Ep 377 Meet Ceridwen Dovey, author of ‘Life After Truth’.

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In Episode 377 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Ceridwen Dovey, author of Life After Truth. Discover tips on how to share your writing for the first time. Plus, we have 3 copies of The Werewolves Who Weren't by T.C. Shelley to give away.

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Show Notes

5 Tips for Sharing Your Writing for the First Time

Writer in Residence

Ceridwen Dovey

Ceridwen is a Sydney-based writer of fiction, creative non-fiction, and in-depth essays and profiles. Born in South Africa, she grew up between South Africa and Australia, went to Harvard University on scholarship as an undergraduate, and did her postgraduate studies in social anthropology at New York University.

Her debut novel, Blood Kin, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Award and selected for the U.S. National Book Foundation’s prestigious “5 Under 35” honours list. Her second book, Only the Animals, won the inaugural 2014 Readings New Australian Writing Award, the Steele Rudd Award for a short story collection in the Queensland Literary Awards, and was co-winner of the People's Choice Award for Fiction at the 2015 NSW Premier's Literary Awards. The book is on the VCE Literature Text selection (for high school students in Victoria).

Her 2018 novel, In the Garden of the Fugitives, described by The New York Times as “an elegant…impressive, thought-provoking novel,” was published around the world and longlisted for the 2019 ABIA Awards. Her memoir-biography, On J.M. Coetzee: Writers on Writers, was published in 2018 as part of Black Inc.'s acclaimed Writers on Writers series. In 2019, Penguin Random House published a collected edition of Ceridwen's profiles of people in unusual careers, Inner Worlds Outer Spaces: The Working Lives of Others.

Ceridwen regularly contributes essays and articles to many publications, including newyorker.com, the Monthly, WIRED, the Smithsonian Magazine, and Good Weekend. Her essays have been selected for The Best Australian Science Writing 2020, The Best Australian Science Writing 2019, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2018, and The Best Australian Essays 2015. She has a special interest in social justice and environmental ethics in outer space. Her essay “Mining the Moon” won the 2020 Australian Museum Eureka Award for Long-form Science Journalism, and her article on moon dust won the 2020 UNSW Press Bragg Prize for Science Writing.

Her latest novel, Life After Truth, has recently been published by Penguin Random House.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie Khoo

Thanks so much for joining us today, Ceridwen.

Ceridwen Dovey

Thank you for having me.

Valerie Khoo

Congratulations on your book. This is not your first rodeo. You're a very experienced writer, novelist, journalist, and a number of other things. But Life After Truth.

Ceridwen Dovey

It's scary, though. I feel like it gets more and more scary somehow.

Valerie Khoo

What do you mean, more and more scary?

Ceridwen Dovey

Just putting yourself out there. I don't know. Yeah, in a weird way, I think people always assume that it will get easier, but it seems to get harder.

Valerie Khoo

Well, for those people who haven't got their hands on a copy of Life After Truth yet, can you tell us what it's about?

Ceridwen Dovey

Sure. Um, so Life After Truth is set over a long weekend. And it's set on the Harvard campus and it's a group of old friends and roommates, who are all American, who have gone back to the campus for their 15-year reunion. And while they are there, there's a bit of intrigue and someone dies. But mainly really, it's a novel of middle age and mid-life crisis. And I guess my goal was to sort of pass the time of life that I find myself in, and to draw on some of the emotional experiences I've had at my own reunions. And then use that to think about what it means to live well, once one approaches middle life, and the way that reunions make you question everything that you, all the choices that you've made up to that point.

Valerie Khoo

I'm interested in exploring some of those themes a bit further, but I just want to give listeners some context. Now you're originally from South Africa, but you live in Sydney. And you actually went to Harvard, didn't you?

