Aristotle Startled!

Tom Ue in conversation with novelist and short story writer, Annabel Lyon


Tom Ue: You have written short stories (“Saturday Night Function,” published in the Harvard Review, and the stories collected in Oxygen), novellas (collected in The Best Thing For You), and now a novel.  How are the experiences of writing in these forms different?

Annabel Lyon: I feel like a natural short fiction writer, in the way in which someone might be a natural 5K runner as opposed to a marathoner, so writing the novel was a big challenge.  Short stories, for me, are all about playing with language, whereas novel is necessarily more about plot and character.  The challenges of short fiction are those of beauty and intensity, whereas the challenge of the novel form—for me—was simply getting the words down, getting the length, in an interesting way.

T.U.: Your treatment of narrative time in the story “Saturday Night Function” is quite unique.  You move quickly from a recent widower’s moving in with his daughter, to her marital problems, and finally to his reunion with his wife.  How did you decided on which moments of his new life in Vancouver to focus on?

A.L.: It was all language.  The prose, the imagery, came first: a messy bed, being on a date and wanting to watch TV, a frightened child.  I didn’t structure the story in any coherent progressive way; I just wrote the sentences that I liked the sound of.

T.U.: In the novella “The Goldberg Metronome,” you tell the story of a young couple discovering an antique metronome in their new apartment, and trace its history.  By the end of the story, we learn that this history is fictionalized by Thom and Anika: “[T]he story of the metronome stayed with them, curling and flowering around each of these bricks that are finally falling into place in their new life. . . .  When Thom got home they would pick up the story wherever they had left it off the day before.  The distance between them was shrinking and Anika thought they were slowly being restored to their old selves, laughing, affectionate, pleased with each other.  They touched more” (177-78).  In what ways is this process of collaborative storytelling similar to and different from blogging?

A.L.: For me they’re two different beasts.  My blog is a very practical place, with information about upcoming readings, interesting bits of research meant to act as teasers for the novel, etc.  My blog doesn’t really have a narrative function; in that sense it’s not very deep.  That’s not to say that blogging per se couldn’t have a more narrative, storytelling structure, but in my case it doesn’t.

T.U.: Your blog is a lively space for us to learn more about your writing, Aristotle, and Monty Python!  How has blogging affected your writing?

A.L.: It’s taken time away from it!  My publisher asked me to start the blog, and initially I was resentful.  I’m not very techy and it took a lot of time to figure out how to make the pictures the right size, etc.  But after a while I got to enjoy it.  It was a place where I could include research that never made it into the novel, photographs of archaeological sites, clips of modern performances of ancient music, etc.  It’s been fun.  I suspect, though, that I’ll have to pull back from it once I start writing fiction again; it’s hard to maintain the public and the private at the same time, and fiction writing for me is very private.

T.U.: You go on to reveal a challenge to writing historical fiction when you describe how Thom and Anika “had delighted in pouncing on each other’s inaccuracies.  Baader-Meinhof was the seventies, not the late sixties, Anika would say, and Thom would respond by touching on some detail about the Nuremberg Laws she had sketched in only vaguely, unsure of herself” (178).  Let us turn to your debut novel, The Golden Mean, in which you faced similar challenges!  The novel was finalist for the Soctiabank Giller Prize, and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, and winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.  It tells the story of Aristotle who is forced to become the boy Alexander’s tutor, and the lessons that they learn both about themselves and each other over the years.  Tell us about the research and writing processes.

A.L.: The research was fascinating, and endless: I learned about ancient medicine, armour, food, trade, agriculture, architecture, philosophy, on and on.  In some ways I had it easy as a historical novelist: setting something 2300 years ago meant I had only bare-bones biographical information to work from (particularly for Aristotle), so I could see pretty clearly where the blanks were and where as a fiction writer I got to fill in.  But because one of my goals in writing the book was to give Aristotle back to a world that has largely forgotten about his accomplishments, I felt that I had to stay pretty true to the historical record, and that meant I couldn’t just make up everything I didn’t know; I had to figure out what was likely for the time.  I made mistakes (such as having someone turning the pages of a book when “book” at that time meant scroll), but I found at times I did have to let go of the research and just free myself up to write without thinking too much about accuracy.  It was a back-and-forth process rather than a simultaneous one, between the research and the writing; I tried not to let the research inhibit the flow of the story.

