Sunday, August 30, 2009

Westender Interview

"This bond between taciturn master and bold student is the basis of the first novel by Vancouver writer Annabel Lyon. Set in the 4th-century Macedonian capital city of Pella, and told from the great philosopher’s point of view, The Golden Mean brings Aristotle to life, free of the scholarly reverence that is so often foisted upon him."

To read Steven Schelling's full article for the Westender, please click here.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Here are some of the words I realized I couldn't use while writing The Golden Mean:

velvety I used this to describe a baby's scalp before discovering that velvet was a Medieval fabric, unknown to the ancients.

rubbery To describe a person's face. Oops.

stirrups Invented by the Romans. The Greeks had saddles; the Macedonians, great horsemen, liked to ride bareback.

Caeserian This operation actually was performed by the ancient Greeks (with one shudders to guess what success), but the term was obviously of Roman origin. I had to get the incision in the right direction, too; initially I had Aristotle's father make the cut along the bikini line, as surgeons would today; but until quite recently, surgeons cut from the navel downwards, leaving a vertical rather than a horizontal scar.

And some of the words I got away with:

silk The famous silk roads, the great trading routes between Europe and Asia, were opened up by Alexander, so silk would have been all but unknown before his great campaigns. I had to change all Pythias's dresses from silk to historically accurate linen. I did allow myself to keep one metaphorical use ("the truth slipped like silk") because I just couldn't come up with a word I liked better.

tar The ancients had pine tar, particularly useful for sealing ships.

beer The Macedonians brewed barley beer, something like Medieval mead. Because the weather in mountainous Macedonia tended to be cool and rainy in the winters, grapes didn't thrive as well as in the warmer, sunnier south, and wine had to be imported.

fuck The Greeks looked on the Macedonians as vulgar barbarians, wealthy but crude, who had to import what culture they possessed. Looking for a way to distinguish in English between Greek and the Macedonian dialect, I struck on an analogous use of British and North American English. My Athenians would speak like Brits, my Macedonians like North Americans. "Do they have to curse like rappers?" an acquaintance (born in England) asked me plaintively after reading a draft. Exactly!

The 26-volume Oxford English Dictionary was an invaluable resource when anachronism became a worry. It not only provides definitions, but cites the first known use of your word, a huge bonus for the historical novelist. If anyone's wondering what to get me for Christmas....

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Winnipeg Free Press Review

"This historical novel adds a refreshingly human dimension to ancient Greek civilization and the world-changing ideas that it produced."

To read Ezra Glinter's full review for the Winnipeg Free Press, click here.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Georgia Straight Profile

"...a book which, remarkably, reminds us that ethical behaviour is at the heart of what it means to be human, while making us feel as close to its near-legendary subjects as we do to our own friends and neighbours."

To read Alexander Varty's profile in the Georgia Straight, please click here:

With The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon revives ancient ethics | Vancouver, Canada |

Monday, August 17, 2009

Aquamanile: Phyllis Riding Aristotle

This aquamanile (a vessel used for ritual hand-washing) is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Dating from the southern Netherlands or eastern France, circa 1400, it depicts Aristotle allowing himself to be humiliated by Phyllis, supposedly a favourite courtesan of his student, Alexander. According to a popular morality tale from the later Middle Ages, Aristotle was teaching Alexander a lesson about the dangers of feminine wiles. I love the exquisite weirdness of this piece, and its irony. I would call it "The Misogynist Gets His Due".


Aristotle ridden by Phyllis

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Vancouver Sun Review

"...a taut, polished novel that will hold your attention from start to finish. It is at times funny, thought-provoking, sensual and suspenseful."

To read Joe Wiebe's lovely profile and review for the Vancouver Sun, please click here: The philosopher and the warrior

Friday, August 14, 2009


The Golden Mean is a crisply written, painstakingly researched book, and Lyon ably inhabits ‘the greatest mind of all time’...”

Read Cynthia MacDonald's full review of The Golden Mean for the Globe and Mail here.

“ audacious attempt to create a flesh and blood Aristotle, with intimate glances into his psyche...”

Read Philip Marchand's full review for the National Post here.

“Lyon must be applauded for a daring and challenging approach to fiction.”