Ceridwen Dovey

I did, yeah. So I grew up between South Africa and Australia, and went, ended up at a high school here in Sydney, and then ended up going to America and to Harvard on a full scholarship. My oldest sister figured out that you could apply and then get full financial aid as an international student. So she went off there, we'd never even been to America before, and then monkey see monkey do I followed her two years later. I was very lucky that she, you know, gave me that guidance.

And yes, I turned up there more as an Australian because I'd come from, you know, high school here, than as a South African. But while I was there, I ended up studying anthropology and spent a lot of time back in South Africa. And that's where I ended up writing my first novel. So I've got a bit of a mix up of identities.

Valerie Khoo

Now, did you go to a reunion at Harvard that really sparked this?

Ceridwen Dovey

Yeah, I did. So it's a uniquely American phenomenon. And it's not one that, you know, Australian universities sort of follow to the same intense degree. But basically, when you leave college, every five years, you get invited back to have a reunion celebration. And it's not just one sort of drunken dinner, it's like a long weekend where you can take your family and you get to stay in the dormitories that you once, you know, slept in as an 18-year-old. So the residences are all along the Charles River there. And so suddenly, you're sleeping in these little narrow single beds and the rooms smell the same. And, you know, all the light is the same, and the sounds are the same. So it really throws you back into this, like nostalgic soup.

So I went back for my five-year reunion. And that was a bit of a different experience, because everyone was still, I think, in that performative phase of life, and I had a great time. But it was interesting. There was a lot of sort of posturing still and ego stuff. And then my ten year, I didn't go because I'd moved back to Sydney and had a baby. And that all felt very far away.

And then two years ago, in 2018, I did go back for my 15-year reunion. And it was particularly interesting because I had not been back to America since I'd left, I think about eight years before that. So it was that sense of, you know, seeing a place with fresh eyes and a place where I'd never really been an insider anyway as a foreign student, and going back to this place that had, that held, you know, all these feelings and memories and being thrown back in there. And it was also the first time that I've been away from my family and my kids. So it was all quite overwhelming.

And I had never intended to write a novel about this. But while I was there over that weekend, I barely slept, for one thing, and partially from the jetlag. But partially, I think, because I was just so overstimulated. I just really, I just had all these fascinating, sort of quite moving conversations with people I had once known well, you know, seen in our pyjamas, sitting around in the dining halls every day but then hadn't seen in, you know, 15 years. And people were suddenly prepared to be quite honest and open about their lives and how far you have to fall, you know, when you've been told you were special, because you got into Harvard, and whether or not you believed that, you know, to go on to life after that, and then, you know, inevitably the failures and disappointments and let downs of life, which, you know, it happens to everybody. But to see people processing that in a really open and honest way for the first time.

So I got back from that reunion, and then was horribly jetlagged on this side and couldn't sleep. And in this fog of insomnia, I realized, “Oh, my gosh, I just have to start writing and create these characters.” And all the characters were created completely from scratch. And none of them is based on anyone that I knew.

There's the two characters that you never hear from, who are sort of the dark and light poles of fame. So there's a famous son of an evil president, the job description is based on Jared Kushner, who was a classmate. And then there's a famous actress who comes, who arrived at Harvard at 18, already famous for her films. And that is based on Natalie Portman, who was a classmate. But other than that, the characters aren't based on them. And you never hear from those characters.

But the main people who are speaking in the novel orbit around those characters and sort of have always measured themselves, I suppose, against them.

But yeah, otherwise, I just took the events of the reunion weekend and then had a lot of fun putting my characters into all sorts of situations that of course, didn't, you know, actually happened to me.

Valerie Khoo

So you get back to Sydney, you're jetlagged, and you start writing because this is busting to come out, you've got so many ideas. How long… Did it just all pour out into a first draft? Or did you just have an initial rush, and then it kind of formed into a novel over a much longer period of time?

