Mercifully, Annabel Lyon has left her iPhone in her hotel room, which renders her unable to display a treasured photograph of the Iron Age vaginal dilator she snapped in a museum while visiting Athens to research her latest novel, a sequel to 2009’s award-winning, bestselling The Golden Mean.
“It’s horrifying!” she exults, spreading her arms to show the size of the fearful artifact, technically known as a speculum. “And it’s got this big screw on it, and it’s just ohh….” The novelist shudders.
“And I loved it, of course.”
Lyon loved it so much that she made the instrument a crucial prop in her new novel, The Sweet Girl, which returns to the ancient Greek world of philosophers and kings that she brought to life so successfully in The Golden Mean. But as the lovable speculum suggests, this is “a very different book” from her speculative biography of Aristotle, Lyon says. Chronicling the adventures of the philosopher’s precocious daughter after his death, The Sweet Girl is yin to the former book’s yang.
Whereas The Golden Mean focused on men and public life – “politics, warfare, science and reason and all of that,” according to the author – The Sweet Girl is “much more female, much more interior.”
And not only thanks to the speculum, which Lyon discovered on her first visit to Greece with a group of classics students and their professors from Carleton University. Having already researched life in Ancient Greece from afar, she was delighted to discover a whole new world open up to her as she strolled the markets of Athens and peered at artifacts in museums.
“I saw a child’s sippy cup with that little spout, tweezers, hair clips, lampstands, barbecue tongs, shelves.
“Shelves!” Lyon repeats with wonderment. “They had shelves on their walls in houses.”
What most surprised Lyon was learning all the different occupations available to women in Ancient Greece, and her heroine Pythias becomes familiar with many of them – from medicine to genteel prostitution – as she struggles to make her way without male protection.
Although radically different from her father’s, her path likewise follows the same critical dividing line between the ancient and modern – the unifying element of what might otherwise seem to be a mismatched diptych.
“She’s a girl, so she’s everything that implied in Greek culture, and has the proximity to magic and superstition and all that,” Lyon says. “But she’s also dad’s daughter, so she had the rational side to her as well.”
As does the author herself, a no-nonsense achiever who, since the international success of The Golden Mean, has transitioned from unknown ingénue to a dominant force in Canadian literature – instant doyenne of the new generation.
The Golden Mean was famously nominated for all three major Canadian literary awards, ultimately winning the Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction prize, and so far this year The Sweet Girl has found a place on the long list of nominees for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Between her two Greek books, Lyon found time to write a children’s novel and sit on the 2011 Giller jury – all the while raising two children (now 7 and 5) and teaching creative writing at the University of British Columbia, where she is now a full-time faculty member.
Multitasking comes easy to her, Lyon says. “I have the knack,” she says. “I can put things together.” But compliments she dismisses with a rudely reverberating “phooey” – a noise she repeats when denouncing the alleged mystique of a writing life.
“My dad was a journalist and he hated the idea that writing is somehow a mystical art,” she says. “It’s not; it’s a craft. You can do it to a deadline, and you do it on days whether you feel like it or not. And if something’s not working, there’s reasons why, and you can articulate them and you can fix them.”
This is the hardest thing to teach students who presume it is necessary to be a suffering, broken-hearted alcoholic “listening to a lot of loud music” before they set their precious thoughts on paper. “Really?” she says. “Do you have to do all that before you become an engineer? No. It’s a job – you do it.”
At the same time, Lyon is leery of the effect of the award programs that have been so important to her own career – a view she developed as a youngster competing in music festivals. “For me, any kind of competition in the arts is anathema,” she says, taking care to compliment the generosity of the groups and individuals that sponsor the programs. “We’re not a sport. It’s not measurable that way. I think it’s destructive to pit people against one another.”
Meanwhile, she keeps on winning – and selling. Lyon is especially hopeful that her gentler new book will find acceptance from readers, “like my mom,” who struggled with the violence and profanity of The Golden Mean. But she has no intention of adding to her streak by “cooking up a third book” to make a trilogy.
“I really do feel that I’ve said what I want to say about that period and the connections I see to now,” Lyon says. “Frankly, I’m very keen to write about contemporary Vancouver, which is what I know. That’s my world and I’d like to come back to it. …
“I’m done with Ancient Greece,” she adds emphatically. And on, it seems inevitable, to new triumphs.
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