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Author Podcast: Annabel Lyon

abstract:The great thing about hosting the Olympics in Whistler, BC Canada this week is that we get to attract stunning literary figures like Annabel Lyon. I couldn't think of a more perfect author to feature this week as Annabel's book, The Golden Mean (published by Random House 2009) is set in 300BC Greece (and Olympia being the birth of the Olympics in 700BC... ) is about the relationship between Aristotle and his royal pupil, Alexander III of Macedon, son of King Philip II of Macedon, or as most of you know him, Alexander the Great. Don't miss this lesson in history and fiction writing as Annabel speaks to the Whistler Reads book group marking their 28th book discussion. Annabel tells us, "I didn't want to write an historic fiction - I wanted to write a modern book set 2300 years ago." This podcast is part of a growing series, the BookBuffet Author Podcast Series, with over 100 segments posted on iTunes and various other podcast aggregators. You get to listen here first! Our downloads average in the hundreds per day, and that bandwidth costs money. Consider making a donation to the site to support our efforts to bring you quality conversations with established and emerging writers. From Nobel prize laureate Orhan Pamuk to triple-prize-nominated Canadian writer Annabel Lyon, we bring you the voices and conversations of select authors that will intrigue and inspire you and your group.


February 12, 2010

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Interview Audio

Click on the "Parts" below to listen.
  • PART I: Annabel gives a synopsis of Aristotle's life and reads from THE GOLDEN MEAN
  • PART II: Annabel discusses her hypotheses that Aristotle was bipolar and Alexander suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome
  • PART III: Annabel talks about her upcoming book-the sequel to THE GOLDEN MEAN
  • Transcript of Audio

    BookBuffet: This is Paula Shackleton podcasting for and today my guest is Annabel Lyon author of THE GOLDEN MEAN published by Random House in Canada and the US. The Golden Meanwas short-listed for not one, not two, but all three of Canada’s top literary prizes. Lyon went on to win the 2009 Scotia Bank Writer’s Prize and has since been on a whirlwind of talks, readings and guest lectures across the continent. You can view her where-abouts on her blog at

    Annabel has come to speak at the 28th meeting of Whistler Reads – Whistler’s own village book group. Whistler is today bustling with Olympic activity and so it seems fitting to discuss a book set in Greece from the same peroid of history that the Greco-Roman Olympic games derived. It is believed that the inception of the games were in Olympia Greece 776BC where an inscription that descibes the winners of a foot race held once every 4 years was found.

    The GOLDEN MEAN is a fictionalized account of the relationship between Aristotle - the great educator, philosopher and thinker, and the boy who would become Alexander the Great –two of antiquit’s most fascinating figures. What I love about THE GOLDEN MEAN is the way Annabel has woven factual details into the story and authentically brings to life the fabric of society at the time. We get a glimpse into Aristotle’s intimate relationship with his wife, the complexities of the court politics of the day, there are scenes from Aristotle’s school days at Plato’s academy as well as battle scenes with Alexander leading a flank of his father’s army. Today Annabel will separate the fact from fiction and read us some of her textual supports to describe how she came to the conclusion that Aristotle may have been bipolar and Alexander the Great may have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

    Annabel Lyon: We think of Aristotle as being Athenian, but in fact he wasn’t. We sort of associate him with that great flowering of Athenian philosophy with Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, and of course they all did live in Athens and they all did know each other, but in fact he was born in the far north of Greece in a little fishing village called Stegiera, which was called Thrace at the time when he was born, but it was quickly overrun in his childhood by the Macedonian empire, the Macedonians up in the north. [They formed] an empire and down below were all the little Greek city-states: Athens and Thebes and Sparta that we sort of associate with the birth of democracy and all of that. And so Aritstotle to the end of his life was Macedonian, and he was understood by the Athenians to be Macedonian, which becomes an important point later at the end of his life.

    His father was a physician and was court physician to the King of Macedon who was the father of Philip II of Macedon who was father of Alexander the Great. So it is likely that Aristotle in his childhood would have been boyhood friends with Philip or at least have known him.

