On January 28, Literary Arts will host Madeline Miller as a part of our 2020-21 season of Portland Arts & Lectures. Miller is a renowned classicist and author of The Song of Achilles, which won the 2012 Orange Prize, and Circe, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller and won the 2019 Indie Choice Award, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and was named on numerous Best Books of 2018 lists.
Writing in a genre Miller refers to as “mythological realism,” these titles reimagine ancient Greek myths for the modern reader.
What compels a writer to breathe new life into the classics? In this recorded interview with Ezra Klein for Vox, Miller talks about myth, nostalgia, and how power corrupts.
Miller’s Circe–a “bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story” (New York Times)–gives a voice to the woman at the sidelines of Homer’s Odyssey.
In this interview with Nikki VanRy at Bookriot, Miller discusses gods and mortals, witches and ancient women, her ongoing fascination with Shakespeare, and how Circe would respond to current events.
It took Madeline Miller ten years to write The Song of Achilles and six to write Circe. For her, writing is “like descending to the bottom of the ocean.”
Read more of Miller’s reflections on being a writer in this interview with PBS NewsHour.
Interested in more? Below is a bio of Madeline Miller’s life and writing career thus far.
Madeline Miller was born in Boston and spent her early years in New York City, where her mother would regularly take her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Egyptian, Ancient Greek, and Roman exhibits.
Miller was five years old when her mother, who was a librarian, first read to her from the Iliad. She was instantly hooked, remembering: “I thought, ‘Wow, this is what real life is like,’ That might sound funny, given that the story is full of gods. But the emotions, the striving, the grief. It was so engaging.”
When Miller was in high school, her family moved to Philadelphia, where she began to learn both Latin and Homeric Greek languages. Miller attended Brown University, where she studied Classics and received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.
Though her early interest in reading and studying Classics cannot be understated, Miller also knew from a young age that she wanted to be a writer. As early as her teenage years, she says, “I knew I wanted to write—though I would never have dared to hope I could actually be a writer.” She credits her love of writing and books to her mother, who would spend hours reading aloud to her and supporting her writing practice.
Her first novel, The Song of Achilles, was awarded the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a New York Times best seller. A new rendering of the Trojan War, this homage to the Iliad follows Patroclus, a young exiled prince, living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. Joanna Trollope, chair of the Orange Prize judges, commented, “This is a more than worthy winner – original, passionate, inventive, and uplifting. Homer would be proud of her.”
Her 2018 novel, Circe, was also critically acclaimed and a fixture on the New York Times best seller list that year. A retelling of the Odyssey, Circe tells the story of minor goddess Circe, who was banished from her Titan father’s house to a deserted island where she unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods. NPR’s Here & Now celebrates the work as “so vivid, so layered, you could get lost in it… Whether or not you think you like Greek mythology, this is just great storytelling.”
Prior to this novel, Circe was a minor character depicted in only a handful of legends; Miller expands her story into a fully fleshed view of a powerful woman dealing with love and loss. Unearthing and telling these untold stories is key to Miller’s writing practice. She notes, “I think it’s important when reading a classic work to ask: whose stories are being told, and whose stories have been left out or suppressed? In the context of Homer, nearly all the major characters are male aristocrats, and anyone outside that category is largely ignored. Yet so often, these other stories are seething at the edges, every bit as gripping as the hero’s version, and just waiting to be told.”
Perhaps the best explanation of why Miller’s retellings have captured readers’ imaginations comes from the author herself, who has said, “With a retelling you get the best of both worlds, the chance to revisit beloved stories, while at the same time being surprised by them.”
At the time of writing this bio (mid-December), both The Song of Achilles and Circe are on the New York Times paperback best seller list. Miller’s novels have been translated into over twenty-five languages, and her essays have appeared in a number of publications including the Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Telegraph, Lapham’s Quarterly, and NPR.org. She currently lives outside Philadelphia.
If you’d like to learn more about the character Circe, check out this enlightening photo essay from Madeline Miller’s website!