We’ve admired Madeline Miller’s work since she made her debut with the highly acclaimed novel The Song of Achilles. In fact, we loved the spellbinding tale so much that we chose it for our very first Signed First Editions Club selection. As it happens, we were just as blown away by Miller’s second book, Circe, so we couldn’t resist picking it as a First Editions Club favorite, too.
Back when we were packing up signed copies of The Song of Achilles six years ago, it meant sending out 75 signed books; this month, 750 signed first editions of Circe will leave our stockroom. We weren’t the only ones who loved The Song of Achilles, of course; it was met with uproarious praise and won the 2012 Orange Award. Once again in Circe, Madeline Miller puts her background as a Classics scholar to work as she re-imagines her ancient characters’ stories in ways that feel both contemporary and illuminating. You’ll be spellbound.
For this interview, we’ve paired Miller with an author we just so happen to know is one of her biggest fans. Part-time Nashvillian and intrepid wanderer Victoria (V.E.) Schwab has mentioned quite a few times what a deep admirer she is of Madeline Miller’s brilliant work. Like Miller, Schwab writes otherworldly stories that have met with enormous success. She is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than a dozen fantasy and young adult books, including Vicious and its forthcoming sequel, Vengeful, the Shades of Magic trilogy, and the Monsters of Verity duology.
Here’s their conversation.
VS: Madeline, your way with words and ability to turn a phrase borders on witchcraft, which makes you the perfect writer for a tale such as Circe’s. How did you come to choose her story out of the vast array of possibilities? What first drew you to the Witch of Aiaia?
MM: To be honest, Circe didn’t feel like a choice, because I never considered writing about anyone else. Since I was a child reading these myths, I have been drawn to her complexity and mystery: why is she turning men to pigs? How did she come to her power? Why does she decide to help Odysseus? I was fascinated as well by the fact that she is the first witch in Western literature, and has a rich life outside the Odyssey. She is related to numerous Greek gods, and her story touches many other myths, including Medea, the Minotaur, and Daedalus.
Perhaps most of all, I was drawn to the fact that she is a self-made woman. Circe starts her life as a nymph, essentially a pawn and prey to greater gods. But she finds her calling and becomes someone that even the most powerful are wary of.
VS: Obviously you’re operating within a framework of myths and legends, as you did with Achilles and Patroclus, but in that same way, your handling of her story makes every episode feel new. From a craft perspective, could you speak a little about how you went about creating Circe’s voice and narrative?
MM: Circe is a goddess with thousands of years of perspective, so I wanted her voice to combine a slightly otherworldly feel with her direct and unsparing way of looking at things. That’s easy to describe now, but of course when I started out I spent a lot of time rewriting the same fifty pages over and over (boy, was my husband tired of reading them). This long muddling process felt mysterious and often discouraging, but I was used to it because it was the same for Patroclus in The Song of Achilles. And it was completely necessary. For me, everything flows from the narrator’s voice. Maybe it’s my background in theater, but when I could hear Circe speak as if she were standing before me, then her motivations, her arc, her way of moving in and responding to the world all became much clearer.
The original sources were always my first sources of inspiration, both as something to follow and as something to speak back to. Particularly in the case of Circe, I wanted her story to push back against and even contradict parts of the traditional (often sexist) heroic narrative. I wanted to write an epic story as bold as Odysseus’ or Achilles’, but with a woman at its center. Her eyes are the lens through which everything is filtered.
As a Classics teacher, the trick for me with both Circe and The Song of Achilles was not getting caught up in thinking that I could only write about what I could point to in a book. I had to feel free to leave out or invent things without worrying that the Classics Police were coming for me. (Actually, Classicists are usually very supportive of new engagement with these old stories.)
VS: One of the most compelling themes in Circe is that of feminine power, value, and (the perception of) worth. From Circe’s mother, Perse, and her sister, Pasiphae, to rival nymph, Scylla, the goddess, Athena, and Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, to of course our central Circe, each woman in the story shines a different light on the strengths, weaknesses, and expectations of the female sex. Did you know, when you set out to tell Circe’s story, that it would be their story too?
MM: I absolutely wanted to give the women of myth their due, setting them right next to, and even in front of, the male characters. The treatment women get in the ancient myths is incredibly thin. Usually, they stand on the side, identified only as someone’s sister or wife, someone’s mother or daughter. They are glorified plot points, without true arcs or personalities of their own. It’s particularly frustrating because the male characters are so rich with complexity — they are angry, kind, bull-headed, overly proud, heroic . . . I wanted my women to jump off the page, flaws and strengths and all, in the same way.
