If any writer was ideally suited to taking the characters of Greek mythology and write novels about them, it was Madeline Miller.
When she was a child, her mother would read Greek literature to her, and she herself went on to study Classics at university in her native United States before teaching the subject to high school students.
But while she had the perfect background for what she went on to do, it was no easy task.
Miller’s 2011 debut novel, The Song of Achilles, which was a retelling of the epic poem the Iliad as an account of an affair between Achilles and Patroclus, took a decade to write. Her new book, Circe, which centres on the goddess of the same name, was seven years in the making.
In a discussion with the writer Rebecca Stott as part of the at the UEA Spring 2018 Literary Festival, Miller explained that much of her early work on Circe did not lead anywhere.
“The first five years, I would say, are really me just muddling around and trying to have that narrator’s voice in my head,” she said.
“I feel these five years are me going down every possible wrong path so the only one that’s left is the right path.
“At the end of the five years, I felt totally depressed and felt I’m never going to get this; I’m never going to understand these characters. So I took a little break; I worked on other projects.”
This step back from the book proved helpful: Miller returned better able to resolve the difficulties that she was having.
“I had the end, but I didn’t know where the beginning was. When I had that beginning, I could draw that ark,” she said.
“It’s always a pleasure to play with these stories in general because these characters are so rich and they’re so interesting.”
She described the stories classical Greek literature as having “passion and despair and grief”, as being “very primal”. But for all this, they are among the most heavily studied works of literature and, while calling her books “literary adaptation, mythological realism” rather than historical fiction, Miller was conscious of the need not to get things wrong.
“I was very concerned, coming from a classics background, that by playing with these stories [there was a risk that] I was going to get kicked out of the classics club,” she said, adding that she was careful with citations and the like to ensure she did not fall foul of scholars.
As Stott put it, Miller’s new book is “a feminist reworking, it’s for our times”. But she also noted that some critics had seen it as more than this, being also a study of what happens when power is shared by too few people.
“That was absolutely something I wanted to look at,” said Miller, adding that in Ancient Greece, “the Gods held all this power” and were happy to abuse their positions.
“She [Cerci] is a nymph; she was at the bottom. Cerci spends a lot of the novel trying to have a little power and trying to gain independence,” said Miller.
“Part of what I wanted Cerci to be wrestling with was whether it’s possible to have power and not abuse it or do these things always go hand in hand.”
The possibility was raised in 2015 that a mini-series could be made from The Song of Achilles; Miller said there was nothing yet to confirm, but added that “there’s possible stuff in motion”.
“As a writer, it’s exciting to imagine your work on screen, but it’s also terrifying. Often writers don’t have any control once the rights are sold and they’re often included only as much as the people making the movie [choose to] have them involved,” she said.
If you enjoyed this article why not read our review of Jesmyn Ward @ UEA Spring Literary Festival 2018