American novelist Madeline Miller has been taking the literary world by storm ever since her debut novel The Song of Achilles hit the shelves back in 2011. She spent ten years writing the book while she worked as a Latin and Greek teacher, and has recently had her second novel Circe published. We caught up with the Orange Prize-winning author to talk Greek goddesses, greatest achievements and animal impressions...
How did the idea for Circe come to life?
I’ve been interested in Circe, the goddess who turns Odysseus’ men to pigs, since I was thirteen and first reading the Odyssey by myself. I loved her power, her cleverness, her strength—and the fact that she had pet lions didn’t hurt either, let’s be honest. But I remember being disappointed that she only had a brief cameo in Odysseus’ story. As I continued to study Classics, I found her even more fascinating—she’s the first witch in Western Literature, she’s complex, both menacing and benevolent, able to harm and heal. I wanted to take this mysterious and interesting woman and put her at the center of her own epic story.
What was your favourite discovery whilst researching for the novel?
In the lost epic The Telegony, Circe makes a spear out of a sting-ray tail for her son Telegonus to defend himself with. What an eerie, witchy weapon.
What’s the response been like so far?
In the novel, I wanted to dig into the stuff of a woman’s life, the hopes and disappointments, the struggles and triumphs. I have always believed that these ancient stories resonate across the centuries, so it is really exciting to hear from people that that they see pieces of their own life in Circe’s.
Your Orange Prize-winning novel, The Song of Achilles, was also a huge success. Was there one pinch-me moment which brought it home?
When they called my name as the winner of the Orange Prize. I was already thrilled just to be there at the party, on a slate with so many novelists that I admired. I remember my legs shaking as I walked up to the podium. I stood looking out over the crowd and thinking: this cannot be real.
What’s your favourite part of the writing process?
When a scene I’ve been struggling with suddenly comes together. It feels a bit like magic, but really it’s just hard work and sticking with it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
To ask for forgiveness rather than permission. So many of the best things in my life have come from seizing the day, following my own instincts without consulting others to see if they think it’s a good idea. That’s how I became a novelist, a teacher and a theater director. As a bonus, it’s also how my husband and I got together!
What would you tell your 18-year-old self?
Trust your own passions. And it’s okay that your novels will take ten and seven years to write respectively! Maybe I’d leave that last one off, actually. I got through those long years of rewriting by believing firmly that I’d be finished in just a few more months…
You can invite six women (living or dead) for supper. Who and where do you go?
The feminist Matilda Joselyn Gage. She was one of the first writers to articulate that persecuting witches wasn’t about fighting the devil, but a hostility towards powerful women. Her work is mostly forgotten but lives on in her son-in-law, who was L Frank Baum, the creator of the world of Oz. Glinda the Good Witch was inspired by her writing!
Also: Hatshepsut, Boudicea, and the great ancient poet Sappho (I would pry copies of her poems out of her, since all we have are fragments). Hilary Mantel and Michelle Obama.
And I think we have to go to Greece. Let’s say a feast on a Cretan beach.
We think female friendships should be treasured – what one quality do all your friends share?
My female friends are fabulous in very different ways, but they’re all very supportive. We know that we can always call each other.
Which female writers inspire you?
So many! Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett, Julie Otsuka, Lorrie Moore, Octavia Butler, Hilary Mantel (see above), bell hooks, Elizabeth von Arnim, Nora Ephron, Ursula K LeGuin, Sylvia Plath…
What’s your greatest achievement and what would you like to achieve next?
Because I’m in the heavy sleep-deprivation phase of raising young children, I consider my greatest achievement to be getting through the day with everyone fed and relatively happy…. If the shirts are on right side out, that’s a bonus.
When are you happiest?
Hanging out with my friends and family, working out, walking reading.
Who or what is the love of your life?
My family—husband, children, mother.
What did you want to be growing up?
James Herriot. I’m not a veterinarian, but I did manage the writing part. Now I just need to move to Yorkshire.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Rebecca Stott’s tremendous memoir, In the Days of Rain, and Kate Mosse’s new book The Burning Chamber.
The one thing people wouldn’t know about you?
I asked my husband this, because I couldn’t think of an answer, and he says that I do great animal impressions, particularly of lizards and emus. I wish I could say that I do these just for my children, but the truth is that I have been doing them for years.
Night in or night out?
At this point in my life, night in!
Over or under dressed?
Favourite holiday destination?
Greece, of course.
Over or under packer?
Sigh. Always over.
Desert island luxury?
Having a beach to myself, especially at dawn and dusk, when I can be out without sunblock.
Last time you laughed out loud?
This morning. My eighteen-month-old has learned to do comic pratfalls on the bed, which crack her up, which then cracks me up.
Lots of dark chocolate.
The book you wish you'd written?
The Aeneid. And The Handmaid’s Tale.
Word do you overuse?
I have a “fascinating” problem.
I didn’t have one until I read the brilliant novelist Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award speech: “Be kind to everyone, make art, fight the power.”
Follow Madeline on Instagram @madeline.e.miller and find her new book here!