Ceridwen Dovey

Well, this has never happened to me before. I've always heard other writers talk about this fabled feeling of when a novel starts to write itself, and the characters start to tell you what they want to do next. And this is my fourth work of fiction. And, you know, I truly had never felt that before until this book. And honestly, I think the first you know, messy, very rough draft took about seven months. And it did just pour out.

Valerie Khoo

Wow.

Ceridwen Dovey

Yeah, it was weird, because I didn't know whether to trust that feeling because I hadn't had it before. And I'm not saying it was easy. I mean, you would know, you know, it's when that's happening it's still, you're still doing the work, right. You're still drawing on all those, you know, crafting skills, and it's taking something from you, but it didn't feel anguished, I think, in a way that some of I've usually felt in the past when writing other fiction projects. It felt fun some of the time.

Valerie Khoo

All right, so the muse well and truly arrived. What I'm interested in is, I mean, were you planning to write a novel at that juncture of your life? Or because this was busting to come out, you had to give into it, you know? And how did you then juggle it with the – you must have had other commitments at the time?

Ceridwen Dovey

Yep. I was not planning on writing a novel then. I had, I was really throwing myself, I do a lot of freelance nonfiction writing to sort of, you know, try and pay the bills. And I was really throwing myself into that at the time. And I remember when it started to happen, I actually did take a bit of a risk financially and said no to a couple of jobs, like commissions. Because I just realized, you know, if I don't, if I don't let this come now then it's over.

And so looking back, I'm glad that I, you know, did do that at the time and just gave it that time to come out. But then the insomnia then also did not go away after the jetlag period. And so I remember that time as a very strange time, a sort of twilight time. Because I was not sleeping at all, which had never happened to me before, for that length of time. And in a weird way, it's the perfect condition in which to write a novel because you, you know, real life has become slightly unreal. And I just remember feeling like I, yeah, I was sort of floating through space and time. It wasn't great to not sleep like that. But then someone told me that Barbara Kingsolver had written, I think it was The Poisonwood Bible, when she had horrible pregnancy related insomnia. So she hadn't slept for something, you know, for the full nine months. And that book had come out of that. And while I would never put myself in the same category as Barbara Kingsolver, it did at the time make me feel a little bit better. So that I just tried to stop worrying about the not sleeping, and just, you know, go with it. And so the writing kind of also came out of that in between state.

Valerie Khoo

So do you think, did the insomnia resolve itself after you finished the book? And maybe it was just there for you to write the book?

Ceridwen Dovey

Well, in a way, yes. I mean, it was also linked to a thyroid issue that I had, and I think the medication was off. And that just took a while to get on top of. But I do think there was another element of… It was, even though it was very fun to write this book, I was also aware, as it was coming out, that it was a different writing voice to my previous fiction which had tended to be sort of in the territory of fables, and political allegories, and very much concerned with sort of power abuse and complicity and, you know, quite serious, serious stuff. And just the writing voice that I'd used previously was quite high literary for want of a better descriptor. Whereas this one, I knew, right from the beginning, it was just more accessible, it was warmer. It was funny at times. I mean, I hope that the book comes across as funny and, you know, just very readable in a way that perhaps my previous stuff, I always felt a little bit like, unintentionally, I was keeping readers at arm's length. That never was the intention, but people seem to experience the work that way. Whereas this, it was just a different voice.

But, of course, as writers, we don't have any way to really signal that. And so I think part of the insomnia was also this dawning realization of I'm writing in this other voice that's recognizably different from an earlier voice, and how do I, how do I, you know, how do I signal that? And do I even need to signal that? Or do I just let it out there? And so I think it was maybe linked to anxiety around that.

Valerie Khoo

So what's the answer to that? Did you feel that you need to signal it? And if so, how did you?

