Literary Witch in Lynchburg

Grace Cavanaugh ~ Staff Writer

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Madeline Miller (left) and her novel, Circe (right).

On Thursday, November 8, Madeline Miller, a New York Times bestselling author, visited the Givens Books & Little Dickens on Lakeside Drive for a book reading and signing. Miller has two published books. The Song of Achilles was published in 2012 and, more recently, her novel Circe was published in 2018. Miller is also an essayist who has been published by many news organizations, according to her website.

“I have never officially lived in Lynchburg but it has always felt like a home to me,” said Miller. “My mother went to Randolph-Macon Women’s College and later served on the board […] And, there’s also a classical connection which is that my relationship to these ancient myths goes back to the fact that my mother used to read the Greek myths to me, little pieces of the Iliad and the Odyssey, when I was a child, and she did that because she had a wonderful classics professor at Randolph-Macon.”

Miller started the event by reading a few passages from her newest novel, Circe, which is about the Ancient Greek witch who appears in Homer’s The Odyssey.

“There are a couple reasons I was drawn to this character, but really it all goes back to 8th grade. In 8th grade, everyone in my school read The Odyssey in English class. I was already obsessed, as you have heard, with Greek myths by that point, so I knew there was this witch who turned men into pigs and she was really powerful. […] I was really excited because there’s so few female characters like Circe in ancient literature. […] And it was so frustrating to my 13 year old self. I can remember this profound feeling of disappointment, you know, is that all she gets? […] It felt like such a missed opportunity,” said Miller.

The book, Circe, is about the titular character where Miller gives her more of a story that is not the short passage in The Odyssey. It starts with Circe’s parentage, and follows with how she was banished to the island, Aeaea, where Odysseus finds her, and even her story after where The Odyssey left her.

Miller said, “Circe is, at its root, yes, it’s about witchcraft and lions and all of that, but also it’s the story of this young woman who is born into this absolutely horrendous family who is trying to get out and remake herself and find her power. […] Can she do that, and what is the cost?”

Miller continued, “Looking at the ways many of these epic stories resonate, and how [they] cross  cultures outside the Greco-Roman world as well, you have these resonances [that] can be interesting, but from a novelists perspective, if you’re writing the archetype, your reader is bored. […] I always want to be writing about people.”

“I think there is this real movement to tell more of these stories that haven’t been told from characters, male and female, who haven’t had the spotlight,” said Miller. “A lot of them seem to be women that are telling these stories […] I think it speaks to the power of these original stories.”

Miller’s other book, The Song of Achilles, focuses on the relationship between Achilles and the main character, Patroclus. “I wanted to explore the character of Patroclus in particular,” said Miller. “His death is the lynchpin of the whole plot of the Iliad. […] Who is this man, why does he mean so much to Achilles? If that’s the end of their story, what does the beginning look like?”

Miller said for her next novel, “I have two ideas that I’m kind of kicking around. […] One is the Tempest. The other is The Aeneid.”

Miller also had advice for new writers, saying, “A bad draft really stinks, but it is part of the process. […] Those moments are really, really hard as a writer, but they are totally normal. You actually have to go through that to get to the better draft, and then the better draft beyond that, and the better draft beyond that.”

“The other piece of advice is read poetry. Read all books, but poetry uses its words so precisely and so potently that it always reminds me as a writer of how precise and potent I want to be, because poetry does everything novels do, but it does it more succinctly,” finished Miller.

For more information on Madeline Miller and her books, please visit www.madelinemiller.com. For future visiting authors to Givens Books and Little Dickens, please visit www.givensbooks.com.