T.U.: What are some of the challenges and pressures that you face with writing historical fiction like “The Goldberg Metronome” and The Golden Mean?  As you have put it your Acknowledgements to the novel:

Carolus, Philes, Illaeus, Athea, the medics, the horses, and the groom are fictional creations.  Scholars will note that I have omitted the philosopher Theophrastus, a follower of Aristotle, who is thought to have accompanied him to Macedonia.  Scholars will note, too, that I have delayed Speusippus’ death for the sake of narrative convenience.  Scholars will turn purple over my sending Aristotle to Chaeronea.  There is no evidence, in his or any other writings, of his presence there.  (284)

Nevertheless, you have fictionalized Aristotle’s world, making it both believable and an educational experience for us!  Are there specific challenges to writing about Aristotle and Alexander?

A.L.: Thank you!  Alexander was probably the bigger challenge, since he’s the more famous and people think they have a sense of his personality—the great warrior and hero, bright, sexy, etc.  So I went into the novel knowing I wanted to undercut that.  Less is known about Aristotle’s personality, though you can glean a lot from his writings.  I guess the challenge with both of them was to stay true to what’s known but make them fresh and believable.  Because my novel is pretty conventional in structure and intent, I felt that I had to stay pretty true to the historical record.  I didn’t give myself a lot of leeway to play with the facts, so I had to find my wiggle-room as a fiction writer in more subtle ways, with personality rather than events.

T.U.: In the novel, Aristotle tries to show Alexander that there is much to learn when one travels to another place: “There is more.  There is much more.  You want to march all that way for the battle-thrill?  To sit tall on a horse and watch your enemy go down?  To – I don’t even know what it is you do – swipe your sword this way and that and watch the limbs fly?” (126-27).  Aristotle goes on to assert the importance of cross-cultural communication and attack transnational relations based on invasion and cultural-colonization: “I wouldn’t go all that way just to keep my eyes closed. . . .  You’ll have to destroy their world just to get into it.  What’ll it be worth to you then?” (127-28).  You make porous the walls between fiction and reality by having Aristotle teach the reader, as much as he is teaching Alexander.  In so doing, you show us that Aristotle is still very much relevant.  How have Aristotle’s teachings affected your writing and your thoughts about writing?

A.L.: Hmm, that’s a tricky one.  I actually don’t know if I can answer that; I’d have to step too far outside myself to know.  Certainly I admire his steady rationality, and I try to approach writing that way—it’s a job you do like any other, you get your work done no matter what.  I’m not sure if I’m really answering your question, though!
T.U.: Have your understandings of Aristotle and Alexander changed throughout the writing process?

A.L.: They both became more frail in my mind.  I came to understand Aristotle as suffering from what today we’d call bipolar disorder, and Alexander post-traumatic stress.  I didn’t go into the novel intending to impose these diagnoses, but I do think the historical evidence bears them out.  They went from being great men, in my mind, marble men, to suffering humans.

As much as Alexander and the reader learn from Aristotle throughout the novel, Aristotle also learns from his student.  Alexander is correct, I think, in arguing that his teacher cannot help but shape his philosophy in accordance to his lifestyle:

You think your life is perfect.  You think everyone should want to be you.  All our years together, you’ve made your theories out of the accidents of your own life.  You’ve built a whole philosophy around the virtue of being you.  Seashells are worthy of study because you love to swim.  Violence should be off stage because you never got to leave the tent at Chaeronea.  The best government is rule by the middle class because you come from the middle class. Life should be spent in quiet contemplation because life never offered you more.  (273)

T.U.: How has your own teaching at the University of British Columbia affected your writing?


A.L.: I’m honestly not sure there’s much crossover, or effect of one on the other.  My students’ energy and enthusiasm certainly gives me a boost, and I’m grateful for that, but I don’t think I write in a particular way because of my association with the program.

T.U.: How has your training in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at UBC affected your writing?

A.L.: I’m a big believer in getting an education in your field of work, and so the program was invaluable to me for that.  I encountered writers I’d never read before, I learned to look at writing (my own and other’s) critically, I learned to work with an editor and revise.  Basic tools in the writer’s kit that you don’t necessarily pick up if you’re working in solitude.

T.U.: What do you hope students will get from studying in a MFA program?

