To begin, Annabel Lyon turns to books. You know you’re in the hands of a writer who truly loves storytelling when that happens, right?
But she’s turning to specific literary examples to test her theory: Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play, Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
Annabel Lyon is concerned, too, that although historical fiction is uniquely poised to perform that function, with “its particular tradition of focusing on moral problems and injustices”, there are pitfalls.
She identifies these pitfalls as moral outrage, forbidden love, and excessive decoration. Rather than focus on works overwhelmed by these flaws, she chooses to laud those who avoid them.
Each of these three writers “finds a way to deepen the complexities of his or her narrative, and to find contemporary relevance in their long-dead characters”.
Each of the novels contains “love in many forms and manifestations” and, indeed, love is important in the stories, “but these authors are canny enough to realize that there are other equally valid routes: fear, honour, pain, intellect, ambition, compassion”.
And, finally, these works include historical detail not simply as decoration, but detail that “enriches our understanding of the characters involved”.
So, if that’s what historical fiction should not be, the next question is “where does that leave us?” and, so, she discusses the process of creating a historical character and how she weighed “the dangers of anachronism against virtues of hindsight”.
It’s interesting, the summary of the social position of women in Aristotle’s time, compared to the general social position of contemporary women in Canada, compared to the particular social position of Annabel Lyon, whose upbringing and current life certainly sets her apart from the women of Aristotle’s day.
“Realistically, then, the life of an ancient woman is foreign to me, utterly foreign. Utterly, dangerously foreign, for a firction writer; it’s almost beyond my imagining.”
The process by which she draws this into her imagining is outlined in some detail, with particular attention to some specific texts, experts and teachers, and travel to Greece, but spoilers abound, for those who have not read The Sweet Girl.
And, then, Annabel Lyon turns, again, to books. She specifically mentions two other novels which contributed to her thinking about women’s (and girls’) roles and love and sexuality: Padma Viswanathan’s The Toss of a Lemon and Amber Dawn’s Sub Rosa. (She is actually more specific, but that would lead to even more spoilers.)
She grapples with the question of mending the gap between her own experiences as a woman and those of Pythias, and with the conflicting ideas that springboard from that work.
“Power, again. I wanted to find a way to give Pythias power, to give her the resources to act as a man in a world of men. Was this an exercise in anachronism, or an attempt to bring her closer to me, to understand her in the only way I could? Both?”
Readers will find the answer in Creating Ancient Women, one installment of the Henry Kreisel Lecture Series, published by the University of Alberta Press. Its covers are adorned with images of two of John Greer’s City Sirens (which are absolutely gorgeous, perfect for this work), and the series also includes works by Joseph Boyden, Eden Robison, Dany Laferriere, Wayne Johnston and Lawrence Hill.
Readers, writers, thinkers: enjoy!