ceridwen dovey

Meeting Ceridwen Dovey

Last month, the TBYL Book Club enjoyed a shared read of Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin), and from those I chatted with, it seemed that this book really got us all thinking.

I reviewed the book, a collection of short stories told from the perspective of the souls of animals killed in human conflicts (you can read the review here), but I was also lucky enough to be able to ask the collection’s author Ceridwen a number of questions. Her answers shed some light on what I found to be a really moving, curious read…

Ceridwen_Dovey_author photoI’m going to start with a really obvious question, only because I’m personally really curious about the answer – what made you think of, and choose, to write a book from the perspective of the souls of dead animals? It’s such a unique concept, I’d love to know what brought you to it.
When I first thought of using animal narrators to look at human conflicts from a slightly offbeat perspective, I realised I’d have to be very careful not to fall into the trap of sentimentalising the animal voices. It’s really hard to write an animal voice that doesn’t end up being cutesy or mawkish – maybe because we’re so used to animal characters in children’s literature and film – and also that doesn’t anthropomorphise the animal to the extent that all the strangeness of the creature and the way it experiences the world is lost. So two of the tactics I came up with to avoid this were to have the animal souls writing from beyond the grave, telling us about their deaths, to give the tales a bit of a Gothic edge, and the other was to have them channeling the voice of a human author who wrote about animals in the last century, so that each animal narrator sounded different.

You work lots of authors and poets into your stories; Henry Lawson, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Robert Browning, Sylvia Plath, and more. Are these particularly favourites of yours, or did their histories just sit nicely with the time and place of the animal’s stories?
It depended on the story – because each story weaves together an animal voice, an author who wrote about animals, and a conflict, I let the research lead me to some authors, while with others the authors led me to the animal or to the conflict. All of the authors who are mentioned in the book used animal characters in their fiction in some way or another, and the ones I knew I wanted to use as inspiration were Virginia Woolf (who wrote a biography of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning from the perspective of her dog, Flush, in the 1930s) and Franz Kafka, because so many of his short fictions feature animals, and the way he uses them in his writing is the opposite of sentimental: his animal stories are often macabre and disturbing.

Do you have a particular favourite of the ten stories?
The elephant story (set in 1980s Mozambique during the civil war) one was the most difficult to write because it’s the one that is probably the saddest, with no humour or playfulness to temper the sadness, and it was written in a sort of tribute to my sister, so I’d say either that one or the tortoise story (where a Russian tortoise ends up being shot out around the moon by the Soviet Space Program during the Cold War) because it was so much fun to write.

You treated the theme of death and conflict with a skilfully soft touch. At no point did I feature guilted, lectured or horrified, just moved, which in turn caused me to reflect (not recoil). Was this a deliberate technique? Could you tell us a little bit more about how you approached what could have been a heavy topic, with such a deft hand?
Thank you for saying this! Yes, it was deliberate, and it was something I knew was crucial for the book not to be off-putting because of the serious themes. I’m by no means an animal rights activist (I’m not even a vegetarian), so the book wasn’t really coming from a place of activism but was instead a way for me to push my own imagination to the limits and see if I could pull it off. I wanted to see if perhaps readers might be jolted into feeling something different by looking at these human conflicts through animal eyes, just to see them afresh and feel something authentic instead of the compassion fatigue so many of us suffer from in modern times.

Similarly, many of the stories had a very distinct style – I particularly enjoyed the Beatnik mussels of ’Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would be Handed to Me’ – how did you decide on the style you would choose? Was it difficult to work up an authentic storytelling style for each story?
It was just really fun. I’d sort of lost my way with my fiction writing when I started working on the stories that became this book, and this was the project that reminded me why I love writing and why I absolutely need it in my life, even if I’m writing for nobody but me. It was all just an experiment, really, and I just went with crazy ideas (like a talking mussel who speaks in the style of Jack Kerouac and dies in Pearl Harbor) without questioning whether they were good crazy or bad crazy! Again, the human authors led me to the style of each story, often – and in many of the stories I use words, phrases, paragraphs that the author him/herself used in fiction or journal writings, so their style and words are literally embedded in the animal narratives.


only the animalsWhat’s the feedback been like to your book so far?
It has been very kind so far. I’m trying not to read reviews this time around – even the good ones can kind of mess with your head – but my parents and husband tell me that reviewers have been very generous, and of course my friends and family tell me they like the book but they have to?

What do you hope readers take away from this collection?
I hope that readers come away from the collection re-inspired to explore authors they might not have read – to go to some of the original texts mentioned in the book, and keep exploring the idea of animals in fiction from all these varied perspectives.

What’s next for you?
Next up is a novel set in Sydney about an elderly man who gets involved in the dying with dignity movement. And I’m also trying my hand at speculative fiction.
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I really enjoyed chatting with Ceridwen Dovey, and can’t wait to see what she produces next. If you’d like to find out more about Only the Animals, please visit Penguin here…

August TBYL Book Club (we’re back!)

