Dancing with the Lion: Interview with the Author
I recently had the pleasure of posing a few questions to Jeanne Reames, ancient history scholar and author of the brand new historical fiction novel Dancing with the Lion: Becoming which tells the story of a young Alexander the Great. You may recall that Jeanne Reames, an established expert on Alexander the Great and his closest friend Hephaestion, featured prominently in a few episodes of the Ancient Heroes podcast, including the one about Alexander’s intense reaction to Hephaestion’s death.
Her new book is part one of a two part series that follows Alexander from his childhood years through his rise into one of the world’s greatest conquerors. Here is our interview:
What is the scope of the book and who is the intended audience? General public? Or folks who already know a bit of Greek history?
I describe it as a lit-mainstream coming-of-age historical, with a dollop of magical realism and LGBTQ elements.
Regarding scope, first, it’s a duology that’s really one long novel divided in half for publishing reasons. I still see it (and often talk about it) as one book. The whole thing follows Alexander from just before his 13th birthday to the death of Philip, just after his 20th. Becoming (Book 1) ends when he’s 15, although there’s an epilogue that occurs just before he turns 16. Book 2, Rise, comes out October 21st, and takes readers the rest of the way.
As for audience, let’s talk the novel-romance divide (and here, l.c. romance = adventure story, think the Alexander Romance). These are different creatures. In novels, characters dominate, in romances, the plot dominates. Or, in a novel, events serve to develop the characters, whereas in romances, characters serve to forward the plot. As a coming-of-age story, Dancing with the Lion (DwtL) is securely a novel, its focus unremittingly on characters. There are action scenes in the book, including battle scenes (it’s sorta required, given who he is), but everything serves to illumine the characters.
YES there is a love story in DwtL, but falling in love is part of growing up (that whole “coming-of-age” thing), and the boys’ relationships with their fathers is as important as their friendship with each other. Philip and Amyntor are literary foils, and the main antagonist (if I have to call him that) isn’t a romantic rival. It’s Philip. That will become even more evident in Rise, but anybody who knows anything about Alexander’s youth should be expecting it.
So I see the main audience as readers of historical fiction, but it should also appeal to those who like lit-fic coming-of-age stories, whatever era. It even has a bit for historical fantasy fans. As I said, there’s a touch of magical realism in it. And last, it certainly has an LGBTQ element. It’s not really a Romance (cap /r/, as in genre), despite the publisher. For the most part, it’s been well-received (so far), but a couple reviewers who expected a Romance expressed disappointment, while still liking it as a novel. The funniest of those was probably Publisher’s Weekly, where it was reviewed as Romance/Erotica, and the reviewer bemoaned that it lacked most of the expected Romance tropes, then turned around and called it “a well-told, if unexpected, coming-of-age story”—which is what it actually is. I think that’s what you call a “back-handed compliment.”
All that said, I am a Greek historian, and wrote the book at levels. For those who know Greek history or Alexander, I threw in a lot of Easter Eggs. Recognizing them isn’t at all necessary to follow the story, but readers In-the-Know should enjoy them. I wanted to pen a book that the more one knew, the more fun it was, not the more frustrating it was.
Alexander is one of the most studied and written-about figures in all of history...what new perspective are you hoping this book offers?
This is Alexander-the-boy, unromanticized.
It ties into why I chose to use his real name (Alexandros) instead of Alexander. “Alexander (the Great)” drags a freight of expectations that I wanted to dump. So he makes stupid mistakes, he’s not always right, he’s rash, he’s arrogant. Basically, he’s a teen boy carrying a huge weight with no guarantee he’ll live to reach the throne. As he (supposedly) later said himself on his deathbed, Macedonian kingship went “to the strongest.” But it’s a bumpy road along the way. Even if I want to humanize him, there are still glimmerings of what he’ll become.
This isn’t demonizing. Monster Alexander has been a popular trend lately in fiction, following the “Badian Revisionism” that began in the 1960s in academia and slowly trickled down. My own academic view tends to middle ground between Tarn/Droysen and Badian/Green. I let him have his historical context without letting him off the hook for his atrocities. Yet there are layers to his story: Macedonian, Greek, and later Roman. As a Macedoniast, and Argead specialist, I can affirm that the Greeks didn’t understand the Macedonian court, never mind the later Romans.
And that’s the OTHER perspective I’ve tried to bring. This Alexander “looks in from the North.” He’s Macedonian. This isn’t about the ethnicity of the ancient Macedonians. Ancient Greece recognized a lot of diverse cultures, even within the three major linguistic families, never mind “kissing cousins.” Whatever the political rhetoric of Philip II’s day, the Macedonians seemed proud to BE Macedonian. They had different customs, social expectations, even some different gods. I’ve done my best to reflect that in the book(s) in a way I don’t think (if I can be allowed to brag a little) any novel has heretofore done.
