Author On the Bookcase: Jennifer Miller
Please welcome Jennifer Miller, author of The Year of the Gadfly, to On the Bookcase! Jennifer tells us how her novel was inspired by the ancient tradition of Sortes Vergilianae.
I didn’t set out to write a ghost story, and yet somehow The Year of the Gadfly became one. The apparition of a famous dead journalist counsels my reporter-heroine. A secret chamber in the school basement is thought to be haunted. And a group of young artists use an Ouija board to conjure up the spirit of a dead boy.
This last detail was inspired by a specific occurrence my junior year of high school, in which my Latin class decided to practice the ancient tradition of Sortes Vergilianae, or the “Lottery of Vergil.” According to legend, the Aeneid could be used to divine the future. It had worked for a handful of Roman emperors who’d predicted their rise to power in the book’s pages. Maybe, my classmates thought, the Aeneid could shed light on where we’d get into college or whom we’d end up taking to prom. My boyfriend Ben thought the game was silly. What could a book written over a thousand years before reveal about his future?
We didn’t know how the Sortes Vergilianae was meant to go, so we resorted to holding a kind of séance. We shut off the classroom lights, drew the shades, and sat knee-to-knee in a circle on the floor, holding hands. I was surprised that Ben, skeptic that he was, agreed to go first. He closed his eyes, opened the Aeneid to a random page, and pointed at the text. Then he opened his eyes and read. He’d chosen Book 6, set in Hades—the underworld. Specifically, Ben picked the passage about a boy who dies at the age of 19.
I don’t remember any of the other passages we chose that day. I only remember Ben’s, because only a few months later, he was killed in a car accident. In some strange and horrible way, the Sortes Vergilianae had worked. It fulfilled its promise of revealing Ben’s future. Not that Ben would have given credence to what was simply coincidence. Moreover, he’d have argued, the boy in the book died at 19. He was only 17. Still, I wondered if by turning the Sortes Vergilianae into a séance, we had called up a ghost—somehow pushed Ben toward the underworld before his time.
I know ghosts do not exist in the real world. But I think it was inevitable that after Ben’s death, ghosts would come to populate the world of my imagination. The presence of these spiritual forces in Gadfly—both the walking, talking ghosts and the haunting specter of the past—is my attempt to account for, or at least understand, what happened that day in the Latin classroom. I’d like to see the world through Ben’s skeptical eye, and yet I’m struck daily with the truth of Vergil’s Lottery. How it defined Ben’s future, and mine, in so many inescapable ways.
Jennifer Miller, the author of Inheriting the Holy Land: An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East, holds a BA from Brown University, an MS in Journalism from Columbia, and an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Marie Claire, Men's Health, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, and others. She is a native of Washington, DC and currently lives in Brooklyn with all the other writers.