photo: Shannon Smith
As Ceridwen Dovey notes in this guest post, not only are the stories in Only the Animals narrated by animals, but each story draws upon a different writer for inspiration. A camel accompanies the Australian short story writer Henry Lawson on a fateful desert trek, for example, while Himmler’s dog, taking on his master’s enthusiasm for Hesse-inflected Buddhism, struggles with feelings of confusion and failure after being rejected. Dovey’s ability to take up different voices, and to make each feel utterly convincing, reminds me in some ways of the stories of Jim Shepard—a sense of strangeness and familiarity in equal measure. Here, she describes how one of these stories, in which Colette’s cat is stranded on the Western Front during the First World War, took shape.
Each of the stories in Only the Animals is told through an animal narrator who has died in a human conflict of the past century. Right from the beginning of the project, I knew that writing from an animal’s eye view was territory that many, many other authors had covered. The parrot story was the first I wrote, and at the time I was reading J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, and while doing research for the story I went back to the original Flaubert story about a woman’s relationship with a parrot, A Simple Heart.
I was searching for a way for the stories not to be relentlessly depressing. So I decided that each animal soul should also pay tribute to an author who has worked in this symbolic space before—and in this way put a bit of hope and humour in the stories, to signal that some of our best writers have tried to find a way to say something meaningful through animal characters.
I knew that I wanted to write a story set in the trenches during World War One, when many of the soldiers at the front kept pets—cats, dogs, rats, pigeons—to keep up their morale. I’d heard a story about the French turn-of-the-century author and music hall performer, Colette, having had a close relationship with her cat, but I’d never read her work myself. I went to the library and took out every book by her that they had on the shelves.
15 September 2015 | selling shorts |
photo: Derek Anson
Late last summer, a friend who was in England tweeted about a novel she’d just found, The Incarnations by Susan Barker, and how amazing it was. It didn’t seem to have an American publisher, and it sounded like exactly the sort of thing I’d like to get a look at in my capacity as an acquiring editor, so I made enquiries, and found out that I was just a smidgen too late—the rights had already been picked up. Now, a year later, I’m finally getting to see why my friend was so excited, and I’m having much the same reaction. I’m approximately one-third of the way through, and there’s suspense, there’s the possibility of fantasy, and at the heart of the novel there’s a compelling character study wrapped in a portrayal of life in 21st-century China. In this guest essay, Susan Barker talks about the circumstances of the novel’s creation over a period of time in which it seems the only constant was the novel’s creation.
During the six years I spent writing The Incarnations I lived in seven cities in four different countries. I moved in and out of seventeen different houses and flats in Beijing, Seoul, Colorado, Boston, Leeds, Washington, DC, London and Shenzhen. I have lost count of the long-haul flights I made, crammed in economy, crossing oceans and continents and time zones, between the UK, China and the US.
This itinerant life, where I got a new stamp in my passport every three to six months, wasn’t my original plan. When I first moved to Beijing in 2007, I expected to spend several years researching, writing and completing my novel. However, a pre-Olympics change in China’s visa regulations meant I had to leave mid-2008, and then came the offer of house-sitting gigs in the States, and then the decision to accompany a boyfriend to his new job, and so on and so forth. The regular packing of suitcases, getting on and off aeroplanes, recovering from jet-lag, acclimatizing and settling in, were at odds with the stability and routine I need to work. But as a self-employed writer with no 9-to-5 job, mortgage or children, I was free to improvise my life, moving whenever a new opportunity arose.
23 August 2015 | guest authors |