Given your extensive background as a scholar of Macedon and Alexander, how did you approach the question of historical accuracy? Did you take any liberties with the history for the sake of narrative? Which historical sources did you rely on the most? How did you fill in the gaps?
First, if I can quote from the author’s note:
“By their very nature, stories touch the capacity of the heart, move us in ways visceral as much as intellectual. In French, histoire can mean either history or story, and the same is true of storia in Italian. To tell stories is part of our nature as meaning-seeking, meaning-making creatures. Historical fiction is, therefore, less concerned with who any given historical figure actually was than with who we are now, and what it’s possible for us to become.
The same might be said of our need to pursue history. And while I’d hardly argue there’s no difference between history and fiction, any good historian knows how much supposition goes into her theories about the past. Of historical fiction, novelist Marguerite Yourcenar said over fifty years ago ("Reflections on the Composition," Memoirs of Hadrian, Grace Frick, trans. New York, 1963: 330), what I can only echo now:”
Which is not to suggest, as is too often done, that historical truth is never to be attained, in any of its aspects. With this kind of truth, as with all others, the problem is the same: one errs more or less.
That gives an important perspective on my approach. As the note had to be put at the end of Book 2, I posted it on my website. If it won’t spoil most readers already familiar with Alexander’s life, there might be a few things. Still, I wanted to make it available early for those who know Alexander’s history and want answers as to why I made some of the choices I did.
Fiction isn’t history, or even creative non-fiction, which is what you do in your podcasts, where you riff on an historical event, giving it imagined details, including imagery, sounds, and smells to enflesh the story. But creative non-fiction is still driven by history, and those reading (or listening) are interested in the events, including complexity, etc.
Fiction needs to have a defined plot arc; it must be cogent in itself. The characters, especially the main protagonists, need to exit the story in a different place than they entered it. Novelists pay attention to characterization, plot, pacing, climax. These aren’t considerations of history, or even (entirely) of creative non-fiction (although at least pacing and climax matters to the latter). Sometimes the historian in me wanted to fight that. So, for instance, there’s a great deal of irony in Alexander’s concluding thoughts at the end of Rise, even though he means them sincerely at the time (obviously can’t clarify or, spoiler!). But his character arc needed a conclusion.
The point of fiction is simply different. And too much historical complexity can get in the way. The “three Cs” rule: conflate, combine, clarify. Also, authors must make definitive choices about historical quandaries. “Well, we just don’t know” won’t fly in a novel.
That’s why some historians (and fans of history) don’t like historical fiction. It’s a philosophical objection. If one makes historical people into characters in a story, and presents as “fact” things that might not be certain, or even makes up events that never happened—is that morally right? Won’t it mislead readers, who’ll assume it’s all true?
First, that’s insulting to readers. Yes, some do believe just whatever they read. But most don’t. My experience preparing for “The Cult of Hephaistion” convinced me that readers are far more savvy than (some) academics credit. They understand perfectly well that it’s fiction, and if they become involved enough, they look things up, including reading the original sources and also academic books/articles. With the internet, that’s become easier than ever. In short, fiction can be a staging ground for serious historical enquiry, not a truncation of it.
Furthermore, there’s a whole lot of speculation that goes into history itself. Detangling it is what we call “historiography.” So drawing a sharp line between “true” history and “false” fiction is a chimera, one that has historical roots in Christianity, actually, where fiction that didn’t have a religious purpose was eschewed as false and thus, demonic. (Check out the fight over the earliest modern novels, such as Pamela.) Fiction was bad, morally corrupt.
While I think some would like to sweep under the rug those early-modern Christian underpinnings, we see it still in the subtle bias against fiction (especially genre fiction) as somehow degenerate, a waste of time better spent on serious pursuits. “Work is godly,” reading fiction an idleness, which is the Devil’s workshop. That’s the tip of the iceberg. Then we get to elitism in academia that disavows pop history (including historical fiction) as “pearls before swine.”
ALL of this misunderstands the important hermeneutic between the Head and Gut. Whatever anybody would have you believe, nobody spends a career studying something if they’re not emotionally invested. A scholar who genuinely doesn’t care is a crappy scholar.
Again, stories touch the capacity of the heart. Stories makes us care. Furthermore, fiction as “false” completely misunderstands fiction.
So I’m using historical figures to tell stories that, hopefully, resonate for modern readers, and say something about being human. And hopefully, along the way, some more folks get interested in Alexander, ancient Macedonia, and ancient Greece.
As for sources, the main ones for Alexander’s youth are Plutarch and Diodorus Book XVI, with additions from Arrian, Curtius, Justin, and scattered stories in other sources including Athenaeus, Plutarch’s Moralia, and Polyaenus. Yet I use these in different ways than for academic work.
Writing fiction makes me a better historian because it forces me to be acutely conscious of the varying levels of “truth” in the texts. First, there’s the factual, then the likely, then the probable, then the possible. But it’s not even that simple. We also have to consider the layers from our sources, which is where historians can get into arguments over what’s “factual.” A fact to some might be later “Romanizing” inserts to others.
