespeare’s Tempest. The other thing I do is direct Shakespeare plays, so it’s a pleasure to be working those muscles as well!

Pat Barker, who’s retold the Iliad from a female perspective, told Big Issue North that modern writers continue to be inspired by classics because “perhaps, in a time of rapid social and political change, people need the stability of stories that have stood the test of time.” Markus Zusak has also drawn on Greek mythology and he told us: “The classics remind us that humans have always told stories, and always will.” Why do you think the classics, and particularly Greek mythology, continue to inspire modern writers?
I agree with both of those perspectives, and I would add that in times of uncertainty, people want to comfort themselves with the knowledge that we’ve come through terrors before. We aren’t the first generation to struggle with autocracy, violence, xenophobia, racism, poverty, and war. I think myths of all sorts – Greco-Roman and otherwise – are big enough containers to hold all of our big emotions, to give us a sense of catharsis for them. We don’t face actual six-headed ravenous monsters, but we face things that are equally terrifying and destructive, and I think visiting the world of myth helps us to work out those fears in a constructive way.

It seems that being an immortal is more curse than blessing. Given the chance, would you like to have been a god?
Not if I’m one of the Greek gods! Today we would call most of them sociopathic narcissists. Studies in psychology have shown that when people are elevated to the status of gods – when they gain so much money, power and privilege that they no longer have any consequences to their actions – that their empathy begins to drop. I see empathy as humanity’s most important gift, and I’d like to keep mine!

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