Circe: Madeline Miller on Inspirations & Influences

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“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.

Our guest today is Madeline Miller, award-winning author of The Song of Achilles, whose follow-up novel Circe is out now. Madeline is here today to talk about the books and works that inspired Circe

Since my novels, The Song of Achilles and Circe, are inspired by the Iliad and the Odyssey respectively, any talk of influences and inspiration has to start with Homer himself. These two ancient poems first gripped me as a child, when my mother used to read me selections from them at bedtime. I can still remember lying under the covers, hearing my mom speak the first line of the Iliad: Sing goddess, of the rage of Achilles, destructive rage… I was immediately hooked, and have been hooked ever since.  Homer’s world is expansive, exciting, tragic, intimate, and filled with wonder and mystery.  It was that mystery which led me to both my novels—I wanted to understand who this Patroclus was whose death could cause the great Achilles such devastating grief, and to imagine what the relationship between them might have been.

With Circe, it was the mystery of why she was transforming men to pigs.  How did she start doing such a thing? Odysseus never asks her, and Homer doesn’t tell us. It has historically been treated as something inexplicable: she does it because she’s eeeeeevil.  Except Homer carefully tells us that she’s not. After she and Odysseus come to an understanding, she becomes one of the most helpful deities he meets.  She entertains him and his men on her island for a year, helping them through their emotional and physical exhaustion. Then, when Odysseus wants to leave (actually, he doesn’t want to leave, his men have to give him a nudge), she provides him with the supplies and knowledge needed for the dangers ahead.

I was intrigued by that dual nature of benevolence and menace. I wanted to understand who Circe was, and what led her to the moment she meets Odysseus, and what happened after. But that was only my jumping off point.  I didn’t want to keep the focus on Odysseus, and the traditional male heroic narrative.  Instead, I wanted to set Circe center stage—to make a woman the hero of her own epic, living with the same passionate scope that Odysseus and Achilles are given by right. So just as Circe appears in two plus books in the Odyssey, Odysseus appears in only two plus chapters in Circe. In mythology, Circe is also the aunt of the Minotaur and Medea, she knew the monster Scylla when she was still a nymph, and as a Titan daughter of the sun-god Helios, she’s related to practically all the major gods. And of course, she’s the first witch in Western literature—she literally invents her own power. There’s a lot more to her than an interaction with one wily hero.

Troilus and Cressida, by Shakespeare.  This was the play that led me to write The Song of Achilles, and by extension, Circe. A friend asked me to co-direct it with him. Up until then, I had only approached these stories as an academic, writing papers, but getting to work with the material creatively, actually summoning Achilles, Patroclus, Odysseus and all the rest on a stage, was a revelation. After the play was over, I didn’t want it to stop.  I had been diligently researching a huge paper about Achilles and Patroclus, but after that I realized that it wasn’t a paper at all, it was a novel.

Troilus and Cressida has also inspired me more directly—my Odysseus alludes to a few lines in the play, and the beautiful scene between Patroclus and Achilles (a rare tender moment in a largely dark and vicious play), was also with me as I wrote The Song of Achilles.  And really, this category should be all of Shakespeare’s plays.  I ended up spending ten years directing Shakespeare, and learned so much about storytelling and characterization. In particular, I think he helped teach me how to tell a story that everyone already knows—it’s not about the twist, it’s about the satisfaction of the emotional arc.

Gertrude and Claudius, by John Updike.  I have not always been a fan of Updike’s work, but I loved this book because Updike took a scholar’s supposition—that Hamlet’s immaturity, resentment and instability were the direct cause of the play’s high body count—and turned it into a novel which passionately argued the point through gripping characterization and storytelling.  I was about two-thirds of the way through The Song of Achilles when I first read it, and I thought: Yes, exactly!  That’s what I’m trying to do!

Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson.  This was my holy trinity of authors when I was a young writer. They are piercing, unsparing, funny, and gorgeous prose stylists, each in their own way. My favorites were: Anagrams (Moore), The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood) and Written on the Body (Winterson). They made me want to take my writing as seriously as they took theirs.  Also, they wrote potent and complex women.  I can’t trace a straight line, but I have no doubt that some part of their work helped lead me to Circe.

Poetry.  I try to start every writing day by reading a poem.  My tastes are all over the place: Horace and Ovid, sometimes Sylvia Plath, sometimes Gerard Manley Hopkins or T.S. Eliot or Langston Hughes. Their work inspires me with its potency.  It reminds me that even just a handful of words can be explosive.

James Baldwin. He is brilliant in every way. The first work of his I read was his novel Giovanni’s Room, and its subtlety, passion, boldness and tragedy was unlike anything else I had ever read.  Every work of his is like that. I feel that he’s one of our country’s most important vates—the Latin word for a poet/prophet. Also, when I was a high school student, I passed a local store named Giovanni’s Room and went in just because I had loved the book.  It turned out to be a wonderful independent bookshop which specialized in LGBTQI literature, where I would be introduced to many other authors. So James Baldwin gave me that as a bonus.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams. I’ve talked about this before, but I can never say enough how much I adore this book. I’ve read it as a child, as an adult, and as everything in between.  I love how steeped it is in the ancient mythic tradition, how it shows that any story can be epic, even one about rabbits. And boy does Adams know how to write an ending. The last hundred pages still make my heart race.  When I was reading it in high school I swore that if I ever wrote a book, I would do my best to make my endings as powerful and right.

I could go on. There are so many writers that have inspired me over the years, and I’m sure as soon as I send this off I will think of ten more it feels criminal not to include. But that’s the miracle of stories, whether you’re a writer or not.  They enter our lives and work on us in mysterious ways. They are like Circe’s witchcraft: potent, unexpected, transformative.

Madeline Miller was born in Boston and grew up in New York City and Philadelphia. She attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in Classics. She has taught and tutored Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students for more than fifteen years.

She has also studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and in the Dramaturgy department at Yale School of Drama, where she focused on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms.

The Song of Achilles, her first novel, was awarded the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a New York Times Bestseller. It has been translated into over twenty-five languages including Dutch, Mandarin, Japanese, Turkish, Arabic and Greek. Madeline was also shortlisted for the 2012 Stonewall Writer of the Year, and her essays have appeared in a number of publications including the Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Lapham’s Quarterly and NPR.org. Her second novel, Circe is out now. She currently lives outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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