Reading Group Center

Annabel Lyon Explores the Lure of Antiquity

Annabel Lyon took the life and teachings of Aristotle as the basis of her award–winning novel The Golden Mean, and now she continues her exploration of classical antiquity with The Sweet Girl, the captivating coming-of-age story of Aristotle’s daughter, Pythias.

The Sweet Girl is the story of an exceptional girl who struggles against restrictive societal codes. In this exclusive essay for the Reading Group Center, Annabel Lyon shares what compelled her to take on the subject of Aristotle in her work, the challenges of writing historical fiction, and why the richest stories depend on the details.

There’s something irresistible about the classical world. Throughout history, writers revisit the ancient stories again and again. Oedipus becomes Hamlet; Odysseus becomes Leopold Bloom; Alexander the Great becomes Colin Farrell. (Okay, some adaptations are more successful than others.) Something about those primal tales of war, lust, and family dysfunction draws us back again and again. We find honesty in war unmediated by machines (Mary Renault’s Fire from Heaven), as well as humor and familiarity in the squabbling gods and goddesses (Marie Phillips’s Gods Behaving Badly).

The challenges facing the writer who decides to take on this world are daunting. To what extent are you allowed to rearrange history? Reimagine characters? Make stuff up? In updating the old stories, must one cleave to the ancient poetic forms (Derek Walcott’s epic Homeric Omeros) or make the transition to a more accessible prose narrative (Grant Buday’s brilliant reimagining of The Iliad, Dragonflies)?

And then there’s the question of contemporary relevance. Why tell these old, old stories? Do they really have anything to say to our tweeting, texting, twenty-first century iSelves? Sometimes it seems there are only two veins left to be mined left in ancient storytelling: the parodic and the morally righteous. We enjoy clever anachronism or historical revisionism (as in Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad). We also enjoy the sensation of moral superiority we gain by looking back at less enlightened times. Weren’t women treated horribly back then! Wasn’t that outrageous?!

I bristle when I hear myself referred to as a “historical novelist.” There’s something about the phrase that always sounds a little pejorative, a little Disney. Things I hate about historical fiction: the silly, stilted dialogue; the endless descriptions of gowns and goblets; the Cinderella female characters; the taboo love stories, allowing us to get pleasantly outraged about what are, for thinking adults in the twenty-first century, settled moral issues. She fell in love outside her class! Her race! Her gender! Egad!

In my first historical novel, The Golden Mean, I fought back against the stereotypes that reduce historical fiction to “genre” rather than “literary” fiction (with the usual implications for foil covers and pulpy prose). I imagined the relationship between the philosopher Aristotle and the young Alexander the Great, his teenage student. Historical accuracy mattered to me; serious contemporary resonance mattered to me (in the form of bipolar disorder and PTSD); female characters did not. No damask and heaving bosoms on my cover—no, sir!

But I knew from the start of my work on The Golden Mean that I had embarked on a two-book project. The male world is, after all, only half the story. I knew I wanted to explore the female world as well, while still avoiding the breathlessness and the bromides. The Sweet Girl is a mash-up of my life as a twenty-first century wife and mother and my imaginary life as a sixteen-year-old girl in ancient Greece. Pythias, Aristotle’s daughter, must make her own way in the world when her father dies. In a time of political upheaval, she finds herself alone and far from home. “A Jane Austen heroine who likes sex” was how I described her to my editor long ago, when the novel was still the size of a kiwi seed in my brain. I gave her a clear eye and a quick wit, a plain face, and a household to run. I gave her sex with a god and marriage to a soldier whose psychological scars were deeper than his physical ones.

I also gave her, and myself, the gift of visiting the land of her birth. I hadn’t gone to Greece during the writing of The Golden Mean. Not enough money, babies too small, too hard to get the time away. Anyway, I told myself, you can’t go to ancient Greece. When I did eventually make the visit to modern-day Greece, I found that the ancient port city of Pella, where much of the novel is set, is now a mile or so inland thanks to 2,300 years of silting. Aristotle’s school is a recent archaeological find, and excavations have barely begun. The crossroads where Oedipus killed his father is commemorated with a gas station. The past is a foreign country, as the British novelist L.P. Hartley famously said.

So, at first, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I felt a pressure peculiar to novelists, that of subconscious research. Long after I returned from the trip, during those early mornings and late nights of a rainy Vancouver winter, I’d realize what had been important. It was rarely what I had consciously noticed: dates dutifully jotted in my notebook, photos of monuments, sketches of fortifications. No, not those: fiction makes other demands.

Fortunately, I also took pictures of museum artifacts that only a mother could love: fifth-century BCE barbecue tongs, tweezers, an ancient child’s sippy cup complete with a handle, a strainer, and a spout. Even a potty—you could see the faint remnants of a rooster someone painted on its side. Come on, little Athena, do your pee-pee! Look at the rooster! Try for mummy! Some of the objects I saw in Greece that made it into the novel: a dove-shell hair-clip, thorny burnet, which historians call the bubble-wrap of the ancient world, and an enormous and terrifying speculum in a case of ancient medical instruments.

Things I love about historical fiction: the mundane, the everyday, the familiar; themes that resonate with the present; characters who sound like you could have an intelligent conversation with them. I like books where descriptions of characters are more complex than descriptions of clothes. I like characters who spit and fart and vomit and bleed and swear like I do on a bad day. Navel-gazing? Maybe. Anachronistic? I don’t think so. Cleaned-up history isn’t history at all; it’s writing for children, and even children know to distrust it. The key to reimagining the classical world, for me, lies in refusing to admit its difference. What I got from my trip to Greece was the joyous grubbiness of the everyday: the hawkers in the market selling pirated videos (lentils in the novel), the crude carvings of midwives assisting women in labor, and yes, even that ancient potty. I think Pythias would recognize her world in ours, and I hope readers will recognize their world in hers. The ancient world might be a foreign country, but classical stories are the passports that get us there.

Want to know more about The Sweet Girl? Read an excerpt from the novel here.