Madeline Miller

Novelist and NEA Big Read author
Madeline Miller
Photo by Nina Subin

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of free Music Archive.

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Madeline Miller: The topics of ancient epic poetry of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” are very traditionally male and so as I was setting Circe’s story at the center I also wanted to honor the epic parts that were traditionally female, things like parenting and motherhood and birth scenes, and those are part of Circe’s life and so I wanted them to be included and to kind of give them their epic scope.

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Jo Reed: That’s novelist Madeline Miller she’s the author of Circe which is our most recent National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read title, and This is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Finding out which books are named to the NEA big read program is always a lot of fun. Sometimes they’re favorites of mine, sometimes I haven’t read them and then get to discover a new book. In the case of Circe—I was absolutely delighted, because I had just finished reading it when I got the word it had been chosen. — I hadn’t stopped talking about it. It was one of those books I simply couldn’t put down while I was reading it and then I missed being in that world when I finished. In the novel, Madeline Miller—who is a classist and whose previous novel is Song of Achilles, retells the story of Circe. Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios and so she’s a goddess herself--- she’s also a witch, and her previous claim to fame was turning men into pigs in Homer’s epic, The Odyssey. But in Madeline Miller’s book, Circe finally gets her own story…and what a story it is. It’s a story of gods and mortals, it’s a family saga with a dysfunctional family writ large, a story of persistence, empathy, transformation and a hard-won peace. Circe is a beautifully-written reimagining of an enduring epic. But I was curious, what led Madeline Miller to rethink the goddess Circe.

I mean, out of all the women and goddesses sidelined in the great myths—why Circe?

Madeline Miller: Well, she’s a really tantalizing figure in “The “Odyssey.” Odysseus lands on her island, she turns his men into pigs, but then she ends up helping Odysseus and sort of becomes one of the most helpful characters that he encounters in the entire “Odyssey” and then he sails away and that’s the end of the episode; she’s really just a cameo. And I was fascinated. I wanted to know more about this character. Why is she turning men into pigs, that seems like an important question that doesn’t get answered in the episode, and how does she manage to have the amount of power that she has, which is quite unusual for a woman in the ancient world so that was also interesting. And I was drawn into her witchcraft, which is really distinct from her divinity; in fact, she is the first witch in what is often referred to as Western literature.

Jo Reed: Wait a minute, wait a minute, can you just briefly explain the distinction between ‘witchcraft’ and ‘divinity’?

Madeline Miller: Yes! Divine power comes out of the ‘shazam’ type of power but witchcraft is skill, it’s dedication, it’s working with herbs and potions and poisons, and so it’s really knowledge and work based, which I thought was very interesting so that drew me to her. And most of all I really just wanted to kind of flip the script on the episode that instead of her being the cameo I wanted to put her at the center of the story, and Odysseus is a cameo and it’s really about sort of her whole life leading up to that and then after and he’s just kind of another person who comes in and out of her life.

Jo Reed: Circe was exiled by Zeus for practicing witchcraft. I was really surprised that an Olympic god would fear witchcraft.

Madeline Miller: Yes, and that is one of the things that also sort of intrigued me in “The Odyssey” because Hermes at one point comes down to sort of help Odysseus as he’s going to confront Circe to try and rescue his men and the god Hermes basically says to Odysseus, “She’s quite a powerful witch so I’m going to give you this herb that will make you immune to her spells.” And what is sort of revealed in that moment is that the gods are clearly a little bit nervous about this witchcraft but it really is different and it’s something that they don’t quite understand, and that to me kind of fits in with the history of sort of the way witches have been treated in literature and in the world; it’s-- oftentimes “witch” is the word we give to a woman whose power we can’t control and so I feel like Circe is right in line with that.

Jo Reed: Circe’s voice is a thread that weaves through the whole book and the story is told in her voice, first person. Talk about the process of finding her voice because I would imagine that would be crucial for you in order to be able to tell this story.

Madeline Miller: Yes, it is, and I actually have a background in theater and so I really need to be able to hear the character’s voice in my head as if they are fully formed, three-dimensional, standing in front of me and telling their story. So, it was a lot of-- it’s a lot of trial and error, it’s a lot of sort of trying things out and realizing they don’t work and trying again and realizing that doesn’t work. I sort of liken it to tuning an instrument, that I’m kind of listening for something; I’m listening for the right note but I have to sort of keep turning and turning and trying things to get to that right note. And now sort of looking back on the process I can retro fill in the fact that what I was looking for was I wanted her voice to be incredibly direct because she is a very direct person but I also wanted her voice to have this strange archaicism and formality to it, just little hints of that that come out of her being an eternal being born in the halls of epic deities. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Well, much is made out of the fact that she has a human voice and she’s scorned by her family for that. Let’s talk about those family dynamics.

