Ceridwen Dovey is the author of the new story collection Only the Animals. She also has written the novel Blood Kin. Born in South Africa and raised in South Africa and Australia, she now lives in Sydney, Australia.
Q: How did you come up with the concept for this book?
A: One day halfway through my degree in social anthropology at NYU in New York, I was talking to the department secretary who was going out to Utah to volunteer at an animal shelter filled with dogs and cats that had been airlifted out of Beirut during the 2006 bombings.
She showed me some photos of these creatures while she was telling me about the shelter, and I felt some very powerful emotions – sorrow, pain, right to my core – that I somehow could not feel for the human victims of the same conflict.
And around the same time, one of my favourite professors at NYU, the brilliant anthropologist Emily Martin, told me about her pet parrot Ruben, who had witnessed the second plane hitting the Twin Towers on 9/11 with her, and had become very sick and stressed in the weeks afterwards.
And this story just brought me to tears on the spot. I wrote the parrot story – in very different form – that year, and it was the start of the whole project.
I didn’t really realise it was going to be a “project” until I found myself wanting to write from the perspective of an ape after finishing the parrot story – so I did that. And then I suddenly wanted to write from the perspective of a camel in colonial Australia.
That’s when I think I realised I was going to have to work through these animal voices in my head and see where they might lead me.
Q: The book includes a variety of time periods and locations, as well as different animals. How did you select them?
A: They really emerged organically, from wide but quite unstructured reading and idiosyncratic research. I had a sense that I wanted the stories to span the whole century and its turnings, and to be from diverse parts of the world, but other than that, I let my reading guide me, and waited until I had found the right “voice” (whether animal or author) for each conflict.
I also tried to set the stories in countries I had visited so that the local details could be drawn from observation and not just research or imagination.
In terms of selecting the animals, I again let my reading of authors who had written about animals in the past century or so inspire me - so as soon as I knew I was going to write about a parrot, I went back and re-read Flaubert and Julian Barnes, and as soon as I started working on an ape story, I knew I had to re-read Kafka, and so on.
Q: Can you say more about the research you conducted to write the stories?
A: Again, this differed for each story as I was aware that the book's premise could seem formulaic if each of the stories didn't respond to the brief I'd set myself in a creatively different way and form.
Sometimes I could only find the animal's voice after I'd read the work of contemporary animal behaviorists who are studying animal sentience and consciousness; at other times I found the animal's voice after reading the journals or original writing of one of the authors I admired (for example, Colette's articles, stories and journal entries about her obsession with her pet cat, Kiki-la-Doucette).
Q: On your website, you ask a number of questions about writing and about animals, the first of which is, "Why do animals sometimes shock us into feeling things we can’t seem to feel for other humans?" How would you answer that?
A: This book was really an attempt to understand the human capacity for empathy - across species lines, but also the radical empathy that I think any project of fiction-writing attempts.
I don't have any answers, unfortunately! But the stories, taken together, perhaps go some way to at least nudging us towards thinking about these questions, and remembering what is unique and remarkable about our species (this very capacity for empathy for the fellow suffering of our creatures) but also what is worst about our exceptionalism, that is, thinking that we are not part of the animal world.
The only more direct answer I can think of is that somehow animals free us up to feel something that is authentic because we don't put up defenses against animal suffering the way we do for human suffering.
Precisely because we don't feel obliged to feel something for animals, we are freed up to feel more deeply for them - but when faced with human suffering, we often feel completely helpless or defensive, as it is too much for us to really try to understand another human's pain, and reminds us uncomfortably that we, too, are mortal and able to suffer.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A new novel - I loved writing the stories, but I'm not sure it's my natural form, and feel more comfortable within the space of a novel.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb