Ceridwen Dovey is a social anthropologist and a hugely talented author. When we signed up Only the Animals, which the Guardian has since called “dazzling,” the whole office was abuzz. It was a treat to ask her about her life in books, from nailing down dialogue to her favorite Sydney bookshop.
What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?
I grew up between South Africa and Australia, and perhaps as a result of living in the “colonies,” became obsessed with the English author Enid Blyton’s books. My first story was written on one of those old word processors with the black screen and green text, probably around age 10, and it blatantly plagiarized her style. A few children were almost caught by an incoming tide out on the rockpools, but were rescued in the nick of time, after which they ate sandwiches their mother had made and said appreciatively, “Mum’s a brick.” I took it to my mother to read when I’d finished it. She was a literary critic and lectured in postcolonial literature at the local university, so she read it with a rather critical eye, and asked me why I’d used dialogue that didn’t sound South African at all. “Have you ever heard somebody say Mum’s a brick?” she asked me. I hadn’t. It took me a while to get up the courage to write another story after that, but when I did, I made sure the dialogue sounded more natural.
What is the question you are asked most frequently about your writing?
My first novel, Blood Kin, and my new story collection, Only the Animals, sit within a tradition of fabulism, floating above the constraints of realism, and I think sometimes people seem frustrated that I’m not putting more of myself in recognizable form in my fiction. A frequent question is, “Why don’t you write about your own life?” But so far, I’ve been drawn less to writing what I know and more to what Colum McCann calls writing towards what you want to know. That may change in the future (in fact, I hope it does), but for now I prefer to explore what seem to be my recurring thematic obsessions (power, complicity, accountability) through fables.
What book would you consider an ancestor of Only the Animals?
This is hugely presumptuous of me, but in my wildest dreams I would like to think that an ancestor of Only the Animals is Australian writer Nam Le’s story collection, The Boat. I loved the audacity of his collection, how each story evoked an entirely new set of people, set in a different place around the globe, and each voice was so dissimilar from the others, but together the stories added up to a portrait of the radical act of imagining itself. I also loved his critique of autobiographical fiction, the way the first and last stories in The Boat undermine the assumptions that authors should act as witnesses, or that authenticity in fiction is directly related to personal experience. The stories in Only the Animals have very different registers, but are thematically linked, and my hope is that taken together they are also more than the sum of their parts.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
The memoir Ransacking Paris: A Year with Montaigne and Friends by a wonderful Australian author, Patti Miller. She and her husband spend some time in Paris, trying to adapt to life beyond the exigencies of being parents to young children; their youngest son has just left home to go to university. Early on, she describes sitting beside her husband in a Paris park, watching a small boy playing: “Anthony and I looked at each other. I could feel his shoulder warm on mine. We didn’t say anything. Accidentally we had made creatures together for whom we would both crawl across deserts of broken glass, but mostly it had been washing nappies and spooning avocado mash into mouths, then later, cheering on the side of chilly soccer fields and reading endless chapters of Lord of the Rings, and later again, ferrying them to parties and discussing homework and marijuana and girls. There was nothing to say but my heart felt tight to bursting.” I’m in a different stage of life than Patti, just starting out on the parenting journey with very young boys, and sometimes I long for the freedom of being out the other side of it. But these words brought me to tears, and reminded me that while the days of parenting may feel long, the years are short.
If possible, can you send a photo of your bookshelf? What makes these books meaningful to you?
I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of buying books—I tend to get them out the library—which doesn’t bring me very good karma in terms of sales of my own books. But one of the perks of this job is getting to know other authors, and I keep a shelf of books by authors I’ve met or know well. This isn’t meant to be a name-dropping brag, I promise! It’s just such a rich experience to read and admire a book written by somebody you’ve met. I love the disjunction between who we are with other people, and how we express ourselves in works of fiction or non-fiction. The self is so mutable. And whenever I look at this shelf of books, it gives me courage to take risks on paper that I would never take in real life, as if the books and their authors are keeping me company, telling me that I’m not alone in thinking this is a worthwhile endeavor.
What’s your favorite indie bookstore? What’s the most recent book you’ve purchased?
I live in Sydney, Australia, and my favorite indie bookstore is Gleebooks in Glebe, a neighborhood in the inner west. If you’re making a trip to Sydney be sure to stop by—Gleebooks has the best programmed author events in the city, and it has been open since the 1970s. Most recently, I purchased Euphoria by Lily King. I initially trained as a social anthropologist, so I was intrigued by her fictional take on a fertile period in Margaret Mead’s life.
Who would you say is your ideal reader?
The stories in Only the Animals are love letters of a sort, to authors of the past century whose fiction about animals I’ve loved and learned from; each story can be read as a quirky form of literary biography, inspired by real events in that author’s life, or mimicking his or her style. It’s a book about the moral importance of reading as much as it is about writing, and my own attempt to figure out how my life-long obsession with reading fiction has formed me as an ethical human being. So my ideal reader is anybody who also feels that reading fiction has saved her life, who believes there is no greater pleasure than falling into a world of somebody else’s creation, and that reading fiction is an important pathway to empathy for others.
Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel, Blood Kin, was published in fifteen countries, short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Award, and selected for the U.S. National Book Foundation’s prestigious 5 Under 35 honors list. The Wall Street Journal named her one of their “artists to watch.” She studied social anthropology at Harvard and New York University, and now lives with her husband and son in Sydney. Only the Animals recently won the 2014 Readings New Australian Writing Award.
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