Madeline Miller: <laughs> Yes. Well, and I was led to that actually right from the Homer. One of the ways that she’s described in Homer is as the dread goddess who speaks like a human and immediately as a novelist my brain leapt on that because I thought wow, that’s really interesting. Usually in the ancient world when gods appear before humans it’s this terrifying experience. Sometimes you incinerate on the spot, if you don’t your hair stands on end, it’s sort of this overwhelming and terrifying thing, and yet here she is who-- without that type of voice; she just has a regular human voice. And so immediately I started thinking well, that would make her an outcast among her family and she would be this sort of very odd duck in this world of incredibly powerful beings and what would it be like to be born into that world. And then of course there is the fact that the ancient Greek gods if you know the mythology are absolutely horrendous; they are selfish and petty and nasty and they will just destroy you if you happen to get on their bad side and then they’ll destroy your children and your children’s children and kind of on down the line.

Jo Reed: And then wonder why you’re not honoring them.

Madeline Miller: Exactly. So today we would diagnose them as sociopathic narcissists so Circe is sort of born into that family but she doesn’t really have that same psychology.

Jo Reed: You have a very early scene in the book that happens right after Prometheus is found having given fire to humans and is horribly tortured and Circe sees this and is drawn to him even though if she’s caught being kind to him she’ll suffer the same punishment he does.

Madeline Miller: Yeah. That was a very significant scene for me because Prometheus is another one of these gods who is capable of feeling empathy and that’s really to me what that human voice with Circe came to symbolize because I have always felt that empathy is one of humanity’s greatest and most saving graces. And so here she is born into this family where she feels completely alienated but she can’t really put into words why she feels alienated, which I think is an experience that many people have in childhood if they’re in families where they don’t quite fit in; they sort of can’t put their finger on why they don’t fit in. And then she meets Prometheus and suddenly she starts to understand herself a little bit better and sort of “Oh, here is this other thing that I’ve been looking for but I couldn’t really name, someone else who understands empathy and who feels for other people and who’s interested in connection unlike the rest of my family.”

Jo Reed: When she’s exiled on this island it nonetheless is a very nice island--

Madeline Miller: <laughs> Yeah, it’s true.

Jo Reed: --with a very nice house and within the constraints of that exile what I found so interesting is that that’s where she really nurtures her power and I love that part of the book where she was alone with her lions and wolves and really honing her craft.

Madeline Miller: Yeah, and that was something that I-- was really fun to work with is the fact that it seems like it’s going to be this terrible punishment but actually it ends up being sort of the making of her to have this space by herself where she can really work and in that I think I was very influenced by Virginia Woolf and the idea of “A Room of One’s Own” and Circe gets an island of her own, which is clearly an upgrade, but—

Jo Reed: Well, she was a goddess.

Madeline Miller: She is a goddess so she has-- but this idea that female artists-- and I very much see Circe as an artist and that was something I wanted to be a key piece of her story is that her witchcraft is an art and also she’s an artist as a weaver as well so she’s sort of a double artist and that women often need that kind of retreat in order to be able to hear their own voices because society is so sort of strongly either constricting their voices or controlling their voices or just placing so much expectation of work that they don’t have space for that type of creative retreat-- which I think can be so vital for hearing your own voice and sort of being able to follow your own path. So, for me that very much was in line with kind of what Virginia Woolf is talking about there and is necessary to Circe’s development as a person and as an artist.

Jo Reed: What certainly spoke to me is one of Circe’s abilities is to transform things and I’m reading the book and I’m saying, “Transform something into a lion, please. You definitely need to have a pet because then everything really will be perfect once you have some fur around.”

Madeline Miller: Yes, and she ends up surrounding herself with quite a lot of fur in the end. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Yes, she does.

Madeline Miller: I wish we could all have lions.

Jo Reed: I do too <laughs>. The who’s who of gods and demigods and relatives of gods seem to find her on her little island and an important part of the book is when Daedalus comes and I was both a little bit surprised to find him in this story and very pleased; as another craftsperson they really fit quite well. Tell us why Daedalus was there because I think that whole business is so important.

