Time for Alexander: A funny thing happened on the way to 333 BC
A funny thing happened on the way to 333 BC. I was supposed to go back in time, interview Alexander the Great, grab my story, and leave. But Fate, that joker, intervened, and here I am, stranded in the past with Alexander the Great. Well, not really. My character got stuck. I was going to write a short story about a time-traveling journalist going into the past, and I ended up with a series of seven books.
I was never interested in history when I was in school, but having a mother who was a history teacher meant hearing about it all the time. Maybe, like osmosis, it seeped in, because when I started writing, I first gravitated towards history. I had been publishing short stories in magazines and had a good number under my belt, as well as a couple literary prizes and a nomination for the Pushcart prize. So, it was in all confidence that I started a short story about a journalist who goes back to interview Alexander the Great, slaps a mosquito, and changes time.
Right away, I hit a snag. I had no idea where the story was set – ancient Greece? Persia? Babylon? Where did he die, anyway? I got out my encyclopedia and looked up Alexander the Great and found a half a page of information with an illustration of a man with curly hair and dreamy eyes. I needed more. I headed to my library and hit the history section, and there I was in luck, there was a book by someone called Plutarch, and he’d written extensively about the young leader and his battles. Very cool. Especially the one against Porus in India.
Wait a minute – back up. India? How did he get there? I read Plutarch’s book, which was good, but he didn’t really care for Alexander and it showed. Plutarch was Greek, and for the Greeks, Alexander would forever be an upstart barbarian. I went back to the library, and found The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian. Again, a lot about the battles, but very little about the man. Plus, all this was written centuries after Alexander died. I searched for a biography by a more primary source, and what I discovered was that there were pitifully few documents from Alexander’s lifetime. Everything about him had been written after his death. Modern biographers weren’t much help either. They either glorified or vilified him, but most was hearsay or legend.
Finally, I found a book called In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, by Michael Wood, which was terrific for tracking Alexander’s movements. I could see where he went, and when he went, and even how he went. As I sifted through fact, history, myth, and fiction, it occurred the me that the most concrete facts we have about Alexander are from the places he’d been – the actual route he traveled, which is, even now, scattered with his relics. A city here, a road there, an outpost, a fortress, a battleground, a temple built to honor his beloved horse… But why? Why did he go so far into India when he’d already captured the crown of Persia? Why go against his generals’ wishes and drag (well, lead) his army across half the known world? It was as if he never really wanted to go back and rule, but go back to Babylon he did, where he died soon after. Perhaps he really did have an oneirocritic (someone who interpreted dreams) with him, who warned him against going back to Babylon!
His character came to me by reading between the lines. A warrior, yes, but a dreamer as well. An eternal student and tourist at heart, charismatic but short tempered. A brilliant tactician and energetic, but prone to ill health. His friends loved him, his enemies hated him, but no one was indifferent. He was superstitious and religious, yet he defied the gods. He was a conundrum, and he made a wonderful fictional character. I had my hero, and now I was ready.
Oh wait – how do I get my journalist back in time? Let’s pretend we can surpass the speed of light and rewind time using quartz, starlight, and loads of energy such as lightning! Now that I had my time machine, I sat down and wrote, but the journalist was not cooperating. He wasn’t thrilled with Alexander, who was everywhere at once. He had to consult his generals, the cooks, the doctors, the soldiers, and the astrologists. He was too busy to talk, and the journalist was struggling to keep up. He only had twenty hours in order to get his interview and go back to the future. Twenty hours to see who this Alexander person really was. The journalist hated the heat and the dust, hated the smell, and he hated not being taken seriously by this barbarian from the past. When Alexander introduced the journalist to Bucephalus, the horse bit a chunk out of his arm. That’s when I knew that I had to fire him and get someone else.
According to all the writings I found, Alexander respected women. He would be open to meeting and speaking to a woman who posed as an oneirocritic. Therefore, I needed a woman time traveler. I needed someone who wouldn’t be cowed by him, someone who would fascinate him. I started the short story again and had Ashley come back in time to interview Alexander. And everything went wrong: she got drunk, she fell into his arms, she made love to him, and then she had to leave without her story, without discovering anything about Alexander. Her trip was a fiasco. Everything I’d planned backfired.
Except Ashley intrigued Alexander to the point where he was convinced she was Persephone, goddess of the dead, and off he went to her rescue. He wrenched her from the time-travel-tractor beam, and she was stuck. Stuck in 333 BC, with a terrible hangover, no decent shampoo, and, as she facetiously puts it, now over three thousand years older than her own mother.
She was stuck with Alexander, but love wasn’t instantaneous. Love came slowly to this mismatched pair. The man from the past and the woman from the future had a lot to overcome before their relationship could be based on mutual trust and understanding. And for that, she has to tell him who she truly is – not Persephone, goddess of the dead, but a woman from another time.
The book advanced, and as I wrote, I researched. The army, their route, their food, their weapons, his family and friends, his enemies, the weather, the horses…and toothpaste. “The devil is in the details”, as they say. I spent an entire day researching toothpaste. Did you know that people brushed their teeth very carefully back then? Clean teeth and sweetness of breath was considered essential. They used soft twigs, chewed until they frayed, or little brushes, and they had homemade toothpaste. So, herewith for your tooth brushing pleasure is the recipe for toothpaste circa 500 BC (it didn’t change much for a thousand years…): heat snail shells in the fire until they are white and grind them very fine. Add gypsum and honey, mix into a paste, then add essential oils of mint or other herbs for taste. Other recipes included chalk or wood ash mixed with fresh urine (a virgin’s urine is best), and one simple recipe is sea salt mixed with spices such as powdered cloves rubbed energetically over the teeth and gums – guaranteed white teeth, fresh breath, and sore gums!
Alexander’s story had to be plotted out using existing people, historical events, the army’s movements, and take into account the seasons and weather, so it was vital to have a strong outline. Within that framework I took many liberties. One of the tricks of writing historical fiction is to keep real events pinned to their place and time. However, this was fiction (did the time travel part give it away?). I did take liberties, for example, I had one of Alexander’s generals interacting directly with Alexander when most historians agree he was back in Macedonia – but I needed him there, so thanks to the wonders of fiction, there he was! In the end, I had to walk a tightrope between what I’d learned and how I wanted the story to go.
Research was important to me because I wanted the reader to feel as if they were immersed in another time and culture. Ashley feels disconnected from reality, but it’s the small details of everyday life: how bread was baked, how prayers were said, how the soldiers bathed (her favorite part of the day), that anchor her to her new surroundings. Hopefully, the reader will feel the same; not looking back across a chasm made of thousands of years but actually living, walking, and riding at Alexander’s side.
About the contributor: Jennifer Macaire lives in France with her husband, three children and various dogs. The Time for Alexander series, published by Accent Press, features Alexander the Great and his time-traveling wife, Ashley of the Sacred Sandals, and starts off with The Road to Alexander, followed by Legends of Persia and Son of the Moon. Storms Over Babylon is coming in June 2018. Three more books will round off the heptalogy (or, as Alexander would say, “ἑπτα- hepta, ‘seven’ and λογία -logia, ‘discourse’”).