Everything Novel: Madeline Miller on Power and Magic in Circe

This month at DeadDarlings, New York Times bestselling author Madeline Miller spoke with author and Novel Incubator graduate Rachel Barenbaum about Miller's latest novel, Circe. The book, which was released by Little, Brown this year, traces Circe’s life from her childhood in Helios’ halls where she meets Prometheus, to her exile on Aiaia where she is launched into meeting Daedalus, Odysseus, Medea, the Minotaur and more. You can read the full interview on our blog, but here are some of the highlights for all the writers in the room. 

 

 

Most of our readers are writers—and we want to know: Madeline, are you an outliner or a pantser?

I confess that I had to Google “pantser.” My previous association with the word is someone who pulls another person’s pants down, which didn’t seem right! For the record, I am definitely not that sort of pantser, but it turns out that I am a bit of the other kind. In writing Circe I used four major plot touchstones from mythology, plus the ending which I had in mind from my earliest conception of the book. Other than that, everything else was pantsing. For me, the most important thing is getting the character’s emotional arc right, which means that I can’t imagine chapter eight until I’ve written chapter seven. I don’t know who Circe is going to be, and therefore what she will do, until she gets there.

 

What was the biggest editorial change you made while editing Circe? 

In very early drafts I had given Telemachus a narrative chapter of his own. In many ways I see him as a mirror to Circe—just as she struggles with the constraints that society places on her as a woman, he struggles with the constraints of being a hero’s son. He doesn’t want to follow in his father Odysseus’ bloody footsteps, but that’s the only path that society wants him to take. If he wants to defy that, he has to, like Circe, strike out on his own. All of those ideas remained, but having him narrate his own chapter broke the novel. The whole point of the story is that it’s Circe’s! As soon as I cut that chapter, the novel started working again. And Telemachus still tells his story, he just tells it to Circe. That puts the emphasis on their interaction, and on Circe’s experience of him, which is where it should be. However, I’m grateful that I spent so much time writing out the whole chapter from Telemachus’ perspective, even though it didn’t make the novel. It helped me hear his voice and understand his character with more nuance.

 

 

Let’s talk about the incredible conversation between sisters Circe and Pasiphae. This was my favorite scene in the book. Hands down. Circe says: "For once in your life, speak the truth" and Pasiphae does. She says the only thing that makes men listen is power. It is not enough to be good, to please them in bed. And for them, the sisters, their only power can come from witchcraft. Why did you create this conversation? And tell us more about how you connect sorceresses to monsters.

That scene was a linchpin of the novel for me. Circe spends the first part of the novel looking at the women around her with some degree of internalized misogyny. Pasiphae and Scylla are, in her opinion, both shallow and unsympathetic. She feels her own constraints acutely but doesn’t see how those would chafe other women the same way. In this scene, she begins to understand that they are all struggling with the same thing. She has spent her life defining herself against her sister, but now she sees that they have simply taken different paths to the same goal: independence, autonomy, control over their own destiny. It’s one of the signs of psychological maturity to be able to have more than one feeling about something: Circe can dislike her sister’s behavior, but still also understand and even empathize with her reasoning.

I also wanted to highlight the poverty of choices available to women then (and often now). If women act in traditionally approved ways they get stepped on; if they wield power like men, they’re reviled. The only way that Pasiphae can have any agency in the world is to make men afraid of her—to leverage her witchcraft and charisma against them. To become a “monster.” But that means she has to live her life in a constant battle, using her power as cruelly as possible. One of the things I wanted to explore in the novel is the abuse of power. Is it possible to have power, and not abuse it? Is there a model for benevolent strength?

 

One more content question. Circe seemed mostly passive, hiding on her island, until her son sails away under Athena’s eye. As he embarks, for the first time, Circe challenges her father and takes control of her future. Why did it take her son leaving to make this change? What were you thinking about as you wrote through this final chapter in Circe’s life – and what do you want us to think about as we read it?

There is so much going on in Circe’s life at that point, so many threads coming together. I do think that there is something about seeing a child off into the world that provides a certain freedom and change in perspective. So much of Circe’s attention has been consumed with the minutiae of child-raising, the head down, daily grind of parenting. Now suddenly she can stop and look around her. She has time to think in a way she hasn’t before, to take stock of the changes that have crept over her.

A character observes that Telegonus closely resembles his mother. It is, of course, part of why Telegonus often drives Circe wild with his impulsiveness—because in her life she’s had to pay dearly for that kind of trusting innocence. In allowing him to set off for adventure, she is able to acknowledge that that impulse is not just a liability but a gift as well.

But it’s not just Telegonus that helps her change, I think it’s also the connection with Penelope, and with Telemachus too. And some of it is simply feeling, finally, like a grown up.

As they came to the final chapter, I wanted people to be thinking about change. The Greek gods do not change; they are always the same: selfish, absorbed only in themselves, cruel, grasping. Circe has come to see such stasis as death. As life moves around us, we must move and learn with it, or else we are not truly living.

 

 

About Madeline Miller: Madeline Miller has a BA and MA from Brown University in Latin and Ancient Greek, and has been teaching both for the past nine years. She has also studied at the Yale School of Drama, specializing in adapting classical tales to a modern audience. The Song of Achilles, her first novel, was the winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012. Her new novel, Circe, is a New York Times bestseller, an Amazon April Spotlight Pick, and the #1 ALA Library Reads Pick.

 

About Rachel Barenbaum: Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A Bend in the Stars, forthcoming from Grand Central in June 2019. She is a graduate of GrubStreet's Novel Incubator program. In a former life, she was a hedge fund manager and a spin instructor. Today she lives in Hanover, NH with her husband, three children, and dog named Zishe.

 

 

Already under Circe's spell? So are we! Treat the symptoms with the full interview and more at DeadDarlings.com.

About the Author

Dead Darlings is devoted to celebrating the novel, from the process of creation through revision, promotion and publication. The authors, alumni from GrubStreet Boston’s Novel Incubator, have gathered to provide support for all novelists: aspiring, developing or successful. Writing is best when it has the support of a community, when novelists share their experiences.

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