Madeline Miller: So sometimes you’ll hear authors say, “This character surprised me” and I had not really had that experience until I wrote Daedalus and he really took me by surprise because I intended him to be a much smaller part than he ended up being but the more I sort of explored his personality and the more I kind of put him in scenes with Circe the more I realized that he was in fact this really important moment in her life for just the reason you said. He is the first example of another artist that she encounters, of another person who loves crafts and works with their hands and to me I think I came to see them as being just on the opposite sides of the same line. She is this goddess who’s almost human and he is this human who has powers that make him almost a god and so they’re right there next to each other <laughs> and they can really speak to each other from that place and-- from that place of loving work and skill and craft and all of that and it was also-- he fit in very nicely to that narrative as well because her sister is the mother of the Minotaur and so it sort of fits. He makes the labyrinth that eventually cages the Minotaur and so he kind of was there in the story already but he just kept sort of growing and growing and growing. And the other thing that I think was really important to me in both the character of Daedalus and later on in the character of Telemachus who shows up Odysseus’s son is that any society that is so strongly constricting the roles of 50 percent of its population, i.e., all the women, it’s not just going to be 50 percent; it’s going to be everyone. And there are going to be men who are being forced into roles that they don’t want to be in either and I think Daedalus is very much kind of chafing with he feels very constrained in his own life.

Jo Reed: Well, he’s a prisoner to all intents and purposes. Isn’t he?

Madeline Miller: Yeah, he is and so he is on one hand a prisoner and on the other hand he’s really enjoying the fact that a key piece of his identity is being a father and that- that’s really important to him and a lot of fathers didn’t have that experience but because he’s a single father his bond with his son is primary and so I like that he is a little bit unusual that way too.

Jo Reed: We mentioned a little bit about the Minotaur. Explain a little bit about what that Minotaur is and how Circe happened to be present at his birth.

Madeline Miller: Sure. So, Circe has all of these sort of famous myths that touch her story and one of them is the Minotaur. So, her sister is also a witch; her sister’s name is Pasiphae; she’s the Queen of Crete. And I sort of can’t believe that there’s not already an HBO mini-series about Pasiphae because she is a very intense person as you might imagine to be the mother of the Minotaur who is this sort of half-bull, half-person flesh-eating monster that is famously in mythology slain by the hero Theseus. And usually in the Minotaur myth the focus is very much on Theseus who comes to slay the Minotaur or it’s on Ariadne who helps Theseus or it’s on Daedalus who makes the labyrinth that Theseus has to find his way through in order to kill the Minotaur but very rarely is the focus on the Minotaur’s mother, which sort of seems like a major omission, so that was my way in, also getting to write a Minotaur C-section scene definitely career high. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Who could walk away from that one?

Madeline Miller: Yeah, you can’t walk away from that. So that was sort of my way in- into the Minotaur story is through the fact that Circe is Minotaur’s aunt, which was very interesting to me.

Jo Reed: We hear about Odysseus’s visit with Circe in Homer and you’re faithful to that account with a couple of exceptions so I would love you to walk me through how you chose what to maintain and what to embellish and what to change.

Madeline Miller: Sure. So, one of the things that I think is really interesting about the Circe episode in “The Odyssey” is the fact that it’s actually one of the sections narrated by Odysseus himself; he is with the Phaeaceans, a group of people he’s getting some hospitality and help from, and he’s telling this story. So as soon as I started thinking about that I realized this is not some objective version of this story; this is Odysseus’s version to people he’s trying to impress. And Odysseus is the great liar and manipulator and storyteller of ancient history or-- ancient literature and so I think his version is highly suspect. And as soon as you start to look at this section from kind of the perspective of ‘oh, this is Odysseus trying to make himself look good’ a lot of things start to make more sense. There’s this terrifying witch but I overcame her and in the scene in Homer he pulls his sword on Circe and threatens her and she immediately sort of screams and falls to her knees and begs for mercy and invites him into her bed in one speech. The woman with power has to be tamed and it’s this-- very specific like the phallic sword and the woman on her knees and it’s this sort of very loaded scene, and I thought wow, yeah, that’s definitely Odysseus putting his thumb on the scale there <laughs> to try and make himself look better in that scene. And so, I really just tried to re-center that whole scene from what it might look like from her perspective, making her not the object of the scene, not the helpmeet, not the person who’s serving his story but the center of it, the subject of her own story. So, she does not kneel in my version for instance.

