Annabel Lyon on her novel The Sweet Girl

First aired on NXNW 6/10/12 and 14/10/12

In Annabel Lyon's latest novel, The Sweet Girl, she tells the story of Aristotle's daughter, Pythias, who battles society, expectations and even gods and goddesses. Annabel Lyon recently dropped by NXNW's Studio One Book Club to chat about the book, which is a sequel to her bestselling The Golden Mean, and the research she did for it. (You can listen to the conversation, presented in two parts, above.)


She told host Sheryl MacKay that the novel was inspired by Aristotle's will, an actual historical document. "He's very, very concerned with what should happen to this daughter of his," she said. Lyon read an excerpt from the will, which she used as an epigraph in her novel. "And when the girl shall be grown up, she shall be given in marriage to Nicanor [her cousin]; but if anything happen to the girl (which heaven forbid and no such thing will happen) before her marriage, or when she is married but before there are children, Nicanor shall have full powers, both with regard to the child and with regard to everything else, to administer in a manner worthy both of himself and of us."

When she first started writing The Golden Mean, Lyon already knew that the novel would need a sequel. "It's a book about warfare and public life and politics and rationality and science, all the things that Aristotle represented," she explained. "But of course that's only half the world. And then the other half is what is in this book, which is the world of women and the houses and the kitchens and the slaves, and the other side of what we think of as the Ancient Greek psyche. We also have of course the centaurs and the gods and goddesses coming down and messing around with people, all of those traditional magical beliefs." Lyon said she wanted to show Pythias as Aristotle's "first legacy in a way," because she represents the first generation that his teachings are passed down to." But she also conceived of Pythias as "someone who is very much trapped between these two worlds and has a choice to make."

Lyon's research including going to Greece, in the company of some classics scholars from Carleton University in Ottawa and the University of Winnipeg. Though she went to the major tourist sites like the Acropolis and the Parthenon, she found that what turned out to be more valuable for her writing were the small details. "Research is what you pick up through the cracks and along the edges," she said.

She recorded birdsongs, and took pictures of everyday objects like ancient barbecue tongs and carvings that depicted women in labour. Once she started researching, she said, "I realized what a woman's life could be was actually far, far broader than all the stereotypical imaginings I had had about illiteracy and being kept in the home, and men's permission for everything." Lyon said that was true only in the highest upper classes, and that women of other classes were more active in public and commercial life. "There were actually a lot of professions open to women at that time, which I wouldn't have suspected."

She also picked up some colourful details of life in the ancient world from the classics profs who were on the trip with her. One of her companions pointed out a bush at the side of the road and told her, "'Archeologists call that the Bubble Wrap of the ancient world, because they would use it for packing things when they were going to move.' I can't make that stuff up, so that's in [the novel]."


Intially, Lyon thought the focus of The Sweet Girl would be the father-daughter relationship, and the book would end with his death. "But I realized if I did it that way, he would always be the overwhelming character, and she would always be in his shadow," she said. Instead, Aristotle dies about a third of the way through the novel, and Pythias is left alone, at the age of 16, at a time of political turmoil. She has no one to look out for her, and she must take charge of the household. She's also at the centre of a struggle between the public, rational world, represented by Aristotle's teachings, and "the irrational the world of the gods and the goddesses. They start trying to claw her back. They start to appear and all these magical things start to happen," Lyon said. "For me, she's on the cusp of modernity. She's the first modern woman."

While in the process of writing The Sweet Girl, Lyon was invited to give the Kreisel Lecture at the University of Alberta (an annual series in which a different author takes part every year). Her remarks were subsequently published in a chapbook, Imagining Ancient Women, which she regards as "a companion piece" to the novel.

Lyon read a passage from the chapbook in which she describes her visit to Greece and the museum artifacts that drew her attention, often medical implements or commonplace domestic objects like "ancient nail clippers."

Though Lyon was thrilled to visit Greece, her excitement was tempered by the atmosphere in Athens. Her stay coincided with the first wave of protests against the austerity measures introduced as the result of the Greek financial crisis. According to Lyon, the violence that was shown in the media represented only a small part of what happened. Mostly, she said, they encountered worried people in the streets "who were just out there saying, basically, 'We're really afraid, we're afraid for our futures, we don't know what's going on,'" she said. "I never felt frightened while I was there, but it was certainly a sober time."

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