    Aristotle's father died when he was quite young and he became the ward of his sister’s husband, which sounds really weird to us but was not all that unusual in those days women married very young. He was sent to Athens at the age of 17 to study in the Academy there with Plato. So we can deduce from that that he must have shown a lot of promise early. He must have been a very bright kid. He stayed there for 20 years until Plato died. So if you can picture the Greek Islands in the Mediterranean [A map of the region during the time is circulated] he’s born up here in Macedonia, leaves for Athens and then after Plato dies goes on a series of wanderings; goes over to the coast of what they call Asia Minor, Turkery. There are a lot of Greek colonies dotted along that coast and he stayed under the patronage of a guy named Herias of Atarneus. And Hermias’s daughter, concubine, niece – no one is quite sure – became his wife. They go to the island of Lesbos to a place called Mideline and stay there for a bit. And then no one is quite sure why, but he goes back to Pella up in Macedonia where he would have spent his childhood and stays there for the next 7 years tutoring the young Alexander the Great. (Macedon in red, before Philip II reign.)

    Philip who is king by this time is assassinated and Alexander comes to the throne at the age of about 20, he doesn’t need tutors anymore, so Aristotle goes back to Athens and remains there for the next 10 or 12 years or so teaching in his own school.

    Before he left Pella the second time, there was a very decisisive, one of the great battles of in the ancient world, the battle of Chironea, where the Macedonian empire defeated the combined forces of the city-states: Athens, Thebes, Sparta, all of those cities.

    Philip needed to do this;he needed to do this because his great goal was to invade Persia. He needed two things: he needed stability at home (he needed not to have to be watching his back covered); he also needed Athen’s navy. He didn’t have a navy. He was a great military power --very rich, very strong – he did not have a navy… and so there was this great battle where he defeated the Athenians (mostly Athenians)

    Alexander dies at the age of 32, so about 12 years later in Babylon. As soon as he dies, the Athenians think, “Oh great. Here is our chance to get out from under Macedon,” and they turn against anyone associated with Macedonia including Aristotle. He actually had to flee Athens at the end of his life to a place called Calpis, a little bit north, which there is a Macedonian garrison of strategic importance and also his mother’s family had property there. He died there just a few months later. He died only a few months after Alexander did. He is supposed to have famously said he didn’t want the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy (the first time being the murder of Socrates.) So that is his life story in a nutshell.

    What I thought I would read is just a little bit of his memory of what I imagined to be a memory of his own childhood. So they just arrived in Pella, he and his wife and he are trying to make the decision of whether to there as Alexander’s tutor. He’s been offered this position and he’s trying to decide what to do.

    “That night I dream of Stigura. When I wake I sit for a long time by the window wrapped in a blanket remembering. I was a lonely child and frightened at night when my father was called away travelling, which was often. He was the only doctor for many of the little coastal villages, and as his reputation grew, he was called ever farther away to ever-bigger towns.

    The twins were still allowed to sleep with our mother, but I had no one. I suffered night terrors until my mother taught me the trick of concentrating on whatever was closest to me, the length and texture of the furs I slept on, or counting the threads of the pulse of my wrist, or feeling the tide of the breath in my body and so distracting myself. She said this trick had helped her with the same problem.

    Soon I was practising it everywhere I went, observing and notarizing and categorizing compulsively until nobody wanted to talk to me because of the questions I asked and the information I spilled. “Have you ever noticed?” I would ask boys my own age. “Can you tell me,” I would ask adults.

    Soon I was spending all my time alone. Swimming with my eyes open. Trapping insects. Reading my father’s books. Cutting myself to observe the blood. Drawing maps, tracing leaves, charting stars. And all of it helped a little, and none of it helped a lot. On the worst days I stayed in bed unable to speak or eat until the blackness lifted.

    “He’s a strange boy,” I overheard my father tell my mother, on one of his increasingly rare visits home. “He worries me. Not his health, but his mind. I don’t know if he has too much discipline, or none at all? He goes places I can’t follow, inside himself. “ “He misses you,” my mother said.