Jo Reed: You have this great line in the book where humbling women seems a chief pastime for poets as if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep--

Madeline Miller: Yes.

Jo Reed: --and I defy a woman to read that and not nod vigorously.

Madeline Miller: <laughs> Well, thank you, and it was certainly something I feel like I see a lot in literature and particularly ancient literature.

Jo Reed: Do you mind reading from the book?

Madeline Miller: Sure, I’d be happy to! So, this passage comes from towards the middle of the novel after Circe has already started turning men into pigs and the “he” is Odysseus; she’s talking to Odysseus: “He asked me once ‘Why pigs?’ We were seated before my hearth in our usual chairs. He liked the one draped in cowhide with silver inlaid in its carvings. Sometimes he would rub the scrolling absently beneath his thumb. ‘Why not?’ I said. He gave me a bare smile. ‘I mean it. I would like to know.’ I knew he meant it. He was not a pious man but the seeking out of things hidden this was his highest worship. There were answers in me; I felt them very deep as last year’s bulbs growing fat, their roots tangled with those moments I had spent against the wall when my lions were gone and my spell shut up inside me. After I changed a crew, I would watch them scrabbling and crying in the sty, falling over each other, stupid with their horror. They hated it all, their newly voluptuous flesh, their delicate split trotters, their swollen bellies dragging in the earth’s muck. It was a humiliation, a debasement. They were sick with longing for their hands, those appendages men use to mitigate the world. ‘Come,’ I would say to them. ‘It’s not that bad. You should appreciate a pig’s advantages.’ Mud slick and swift, they are hard to catch. Low to the ground, they cannot easily be knocked over. They are not like dogs; they do not need your love. They can thrive anywhere on anything, scraps and trash. They look witless and dull, which lulls their enemies, but they are clever; they will remember your face. They never listened. The truth is men make terrible pigs.”

Jo Reed: Another great line from that book. Thank you. You also gave us a perfectly plausible reason for why she turns men into pigs.

Madeline Miller: Yes, and so that was another key thing, which is that in later versions people sort of-- in later interpretations of the story people would often just accept that as in sort of like “Well, she’s evil. She’s one of these capricious gods. You know women. You can’t trust them. They’ll turn you into a pig” and I thought that’s not interesting at all; people always do things for reasons even if we don’t agree with their reasons. And so, part of what I love to do with the mythology is-- mythology doesn’t really give you psychology; I would say psychology is implied in many of the myths but you’re never getting the Hamlet soliloquy of these characters. And so, part of what I love to do is go in and to imagine and well, how would you start doing that. This is a pretty extreme thing to do, turning men into pigs, why would you do that and how would you get the power to do that, and sort of imagining how that might play out and then does she keep doing it after Odysseus leaves, I feel like that’s an important question too, and sort of really constructing what I think is a plausible three-dimensional psychology around all of that felt very important for honoring her as a full character.

Jo Reed: You even make her a single mother. She was a single mother clearly but you take us into what that means. She becomes pregnant with Odysseus’s child, Telemachus, though Odysseus did not know when he left to go back home, and the goddess Athena wants Telemachus dead and he is a miserable child, I mean this is a miserable miserable child and I’m listening to Athena thinking well, ‘she might have a point’ <laughs> and I felt very guilty afterward. Here’s Circe battling it out as a single mother. Who even knew goddesses had to think about diapers?

Madeline Miller: Yes. Well, and there is not a lot of diaper changing in “The Odyssey” but I <laughs> think there-- in a sense the topics of ancient epic poetry of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” are very traditionally male and so as I was setting Circe’s story at the center I also wanted to honor the epic parts that were traditionally female, things like parenting and motherhood and birth scenes, and those are part of Circe’s life and so I wanted them to be included and to kind of give them their epic scope. Even goddesses have to walk with their screaming infants at 3 a.m. and think am I ever going to get this child to sleep, and so I sort of wanted the intensity of those moments and thankfully we don’t all have goddesses trying to attack our children but I wanted to also sort capture that feeling of how incredibly vulnerable you feel. You go home from the hospital with this infant that is just completely under your care and so many things could go wrong in so many ways it’s just terrifying as-- it’s this terrifying moment and I think Circe is very much experiencing that in kind of an epic inflated way but it’s something that I wanted to also be a very human feeling.