Ceridwen Dovey

Yeah, well, I did initially think, I did toy initially with publishing this novel under not a pseudonym, but a heteronym. And I'd always been interested, there's a Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, who died in the 1930s, and he used to write poetry using about 12 different names. And he came up with that term of heteronym. And those weren't different genres that he was writing in, it wasn't like, you know, usually when writers use a pseudonym, it's because – particularly literary authors, people who've been publishing literary stuff – it's because they want to maybe try out writing in a different genre. You know, like a kind of high low thing and they want to signal that shift, that identity shift. Whereas he thought of the heteronyms as just each having different conditions of creation. And they would write letters to each other, and they would actually write letters to editors of magazines where they had poems published and sometimes they were nice about each other's poetry, and sometimes they were kind of mean about it.

I always found that so interesting. And as I've gotten a bit older, and I've been, you know, working on this craft of writing and publishing in various voices, I thought, “Oh, well, maybe that's the solution.” And so, I did briefly go down that path. But I quickly realized that people don't like that. They seem to immediately assume I was trying to hide something. And I mean, the term pseudonym is a horrible term really, right, like a false name, it does imply deceit or, you know, something shadowy is happening, or that you're ashamed. So nobody could quite understand. Because I did submit it actually, to some publishers under a heteronym. And, yeah, it was just this horrible suspicious, sort of like, What is happening here? And what is this person trying to hide? And that was not the point of it. So I realized, you know what, there's no, there's no use in this. This isn't doing the right kind of signalling.

And so then, through a twist of fate, I had the opportunity to actually publish this novel first as an audiobook, with Audible Originals. So a year ago, it came out only as an audiobook, so it was what was called an audiobook first novel. And Audible Originals in Australia at the time was looking for novels that would exist in that form for a 12-month period. And for me, I mean, it's like a quite literal shifting of voice, right? It was, it was the perfect way to signal a change in voice and to sort of jump into a parallel form.

So it came out as an audiobook. And then a year later, it's now a print book, which is what it was always written to be, I didn't write it to work as an audiobook. But it just came to life first in that form.

Valerie Khoo

Okay, so you, this is your fourth work of fiction. And you, as you've mentioned, you do journalism, and you write for things like Good Weekend, and The Monthly and New Yorker and stuff like that. Take us back to when did you know you wanted to become a writer?

Ceridwen Dovey

I was actually looking at my old diary that I had written on the plane on the way to go and study in America. So my first time in America. And I'd written that I wanted to be a novelist, an environmentalist, and a journalist. And I turn 40 tomorrow, oh my gosh, yes. Tomorrow, no two days’ time. And so I've just been doing a lot of thinking. And, you know, re-evaluating, and I think I just, yeah, from a very young age wanted to use language as my way of making sense of the world.

But the tension was always that, you know, writing fiction feels like a sort of turning inward. And then I had this other impulse to turn outward, that then I studied social anthropology. And so that idea of, you know, gazing outwards, and observing others.

And that tension, I suppose, probably goes back to my parents. My dad's very much, you know, focused on people's life stories, and, you know, the inside truth of another human being. And my mum is a very much, she was a literary critic, and so was interested in, you know, the more internal forms of fiction.

So I think I used to think, can you do both well? And I used to worry, maybe, that I had missed some sort of signal that there was one choice that I should have made, and that by trying to do both, I would, you know, just end up, you know, not really reaching my full potential in either form.

But actually, I have come to accept in the last few years that I contain multitudes and all these different voices, and that actually, I'm hoping if I can keep working on them, that they all have a place and I can't really do one without the other. Like, it's, after I've written fiction, I feel a bit ill, like I need to focus on other people and get out of my own brain for a while and do that kind of observational stuff and a bit more activism. And, you know, I write a lot about environmental sustainability, and particularly now sustainability in outer space. So that outward gaze. But then when I've done that for a while, I tend to want to curl back up and flex inwards again. So yeah, I've come to see it as a practice that is flexible, and the one enables the other.

Valerie Khoo

And so when you want to look inward again and start going down the fiction path, does that, tell us what that looks like? Like when you, I mean, this one, this particular book, there was a very clear seed in a very clear point of inspiration. What do you imagine your next book, or maybe you've already started thinking about it, how does that, what does that gestation period look like? And typically, how long does it take before you then start writing?

Ceridwen Dovey

You know, every single project has been entirely different right from the beginning, even in terms of, yeah, the gestation, the motivation, the seed, the way it feels, and then just the day to day, you know, process of doing it. So I honestly don't know, with every project, I don't know what it's gonna ask of me. And I really love that. I really value that. I think it's why writing fiction can be so addictive, because every time you're starting from a place of not knowing. And every time you feel like you, you know, are starting from scratch. And it's drawing on and asking something of you that hasn't been asked before.

And so I don't, I really don't know. One thing I do know is that I am going to do a book of short stories again next. And they will have some sort of engagement with the sustainability and outer space theme, which I've mainly been working on in a nonfiction capacity. But I feel like again, sorry, my dog has just knocked something over here. Yeah, I just feel like it's, um, I'm now at a point where the useful thinking I've done about this, in nonfiction, I'm now ready to sort of push it a little bit further in a fictional form. And the things that fiction lets you do, and the kind of critical thinking that can happen in that and that people are much more open to when it happens in a form that's imaginative rather than when they're just reading, you know, an article written in a traditional sort of essay or nonfiction style.

Valerie Khoo

So this book, let's talk about that seven months and about your writing process in that seven months. It sounds to me like it really started with the characters. And because they're so vivid, and they're so well drawn and they so really reflect what is going on in middle age. In terms of the plot itself and how that unfolded, did you let it unfold as you wrote it? Or again, did you have that flash of inspiration at the start and kind of know where it was going?

Ceridwen Dovey

Honestly, because that period is so hazy to me now, I don't know, I don't really know. I think, like, if I look back at my notes, you're right, like the characters came first. So I know I worked on their backstories a bit. And I knew right from the start that I wanted the Fred Reese character, so the son of an evil US president, to show up dead right near the beginning, so that there'd be just a frisson of mystery around what happened, although it's not a murder mystery book. That's not the focus of it.

And then there was a little bit of structural stuff around making sure I seeded enough clues throughout so that you would kind of know at the end who'd done it.

But yeah, I think the other thing that's weird about this book is that I… So when it started coming out, I also realized that I wanted to do this after each reunion going forward. But the reunions, of course, are five years apart. So it's not exactly like a gripping sequel when you know, five to six, maybe seven years have passed before you read it. I'm not expecting anybody to be you know, waiting with bated breath. But the idea is a bit like, um, I don't know if you ever watched the Seven Up documentary, the Michael Apted ones where he kept checking back in with a group of seven, was it seven people?

Valerie Khoo

I can't remember how many people.

Ceridwen Dovey

And through their lives. And I think they're now in their like 70s. And because my dad was an educational psychologist, so every time one of those came up, we'd all sit down and watch it. And then the Harvard grant study on happiness that I mention in the novel is a real study. It's the longest running study on human happiness. And that followed all men graduates, because at the time, Harvard was only open to men, but from, I think, around the 30s, until now many of them have passed away or are in their 90s. And I love that idea too of checking back in with a cohort of people over time.

And so, I don't know, with COVID, what's going to happen, but I guess the idea is that in each future reunion, I would write a new novel with a new set of characters. So it wouldn't be the same characters as in this one. But you get little glimpses peripherally of some of these characters and tie up a little bit, you know, there's a few loose ends left at the end of the book, and you would get some answers to those loose ends, but then you'd also be engaging with a whole new set of characters.

Valerie Khoo

And exploring a whole new range of themes of whatever is facing you at that point in life.

Ceridwen Dovey

Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. So that's the plan. I don't know.

Valerie Khoo

I think that's great. That's great. Um, I wanted to talk about the freelance journalism that you do. I'm interested to know how you choose what you want to write about. I'm not talking, obviously, about the things that, you know, an editor comes to you and says, “here's this idea, I think you'd be great for it.” But the things that pique your interest. I'll tell you the reason why. I read something you wrote for The Monthly on – and I can only assume you must live or at the time lived in the north shore of Sydney – because it was about the decision by the government to close certain schools and reallocate funds to certain schools. And it was a long piece. But at the end of it, I was just blown away, not only by the writing, but the research and the depth of the research and the story that was told.

So to go in such depth in a magazine article, as opposed to a book, which you understand you go into that level of depth, you must have been really interested in it on a personal level. And I can only assume that that's how you make your choices with your other journalism. Is that the case? And can you tell us a bit about that?

Ceridwen Dovey

Well, thank you for your kind words about that piece. Yeah, every single one of the essays is a passion project. And I'd say 99% of the time, yes, I am pitching the ideas. It has not really happened the other way at all.

I am a terrible freelance writer in terms of the sense of it, because I spend way too much time doing all the research and pouring myself into it. And you know, I mean, the pay is not, you know, great anyway, and then I just can spend way too long. But it seems to just be my process. And I try and think of that as, that's why I think it's helped to think of it as not activism, but as a kind of contribution that I can make in certain spheres that I do care passionately about.

So that one was because I care passionately about public education in Australia, having been a beneficiary of it my whole life. I started school in Melbourne, in primary school, and then finished at high school here at North Sydney Girls. And I'm often amazed at how people who are born and bred in Australia take a lot of that stuff for granted. Don't fight for, you know, public services in that same way. And I'm often shocked at how many people are just assuming that, you know, the local public high school's not worth sending their kids to but then they're also not investing their own time, you know, into building that community. And then the political stuff around the funding that private schools get and the way that it's always been political how students have been channelled into private schools and then the public schools have been left to get overcrowded. So yeah, that's something I care about deeply.

And then, yeah, same, I guess, with the space stuff. I just really care about it. And I tend to also pick things where I feel like no one's really paying attention. And so that's the contribution I can make. It's just, you know, I think it's Shirley Hazzard who says that paying attention is a moral act, and I think that's probably what I'm guided by in those essays is, you know, pouring the force of my passion and time into something that no one else is really looking at critically.

So with this stuff, that's at the moment, for me, it's the small satellite constellations that SpaceX and Amazon and OneWeb are starting to launch by the thousands into low Earth orbit. And, you know, their goal is to create a mesh of these satellites around our Earth. And people just don't seem to know. And if they do know, they just don't seem to care. So that's the trigger for me. So I'm in the middle of embarking on a massive, long form piece on that, and spending all my time on the research for that.

Valerie Khoo

Yes. So on that point, though, let's get practical, because, you know, I'm assuming your writing pays the bills. Well, you've said that it does. And you, I can tell that the… I mean, it's interesting that you say that you really spend way too much time on it, and, hey, we're the, as readers we're the beneficiaries of that, and, you know, thank you. But, um, it's obvious when you read your work, that the depth of research is beyond, beyond, beyond, which is wonderful. But, as you know, practically speaking, how does that work for you in terms of you determining where to spend your time? Because you do have to, you know, there's a payoff, right? There's a payoff a certain amount. How do you make that selection of, oh, I need to do this for the money or I need to do this for… You know what I mean?

Ceridwen Dovey

It's the eternal question, isn't it, and then I don't really have that sorted yet. I feel sometimes that I'm just lurching from thing to thing. And, you know, trying to be a bit more savvy about that stuff, and then failing at it. And but yeah, I've also, you know, in these years been mothering young, very young children. And so the flexibility of that has actually been really great. And it's meant that I, you know, can kind of do some of that work while I'm also, you know, while a child is napping, or in the evenings, on weekends, then you know, my partner will take the kids. And so yeah, it's because it's a passion project, like I love working, I love writing, and so I will spend all my time on it, or any spare time that I have.

