A performance that brings Black stories to white-dominated spaces
‘Circe’ author Madeline Miller answers your questions
Nick Schifrin: Next, Jeffrey Brown has the December selection for our Now Read This book club.
Jeffrey Brown: She was a relatively minor character in one of world literature's earliest and greatest epics, "The Odyssey," but in a novel published in 2018, Circe is at the center of story, telling her own tale of sorcery and life among the gods and men.
Author Madeline Miller joins me from Philadelphia to answer some of the questions from our readers.
Madeline Miller, nice to see you. Nice to talk to you.
Madeline Miller: It's so lovely to be here. Thank you.
Jeffrey Brown: So, one -- I want to go right to the questions, because one of the questions we got allows us to get just at what you were after.
It comes from Christie Woody of Petersburg, Virginia. She says: "Circe is a minor character in 'The Odyssey.' What attracted you to her enough to make you want to write her story?"
Madeline Miller: Well, it actually goes back to when I was a child.
The first time I read "The Odyssey," I had been really excited, because I knew there was this witch who turned men into pigs. And I thought, ooh, wow, that sounds like a really interesting and meaty and complex character, which are kind of thin on the ground in general in Greek mythology.
But when I got there, I was really frustrated about how sort of flattened the portrait was and how it was really still just Odysseus' story.
And so there was this piece of me from the very moment, the first time I read "The Odyssey" as a 13-year-old, that really wanted to go in and explore this character and find out, well, who is she? Why is she turning men into pigs, which is the most notable things she does in "The Odyssey," but which is never addressed at all.
Jeffrey Brown: Well, so a number of readers and I myself wondered how you then went about constructing her life. How much research, how much leeway did you allow your own imagination to fill in that kind of story?
Madeline Miller: Well, I had kind of four basic pillars that I was using from the mythology, one of which was her appearance in "The Odyssey."
But, otherwise, I was doing a lot of sort of adding and extrapolating. So one of the scenes in the novel which was really quite a lot of fun to write was a scene where Circe helps her sister give birth. And this is a little bit of a spoiler, but her sister is giving birth to a very unusual child.
Now, her sister in mythology truly is the parent of the minotaur. There is no myth that Circe was there at the birth, but I was looking for opportunities like that, moments where I could sort of weave Circe in, given mythology that was already existing.
I did a lot of that.
Jeffrey Brown: You alluded to this earlier about there not being the stories of women fleshed out very much in "The Iliad" or -- I mean, "The Odyssey," or "The Iliad," for that matter.
You wrote an earlier novel about -- based on "The Iliad" about Achilles. "The Odyssey," of course, really focuses on the story of a man, his wanderings, his love -- his loves and hates.
How much did the desire to tell it from a woman's point of view motivate you in this story?
Madeline Miller: Very much. I really wanted to kind of put it in her voice in particular. I knew I wanted it to be a first-person narrator.
And, you know, what we see is that Circe, in "The Odyssey," she's really just a cameo in Odysseus' life. He shows up, he has an interaction with her, he leaves, and she disappears from the story.
And what I wanted to do was flip that completely and put her at the center of the story and make Odysseus the cameo. So, I wanted him to occupy the same space in her life that she occupies in his, i.e., not very much, and to really focus on sort of a woman's life.
I see Circe as a coming-of-age story, the story of a woman in a society that is really hostile to her power and to her wielding power and having independence, finding a way to power and independence, and sort of discovering who she is.
Jeffrey Brown: Janell Bailey of Green Bay, Wisconsin, asks: "Did you always envision these lives from the gods from first reading mythology yourself, or did the idea for this come later?"
Now, you were talking earlier about your own reading as a child, but when did you think about, well, now I can write it myself?
Madeline Miller: It came fairly late.
So the whole time I was a child, I was having, you know, these wonderful adventures in my mind for these gods and goddesses characters. And I eventually grew up and became a classicist and ended up studying it.
But it didn't really occur to me that I could sort of write my own version, that I could then adapt it myself, until actually theater. And I directed a production of "Troilus and Cressida," which is Shakespeare's version of "The Iliad."
And getting to work with that as a director, as a storyteller, for the first time, getting to shape how Cassandra or Helen or Achilles or Ajax were delivering their lines, how they were standing on the stage, how they were coming off, suddenly made me realize all these things that I have been wanting to say about these characters, yes, I do want to say them in an academic essay, but also I want to say them in a novel.
And I think that there's some things you can say in a novel with an emotional force that you can't necessarily get across in academic writing. And the story of Achilles and Patroclus and their love.
And then the story of Circe and her life as a woman and as a goddess and as a witch were examples of that.
Jeffrey Brown: Well, that leads to a question that came from a teacher, but a teacher of younger children, Iris Butler of Astoria, New York.
She says: "I am currently teaching 'Circe,' your book, in my 10th grade classroom in the South Bronx. My students frequently ask me, why are we reading this, because they always push back on the books we read" -- not your book, in particular, all the books, I think.
But the teacher, Iris Butler, asks: "What do you hope students will take from your novel?"
Madeline Miller: I hope a couple of things.
First of all, I think that these stories can sometimes be intimidating. They have a lot of names and sometimes the names are really long, and it's unclear how to pronounce them. And I think some students feel alienated from this.
The "Percy Jackson" series and Rick Riordan has done an amazing job of bringing classics and these myths back to everybody. But I hope that my novels can be part of that too, and sort of saying, these stories are for everyone. These stories are for you. You don't have to feel alienated from these stories.
I think I would also want them to take in the timelessness of these stories, that, unfortunately, many of the things that Circe endures, being belittled, undermined, kept from the halls of power, sexually assaulted, these are all things that we are still dealing with today.
And I think it's really important to look at sort of the fact that this is -- there's a historical through line here, and maybe some things that we can learn as well.
Jeffrey Brown: All right, we're going to leave it there for now and post our entire conversation later online.
Madeline Miller, author of "Circe," thank you very much.
Madeline Miller: Thank you so much.
Jeffrey Brown: And now our selection for the new year.
"Heart Berries" is a bestselling memoir of a young woman's experience growing up on an Indian reservation in British Columbia. "It's tender and raw, a slender book," wrote a New York Times reviewer, "with the power of a sledgehammer."
Author Terese Marie Mailhot will join me here in January.
And, as always, we hope you will join us on our Facebook page and read along with Now Read This, our book club partnership with The New York Times.