Jo Reed: Well because that’s what the gods do for us; they have the epic feelings.

Madeline Miller: Yes, and I think that’s really what draws me to these stories and has drawn me to them since I was a child is the fact that within the six-headed monsters and within the world of gods these are very human and relatable stories. Odysseus is this exhausted war veteran who is desperate to get home to his family and then when he gets home it’s much harder to re-enter his old life than he thought it would be and that’s a story that is very human and that we have seen down through the centuries and Circe’s story, struggling to-- with what it means to be a parent and the incredible responsibility and the joy and the hard work that has to go along with that.

Jo Reed: There are really powerful moments in this book between Circe and Penelope and Telemachus, Odysseus’s wife and child, when they come to the island after Odysseus has died, very intense but very quiet moments, very powerful I thought.

Madeline Miller: Penelope is one of these other women from ancient literature that I feel like is so fascinating and so tantalizing and we see her-- most of the time in “The Odyssey” she’s literally veiled but also figuratively veiled from us but it’s so clear that she’s very interesting, very complex, extremely intelligent. And so there is a myth out there that she and Circe meet and so I definitely was going to use that myth because I thought these are two very interesting women, they’ve been through a lot, they’re survivors, they were both single mothers, and I think they had a lot to talk about and I very much wanted Circe’s story to in some ways mirror the action of “The Odyssey.” So, in “The Odyssey” Odysseus is yearning for home, he spends all his time trying to get home from the war and thinking of home and his wife and his son and his parents who are there, and the longing-- in Greek it’s a longing for “nostos” is the Greek word, homecoming. And I really wanted Circe’s story to be animated by a similar feeling that she also longs for homecoming but her homecoming isn’t with her family; she has to sort of find a home out in the world and for me Penelope and Telemachus were a key piece of that.

Jo Reed: It’s interesting because gods might be fickle but they don’t change. Circe does and I think this book is also about transformation and it traces her hard-won transformation from nymph to witch and it’s so interesting because that’s also her power to transform things.

Madeline Miller: Yes, and I wanted it to be very much a novel about transformation and change and how life is very messy and we go through many different versions and we should always be learning and growing and sort of thinking and-- but the gods are not capable of that-- most of the gods are not capable of that; they are stagnant as you say. And so, in that she’s very unusual but it’s also one of her best qualities is that she’s always willing to learn and try again.

Jo Reed: This is your second novel and it’s also your second book centered around Greek myths or retelling or reshaping them and the first was “The Song of Achilles” and you mentioned briefly what keeps drawing you to these stories but I wonder if you can say a little bit more about that.

Madeline Miller: Sure. You know these are stories that I have loved really since I was a child; I have a background in classics and-- but I think I always wanted to understand the characters more I was always drawn into the mystery of these beautiful poems and beautiful pieces of art. And so in the case of Circe it was sort of who is Circe and why is she turning men into pigs, who is this amazing, interesting woman, and with “Song of Achilles” it was who is Patroclus, this character who is the most beloved companion of Achilles but who is very much kind of kept in the background, and sort of imagining their relationship as lovers and how that would unfold; we sort of see the end of their story in “The Iliad” but I wanted to imagine the beginning of their story. So, it’s always kind of the mystery that draws me in. You know with Circe I will admit that there was a little bit of a sense of frustration of this feeling of is that all, is that all this female character gets, and kind of wanting to push back against that. And with “Song of Achilles” I felt that the tradition of taking Achilles and Patroclus as lovers, which is a very, very old tradition and was well established in the ancient world, had basically been closeted and so I was sort of frustrated by that because I feel like it should be an interpretation that is out there in the world. And so, it sort-of comes in a way-- both the novels come out of sort of academic passions but this desire to kind of transform something or bring something to light and bring this novelistic approach to it.

Jo Reed: Was there was a difference for you in writing “The Song of Achilles” and writing “Circe” aside from the fact that one is your first novel and one is your second but in your approach to it did something shift for you?

