Allan Vorda: What was the inspiration for writing The Golden Mean? Please describe the process of writing this novel and what a typical day of writing was like.
Annabel Lyon: I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate and my two main areas of interest were ethics and ancient philosophy. Aristotle’s Ethics was a book I returned to again and again; I found a lot of solace, and a lot of relevance, in it. The questions he was asking 2300 years ago: What’s a good life? How do you find a mean between extremes? What’s a good citizen? These were questions that continue to be relevant and engaging today.
The novel took seven and a half years to write. I had two children along the way, so my writing day changed from having a lot of free time to squeezing in 200 words while they napped. So there really was no “typical” day!
AV: Your novel is set around various times of Aristotle’s life, but primarily around 342 B.C.E. How valuable was Plutrach’s Life of Alexander for your research? Did you use research from such books as Paul Cartledge’s Alexander the Great or The Landmark Arrian? What other books would you recommend for someone wanting to learn about Greek history?
AL: I referred to Plutarch very often. Since Arrian and Quintus Curtius (the major ancient biographers of Alexander) wrote mostly about his adult life, and my book ends just as he’s coming to the throne, I didn’t use them so much. The two texts I returned to mostly for more general history were Hammond and Griffith’s A History of Macedonia, Vol. II and The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume VI, The Fourth Century BC. Those are big chunky texts; at the other end of the spectrum is a slim little book called Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Barnes. Very quick and entertaining for someone new to the subject.
AV: Aristotle is 37 when he is given the 15-year old girl Pythias as a gift from his employer Hermias. It seems throughout the novel there is an uneasy contest of wills and thoughts between them. Even though Aristotle is 22 years older than Pythias, he cannot always read her thoughts and it seems that he is not even sure if she loves him. It also seems that Pythias is sometimes cold to Aristotle. How did you develop these characters and what was their relationship like from the research you have gathered?
AL: Nothing is known about their relationship, not even how old they were when they married, so I had to speculate based on what was typical in Greek and Macedonian society at that time. There are different accounts of Pythias’s relationship to Hermias—daughter, niece, ward, concubine—so imagined she hadn’t been treated particularly well before her marriage to Aristotle, that maybe she’d even suffered some kind of sexual abuse, and that this was always going to be an unspoken issue between them. This isn’t explicit in the novel, but it helped me imagine a married life that was both kind and uneasy.
AV: There is no direct mention of Alexander, although he appears unnamed a few times, until page 47. Then Alexander’s father, King Philip, requests Aristotle become his tutor. This is certainly an odd couple relationship, not only due to their age difference (when Alexander is 16, Aristotle is 42), but that Alexander is a brash, headstrong youth who is used to getting his own way. Yet Aristotle subtly manages, through his brilliant intellect, to keep Alexander in place. Was writing the development of these two disparate personalities difficult for you as a writer?
AL: Alexander was particularly problematic. I knew I wanted to contradict the prevailing stereotype of him as a sexy, hot-blooded military genius (e.g., Colin Farrell in Oliver Stone’s movie), so initially I thought I could get away with making him a bratty, arrogant, spoiled teenager and leave it at that. But the deeper I got into the character and the more research I did, the more I realized he was probably a very damaged person from very, very early in life: his parents loathed each other and manipulated him to hurt each other, and he was trained as a child soldier (historians tell us he was leading troops by the time he was 16). He became much darker than I expected when I began writing about him; in the end I came to understand him as someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The ancient historians bear this out: Plutarch, for instance, describes him suffering alcoholism, depressions, headaches, blind rages, etc.—all the hallmarks of PTSD.
AV: To continue this ongoing theme of relationships, perhaps the most interesting is Aritstotle’s benign treatment of the mentally and physically challenged Arrhidaeus. He is the half-brother of Alexander which rumor contends that Olympias (Alexander’s mother) poisoned Arrhidaues so her son would one day become king. Please discuss the relationship of Aristotle and Arrhidaeus and how he later makes Alexander recognize “the golden mean” of their relationships.
AL: Arrhidaeus was a real historical character, Alexander’s elder half-brother, and I couldn’t resist giving Aristotle both boys to tutor. I grew up with an elder brother with a mental disability and so I felt like I could portray Arrhidaeus realistically and sympathetically. I wanted to believe that Aristotle, with his encyclopedic understanding of the world and his generous intellect, would see that a person like Arrhidaeus wasn’t damaged or a mistake; rather, he was a human being with possibilities, just as Alexander was.
AV: Aristotle comes under the tutelage of the character Illaeus who is homosexual. How did you develop the fascinating character of Illaeus, who is one of the few fictional characters in your novel, since he was a brilliant young man who never fully used his talent for creation? And why didn’t he make an advance on the young Aristotle?
AL: Aristotle was sent to Athens to study under Plato at the age of 17; pretty precocious! So I imagined he must have shown a lot of promise even earlier than that, and that his parents might well have tried to find him a tutor earlier in his teens. So it became necessary to imagine such a tutor. My fictional Illaeus was a pedophile; he never made an advance on Aristotle because, as a teenager, he was already too old for Illaeus’s taste. Pedophilia—men in sexual relationships with young boys—was perhaps not common, but certainly known in the ancient world.
AV: One of the other fictional characters is the slave Athea who cusses a lot and thinks she knows everything. For example, she does things for Pythias to make her sexually attractive to Aristotle; Pythias subsequently becomes pregnant and Athea helps deliver the baby. Yet later on, when Pythias is dying, she refuses to be near her. (Athea had been exiled from her village as a Scythian healer when a child she had been caring for died.) This is one tough woman who appears to have issues with men and authority. How did you develop this character who is so singularly strange yet so intriguing?
AL: Your take on her is interesting! I don’t see her as a know-it-all so much as a competent women with a gift for medicine who isn’t allowed to practice her craft. What she flees from is Pythias’s illness and death; I imagined she’d seen so much death in her life that she simply couldn’t handle it any more. It was important to me to create a strong female slave character to confront the two big blind spots that Aristotle had (to the contemporary mind, anyway): his misogyny and the fact that he was a slave-owner. There’s so much to admire in Aristotle, and yet he had these two horrendous aspects to his personality that as a modern woman I had to force myself to confront. I used the character of Athea to do that.
The Golden Mean was published by Random House in 2009