A.L.: I hope they get exactly what I did.  That and time: time to work on your craft, rather than trying to cram it in around whatever degree you feel you should be getting, law or whatever (I spent one abortive year at law school so I know what I’m talking about!).  And I hope they’ll get a sense of the dignity and importance of the work they’re doing.  Fiction writing isn’t easy or trivial.  It’s a discipline that requires study and commitment and a long, long apprenticeship.  MFA programs offer those things.

T.U.: When I interviewed you last fall, you mentioned that you are working on a sequel to The Golden Mean, which will focus on Aristotle’s daughter Pythias.  Tell us about your progress!

A.L.: I’ve just returned from a research trip to Greece and am hoping to start work on the new novel very soon.  At the moment I’m working on the outline, and haven’t progressed any further than that.  I have a lot of ideas.

T.U.: You follow up The Golden Mean with the short story “Remote Control” (collected in Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow), a story about aliens.  Are there any similarities between the experiences of writing historical fiction and science fiction?

A.L.: “Remote Control” is actually quite an old story; it was originally published in Geist magazine back in 2000.  There’s no parallel to historical fiction, for me.  With speculative fiction you have absolute freedom, but with historical fiction—responsible historical fiction—you don’t.  It’s as simple as that.

T.U.: In your novella “”The Best Thing For You,” you describe a young pianist’s performance of Brahms’ “Waltz in G-sharp Minor,” a piece in which he had performed in a competition and for which he received third-place:

   But the girl who won played the Brahms so well she might have been playing a different piece entirely.  He heard lines and turns in the music when she played, buried counter-melodies brought out like gold and silver veins in a mine wall, that he had not noticed himself, in his own study of the piece.  He felt humiliated and fascinated both.  She had opened the work up like a book and taken out what she wanted.  He studied the score feverishly, in the car, all the way home.

   You played it differently tonight, his mother said, when he lifted his hands from the keys.  I heard a little thing I never heard before.
   This, he said, fingering out the figure.  He had cribbed it from the girl.
   That’s it, she said.  It’s very familiar, but I never noticed it.
   It was always there.  (284)

A good book, as you have shown us through your writing, also carries possibilities for multiple interpretations and encourages us to reread for new and greater significance.  Thank-you so much for your time!

A.L.: Thank you, Tom!  It’s been a pleasure.

Through the Eye of a Literary Storm

Tom Ue in conversation with Don Oravec, Executive Director of the Writer's Trust of Canada


Tom Ue: Your biography merits a book!  In 1989, you ‘retired’ and moved to Montserrat in the West Indies. You survived hurricane Hugo, a category five storm, and then in 2004, you sold your home on the island two months before the dormant volcano erupted for the first time in 400 years.  How have your personal experiences impacted your take on literature?

Don Oravec: I think my personal experiences have made me a more adventurous reader.  I used to be fairly narrowly focused on fiction but surviving these natural disasters made me curious about the environment, about politics and economics.  I still read fiction of course.  I also love revisiting the classics and favourite books from my earlier years, for instance I still reread from time to time Catcher in the Rye.  I also read one Hemmingway book a year and one F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I am not sure if this is a response to personal experience or just a wonderful opportunity to read something amazing and comfortable.

T.U.: Tell us about Toronto’s literary scene.

D.O.: Toronto’s literary scene is quite vibrant.  The city is host to many readings and literary salons throughout the year.  The fall period is of course the busiest time with the International Festival of Authors occurring here the last ten days of October.  Writers from all over Canada and from around the world come through the city and the city of Toronto turns out in full-force to meet them and hear their stories.  The city seems to have a book launch a day from August to November.  We also have some great independent book stores including Ben McNally Books and the Flying Dragon bookstore that really go above and beyond the call of duty for writers and for readers.  The Writers’ Trust Gala happens here every November and raises about $200,000 for us.  The Scotiabank Giller Prize dinner, also held in November, is one of the most sought-after tickets in the city.  There are also major fundraisers for Walrus Magazine, a brilliant literary and public affairs magazine and a fundraiser for the Toronto Public Library Foundation.

T.U.: Have living and working in Toronto changed your view of Canada and its literature?

D.O.: Not really, I have always been a big reader all my life and I have always loved the terrific books Canadian writers write.  I have been reading Canadian writers since I was in grade school and my appreciation of their writing has not diminished or changed.

T.U.: What makes the WTC special as an organization for promoting Can. Lit.?

