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Show Your Working is a regular column exploring how writers get things done. In this instalment, we take a peek into the writing routine of award-winning author Ceridwen Dovey. Her new short story collection Only the Astronauts is out now. 

Images: Supplied.

You’re back with a new short story collection. What draws you to the form?

What I like to do is create linked short stories—each one a fable—that work across the span of a book-length collection. In Only the Astronauts, I return to certain characters across different stories so that you find out bits and pieces of what happened to them (and there’s even a cameo from Plautus, the tortoise in one of my short stories from Only the Animals).

I love that each story is an opportunity to play with form and to experiment with style and voice so that there is a sense of witnessing and a chorus of perspectives. Fables are about ‘giving voice’ to other kinds of beings (such as animals or inanimate objects), and asking the reader to come with you on a journey that will be a little strange but also enlightening. 

Only the Astronauts is set in outer space. What kind of research did you do while writing the book?

I have been thinking and writing about outer space—specifically, social and environmental justice in outer space—for almost eight years now. I’ve done this across my different writing voices: as an essayist and science writer, as a filmmaker and as a writer of fiction. These short stories have been brewing for a long time, and are based on years of research. Each space object that tells its tale in the book is inspired by a real object launched by humans into space—and the historical details are the starting point for me using a healthy dose of poetic licence.

I love that each story is an opportunity to play with form and to experiment with style and voice.

I feel really grateful to have the opportunity to wear different hats as a writer, and to come at this huge topic of what humans have done in outer space thus far—and the ethical possibilities (and shortcomings) of what we might do there in the future—from different lenses. The beauty of fiction, though, is that it springs from the research but is never beholden to it or bogged down by it. The playfulness and earnestness of fictional forms is something I value so much.

What does your workspace look like?

I now have a dedicated writing desk for the first time in about ten years—basically for the first time since having my first child. I used to write at the kitchen counter or table, or on the couch, or wherever I could perch for long enough to get something done while also parenting.  I learned to not be at all precious about how and when (and if!) I work. So this is new for me, to have a desk, and to be honest I often still end up writing in bed (like Edith Wharton)—as for me, the trick to writing fiction is to make it feel like a guilty pleasure.

Ceridwen Dovey’s desk. Image: Supplied.

What’s your writing process like?

I am not a writer who sets strict daily or even weekly word count goals—this always backfires and makes me feel unmotivated. I have learned to just grab and snatch at time, often in the evenings or on weekends, to get the deeper, more ‘thinky’ fiction writing done, as I usually have to keep the weekdays for my various day jobs as a freelance writer, museum researcher and academic. I think it’s also healthy for me to switch up the kinds of writing I’m doing quite often—hence why I write across so many genres and forms, from science writing to romance / feel-good fiction for Audible—so that I don’t obsess over just one project.

Each time I get stuck on one thing, I try to leave it and work on something else for a bit, in a very different voice—and return when I feel hungry to think like a fiction writer again. Keeping this hunger alive is key for me doing any fiction writing at all—if it feels like the main thing, the ‘chore’, then I am tempted not to do it. And it’s really hard to stay motivated to do the work of fiction when the proof is in the pudding, and you can work for years on a fiction project with no idea if it’s going to work out when it’s finished or if anybody is going to want to publish it, let alone read it. So it’s a constant struggle to manage this uncertainty, and accepting that it’s okay to just use language every day, in lots of different forms, to make a living, is more than enough.

Are you an analog or digital writer? 

I am analog all the way, in the sense that I’ve never been on any social media (from the start), and still have a paper diary rather than using an online calendar. But weirdly, I learned to touch-type from a very young age, and so I’ve always written using a computer and get frustrated when I occasionally write long-form on paper, as I can’t keep up with my thoughts.

Your short story collections showcase characters with a range of interesting and suprising perspectives. Do you have any strategies for capturing unique characters?  

I think the fable form is one I love writing within because it is so capacious in terms of the many perspectives and voices it can embrace. There’s an innocence and wisdom to fables that means that readers let their guard down a bit, and sink into the story—even though these stories are fables written for adults, not kids, we all know to recognise a fable in literary form, and I think there’s something comforting to letting ourselves be drawn into thinking like an animal—or a space object—without making too big a deal of it.

There’s an innocence and wisdom to fables that means that readers let their guard down a bit.

There’s a sort of magic to fables in that they allow for readerly empathy for the characters, and a willingness to go along with quite strange premises: a dead talking animal that died in a human conflict? Okay! A monologue from the perspective of the International Space Station as it anticipates being deorbited and farewells the humans who have lived within it? Sure! Unhooking my stories from the prison of realism gives me immense freedom to play, and to welcome readers to follow me on meandering and magical journeys.

Has your writing practice changed over the years? If so, how?

In the past five or so years, I’ve gone from being a solitary writer to being embedded in really rewarding networks of creative collaboration with other artists. I made a conscious choice to try to find ways to make things with other women writers and artists, and it has been such an immensely inspiring process so far.

With writer Eliza Bell and songwriter Keppie Coutts, we created Mothertongues (a co-written book with its own album of original songs) in 2022. With filmmaker Rowena Potts, I’ve co-founded the Archival Futures Collective, dedicated to making short experimental archival films about earthly and off-earthly environments. With illustrator and artist Zoë Sadokiersi, I’ve co-founded Animal Allegories, where we use story and image to craft unusual fables responding to the devastations of climate change, and to launch a project called Survival Stories for the Australian Museum.

I love working across these boundaries between genres and art forms, and breaking down barriers between so-called ‘literary’ fiction and other kinds of writing.

What’s next for you?

I’m starting a postdoc research fellowship at Macquarie University in July, where I’ll be writing and thinking about exoplanets—planets outside our solar system—and making another experimental film with the Archival Futures Collective.

Only the Astronauts is out now via Penguin Random House.