VS: A follow-up novel is always a challenge, especially on the heels (ha ha) of such a successful one. Did you have any idea that Song of Achilles would resonate the way it did? And did you struggle at all with self-doubt? What are some of the challenges you faced in bringing this new story to the shelf?
MM: I had absolutely no idea that The Song of Achilles would have the life it has had. I hoped it would find readers, of course, as every novelist does, but I figured that most of them would be related to me by blood! It is one of the great wonders of my life that this story which was so meaningful to me has meant something to others too.
I always struggle with self-doubt. But as I’ve gone forward with writing, I’ve gotten better about not letting it take over. Because what else am I going to do, give up? No, never. So I just have to get on with the story the best I can, doubts and all. My job is to focus solely on my narrator, and forget about anything else but trying to tell her story to the very best of my abilities.
And in a strange way, my self-doubt has come to be something of a companion. When I write, I alternate between two distinct modes: the one where I believe wholeheartedly that I’m onto something good, and the one where I critique every sentence and throw out hundreds of pages because I know they’re not ready yet. The key is to keep the two separate—trying to edit as I am in the flush of creativity leads to paralysis.
A particular challenge with this story as opposed to The Song of Achilles was to balance the full arc of Circe’s life with the individual myths she encounters. Because she’s a goddess outliving all the mortals around her, characters tend to enter the action, then leave for good, which can feel episodic. I liked having a touch of this — after all, the book is inspired by the Odyssey, which is one of the most famous episodic stories out there. But I also wanted to make sure that I was always focused on Circe’s larger arc — every encounter she has must move her along her own path.
VS: Some books are made popular through sheer force by publishers, while others seem to find a natural footing through passionate readers, enthusiastic bookstores, and loving word-of-mouth. I know I’ve done my part to foist your books on everyone I can, and I’ve seen that same passion from other readers, writers, and booksellers. Could you speak a little to independent bookstores, and the role they’ve played in helping your stories find their audience?
MM: Oh, thank you for asking this! Independent bookstores have been such an important part of my life as both reader and writer, and I am very glad for the opportunity to sing their praises! And thank you also for the foisting. I have spent my whole life foisting books on people, and it is lovely to hear that my book is one that someone else wants to pass on!
As a child, independent bookstores were one of my happy places. So many favorites came from browsing their shelves, or following the recommendations of booksellers. And of course, this was in antiquity when there was no internet. My local independent bookstores were my best (often only) source of passionate recommendations. Now that we have the internet those recommendations are just as vital, because there is no way for mere mortals to keep up with the tidal wave of new book information. My first Google search when we decided to move was: Independent bookstores outside Philadelphia.
All of which is a preface to saying that it was a real and personal honor for me when independent booksellers began speaking up for The Song of Achilles. Those booksellers offered me some of my earliest positive feedback, and took the time to nominate both Achilles and Circe for the Indie Next list. They invited an untested author to their stores for events, recommended me to their customers, and have hand-sold my book for the past six years. When Achilles was chosen for the Parnassus’ First Edition club I was beside myself, because it was such a huge vote of confidence in the book and because I knew that my story would be getting into the hands of so many book-lovers. Recently, I saw a map of where in the country The Song of Achilles has sold, and there is a huge dark splotch in Nashville, which made me smile, because I know it’s you all!
VS: Do you have any advice to aspiring writers who see only the end product, and perhaps think their own work will never get there?
MM: Don’t give up! A bad draft stinks. It’s awful to look at something and realize that it’s not good enough. It’s especially awful if it’s your second/fifth/tenth bad one in a row. It’s normal to feel discouraged (or even despairing). Take a break from it, if you need one. Write a short story, read a favorite book, vent to a loved one, take a writing class. But then go back. Bad drafts are part of the process. You have to get through them to get to the good stuff. My fabulous former Latin teacher has a saying about studying Latin, which I think absolutely applies to writing: the students who succeed are the ones with the highest tolerance for frustration. If you love the story, and are passionately devoted to it, just keep showing up and putting one foot in front of the other and you will get there.
(Stick around! Anyone who has purchased Circe from Parnassus is welcome to join a signing line and meet the author after her talk.)
Speaking of fiction . . . Mark your calendar! Just a few more of the big literary gatherings coming your way over the next few weeks:
Come hang out with your favorite authors, won’t you? Check our online calendar for many, many more events!