D.O.: I think what distinguishes the Writers’ Trust is our passion for the written word, our appreciation of the variety of writers that live and work in Canada and the scope and flexibility of our programs.  We consider our programs from the perspective of stages in a writer’s career.  We have programs for emerging writers, mid-career writers and for writers in the latter parts of their writing careers.  This makes us completely unique as an organization.

 T.U.: What are some of the programs that might of interest to emerging Canadian writers?

D.O.: We have really five programs that suit emerging writers.  First, we have scholarships that we provide to students at the Humber School for Writers.  Secondly, we have the Journey Prize which is given annually to an unpublished writer in book form.  The jury reviews work that has been submitted to literary magazines.  Thirdly, we have the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award.  This is for a writer who is unpublished in book form and under 35 years old.  It alternates between short fiction one year and poetry the next.  Fourthly, we are the proud owners of Canadian literary icon Pierre Berton’s boyhood home in Dawson City, Yukon.  We run this place as a writers retreat. Four writers use the place for three months each and are paid an honourarium while they are in residence.  Finally, we administer the Dayne Ogilvie Grant for an emerging gay writer.  Since its inception four writers have benefited from this granting program.

T.U.: What are some of the challenges that you see with the Canadian literary scene and how has WTC risen to meet them?

D.O.: I think the major challenge for all Canadian writers is money and time to write between books.  The Berton House Writers’ Retreat ensures that four writers a year receive three months to devote to their writing.  Any writer on our awards and prizes lists gets some money that they tell me buys them time to write.  I think our greatest program however remains the Woodcock Fund.  This fund, endowed in perpetuity, helps Canadian writers who are in the middle of a book and who hit a financial snag.  There is a simple application process and we try to have the money in the writers hand within a week, it is an emergency fund after all.  Since the fund was created we have supported 169 writers with over $821,000 of financial support.  Countless books have resulted from this timely financial helping hand.

T.U.: How might we take part in promoting the WTC?

D.O.: I think the best thing anyone can do to help us is to talk about our work, recommend writers to us that may need help (all support is given under strict confidentiality rules) and promote the writers and their books whom we reward annually.

T.U.: How have volunteers contributed to the WTC?

D.O.: Like so many not-for-profit organizations, the Writers’ Trust benefits from the support of many volunteers.  Our volunteer board consists of 24 people all leaders in their various careers and all passionate readers.  We have very dedicated committees in Vancouver, Ottawa and Calgary.  We have very dedicated writers who volunteer as members of the Woodcock Advisory Committee and the Authors Committee which advises the staff and board of directors.

T.U.: Tell us about some of the upcoming events that WTC is organizing.

D.O.: We are currently organizing three important fundraising events.  On November 30th, 2010 we will be holding the 8th annual Berton House Writers’ Retreat Dinner in Toronto at the Berkley Event Space at 315 Queen Street East.  On February 3rd, 2011 the Writers’ Trust Presents Margaret Atwood reprising her performance piece The Year of the Flood.  This event will be held at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver in Vancouver British Columbia.  Finally on Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 we are presenting the Politics and the Pen gala at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa.  In terms of our work with writers, we will be presenting the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award in April (date TBA) and the Dayne Ogilvie Grant for an Emerging Gay Writer on June 26th, 2011.

T.U.: How do you see the WTC developing in the next decade?

D.O.: The Writers’ Trust is in the process of finalizing a new strategic plan for the organization.  The plan has several focuses, the first being a focus on developing a better communications plan with the public.  We want the reading public to know who we are, what we do and we want them to pay attention to and buy the amazing books that make our various finalist lists each year.  Since 98% of our annual revenue comes from funds raised from corporations, foundations and individuals, we want to focus on raising money.  Finally we want to ensure that we are meeting the needs of Canadian writers at every stage of their careers so we will be developing programs that broaden the scope of our support annually.

T.U.: What are you reading now?

D.O.: I have three books on the go at the moment.  I met John Irving at our fundraising dinner last Thursday so I started reading Last Night in Twisted River this past weekend.  I am reading Romeo Dallaire’s new book They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children. I am meeting Tim Cook at a literary event on Wednesday so I am reading an earlier book of his called At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916.

T.U.: Thank you so much for your time, and best wishes in your future endeavours!

About the Interviewer


Tom Ue is a doctoral student at the Department of English Language and Literature at University College, London, where he researches on Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of Henry James, George Gissing, and Oscar Wilde.


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