It’s been a little while between books, but I thought it would be fun to start up our online TBYL Book Club again!

For those new to That Book You Like… the TBYL Book Club is an online book club designed specifically for those of us who live busy lives, live remotely or just generally have trouble getting to face-to-face book club catch-ups.

The club will allow you to connect with fellow book-lovers in our online community, and to get involved in an amazing range of online forums about the book of the month. The chats run for three days at the end of each month, so you’ve got the flexibility to pop in and chat whenever you’ve got the time.

Each month brings you a new, exciting book to read, discuss and share. It’s a perfect excuse to get reading, and to make time to chat with other readers about great books.

only the animalsThis month, I’m suggesting that we read Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals (Penguin)…

The souls of ten animals caught up in human conflicts over the last century tell their astonishing stories of life and death. In a trench on the Western Front a cat recalls her owner Colette’s theatrical antics in Paris. In Nazi Germany a dog seeks enlightenment. A Russian tortoise once owned by the Tolstoys drifts in space during the Cold War. In the siege of Sarajevo a bear starving to death tells a fairytale. And a dolphin sent to Iraq by the US Navy writes a letter to Sylvia Plath…

… An animal’s-eye view of humans at out brutal, violent worst and our creative, imaginative best, it asks us to find our way back to empathy not only for animals, but for other people, and to believe again in the redemptive power of reading and writing fiction.

You can read my review of this really stunning collection of short stories, here…

I’d like to invite you to read Only the Animals during August, ready for us to chat about on the TBYL Facebook page starting Monday, 18 August 2014. If you’d like a reminder, RSVP to the Facebook event here and I’ll give you a shout when we start chatting.

I really hope you’ll join us!

Voice of souls: Only the Animals

Interestingly, I almost didn’t pick up Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals (Penguin). I had a lot of books on the go when it hit my desk, and I really wasn’t quite sure about the premise – a book told from the point of view of dead animals? Still, the book’s cover brimming with wandering green cats piqued my interest, and so racing out of the house one morning I grabbed it, starting it on the way to work. I’m so glad I did, what a treat!

only the animalsOnly the Animals is a strange endeavour:

The souls of ten animals caught up in human conflicts over the last century tell their astonishing stories of life and death. In a trench on the Western Front a cat recalls her owner Colette’s theatrical antics in Paris. In Nazi Germany a dog seeks enlightenment. A Russian tortoise once owned by the Tolstoys drifts in space during the Cold War. In the siege of Sarajevo a bear starving to death tells a fairytale. And a dolphin sent to Iraq by the US Navy writes a letter to Sylvia Plath…

… An animal’s-eye view of humans at out brutal, violent worst and our creative, imaginative best, it asks us to find our way back to empathy not only for animals, but for other people, and to believe again in the redemptive power of reading and writing fiction.

I’ll admit to being a little fearful that the book might be a little didactic, a bit preachy. To my relief, Dovey avoids this on all accounts, instead creating a series of short stories that are ‘playful and poignant’. Their comments on humanity – on its writers, its artists, its soldiers and their conflicts – subtly highlight their absurdities without out ever screaming out loud ‘you are wrong, you are misguided, war is bad, bad, bad.’

The stories don’t have to, the message is self-evident. The starving bear in Sarajevo never has to say; ‘War is killing me’, we just know it to be so.The Paris house-cat lost on a World War I battlefield effectively illustrates the horror of the frontline, its brutality against humans and quadrupeds alike. The sharp wit of dolphin Sprout, daughter of Blinky, draws our eye to the travesty of conflict, the ridiculousness of justifying abuses in the name of protection. This done through recollections, not lectures.

I’m a fan of short fiction, so I thoroughly this collection of skilfully constructed stories. Linked by theme, each story picks up on a new time period. We’re guided through each period by a unique voice – a chimp, a bear, a dog or a tortoise. Dovey cleverly captures authentic animal personalities. She has a deft touch, and her characters are dealt with sensitively and often quietly humorously. Each tale is written in a style suitable to their time, none more so than the story of the soul of a mussel (died 1941, United States of America) written as a Beat tale…

In the morning, looking bloated with too much seawater, her gills not functioning so well anymore, she said, ‘You stay hungry, boy. You’re onto something. I’ll give you that, living so spontaneous and all, improvising, making it up as you go. It’s the only way to endure this grubby life, turn it into something sparkling. You’ll get there if you can survive this. But there’s no virtue in rushing towards death, remember that. Let the others live fast and die young. You live slow and die old.’

It surprised me how well this worked. I got no sense of parody, it seemed completely appropriate, even if just a tiny bit absurdist.

archyOnly the Animals reminded me many times of the obscure classic Archy and Mehitabel,  a quirky tale by Don Marquis. His story of a cockroach and an alley cat planted itself firmly in my mind after a single read and comes to mind often. Similarly, I think this collection of voices from Dovey will resonate with me for some time. 

You can find out more about Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals here…