On the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, an adventure that Alexander would surely have approved of, I continue my conversation with Jeanne Reames.
Jeanne has written Dancing With The Lion, a two part novel about the early years of Alexander, or, how he became the man we know as ‘the Great’. The first part Becoming just just been published. Part Two, Rise, will be published this October.
Alexander’s mother, Olympias, is represented very negatively by the Alexander historians; what is your assessment of her character, and how does it inform the way you look at her in Dancing with the Lion?
I stand with Beth’s picture: her reputation got a hatchet-job. This doesn’t mean she was nice, but she absolutely must be viewed in the full context of a polygamous court, her obvious intelligence, her Epirote ancestry, and the need simply to survive. This is why I use Myrtalē instead of Olympias, to detach her from all that baggage, much as I use Alexandros to detach him from “Alexander the Great” baggage.
Misogyny is THICK in a lot of Alexander fiction, perhaps unconsciously imbibed from the primary sources. It’s not only in how Olympias is portrayed, but in how Alexander’s sisters are overlooked. In Dancing with the Lion, not only did I try to write a powerful Olympias, but his full-sister Kleopatra is a POV character and even has her own coming-of-age arc, especially in book 2, Rise. Thessalonikē and Audata also play roles. (There’s another female voice that will appear in Rise, but I can’t say who, or it’s a spoiler.)
One might argue that negatively portraying Olympias doesn’t equal misogyny, which is true. And yes, she committed a number of murders (although she got blamed for some I’m pretty sure she didn’t commit, too). Yet as Beth points out in her articles, she didn’t do anything her husband and son didn’t also do. The horror was that she was a woman doing it. Greek women were supposed to stay out of politics, but Epirote Olympias didn’t get that memo! While the Macedonian court doesn’t appear to have been as repressive as, say, Athens, it also wasn’t as open as Epiros. Arriving in Pella, the 14/15/16-year-old Olympias must have found it all very flat, very hot, and very hobbling, compared to what she was used to at home. I expect Eurydike, Philip’s mother, had experienced something similar, decades earlier, and she, too, was roasted in the ancient sources. These powerful, northern women were not understood.
We must also recall the Macedonian court was polygamous (that’s why I never use “queen” for any of Philip’s wives in the novels). If royal polygamy had predated Philip, he employed it with gusto, marrying 5 women in his first 5 years on the throne. Olympias was either number 4 or 5, so even if her birth made her royal, she came into a situation with 3-4 other wives already there, plus the queen mother likely still alive. Imagine that.
At a polygamous court, the most important male in a woman’s life isn’t her husband, but her son. The more (healthy) sons she can produce, the higher her status, although it seems birth status also played a role, especially if there’s more than one son. As mother to the only viable heir, Olympias eventually became chief wife, but that took time to establish. And her continued position hung on ALEXANDER’S status, and survival. That’s what motivated her.
I’ve tried to make that very clear in the book. I’ve also tried to make her as savvy and competent as I think she was. Ergo, she acts as chatelaine for the entire palace, and is also trained as a healer and midwife, which comes into play in the first novel. The tale of her poisoning of Arrhidaios via “pharmakos” (herbs) may conceal an historical ability with herbal remedies. The Greeks were highly suspicious of “what those healer women did” and midwives, while necessary, were also viewed with mistrust. In myth, witches like Circe employed a knowledge of pharmakos. So Olympias gets called a witch by the men in the novel (including Philip), and poor Alexander is constantly defending her. To them, midwife-herbalist-priestess-witch…it would have been a fuzzy distinction.
How did you approach writing people about whom we know very little (e.g. Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra) or nothing (e.g. Hephaestion’s father, Amyntor)? Did you have any models for them or did you give your imagination free reign?
Sometimes I do use real people as models; for instance, parts of Amyntor’s personality are based on my own father, but also on my mother. Yet no character is ever a complete match for a living person. They’re composites. I also use things like the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator to conceptualize them. So Alexander is an ENTP and Hephaistion an INTP. Amyntor is an ISFJ, and Philip an ENTJ. Thinking in these terms helps flesh them out, so that the details emerge organically from who they are. Fictional characters must be more consistent than real people, in part because they are fictional.
I’m not sure how well that answers your question, but it’s how I think about characterization generally. Ultimately, all these people are characters, even those about whom we may know more: Alexander, Philip, Ptolemy, Aristotle. There’s still a boatload we don’t know. So, for instance, Alexander’s favorite fruit was, supposedly, apples. But we don’t know what his favorite color was. His voice is described as deep and harsh, but we don’t know what hand he favored. I made him a lefty for the hell of it. My point is chiefly that, even for the better-known characters, I’m still filling in a lot of blanks.
Your scholarship no doubt helped you write Dancing with the Lion– do you think your novels will help you as a scholar, and if so, how?
Absolutely writing fiction makes me a better historian because it forces me to be more aware of the various levels of probability in the historical record. One has the factual (and even what’s “fact” can be disputed), then the probable, the possible, and finally, educated speculation. Pure fiction is the next step.
