Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe, to be published by Little, Brown in April, takes the same stimulating approach to ancient Greek literature as its bestselling 2012 predecessor, The Song of Achilles. In each book, Miller narrates a familiar tale in the voice of someone seen only from the outside in the originals: in the first, Achilles’s lover Patroclus, a minor character in the Iliad, and in her latest, Circe, the witch who turns men into pigs in the Odyssey.
“I was really interested in those untold stories,” Miller says, sipping tea in the airy living room of her home just outside Philadelphia. “I found both of these characters very mysterious in the original mythology. We hear that Patroclus is ‘the most beloved companion’ of Achilles, but we don’t hear much more than that, even though Achilles’s reaction to his death is the crux of the entire Iliad. Why is this man so important to Achilles? Homer shows us the end of their story, and I wanted to know the beginning. Same thing with Circe: why is she turning men into pigs? She’s so often portrayed as villainous, but once she and Odysseus come to an understanding, she ends up being one of the most helpful deities he encounters. I always thought she got a bad rap. Who was she really?”
In addition to providing Circe with a motive for turning those men into pigs (which we won’t reveal here), Miller gives her the full spectrum of experience generally denied to female characters in classical literature: “In the ancient myths, either a woman is virtuous, and she dies tragically, or she has a little power and she’s punished for it. Women are helpmates, they’re wives, they’re mistresses, and then they’re dead. I wanted Circe to be about her growing up, the fullness of her life, and I wanted her to be arguing with Homer’s version of her story. I wanted her to be pushing back and saying, ‘That’s what you said, but here’s what I think.’ ”
Miller’s ability to bring a fresh perspective to ancient tales comes from a long apprenticeship in multiple disciplines. “The three things I always really loved were classics, writing, and theater,” she explains. “I majored in Latin and ancient Greek at Brown, and all through college I was doing theater as well and writing on the side. It was all contemporary fiction, and I was mostly doing it on my own; I was so obsessed with classics courses that I didn’t want to waste class time on anything else. Then I directed a production of Troilus and Cressida, which is an incredible play: angry, funny, acidic—so meaty. Talking to the actors playing Achilles and Patroclus about their motivations, I was getting to engage with these characters in a modern sense, not just commenting on something set in marble. I was interacting with the myths in a creative way that I had never experienced before. That’s when I started writing Song of Achilles.”
It took 10 long years for the novel to assume final form. Miller was teaching Greek and Latin in high school, as well as directing student productions of Shakespeare, so her writing time was limited. But she was also having trouble getting the tone she wanted. “Around year five, I actually had a finished draft and an agent and we started to submit to publishers,” Miller recalls. “Then I read it one more time and thought, ‘Nope, this just isn’t it.’ That was a dark moment: I knew what was wrong, but I didn’t know how to make it right. Coming from a background as a theater director, I could see that I had a first-person narrator, and I didn’t have Patroclus’s voice.” She put the manuscript aside.
Miller’s breakthrough came at the New York State Summer Writers Institute—where, ironically, she was working on nonfiction. (“Fiction was too much for me right then,” she says.) Walking back to the dorm one night, she remembers thinking, “What if I wrote Song of Achilles like this? What if the first line was, ‘My father was a king and the son of kings.’ I ran back to my room and started typing the first few pages as they stand in the finished book. I had found the voice. It’s an epic story, but I wasn’t telling it in an epic way. That was the problem with the first version; it was told in an epic way, and Patroclus is a lyric person.”
It took five more years while Miller was still multitasking: she continued to teach and direct, pursued graduate studies in classics and drama at the University of Chicago and Yale, and began dating her husband-to-be, Nathaniel Drake. He provided crucial encouragement for The Song of Achilles reboot, she says, and even more support during the writing of Circe—Drake was the primary parent for their elder daughter (now three) and trusted first reader of Circe’s many, many drafts.
“Drafts are like rehearsals to me: a lot of stuff you try doesn’t make it in, but you need to do it, and, just as a director wouldn’t want a lot of people watching rehearsals, I need to do that work in private,” Miller says. “But my husband is reading those drafts, and he is brutally frank, which I really appreciate, because when he likes something I know he really likes it.”
The demands of one child and the imminent arrival of another made the creation of Circe a much more focused process, Miller says. “I turned in the final draft to my editor, and three days later I had a C-section—it was a very good motivator, because that is a hard deadline!”
Perhaps even more importantly, Miller had learned from her agonizing over Achilles. “I spent less time in that self-indulgent, early-writer-despair mode,” she says. “There was more, ‘Okay, you hate this draft, so what? Write the next.’ I had done this once, and the feelings of ‘this is all wrong’ I now knew were part of the process. That was the key learning piece for me.”
Lee Boudreaux’s departure to become vice-president and executive editor at Doubleday took place after Circe had been edited, and Miller says she feels fortunate to have had Boudreaux’s input on two novels. “What Lee does, when she gets that final draft, is find a way to ask the questions that bring out the best in the manuscript and in the writer. She never accepts anything less than your best; she finds all the little cracks and flaws and says, ‘You can do better,’ but in an incredibly supportive and loving way.”
Looking ahead, two possible projects tempt Miller, both in the genre she calls “either mythological realism or literary adaptation,” but neither are from the Greeks: “I’m leaning toward the Aeneid. It’s the great touchstone of my life, the first epic text I ever encountered in the original language, because I knew Latin before I knew Greek. It took my breath away then and still does. The other thing I’ve been thinking about and actually started working on is something in dialogue with The Tempest. I don’t necessarily want to stay in the ancient world, and I never know what’s going to happen with the things that are percolating. I write about what is possessing me, and these ancient stories have possessed me for a lot of years, but I can see myself eventually moving into something contemporary.”