Author Encounters – Madeline Miller

This week, I was lucky enough to attend an author event with the inspiring Madeline Miller, author of Circe and The Song of Achilles! I’d read these books months ago, way before even knowing that Miller would be coming to town, so I was absolutely ecstatic when I learned that she would be here and I have been looking forward to this event all summer long.

Miller 1

As you know, I am planning to write my own Ancient Greek novel, one which has been in my head for at least a decade thanks to a class I took in undergrad, so having the opportunity to be in the same room as Miller was very exciting and I hoped to learn a lot about writing in a time period like Ancient Greece, particularly with so little known about women from this time.

Miller is a teacher, so her stage presence was quiet, but confident. As I’ve mentioned in other author encounters posts, sometimes authors aren’t comfortable being on stage. I get that. But, it’s always a pleasant surprise when the writer is a good public speaker and can articulate things to the audience. I find that I can learn so much more from them about their craft and process.

The event started off with Miller reading a passage from Circe! Hearing the words of the author in his/her own voice is such a special experience. You get to hear their own interpretation, how the words sounded in their head as they wrote them, their inflections and their intonations. If you get the opportunity to hear an author read his/her words, always take it!

Then, we got into the meat of the talk. We learned that writing is a lengthy process for Miller. Both of her books have taken more than five years each to write! She is a very busy lady with raising her family. I don’t have children, but it’s always nice when a writer says something like this that is relatable. Some writers insist that you should finish a book in a year and for many of us, that’s just not feasible, and frankly a little bit disheartening.

As with a work of fiction, I always love a good origin story, and we got a great one from the author that evening as well! Madeline Miller told the audience about how her love of ancient literature started. Each time I listen to an author, I find that I have so much in common with them with regard to our experiences as children. Our parents read to us. Miller told us about how her mother would read to her from The Odyssey and how she fell in love with the gods and goddesses, the epic adventures. She also had support along the way from teachers: the Latin teach who taught her Ancient Greek on the side, the English teacher who encouraged her love of storytelling. These experiences in our youth are pivotal to becoming the creatives we are as adults.

As you would expect, Miller’s knowledge of myth is on point and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing her talk about how she wove four main stories/myths about Circe together to tell the story she envisioned. I also appreciated that she referred to her story as a “reimagining.” When you’re dealing with the ancient world, I think this is very important and it gave me some hope and some confidence. Here is a classicist, someone who has thoroughly studied the period, and who is telling the story in her own way, being true to myth in some regard, injecting some modern sensibilities as well, and also tossing the pieces that don’t fit. As I seek to re-approach telling a story about Sappho, I find this helps me feel a bit more confident in my storytelling. (I also felt confident that my knowledge of the period’s literature hasn’t waned too much as I knew the majority of the texts and stories she referenced in her talk!).

Even though the focus of this talk was Circe, we were lucky enough to spend some time on her first book, The Song of Achilles! My book club is reading this book later this year, but I read it months ago! I have been particularly intrigued by the story telling perspective of this one. It’s the story of both Achilles and Patroclus, told by Patroclus. It’s very Great Gatsby in my opinion where you get the story of a mythic/epic figure from someone who is observing and also part of the action to a certain extent. This is how I’ve been envisioning positioning my story about Sappho as well: a story told by an observer and someone who interacts with her and loves her.

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At the end of the talk, we stood in line and got a minute of Madeline Miller’s time and an autograph. I shared with her my love of classical literature and that I have a minor in it, though I didn’t tell her about my own book aspirations. I don’t know why, but I felt a little weird about sharing that with her (or with any author with whom I might share somewhat of a niche). But, it was fun to see how she signed my book! She recommended a book to read and called me a fellow classicist (This absolutely made my day!  Thank you, Madeline!)!

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Author Encounters – Neil Gaiman
Author Encounters – Kate Morton