Can you tell our readers what Circe is about?
It's the story of the goddess Circe, daughter of the sun-god, first witch in Western literature. She's most famous for being the alluring sorceress who turns Odysseus' men to pigs in the Odyssey
, but there’s a lot more to her myths than that. Born a nymph with little status or power, Circe has to work to carve out a life for herself in an overwhelmingly hostile world. Over the years she encounters a number of mythological luminaries and plays many roles: daughter, sister and lover, avenging fury, mother, hero.
Most readers will know Circe as one of the many figures that Odysseus encounters in The Odyssey. What was it about this character that inspired you to put Circe at the centre of the story?
With very few exceptions, all the stories we have from the ancient world were composed by men, and most protagonists are men as well. So I knew that when it came time to write my second novel I wanted a woman’s voice and story to be centre stage. And right from the beginning I knew it had to be Circe. She has always been fascinating to me because of her power and mystery: we know she turns men to pigs, but why? And how did she start? I wanted to understand how all that could have unfolded.
Circe’s also fascinating because of the way she relates to so many other famous myths: she’s Helios’ daughter, the Minotaur and Medea’s aunt, Prometheus’ cousin and cousin to most of the other gods also, so her story is filled with peril and drama. Last but definitely not least there’s her witchcraft—she rejects the identity given her and invents her own.
Compared with your first novel The Song of Achilles, Circe seems to explore specifically feminine challenges. Motherhood, the appeal and threat of men, and the reaction of those in power to women with dangerous knowledge, like Circe’s witchcraft. Did you intend for this book to stand in contrast to TSOA in this way?
I absolutely wanted to highlight the struggles a woman faces in a man’s world, and to give full voice to Circe’s complex experiences. We have come to associate epic stories with traditionally male activities—warfare, ruling, founding cities, etc. But women’s lives deserve to be considered epic also, allowed the same sense of adventure, excitement and destiny.
In that sense, I do see this as a contrast to The Song of Achilles. For Patroclus and Achilles, I wanted to take a story that was famously epic and tell it from a more personal, lyric and intimate perspective. With Circe, I wanted to take a woman’s life story and give it the same epic scope that male heroes are given by right.
But I also see the books as having similarities. Circe and Patroclus are both outsiders, both characters who struggle against what they see as the world’s injustices. They fight to understand themselves and find their place in the world.
The characters in Circe were first imagined thousands of years ago. Why do you think they have such resonance with modern readers?
Like all great artists, Homer (or whoever it was who composed the Iliad and Odyssey), was a genius when it comes to human nature. Times have changed, the technology has changed, the trappings of culture have changed, but humanity remains its messy, passionate self. We still experience all the same emotions—love and grief, pain and fear, rage and joy. The stories that have survived the centuries are the ones that have spoken to generation after generation, that dive deep into eternal human hopes and disappointments.
Circe is, in many ways, a ‘nasty woman’, a witch, an exile. While writing, were you inspired by the discourse around women we’ve seen over the last few years?
I started Circe seven years ago, right after The Song of Achilles, and by the time this cultural groundswell started, I was in final edits for my book. It was a startling experience to be revising scenes that precisely mirrored what I was seeing on the news—but sexism, misogyny, and our culture’s distrust of powerful women have unfortunately proved over and over again to be timeless. We have made some progress, but we still have a ways to go. I hope that the current conversation will help to move us on a little further, and I also hope that Circe can be part of that conversation.
When you’re not writing, where will we find you?
Reading to my two young children.
Are there any other myths you would love to turn into novels in the future?
I do have my eye on a particular storyline from the Aeneid, which I am still keeping close. I’m also drawn to the Tempest, which isn’t mythology, but Shakespeare has the same potency and timelessness. So I will see what happens!
After the phenomenal success of TSOA, did you feel encouraged or did it add to the pressure of writing your next book?
I'm going to answer this completely honestly: I'm not sure it's possible to add to the pressure that I already feel when writing. It is a pressure which is totally internal--my desire to do justice to these incredibly rich characters that I have inherited, and to always be telling their stories with every ounce of my imagination.
To say that the reaction to The Song of Achilles was a huge honor is an understatement. I had lived with these characters in my head for ten years, and it was meaningful beyond words to learn that they resonated with others too. But when I write I can’t think about how the book will be received, or else I start feeling claustrophobic. I try and set all that aside, and just focus on hearing my narrator’s voice as well as I can.
What is your favourite book, and what are you reading right now?
Like most obsessive readers, it is impossible for me to pick a single favorite, and it depends on the day you catch me. I love Geraldine Brooks, Lily King, Hilary Mantel, Colson Whitehead and Ann Patchett in general. Also Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius is a perennial favorite as is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Watership Down by Richard Adams. Vergil’s Aeneid. King Lear, Henry IV, Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida…Okay, I’m stopping!
I just finished the brilliant Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, and am now starting The Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, a dystopian future that America currently feels like it’s just a few senate votes away from.
Q: If a reader wants to learn more about mythology, where would you recommend they start?
I highly recommend Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey, which is gripping and wonderful. The Iliad too—there are some really nice audiobooks out there, which I think work especially well, since that’s how these poems were first experienced by ancient audiences. And of course there is always Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a compendium of myths which has been popular for over two thousand years.
In terms of more modern retellings, Edith Hamilton is always a solid place to start. Then there are novels which retell particular myths, like Mary Renault and the Theseus myths (The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea), or C.S. Lewis and the myth of Psyche and Eros (Till We Have Faces).