Annabel Lyon Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Annabel Lyon
Photo: Phillip Chin

Annabel Lyon

An interview with Annabel Lyon

In the interview below, Annabel Lyon discusses the incredible influences that Aristotle and his philosophies have had, both on the world and on her personally.

The Golden Mean is your first novel for adults. What prompted you to move from writing primarily short stories and novellas to writing a full-length novel? What are the challenges in moving between one form of storytelling and another? Which do you prefer?

My preferred form is the short story, but the scope of the material I wanted to deal with in The Golden Mean required a novel; it was as simple as that. I always liken writing to running: you're born with the body of a sprinter or a middle distance runner or a marathoner, and that's what's most comfortable for you. It doesn't mean you can't run the other races, but they're always going to come less naturally and be more of an effort. It's the same for me with novel writing. The long short story is my comfortable length, the length I feel most confident with, and consequently the novel was a real challenge. A number of times in the writing of the book I wanted to throw in the towel and just scale it down to a short story. But there was simply too much material, and it was too complex.

The Golden Mean was nominated for the triple crown of Canadian literary awards, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award, and the Roger's Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the last of which you won. How does that kind of critical success impact your current writing projects?

Of course it gives my confidence a boost to know the novel was appreciated, and the financial advantages of it being widely read (internationally as well as being a best-seller in Canada) mean I can devote more time to writing than I've been able to in the past. I can afford to take fewer side jobs (journalism, sitting on juries, etc) and just focus on writing fiction for a while, which is a dream come true. But it also sets the bar very, very high for the next book, which is intimidating.

We know that Aristotle's legacy includes the foundations of deductive logic, modern medicine and ethics, to name just a few. Were these indelible contributions what inspired your interest in creating him as a fictional character or was there another trigger?

I studied philosophy as an undergrad at Simon Fraser University and my big interests were ancient philosophy and ethics. I briefly flirted with the idea of pursuing a PhD in philosophy and literature, specifically the use of literary texts as texts of ethics. (I was very influenced by the work of the great American classicist Martha Nussbaum, particularly her book The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy). Of course the towering figure in ancient ethics was Aristotle, and he was a huge interest for me. Even after I left my philosophy studies behind, I would go back and read him for comfort, especially in times of stress. One of those times was September 11, 2001. I went through what a lot of people in the arts were going through at that time: questioning the relevance of my work, wondering where to go next. I pulled out the Nicomachean Ethics and started reading, and was struck by the contemporary relevance of what Aristotle was writing about: what does it mean to live a good life? How should we avoid extremes? One day I read the tiny biographical snippet at the front of the book and my fiction brain kicked back in. I wondered how a novelist would fashion a work of fiction out of his life. The Golden Mean started there.

When asked what complexities were involved in finding a convincing female voice for his characters, playwright and novelist Don Hannah responded by saying, "Characters are characters, no matter who or what or where they are, and my job as a writer is to get under their skins and, hopefully, make them as important and believable to others as they are to me." Do you agree with Hannah that "characters are characters" or was there something more daunting about taking on a person as influential as Aristotle? What were some of the complexities and challenges you encountered while creating a convincing voice for a man that lived more than 2,000 years ago?

As far as writing from the first person point of view of a man, I didn't give it a lot of thought; I don't believe intelligence has a sex, and I didn't feel any particular obligation to put on "man glasses" and try to see the world through those. But the bigger issue you allude to here, taking on one of the great geniuses of all time - yes, that was intimidating, and a challenge. I don't have the genius of Aristotle's little fingernail, and I knew it was an act of massive arrogance on my part to assume I could get inside his head. The only way I could justify it was to remind myself of the purpose of the project: to give Aristotle back to a culture that has largely (outside academia, and even to a certain extent inside it) forgotten who he was and what he did.

To get past the intimidation factor, I wrote a lot about him as a physical body: eating, bathing, having sex, blowing his nose. He must have done all those things, and bringing him back to the human, physical level was a way of making him more approachable, both for me as his creator and for the reader.

What kind of relevance do you feel Aristotle's concept of "the golden mean," the idea of the in-between of two extremes, might have for us today?

I think the idea of the golden mean, of striving to find a balance between extremes - of emotion, of behavior - will be relevant as long as there's one human being left on the planet. It's one of the defining struggles of human existence. Obviously, in contemporary terms, we can give terms like "extremes" and "extremism" political overtones, but I think we can understood Aristotle's use of the idea of the golden mean at a more personal, intimate level also. Certainly, for anyone who's ever suffered depression, the longing for emotional steadiness and stability will be instantly understandable.

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics must have played an important part in your research. Was it the starting point or were there other works that sparked your interest in taking on these eventful seven years in Aristotle's life?

The Ethics was definitely one of my touchstone books; the other was the Poetics. For a while I considered making Aristotle's writing of the Poetics the spine of The Golden Mean, which is why there's so much about theatre in the novel, and also why the novel is structured in acts like a classical tragedy, with a cast of characters at the beginning, and so on. The History of Animals (Aristotle's work on biology) was fascinating reading also (for everything he got wrong as much as everything he got right!) and provided a lot of colourful details for the novel.

Your character of Aristotle suffers from recurring bouts of "melancholy" that suggest a classic version of a modern bi-polar disorder. What was it in your research that led you to weave this into the character? Why was it important to the story you were telling?

Aristotle himself writes about the link between melancholy and the creative temperament in a work called the Problems; it's a brief but well-known passage that describes the affliction that today we call depression. I guessed that Aristotle himself suffered this, and was describing it from first-person experience. But then the flip side of that was the sheer amount of work Aristotle produced in his lifetime, the incessant, even frenetic intellectual activity that suggested he had a manic side to his personality also. And then when you look at his concept of the golden mean, of seeking to find a mean between extremes, I thought that could apply to psychology and emotion as much as to behavior, and that Aristotle himself was probably someone desperate to find some stability in his own life. There are a lot of dualities in ancient Greek culture - tragedy and comedy, the sacred and the profane, male and female, sex and death - and so this conception of Aristotle felt both formally appropriate and emotionally believable.

You've said you are working on a follow-up to The Golden Mean, set near the end of Aristotle's life and written from the perspective of his daughter, Pythias. What attracted you to take on this new perspective? When do you think your readers might expect the new book?

This was always going to be a two-book project; I wanted to write about Aristotle's daughter Pythias almost from the moment I learned of her existence. She's only four at the close of The Golden Mean, but in the novel I imagine for her she'll be sixteen. In Aristotle's will (a real historical document, included as an appendix to The Golden Mean), he makes very careful provision for her marriage. Aristotle died scant weeks after his former student, Alexander; I assume Pythias would have been married off pretty quickly after his death. She would offer me the opportunity to explore sides of the ancient world I couldn't really get into with her father: the female, the domestic, the world of kitchens and slaves and magic and superstition. I'd love to spend some time looking at this world from a female perspective.

As a teacher of writing as well as an accomplished, prize-winning author, what is the one piece of advice you'd give to aspiring writers?

Bums in seats, people! My biggest piece of advice is simply to make yourself sit at your desk and work. Don't dream about it; don't outline a book and then go watch TV; don't write half a book and then stick it in a drawer. Push through, even when you don't feel like it. I'm not a big believer in inspiration or the muse or whatever; these are just excuses for procrastinating, and procrastination kills writing. You have to treat writing like any other job, and do it whether you feel like it or not. There's no such thing as lawyer's block, or engineer's block, or barista's block. Set yourself goals and meet them, just like you would for any other job.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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