In addition, writing fiction can force the historian to think about old problems in new ways, ask questions we might not think to ask. So, for instance, the novelist wonders what happened in those first few minutes, and hours, after Philip’s murder. It must have been a madhouse in Aigai. Diodorus tells us nothing—yet it’s still important to consider. So that’s the sort of thing fiction can bring to light.
Was there anything in particular that you enjoyed about writing Becoming and Rise? A character, perhaps, or a scene?
Kleopatra and Hephaistion were my favorite characters to write.
Kleopatra, because she’s a “type” I favor in storytelling. If the Dionysos novel ever gets published, Ari(adne) there is similar. Both are the antithesis of the drama queen or “spunky heroine.” Kleopatra just quietly gets shit done without flailing, and unlike her brother, she isn’t given to romanticizing things. If/when I get back to the series, readers will see more of her.
I also really enjoyed writing Hephaistion because he’s that rare personality type who just doesn’t give two figs what most people think of him, with a few exceptions such as Alexander or his family. He’s therefore always authentically himself. That doesn’t mean he has no filter; he keeps his mouth shut a lot of the time, but when he does express an opinion, he says exactly what he thinks. He’s also a bit (maybe more than a bit) of a smart-ass, which in turn means he gets to star in some of the funnier moments in the novel. In several, he takes down Kassandros a peg, but my favorite with him is when he and Erigyios throw another student in a cold river, because the boy was being insufferable. Later, Alexander tells the boy, “Hephaistion doesn’t start things, he ends them,” which is a fair summary.
That said, my overall favorite scene, at least in Becoming, is “Drunk Aristotle.” I won’t say more or it’s too much of a spoiler. Just…drunk Aristotle and a tutorial. I’ll leave you with that.
Do you have any advice for anyone who would like to write their own work of (historical) fiction, especially if it’s about Alexander (and Hephaestion)?
First, practice the art of getting it right.
That means do your homework, and not all on the internet. Read books and articles, read more than one or two, and not just biographies on Alexander. It’s vitally important to understand Macedonia. Also, if writing about his conquest of Persia, then one MUST understand Persian culture and the court, as well as other Ancient Near Eastern cultures from Phoenicia and Egypt to Baktria and India. Plus knowing Greek culture would help, too. Ha. It’s not a small undertaking.
Make sure you understand the world you’re writing about, so the characters act and react in ways authentic to their era. Otherwise, it’s just a costume drama with modern characters in ancient dress. While yes, one can’t make them too alien, or modern readers won’t connect/care, ancient Greek attitudes can be surprising not just in predictable ways (misogyny, acceptance of slavery), but unexpected ones, at times.
Do look up details. Not long ago, I read an ATG novel that had the Persian female characters talking about limes (didn’t exist yet, just the citron) and referencing Zoroastrian religious beliefs that developed in the Sassanid era—hundreds of years later. One is bound to make a mistake or three; it’s almost inevitable. But a lot can be avoided by double- and triple-checking. Even a throw-away line can be wrong. In an earlier draft, I had Hephaistion tell Alexander to wash out his mouth with clove water. Whoops. Cloves weren’t known in Greece yet. Had to look up ancient Greek dental hygiene. 😊All for a single line.
Additionally, a mistake is different from making a choice about a controversial matter; so, for instance, I come down on the side that Argead Macedonia was not a constitutional monarchy. That means a potential author needs to realize there is a debate about whether ancient Macedonia was a constitutional monarchy. Back to doing one’s research.
Second, have a story you want to tell.
I think the two biggest problems I’ve seen in novels about Alexander (or any historical figure) are those that do a half-assed research job because “it’s just fiction.” If you don’t want to do your homework, please, write something else where you can make it all up. But the other side of the coin is forgetting one is writing a story in the effort to make it accurate. That confuses historical fiction with creative non-fiction, which is a thing and has a place. But it’s not a novel.
What is the STORY you’re telling? It might be an adventure story (e.g., the point is action), or it might be a character story (e.g., the point is character development), but there needs to be some sort of story-arc. The plot/characters must go somewhere, be different at the end than at the beginning. When somebody asks me, “What’s your novel about?” I say, “It’s about Alexander becoming Alexander-the-Great,” or “It’s a coming-of-age story about a prince who doesn’t know if he’ll live to become king.” That’s a story-arc. Then you build on it.
If it’s a coming-of-age novel, who should be included? Parents, check; siblings, check; teacher, check; first love, check; even nemesis, check. Next, you can select what historical events allow you best to tell that story, which may mean tweaking some, eliminating others, or adding a few. But you don’t begin with events then try to construct a story around them, or it’ll be disjointed. So for instance, in Becoming, I don’t do a lot with the politics following the Third Sacred War and Philip’s Scythian/northern Thracian campaign because the story isn’t about Philip, it’s about Alexander, and he’s off at Mieza. If he would certainly have been aware of these things, it would have been peripheral. It’s only in Rise that I start to insert more about wider-world politics, because by then, it matters to his story.
An author has to keep her eyes on the ball, not go down random rabbit holes, no matter how interesting!
And on that note, I would like to thank Jeanne for her time. It has been a pleasure having her here. Go buy the book! And if you do, feel free to let me know what you think of it, either in the comments below or via e-mail – thesecondachilles @ gmail.com
all images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission