I saw something on Twitter this week that said: I don’t care what happens to anyone else in the movie, just tell me the animal survives. I think that’s a sentiment most of us can agree with, and for me at least it extends to books as well. But ask yourself the question: why? What is it about animals that makes our hearts melt? Or worry for them grow?
Only the Animals asks that question, and writing from these creatures’ POV, Ceridwen challenges readers to think and to feel — about human history and familiar conflicts — in a different way. Their POV is not one you would have read before.
I had the immense pleasure of attending a reading with her this year, and am now so pleased to have been given the chance to interview her.
What do you miss the most about South Africa?
I’m lucky that my parents live in Sydney and have for a long time, so this really feels like home now, but I miss old friends and extended family back in South Africa. My husband’s family is all in South Africa so we still spend a lot of time back there.
Has, or how has your time there influenced your writing?
Growing up as a white South African in the 1980s, too young to understand fully what was going on but old enough to know something was wrong, has had a strong influence on the themes I seem to return to in my writing: guilt, complicity, innocence; the constantly shifting boundaries between perpetrators, victims and beneficiaries.
I went to the reading at The Old Growler in Sydney, and while listening to you read kept thinking about our little dogs at home out on a particularly cold night, and felt incredibly guilty for leaving them. What is it, do you think, that compels humans to feel more for animals than they do for humans at times?
I’m not sure I know the answer to that excellent question, and in a sense, Only the Animals is my attempt to ask that same question, over and over, and I still don’t really have any answers. Perhaps it’s because they appeal to our emotions rather than to our rational minds; perhaps it’s because of their helplessness in a human-dominated world; perhaps it’s because they don’t demand as much of us emotionally as a fellow human would and so, paradoxically, we allow ourselves to feel something more authentic, more pure, for them.
You’ve said that the core inspiration for this novel was the desire to show terrible human conflicts to readers differently – can you define what that difference is for us? Is it one thing that an animal’s perspective gives or is a combination of different things?
I think that fiction has the ability to startle us into thinking or feeling in new, unexpected ways. I often find myself suffering from compassion fatigue when I watch the news of terrible things happening to other people, usually in faraway lands – I struggle to feel something visceral, something true, for them; in part I think it’s because of the nature of journalism and the conventions of conflict reporting. The same goes for these massive conflicts in twentieth century history; how do we keep them present in our hearts and minds and pay tribute to so much suffering? Czeslaw Milosz once said something along the lines of this: that so little of the total human suffering can ever make its way into literature, so when it does, we should pay attention and pay our respects.
In my first novel, Blood Kin, I looked at power abuse from the perspectives of three men who had worked closely with a deposed dictator but in a non-political capacity (his chef, portraitist and barber) – an oblique approach to understanding power and its workings. In Only the Animals, writing from the perspective of animals is a similarly oblique take on human conflict and suffering; instead of approaching these themes head-on, my hope is that something else comes into view, something unexpected, when we look at well-known conflicts from another angle. And I hope that what exactly that is – what feels unexpected, what comes into view – is different for each reader.
Your stories run from sad to quirky and amusing in the book – yet, they all end in death. As a writer, how did you find yourself approaching the quirky and amusing tales, knowing how they would end?
From the beginning of the project, I knew they all had to end in death – to create the sense of collective witnessing, and to give their narratives a sort of magical power, as if they’re all casting spells in an Egyptian Book of the Dead: half-human, half-animal creatures giving you clues about how to make it into the afterlife. But I also knew this would potentially be a pretty depressing reading experience, so I also knew right from the beginning that there had to be space for hope and beauty and humour. All of these lighter emotions came from the author tributes that each animal composes in his or her own way. It was easier to write the off-beat, funny tales for this reason; and it was a relief to discover as I wrote that each animal narrator didn’t have to experience his or her death as a disappointment or tragedy.
Each story was a chance for me to educate myself about a particular author. The whole book is really a love letter to reading, and an exploration of the sometimes bizarre but always fulfilling relationship readers have with the authors they love, in the tradition of Alain de Botton’s wonderful reinvention of literary biography in How Proust Can Change Your Life or Julian Barnes’s delightful novel Flaubert’s Parrot, which so productively mixes up a bunch of genres – biography, fiction, literary history, memoir. Sometimes I came to the author through researching a particular conflict, sometimes through researching a particular animal; sometimes I started with the author and found the animal and/or conflict through reading his/her work closely. It was a haphazard, serendipitous journey of discovery.
Are there any animals and their stories you wish you could have included in this selection, but couldn’t?
I wish I could have found a way to include something about Byron’s menagerie and in particular his pet bear but it was outside the time period constraints I had set myself. I thought about trying to write something from the perspective of the dog that was used in the raid on Osama bin Laden but I couldn’t find his voice.
You’ve said that writing is about letting your imagination run wild, but while writing this book, did any story make you pause and rein yourself in? How so?
There was an extensive editing process with my editors at Penguin, and during that time I rewrote several of the stories, a couple from scratch. An earlier version of the camel story had become feral – just like the camel hopes to – from too much wild imagining! So I had to rewrite it and tone it down a bit, make the camel less chatty, leave more unsaid.
When a reader finishes this book, what do you hope they will have found or realised through these stories?
I hope that they feel inspired to read more, and to write more, and I hope that they will look up some of the authors mentioned in the book and discover their work for themselves.