In short, it’s super-duper complex.
When I write history, I’m fairly cautious, which I’d argue is because I write fiction. I’m much more inclined to recognize what’s conjecture. I may have an opinion, but I try to indicate it is opinion via wording, such as “may have been” or “possibly.” In writing courses these are called “weasel words,” authors encouraged to discard them. Yet history (good history) requires them, or (imnsho), one is being an arrogant little shit. *grin*
Nonetheless, when writing fiction, as noted above, one has to make a choice. I can’t say, “Well, maybe it was,” or stage levels of probability as one might do in an article. So, for instance, in Rise, book 2, I make choices about the Pixodaros Affair, Philip’s marriage to Kleopatra, and who was involved in Philip’s murder. Filling in historical blanks is “educated riffing.” Brian Bosworth observed that the laser-focus of our sources on Alexander is deceptive. If all we had were the Alexander sources, several of the titanic Successors would have been dismissed as “nothing much.” That means we know a surprisingly small amount about those around Alexander during his lifetime. I’m working with jots and tiddles on the ancient texts.
How did you decide to depict the famously controversial relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion? As we know, some are adamant they were lovers, while others are skeptical.
I do depict them as lovers (as probably obvious from prior replies). As you know, academically, I come down on the “maybe, but I think they probably were (at least in youth)” side. That said, I’m not much fussed by those who question it, as the sources are notably problematic, as long as the questions are driven by historiography, not homophobia. My friend and colleague Sabine Műller doesn’t think they were, seeing it as later Roman overlay, even if she agrees with me on Hephaistion’s importance.
Yet for a novel, again, one must make choices. Ergo, I make them lovers, even if, as both agree near the end of Becoming, they’re “friends first.” (That might be a spoiler, but ya know…) In fact, I’ve avoided using the language of romance for them (lover/beloved). I use “friend” consistently. That’s because, to the ancient Greeks, philia was more important than eros. So calling each other “lover” or “beloved” would be insulting to the depth of their bond. Sex is “in addition to” what they already share. An “Oh, yeah…that.” If this might strike moderns as “evasive,” it’s just an example of how different other cultures can be.
One thing that intrigues me, and which fiction allows me to explore in a way that’s harder in history, is the question of whether the Greeks actually understood homosexuality, even if they didn’t have a word for it. Obviously, they didn’t think it part of self-identification, and we could learn from that. Yet if current research is calling into question just how fixed orientation is, it does seem to be a sliding scale, something the Greeks understood, even if they boxed it into stages of life. And they apparently did recognize at least some people preferred their own sex, or the opposite sex. It just wasn’t important enough to invent a word for.
My question is: What would it be like to try to understand yourself in a society that, literally, has no word for who you are? (Or none that’s polite.)
In the novels, Hephaistion is what we’d, today, call gay. Again, this isn’t about the historical person (who’s orientation is unknowable). This is about a character’s journey. Nor is his journey over at the end of Rise (book 2), but he’s figured out a few things. It’s a struggle I’d like to explore further if/when I continue the entire series. Alexander, btw, is what we’d call bisexual.
What was the hardest part about writing this book?
Getting it published.
I wrote the first line in December of 1988. That’s how old this entire concept is. And I had my first serious agent query about 1996. But publishing is uber-conscious of things such as word-count, etc. So if the first version of the novel was too long, however much I cut it never seemed to catch up with industry expectations, which kept dropping. And there’s a point past which it’s impossible to cut and maintain any semblance of sense. Also, timing matters. Oliver Stone’s coming flick may have promoted novels c. 2003-04, but it also killed interest in Alexander subsequently, except for authors who already had a base (Tarr, Pressfield, Graham, Cameron). That’s starting to move again, now that Stone’s film is 15 years in the rearview mirror, I think.
Riptide was willing to take a chance on it, although (as noted) they asked me to divide it in half for publishing purposes. I’m grateful, otherwise a novel of this length would never have seen the light of day. Maybe someday it can finally be published as a single work, as it was originally meant to be, but in the meantime, at least it’s out there.
What do you think it is about Alexander that continues to inspire so much interest around the world?
JR: He’s complex, hard to pin down. He did so much, so young. Yet exactly who was he? Gene Borza, in his intro to Ulrich Wilcken’s bio of Alexander, said (paraphrasing), “There are as many Alexanders as those who profess a serious interest in him.” I’ve always liked that line.
We each have our own Alexander. I hope readers don’t hate mine.
Last, I think many of us want to see ourselves in him. Back when I was much, much younger, (early-20s) and doing on-call social work at Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, my supervisor, a wise old sloe-eyed woman (who knew about my interest in him), told me: “You think you’re Alexander.”
At the time, being young and rather naïve, I was offended. But she was exactly right.
We all want to be Alexander, don’t we?