    I watch Alexander more closely now. On the eve of Philip’s departure for Thessaly one early summer morning, we ride out to hunt. I arrive in second best clothes on slow reliable Tar. Philip and his entourage of pages and purple-cloaked companions are in full battle dress. The ground beneath their feet rolls with dogs. After some insults, it is suggested I be made to wear a halter around my waist like a boy who hasn’t had his first kill, and handed a spare pike and shield and left to keep up as best I can. We ride to the royal park where the day’s festivities begin with a sacrifice of a screaming spurting piglet. It’s a day of pomp and etiquette that I see as a series of frozen images like a series of coins, struck and over struck, glinting in the sun. Philip in profile helmeted. A dog rearing up on hind legs as its owner unclips its lead. A spear balanced on a shoulder. A boar crashing through a clearing. Alexander unstraddling his horse, knife unsheathed. The boar shaking off the spear, too shallow in its side. kicking in the scull of a dog. The dog one leg spastic. The dog dead. A wine skin passed from hand to hand. Alexander looking for his mount. Philip begins to tease him, offering him a skittish horse. Daring him to ride it. Oxhead, the animal is called for the white mark on his forehead. The boy turns it toward the sun blinding it, and mounts it easily. Philip, drunk, makes a sarcastic remark. From the warhorse’s back Alexander looks down at his father as though he’s coated in filth. That’s the coin I’ll carry in my pocket. The image I’ll worry over and over with my thumb. I could help him, just like his brother. I could fill my plate. I could stay.”

    PART II: BB: Annabel tell us about your bibliography and how you actually decided to write this book after your confrontation with 9/11.

    AL: Yes. Well I was a philosophy student as an undergrad, and I really loved ancient philosophy and I really loved ethics. Ethics was just super interesting to me. When you put those two together, Aristotle is the big figure in ancient ethics, building on the work of Plato. I found that I would go back again and again in times of stress and just read his books. Typically the Ethics. I brought my little book of ethics. It just was weirdly soothing to me. I’m a complete philosophy geek, and I will fully acknowledge that. That’s just a weird thing to do rather than just go watch TV or something.

    He was writing about stuff… the sorts of things he was writing about: What it is to be a good person? What is a good citizen? What’s a tragedy? How do you avoid extremism? What is appropriate behaviour as you try to live your life? It all sounded so important to me, and so relevant. So continually relevant, and then 9/11 came along and I sort of went through what a lot of people in the arts went through, which was questioning what I was doing. Here I am a little fiction writer making up people. How does that help? What is that doing in the world, as it was then was, this whole new world that we were in? How is that significant? How does that effect anything, and I stopped reading fiction for a while because it just didn’t seem to have that weight and that importance, and I read a lot of non-fiction and I read back Aristotle, because again, those questions, “How do you avoid extremism, what’s a good person?” all that just seemed really important. And if you go back and look, one day I did go back and look [shows inside front cover] most of this is the biographies of the translator. So if you take all of that away, that little bit right there [points to a short paragraph on the page], that is pretty much all that is really known about Aristotle’s life - for sure - and what I’ve been describing to you I’ve sort of gleaned from things that you can extrapolate from like things like his Will. That’s really all that is known, for sure. And so I looked at that and I thought, “How would you make that into a novel?” and the most exciting time was those 7 years when Macedonia was taking over.

    BB: That is incredible!

    AL: I forgot to mention too that in talking about the bipolar that you [points to an attendee] brought up, that idea of "the golden mean" comes from the Ethics, where that is his solution for correct behaviour, where he says, “For every kind of behaviour there is a… he uses courage as an example. You can have cowardice at one extreme; you can have rashness at the other extreme. The appropriate behaviour there would be courage, which is something that comes right in the middle. And I thought, “that sounds like somebody who knows those extremes, who has lived those extremes, and is desperate in his own self to find some sort of stable middle ground. He then builds a whole philosophy around this that everybody should be looking for the middle ground and avoiding extremes, and I thought, “That sounds like somebody who doesn’t necessarily know how to do it but is desperate to do it and is trying to find a way to do it. ” (Link to The Republic (Penguin Classics))

