Category: Literature & the Humanities

Humanity’s attempt to document and understand the human experience through the fine arts, the less-than-fine arts, history, philosophy, and religion.

Madeline Miller — Writing Things

Back in January, I bought tickets to see Madeline Miller at the Tattered Cover.

A lot’s happened since then.

Luckily, in response to the pandemic, the Tattered Cover didn’t cancel the conference, but moved the Author Reading and Q&A to Zoom.

Hair the color of gingerbread, Madeline Miller appeared on my computer screen, on my writing desk, in my apartment; a celebrity encounter a little too intimate for my wife and myself. We repeatedly worried she could see or hear us, and we whispered sheepishly throughout the event.

(She couldn’t see us and the mikes were muted.)

Our awkwardness aside, the format was brilliant, with Len Vlahos (one of the bookstore’s owners) acting as interlocutor and host. Madeline Miller read from her work, her writing beautiful as Greek poetry, and talked briefly about childcare and cat ownership during the COVID-19 crisis. Her cat’s name is Sif, by the way, the Norse Goddess of Spring.

One of the themes of her talk was how classic literature can provide us context for modern problems. Miller employed the famous saying that there’s ‘nothing new under the sun.’ Humanity struggles, now and then, with many of the same things. Her first example was The Illiad. In Book One, a plague spreads through the Greek host and its leaders botch their response, ego and rage making for poor decision-making. How familiar. Her second example was Cassandra, the Trojan princess, who always presented the truth, despite being cursed by Apollo to never be believed. In many versions of the myth, Cassandra incurred the god’s wrath by refusing to be his lover. How prescient, Miller said, to have a woman struggling to tell her truth but no one will listen.

The central focus of the talk, however, was Circe.

To those unfamiliar, Madeline Miller’s best known novels are retellings of famous Greek myths, using a contemporary style combined with ancient backdrops. Her two great novels are The Song of Achilles and Circe, the famous sorceress from The Odyssey.

Purpose

Madeline Miller was very clear about how intention guided her approach to Circle. Years ago, when she first read The Odyssey, Miller was disappointed by Homer’s depiction of the famous meeting between Odysseus and Circle. Here were two smart and complicated people, but while Odysseus was brave and clever, Circle merely fell to her knees before his sword then invited him to bed. “The phallic sword did not escape my notice,” Miller added. Furthermore, Odysseus was one of the most curious men in Greek literature, and Miller was puzzled why he never asked Circle about turning men to pigs.

Later, Miller realized Odysseus was also the greatest liar of Greek literature, and that Circle’s section of the epic was reported from his point of view while he was trying to impress a royal court. Odysseus was a man concerned about his reputation and status; by glorifying Circle’s beauty and his sexual conquest, Odysseus was really saying look how great I am!

“Odysseus has told his story for the last 3,000 years,” Miller said. “It was time for Circe to speak for herself.”

There were other elements the author was interested in incorporating into the narrative, like motherhood as its own epic story, and how Circle wasn’t born into power, but used witchcraft, a skill and passion that Miller likened to art. The author also wanted to redeem Circe from her villainization; to respond to male anxiety about female power. Writing Circe, therefore, was an attempt to give the sorceress a full psychological portrait. “This is a story about a woman coming into her power and into her voice in a world hostile to women in power and the female voice,” Miller said.

In other words, Circe was always intended to be a feminist take on the character, just as Song of Achilles was intended as a queer take on Achilles and Patroclus.

Process

In regards to process, Madeline Miller was more ambiguous. She described the craft as a mystery, the reason the ancients spoke of inspiration as a muse.

“My role is to keep showing up to the work,” she said. To sit down every day, to focus, to write, to try her best to tell her characters’ story.

When asked, Miller said she doesn’t really outline. Instead, she has the ending of her novel fixed firmly in her mind. The problem is finding the beginning, the first line. “I know where to shoot the arrow, the target,” she said, “I just don’t know where to stand to shoot.”

Research

“I research as I go,” Miller said. “When I get to a section, I deep dive. Only 1% of what I learn makes it into the novel. Any more would be deadly.”

An important aspect of history writing, she added, was the material culture. An author must give the story a real physicality. The knives, the broaches, the snakes, the beetles, they were all inspired by real finds and studies.

“What something looks like might not make it into the story, but it’s important for the writer to know,” she said. Miller also traveled to Greece to smell the olive groves, to look at the sea, to observe the light on the wall.

Voice

As for the author’s ability to give characters real voices, Miller relies on her theatrical background. One strategy is to read dialogue aloud. Another is to make very intentional decisions about word choice based on a character’s background or mental state. Would this person be contemplative or easily angered? And what would their metaphorical language be; the way they process the world? Circe, living deeply in the woods, draws on nature as her source for context. Patroclus, in rejection of the war-glory tempting Achilles, uses the metaphors of daily life, reflecting Sappho and the ancient poets of ordinary experience.

Overall, I was not surprised to find Madeline Miller as brilliant as her fiction. If you ever have the opportunity to sit in on her talks, I would highly recommend the experience.

 

Carl Sagan on Books

François Boucher. Madame de Pompadour. 1756, oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Literacy is one of the great tools of civilization. Etymology is one aspect of this tool. Your ability to read my writing—another. The moral imagination invoked is a third. Unfortunately, writing is a recent invention—we’re still getting used to it. As Sagan notes in The Demon-Haunted World (335):

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

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Perrine on Escape and Interpretation

The first question to ask about fiction is, Why bother to read it?

Rembrandt van Rijn. Scholar in His Study. 1634, oil on canvas, National Gallery in Prague, Czech Republic.

Laurence Perrine, an English professor whose Sound and Sense textbook series was immensely popular, splits literature between escape, which helps us “pass the time agreeably,” and interpretive, “written to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life” (3). Escape and interpretation are not “two great bins, into… which we can toss any given story” but a scale with each inhabiting opposite ends (4).

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Neil Gaiman, Cakes, and Writhing

Gaiman was the reason I always had purple baggy-eyes in elementary and middle school. The simplicity of his writings, the interweaving of mythology, monsters, and modernity, and the cruel world behind-the-magic offered my child-self something gripping, something utterly fantastic and appalling to explore late in the night. His writing still does—today—in my late twenties. Personally, my favorite work by Neil Gaiman is The Ocean at the End of the Lane (and not only because Fiction Beer Company has a citrus wheat beer inspired by the novel). I have a theory about literature (I’m allowed a few theories, being an English teacher) that great works must inspire the moral imagination, even if the wisdoms aren’t the sort we want to hear. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the title clues us in—Harper Lee wants us to understand that it’s a “sin to kill a mockingbird” for they “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” The book indicts an American culture which regularly commits this sacrilege against its disadvantaged and minorities. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, behind an incredible narrative about magic and outsiders, there is an abundance of dark truths about adulthood—its deceptive ontology of control, its routine mindlessness. Gaiman reminds us “Adults follow paths. Children explore;” “Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside;” and—in the most incredible line I’ve read in literature, something that explains the opus of Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft better than they did themselves—that what marks adulthood is not some maturity or inner growth, but the awareness of how fragile the surface of our lives are, the recognition that reality is “a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”