But I've also tried to learn in the last few years, and actually, the Audible experiment was really great in the sense that, you know, to take some chances, and to experiment a bit in terms of the form that your work might take, and to, to collaborate more. So actually, I'm also in a very collaborative phase, where I'm collaborating with a couple of different friends or creative people, and we, you know, usually women, and in that way, sort of supporting each other to be both, you know, to be able to express ourselves, but also to survive on what we're earning.

And then the hustle. You know, I think we don't talk enough about that, as writers. Like, I think often, people assume that you just sit around and wait for inspiration or that you can be, you know, sort of precious about the conditions under which you work. And, yeah, to survive, I guess I'm not precious about how I work, like I could work in any kind of condition, and never run out of ideas. That I feel very grateful for. Actually, it's the opposite. I feel like I have too many ideas and can never get to them.

So yeah, it's not a very good answer to your question. But the hustling, I've become, I've started to realize actually that's just as important a part of the job as the creation stuff.

Valerie Khoo

Do you do things that aren't a passion project for you? You refer to those things as a passion project, and I kind of get the sense that everything you do are passion projects, but maybe not. I don't know.

Ceridwen Dovey

Yeah, I guess um… That's a good question. I'm trying to think. I guess I shouldn't share publicly the jobs that I'm not as excited about.

Valerie Khoo

No! But you don't have to say what they are, you can just say they exist, you know?

Ceridwen Dovey

Yeah, there's a few bread-and-butter things that, you know, I say yes to, reluctantly.

Valerie Khoo

Yeah. So, you refer to, because I remember when the book came out on Audible, and it was audiobook at the time only, and you refer to that as a risk. How did that risk pay off for you? What was the result of that experiment?

Ceridwen Dovey

Um, look, I don't really know, it's still a bit ongoing. It was a risk in that publishers tend now to not want to take on a novel if the audio rights aren't attached to it. So print publishers. So many publishing companies actually have a rule across the board that they will not take on a book if the audio rights aren't attached. So in that sense, in the US, for example, I do not have a publisher for this book, even though it's all American characters, and it's set in America, and actually, all of my previous works of fiction I've had have been published in the US. So perhaps it's a failed experiment for that reason. But I kind of, I knew that. That's what I mean about the risk. Yeah, no US publisher was prepared to take on the novel as a print book without those audio rights attached.

Valerie Khoo

But did you know that when you agreed to the Audible thing?

Ceridwen Dovey

I knew it was a risk. But I didn't know how firmly that would be applied. And the US is just such a different kettle of fish that, you know, I didn't really fully understand perhaps, you know, how that plays out.

Valerie Khoo

Sure.

Ceridwen Dovey

But I can't say that I didn't know it was a possibility, yeah.

Valerie Khoo

Tell us about when you're writing, as in, you know, like your first draft, like your seven months kind of thing, what does your day look like? Like, what hours do you write between? And do you have any writing rituals? And, you know, what does your day look like? Because people are often interested to know, especially when you've got young kids and staff, how it all fits in?

Ceridwen Dovey

Well, it's just, I mean, I really admire the people who like, you know, get up at 4 and write till seven and get, you know, use the cream of their brain on their fictional work. I've never done that. I don't really have much of a routine. Every day feels a little bit different. And I guess the only consistent thing is that I just feel like I'm stealing time from anything else. And then usually it will be evenings or weekends where I would be kind of catching up on the creative work.

But yeah, honestly, I don't, I don't, I don't really have a routine. And I guess that's partially, yeah, the nature of family life and creative life being smushed together. And the different roles that, you know, I'm playing every day, that just feels like it changes all the time.

But I guess one – maybe this is helpful to people who are writing – you know often we, again, are told, “You must stick at it every day and you know, produce a certain number of words.” And that works for some people, but I've never written like that. And I don't worry too much about, you know, the word count or… Even just leaving a bit of fallow time in between projects, like, doing a bit on a project and then leaving it for a bit and coming back to it.