Madeline Miller: Yes. So, there was a big shift. I didn’t know that “Circe” was coming next while I was working on “Song of Achilles” because I was totally focused on that but as soon as I finished it and kind of took a breath Circe was sort of there saying, “It’s my turn. I’ve been waiting this whole time” but I didn’t really know that that was going to happen, but in a way I think that they are sort of opposite-- I’m doing opposite things in them. With “Song of Achilles,” I wanted to take a story that is traditionally very epic, which is the story of the Trojan War and this warrior, Achilles, and really tell it from a very intimate perspective, talking about the ancient world not in an epic perspective but the perspective of for example ancient lyric poetry more in the tradition of Sappho, whereas with “Circe” I wanted to take something that has not been considered traditionally epic, i.e., women’s lives, and give this woman’s life the same epic scope that Odysseus and Achilles and all these other ancient heroes have had. So, I sort of feel like it was the opposite thing, it was the opposite impulse, and kind of going small on a big story and going big on what would have been considered a smaller story.

Jo Reed: You mentioned as this throwaway line your career as a director. Tell me about that.

Madeline Miller: The other thing that I love is Shakespeare and I actually came to writing through Shakespeare because I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to be a classicist and then a friend of mine asked me to codirect a production of “Troilus and Cressida,” which is Shakespeare’s “Iliad” play, and it’s Shakespeare’s take on all these characters and it’s really funny and it’s really nasty and really bitter and it’s a great, great play; I love it. And it was the first time that I had really worked with this material from a storytelling standpoint where I was telling the story and it was this revelation moment where I realized I want to be telling these stories myself so first of all I’m very grateful to theater because I feel like it allowed me to connect the classics and the writing piece together; up until that point I’d been writing solely contemporary stuff. And then I also fell in love with Shakespeare and I think I fell in love with him because he’s so psychologically acute. The language is beautiful but also his characters just make so much sense and I love seeing him draw these portraits and even very small characters who appear have these startling psychological resonances to them so I loved that about him and at the high school where I taught I founded a Shakespeare program and we would do two to three shows a year with fifty kids. And then I ended up founding the Young Professional Company at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival and doing their first season, and then I ended up at drama school for a year and studying there, which was amazing and really terrific. So, I love theater, I love Shakespeare, and I feel that it has also had this profound effect on my storytelling

Jo Reed: It’s wonderful too to have that collaborative aspect in the professional part of your life where writing is so solitary.

Madeline Miller: Yes, it’s wonderful to go back and flip between them and to have-- I have not been doing any theater recently and I would love to get back to it because I love that aspect-- I love the collaborative aspect.

Jo Reed: As we said, “Circe” has been chosen for the Big Read and I just wonder as you think about that what conversations do you think you might like to have “Circe” begin in communities?

Madeline Miller: I would love to have “Circe” sort of open up conversations about experiences that women have that sometimes don’t get talked about and I would love it to open up conversations about parents and children and female friendships and also the constrictions that are placed on men at the same time. I would love to have it open up conversations about sort of the timelessness of many of these stories and also the timeliness of many of these stories. As I was writing this, I was very aware that I didn’t want it to be a novel that was just for people who already knew the classics. As a Latin teacher, it was incredibly important to me to write it so that this could be an introduction to the classics for people. You don’t have to know anything about the classics in order to read either of the novels, if you do there are going to be some extra kind of hidden goodies in there, but that-- I wanted them to be able to be for everyone because that’s what Homer was originally. “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” came out of oral tradition; these were stories that grandparents were telling their grandchildren that were passed down and passed down and beloved by everyone and so I wanted to honor that so I’d love for that to be part of the conversation. I would love to hear what speaks to readers about this coming-of-age story, a story of finding your power and finding your voice and finding your place in the world.

Jo Reed: Madeline thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to speak with you.

Madeline Miller: Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much, I’m so grateful. Thank you.

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Jo Reed: That’s Madeline Miller. She’s the author of Circe which is the newest NEA Big Read title. You can find out more about the program at . You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do. And leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In Circe --Madeline Miller’s second novel and our newest NEA Big Read title—the goddess/witch moves from the sidelines of The Odyssey to the center stage of her own story. Miller knows and loves the classics and Circe is an imaginative response to questions Miller had about the exiled goddess. She doesn’t change the story so much as expand it and give us Circe's back story. For example, Circe still turns men into pigs, as she does in Homer’s telling, but in Miller’s book she gives us the context behind this piece of magic. Miller and I talk about gods and mortals, the fine distinctions between witches and goddesses, what shifts when you put a woman’s story in an epic frame, the timelessness and timeliness of these myths, and why every woman should have a lion. She is engaging, fun and funny—in other words, she’s a great addition to the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program and a super podcast guest.