What’s Worth Retelling: A WITS Intern Reflects on Madeline Miller’s Event
February 4, 2021
Zoë Mertz is a University of Washington student doing a remote internship with the Writers in the Schools program at SAL. After attending SAL’s recent Literary Arts Series event with Madeline Miller on January 27, Zoë reflects on her own obsession with retelling and adapting classic tales, as well as the anxiety—and the creative power—that accompanies such an undertaking.
By Zoë Mertz, WITS Intern
The last time I heard Madeline Miller speak was in a crowded bookstore with rows of filled chairs and people standing beside. I chattered with my mom and sister throughout the thirty-minute-long signing line, and when we finally reached the front, shared with the author my own love of mythology, particularly stories of her titular Circe’s niece, another classical sorceress. She signed my book, To a fellow lover of Medea, and I took a picture of the signature so I could carry it with me even after I slid the book safely back on my shelf at home.
I am an English literature and creative writing student, and my recent obsession has been retellings. Aside from my own defense of the actions of Medea, I have also written Scheherazade from A Thousand and One Nights into an inner-city foster home and restyled the story of Hades and Persephone as a mystery of self-discovery and finding purpose instead of kidnapping and Stockholm syndrome. As I prepare to write a thesis on the subject of retellings, I find myself pondering regularly a question that Miller addresses directly in her work: what allows a story to survive for thousands of years of culture and history, and what makes the story worth telling again now?
Miller puts thought into her retellings, and then does the research to back them up. She spoke of how scared she was of deviating from source material in the ten years she worked on The Song of Achilles, particularly since deviation from the norm was not, well, normal in classics studies. When she finally bolstered the nerve to share the manuscript with one of her classics mentors, he said to her, “Well, I certainly hope you made Achilles and Patroclus lovers in your version.” “Oh!” Miller replied eagerly. “I did!” By the time she progressed to writing Circe, Miller was ready to tackle and craft an adaptation that was entirely her own, still true to the original, but with more freedom to pick and choose what she thought was important to the character and the story overall.
That isn’t to say she strays far from the source material that has inspired her since reading the Iliad in childhood. “I do not think that you need to be faithful to the original at all to have a successful adaptation… I personally like to write close to the original but I don’t think you have to,” Miller stated in her talk. And later, “All adaptations are telling us about what the current moment is like.” I think embedded in this statement is the beginnings of an answer to my question. Stories can call out to readers across time and space, but there must be something in particular that compels a writer to adopt a story as their own. That author in that moment can look at a story in a way that is entirely unique, and that may even shine light on ideas or themes or meanings that have never been illuminated before. As I move forward in searching for the why behind storytelling, Madeline Miller’s care and precision in adaptations continues to serve as a beacon of inspiration.
Zoë Mertz is a student at the University of Washington. She was part of the 2017/18 Youth Poet Laureate cohort, and performed on the SAL stage last year as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Poetry Series event with Paisley Rekdal at Hugo House on February 6th, 2020.