Read Candace Fertile's full review for the Edmonton Journal here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Oh, Those Romans (Film and TV)

One of the biggest challenges of setting a novel in the ancient world was writing dialogue that didn't sound silly or stilted. ("Silence, by Zeus!", thundered the king.) I wanted the characters to sound like real people, not extras from Troilus and Cressida, let alone cartoons. Curious about how others had tackled this problem, I turned to movies.

One problem that came up again and again was diction: for some reason, all my characters kept trying to talk like they were British. I realized this went back to Robert Graves . I first watched the great 1976 BBC adaptation of his novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God when I was a child. Despite the English accents, the dialogue is fresh and spiky without sounding anachronistic (see clip below).

I had hopes that the recent HBO series Rome would have an even more contemporary feel. Indeed, despite (again!) the English accents, the characters felt immediate and recognizable, people you could talk to rather than just listen to.

Finally, for a bit of cinematic ancient Greece, find Pier Paolo Pasolini's astonishing 1967 movie Oedipus Rex. Pasolini has claimed that the film was autobiographical. An intense, beautiful, strange journey through a landscape that's both dream-like and utterly credible.

Here's a clip of one of my favourite I, Claudius characters, the empress Livia, instructing her gladiators:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Martha the Great

I first read Martha Nussbaum as an undergraduate philosophy student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy examines the ethical thought of Plato and Aristotle, but also Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, as manifested in their tragic dramas. When I read this book, a lot of vague and unsettled ideas I'd been struggling toward fell into place with one of those profoundly satisfying clicks you hope to experience once or twice in your intellectual life. I realized my interests in fiction and philosophy were not mutually exclusive. Not only could they co-exist, they might in fact be different facets of the same interest, two itches that could be scratched with the same finger.

Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature continues her project of mining literary works for ethical and philosophical insights. It includes essays on Aristotle, Plato, Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Samuel Beckett. She's also written books on education, religion, economics, and law.

Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Today's the Day!

The wait is over: The Golden Mean hits the shelves today. Thanks to all who've been following this blog and have decided to give the book a try. Keep visiting this site for news of my readings, festival appearances, etc. I'd love to sign your copy and hear what you think of it. Stay tuned, too, for more clips, pictures, and tasty tidbits about life in ancient Macedonia. Opa!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Ancient City of Pella

Pella, the capital of ancient Macedon, was in Aristotle's time at the mouth of a delta. The delta has silted up over the past couple of thousand years; the archaeological site you can visit today is well inland. Aristotle lived in and around Pella for the seven years he spent tutoring the young Alexander the Great. There's speculation, too, that he might have spent time there as a child or teen, after his father was appointed personal physician to the king at that time, Amyntas.

Pella was a wealthy, modern city for its time. In addition to being a political centre, Pella was a significant commercial hub and featured an enormous marketplace surrounded by arcades and workshops. Here's a look at the archeological remains:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different

One of my earlier posts, "Ten Uses for a Philosophy Degree", omits the best use of all: become a comedian. Woody Allen and Steve Martin both studied philosophy, and someone in the Monty Python troupe must have taken a class or two at Cambridge....

Monday, August 3, 2009

Creating Character: Philip

phil of macedon's helmet

This, to me, is elegant menswear. Philip's helmet was buried with him in his tomb, in Vergina, and can be seen today in the museum there. Philip inherited a kingdom in perilous disarray; by the end of his life, Macedon ruled all of Greece, and Philip's troops were preparing to invade Persia. Were he not subsequently overshadowed by his more famous son, Philip would be remembered today as one of the most brilliant rulers of the ancient world. He was a fun character to create, a likeable rogue: a fierce soldier, canny politician, drinker, womanizer, and surprisingly pragmatic diplomat.

His conflict with Alexander sprang, I think, from the fundamental difference in their characters: Philip wanted to conquer the known world, but Alexander wanted to conquer the unknown world. For all their similarities, he lacked his son's compulsive curiousity. The Oedipal conflict is also vivid in Philip and Alexander's relationship. Freud read Shakespeare; Shakespeare read Plutarch; and Plutarch, one of Alexander's earliest biographers, would have known his Sophocles.

Philip was stabbed to death at his daughter's wedding by one of his bodyguard, a man named Pausanias. Historians have speculated the assassin was hired by Alexander, impatient to assume the throne; or his mother, Olympias, jealous of Philip's recent marriage to a much younger wife; or both of them together. Conveniently, Pausanias is supposed to have tripped as he ran across a vineyard toward his getaway horse, and was caught and torn to pieces before he could be questioned.