    So the whole thing with Alexander is that everyone always presented him as this handsome, sexy, powerful guy. And I thought, hmmm, no. My kid is going to start at thirteen and go to twenty. And I thought a really bright teenager like thatemdash&;and I've taught writing and I’ve taught piano as well, I was a piano teacher for a long timeemdash&;the brightest teenagers are the most annoying, always. Because they always want to fight with you, they’re really arrogant, but they’re really insecure as well, and so I thought, “No that’s what my kid is going to be. He’s going to be this really arrogant, insecure, really annoying smart-Alec-little-brat that Aristotle has to keep slapping down. “ And that was fun to do. I went with that for a while, but my editor finally came back and said, “I believe him as a boy, but I don’t see how he bridges that gap to being, like, conqueror of the world. What’s the progression there?”

    Well at the time I was reading about soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq with posttraumatic stress syndrome. And then I was reading Plutarch, another ancient Roman biographer who wrote a canonical biography of Alexander, who wrote a little description of him. If you look at the symptoms of people suffering from posttraumatic stress syndrome coming back from Iraq. It’s things like alcoholism and nightmares, blackouts and violent rages, and depression. When they’re in Iraq, they just want to be home, and when they’re at home, they just want to be back on the battlefield, because that’s all that makes sense anymore. Then I came across this passage from Plutarch describing Alexander the way that Alexander was known to have been:[he was] alcoholic, he had fits of blind rage followed by depressions, he left home at twenty and his army was on the verge of mutiny a couple of times because they just wanted to come home. “Let’s conquer, let’s do what we’re going to do, and then let’s enjoy what we’ve gained." [they'd say.] He went to Egypt, he went to India, and he went to Afghanistan. He just never came home. Left at 20, died at 32, had 12 years on the road campaigning, and I thought, "What does that sound like?"
    (Link to Plutarch's The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives (Penguin Classics)

    Here is a description of him Babylon at this point, [in a] drunken spat with a life-long companion of his. Alexander was... one of the things he was known for was absorbing the cultures he conquered. He wouldn’t just defeat them. He’d go defeat the Persians, but then he’d dress like a Persian. He would eat the food. He was interested in these other cultures that he was introduced to, which is one of the things that was so brilliant of him. But he started requiring his own soldiers to show him respect and bow to him in the Persian fashion, which was much more subservient than the Macedonians were used to, and they really resented this and didn’t like this.

    So he gets into a big drunken argument with one of his very dearest friends, a long-term drinking buddy, and finally what he ends up doing is he just grabs a spear and he runs and he kills him. He turns and he quotes something from a play of Euripides, “Oh things are going to hell in Greece," basically, and then Alexander then grabs a spear off the wall, kills his friend dead and there is this shock silence. When Alexander realizes what he’s done he turns around and tries to kill himself. His bodyguard is sort of able to rip away [the spear], and he immediately goes to his tent and stays there for a week in depression, unable to function. It’s posttraumatic stress, It’s totally posttraumatic stress. I’ve brought the quote, but I’m probably talking way too much.

    I read Roméo Dallaire’s book, Shake Hands with the Devil. Roméo Dallaire is the Canadian general who led the mission in Rwanda and was one of the very first people to come out and speak openly about himself suffering from posttraumatic stress as a result of all the horror he witnessed there, but he is not a cowardly guy. He is an extremely brave man, if you look at the descriptions of the things that he did. And it is interesting because Dallaire talks about his own father who was a military man who fought in WWII, his own blackouts and depressions and things like that.

    BB: Ah yes.

    AL: And it just seemed to me like an essential part, unavoidable and not at all shameful but just unavoidable form of soldiering. It’s trauma. You look at the fact that Alexander was trained as a child soldier. He was leading troops at 16. He must have started fighting younger than that. Child soldiers. You think of the Congo. That’s not a sexy, brilliant thing. It’s a horrendous thing. It’s a huge trauma that those people don’t recover from. And I thought, “Why would it be any different for Alexander, just because he’s an ancient child? Why would he suffer differently?”

