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.
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…