So, yeah, I don't really have anything consistent to share there, except, perhaps also, it's, you know, keeping the fiction feeling like you are getting away with something. And maybe that's where it's useful to have this other persona and the nonfiction work, where once I have an external deadline, I'm pretty focused on that. So any fiction project kind of gets put to the side. And then I just have to trust that I'll pick it up, you know, pick up the voice when I come back to it. Although, as we talked about, Life After Truth was a bit different.

But I appreciate that, because when you get back to the fiction, it feels like you are getting away with something a bit naughty, and it keeps it feeling like a guilty pleasure. And something…

Like I once tried in my life to only write fiction. I wasn't doing, I had no other sort of job. And it was terrible. It was like the worst six months of my life, and I hated it. And I think – I couldn't articulate it at the time why – but I think that's why. Because it just felt like work again; it felt like this chore. And so yeah, anything you can do to trick yourself, I think, into making it feel, you know, like something you shouldn't be doing, then that's what you should do.

Valerie Khoo

Great. All right, so fantastic. Let's end with what are your top three tips for aspiring writers who hope to have their novel published one day?

Ceridwen Dovey

I think one thing I've been thinking about a lot is how special the debut writing experience is. Like when you're working on your first novel, when you haven't been published before, it's such a special experience, because you are truly kind of writing just for yourself. You know, even though you might, in your hopes, want other people to read it one day, there's no guarantee of that. And so you are in conversation with yourself in a way, you're figuring stuff out on the page. And you never get to do that again. Because, you know, if you are then fortunate enough to be published, you are always a little bit aware that this private, intimate, you know, conversation you're having with yourself will one day become a public document. And that's confronting. And I think that that's the part I'd say that never gets any easier, is that strange shift that you make from, you know, basically hiding away alone, processing the contents of your brain for several years, and then suddenly, it becomes a public document that other people are engaging with. And while that's wonderful, on the one hand, it's also really, it's really scary on the other. So I think that first experience and just relishing that, that sense of being in conversation with yourself. And I think that's probably why the second novel is so hard.

So my next piece of advice would be around the second novel or work of fiction. It is hard, I think, because of that shift that you've made. And so again, it's about maybe finding some way of tricking yourself back into writing just for yourself and getting back into that private conversation. And I think for everyone, that would be quite different. For me, I had an eight-year gap between the first book and the second. And in that period, I had about three different failed novels that just went straight under the bed. But that was a useful process. Because by the time the eight years had passed, I actually, I had to find my way back to just that personal private joy in the use of language on the page again. And that's kind of what helped me find my way back.

And then I guess the third piece of advice… Perhaps also something that we don't always acknowledge is that the drafting process, so that messy, hot, creative spew it out on the page process is so different to the crafting process, which is that cool, you know, critical shaping and modelling process of the editing. So the creation part and the editing part, it's amazing that we expect any one person to have both those abilities or those sensibilities. Because that is usually, again, a point where I struggle quite a lot. So I'm fine at turning off the critical faculty for that, you know, messy, creative part and the fire of that. But then the moment I have to turn my, you know, critical eye on to this piece of work and basically pull it to pieces in order to give it that shape – and that is what makes it art, I do believe. I think it's in that part of the process that that magic happens. But it can be really hard to change gears like that. And the danger, of course, is that you go too far in that critical sense and gut the heart and soul of the thing that you've just created. So I think it's useful to have someone guide you once you get to that point. I always say to people, “don't share what you're working on, until you're ready to edit and you're ready to change gears completely.” And at that point, you know, when you have a messy, messy, hot mess of a first draft, then you might want to seek, you know, external help to make that transition into that critical period without just deciding to chuck out the whole thing.

Valerie Khoo

Wonderful. And on that note, congratulations on Life After Truth. And thank you so much for your time today, Ceridwen.

Ceridwen Dovey

Thanks, Valerie.

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