    BB: I wanted to touch on, because this has something to do with the times as well, the whole idea of sex and power and the ambiguous sexual identity. On page 100 you have Carolis talking with Aristotle. And Carolis was the…

    AL: …theatre director. I have Aristotle befriend a transplanted Athenian theatre director who keeps trying to put on these productions but he doesn’t have the resources of Athens at hand and he’s very frustrated by this. He’s dealing with these sort of Macedonian clowns and jugglers and he’s trying to put on Euripides with these not-professionals. Aristotle befriends him because they both have a passion for the theatre, and he’s gay, and Aristotle is straight.

    BB: Right and so Aristotle says to him, “Do you find him attractive?” and he’s speaking of their co-student, Alexander. And he says:

    ”I find them all attractive, friend. Though, yes, he’s got a little something extra. Just who he is perhaps, the power he has, or will have. You can’t help wanting to see that on its knees. Don’t you. And I shake my head. “You do,” Carolis says, “you just don’t know it yet. Lysinicas does. His history teacher.” Carolis nods. “Always go careful around big animals in heat.” “It’s all sex with you, isn’t it.” He laughs. “Not just me. I was a bit of a freak in Athens, I’ll grant you, but here I fit right in. It’s in the air, the dirt, the water, it touches everything. Why am I telling you this anyway? You’re from here. You know. “ And this is Aristotle who shakes his head, “It was different then.” [When he lived there]. He said, “Power changes things. Macedon wasn’t the power it is today when I was as when I was young. I don’t remember it being so – charged.” “Well, whatever the reason. They celebrate with it. They make people suffer with it. The do their business with it. They run their kingdom with it…” and then he goes on.

    BB: And throughout the book there is all these references to homosexual relationships, so do you want to talk a little bit about that?

    AL: That came directly from the research that I did. Supposedly in the palace there were accounts that there were pornographic mosaics on the walls. That sex was just a big part of their life, and homosexuality, Macedonians were different from the Athenians in that women were, even to a lesser extent, part of the culture. Men were very often alone together. They ate together. They drank together. They went to the theatre together. Women just did not participate in a public social life in any way.

    BB: It’s Islamic in nature in that way.

    AL: Yes, very close. Yes. Where as in Athens there was a little bit more possibility that way. One of the theories about Philip’s assassination is that he was actually murdered by one of his own bodyguards named Posenius. And nobody is every quite sure what happened there, if he was hired by somebody or what, but one of the theories is that he was actually just a spurned lover of Philip’s. Philip, again, being a bisexual character and it was just a lover’s jealous quarrel.

    BB: He was taking wife number 8 and he just decided that was enough.

    AL: It’s believable and it was, it was just a part of the culture. Yeah and he had 7 wives trying to produce heirs for various reasons, sex was just part of the way of doing business. Every time Philip conquered another State, he conquered Thrace; he conquered Thessaly he took another wife from there… He would marry the daughter of the defeated King, or whatever. He had a Thracian wife. He had a Salian wife. You know Olympia came from what is contemporary Albania, which explains, by the way, Angelina Jolie’s [portrayal of Olympia] really weird accent. [Laughs] Everybody made fun of it at the time. Olympia would have really spoken dialect. She came from somewhere else. So Angelina got it right...

    BB: Well this is correct. I’ve been studying Medieval and Islamic history and of course this is what the Persians did. Everywhere they went they married in order to create a bond between nations.

    AL: So you don’t have to go back and keep fighting that war over again. He brought all the wives back to live in Pella.

    BB: And Pella is on this map, so if you want to sort of orient yourself as to that, Pella is up here, and… Sparta and Athens are both down here. Over here is Lesbos, the Island of Lesbos, so this region, all of that we are talking about, is quite a small area compared to the larger map depicting the area that Alexander eventually conquers… he got wayyy out there.

    PART III: Annabel talks about her upcoming book-the sequel to THE GOLDEN MEAN This part will not be transcribed. Please listen to the audio for details.



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