On April 27th at our Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating nine of our authors who have recently published their debut books. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
The stories in Talia Lakshmi Kolluri’s debut collection place us deep within the psyches of animals—a pigeon dragged from the sky by a kite string, a wolf who must hunt among hunters for her missing brother, a tiger who reckons with a manticore whose appetite seems without end. Through their eyes and others, we see destruction caused by greed and conflict, struggles born of a changing climate, and the hope and connection that can exist despite these obstacles. Kolluri’s tales expose a world that is harsh but often beautiful and teach us something of the duties we have to that world and to each other.
Kim Huebner: Where were you when you found out What We Fed to the Manticore was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
Talia Lakshmi Kolluri: I was at my day job doing something that is probably very boring by comparison when I got an email from Elizabeth DeMeo (now my editor at Tin House) telling me that they wanted to publish my collection, and the very next thing I did was text a screenshot to my husband because he was at work as well. Elizabeth had reached out to me after reading one of my stories in The Common and we were in conversation about my collection, but I was not actually expecting Tin House to say yes. To say that I was unprepared for my book to be accepted is an understatement, and so celebrating consisted mainly of realizing that this was really happening and it was time to connect with an agent and figure out how this (very exciting) process would work. Fortunately, I was able to connect with the wonderful Kerry D’Agostino right away. So, in the span of less than a week, I had an offer to publish my collection and then an agent to advise me on this new adventure. When I finally got home at the end of the day that I got my offer, I found that a friend had sent me a delivery of cinnamon rolls, and then my husband and I went to dinner and then to the bookstore to look at my future place on the shelf. It was pretty exciting to imagine that someday my book would be there right in front of me!
KH: You immersed yourself in such a broad array of animal perspectives in order to tell these stories. In doing so, was there an animal you felt most able to relate to, or one you found especially difficult to conjure?
TLK: I feel I’m able to relate to all of the animals that I included in my stories because at a fundamental level, we’re very similar. We are all creatures infused with life, who are trying to survive in sometimes unpredictable spaces. But perhaps where I differed the most from them was in how my senses take in my surroundings. This was most apparent when I wrote from the perspective of a whale because not only do they live primarily in a soundscape, but it’s a soundscape of a very different world than our own. I felt that I could imagine the story visually quite well, but there remained a very deep cavern between what I imagined, and how a whale was most likely to communicate what I imagined. So, I needed to close that gap somehow by developing a better understanding of whale senses and whale behaviors.
KH: What did you learn about humans when you witnessed them through the eyes of your animal characters? Do the animals’ viewpoints allow us to see things about our own species—about our behavior, our place in the world, or perhaps our hearts—that we might not be able to see otherwise?
TLK: I hope more than anything that reading stories through animal viewpoints will show readers that we are not alone on this earth; that important, interesting, and sometimes fragile life surrounds us; and that everything we do on small and large scales has an impact to the systems that we are a part of. I think that during this writing process, I was reminded that despite the evident damage that our species has caused to the environment at large, we are still so primed for wonder and compassion when we are confronted with the natural world. Every person has the capacity to care for the environment and the living things that are part of it. It’s just that sometimes we need to be reminded that we are part of the environment too.
KH: Two stories I particularly admire—“What We Fed to the Manticore” and “A Level of Tolerance”—pull away from linear narrative and present the reader with alternate versions or interpretations of the storylines. I found this so impactful and wonder why you chose to structure the stories in this way.
TLK: I’ve thought often about how elastic time and alternative lives have a relationship to painful experiences, particularly when the storyteller has no control over their circumstances. In my own life, reimagining alternatives has a way of giving me a sense of agency for past experiences where I really had none at all. I tell stories to myself about my own life where I pretend that I made a different decision or one factor in my life changed, and then the entire thread of a painful experience is unraveled and rewoven into something different. It fills me with dueling feelings of power in knowing that I could have experienced something else, and anguish that my own suffering cannot be undone because it has already happened. When I think about things like hunting or extreme weather events resulting from the climate crisis, I imagine that the ecosystems and animals that bear a significant burden from those things might feel the same way about their own suffering. They might choose to retell their own stories with alternate events as a way of claiming ownership over the experience, or of deepening their understanding of their own pain.
KH: I’m drawn to the sense of myth and fable that feels present in your stories, even when they draw on harsh realities of our current world. There’s a timelessness in the storytelling, mixed with an urgency of message. What inspired you to incorporate elements of myth into these pieces?
TLK: I’ve always loved fables and myths and also the timeless human practice of telling stories without adherence to a particular form. I think as long as humans have been observing the world around them, they have been spinning narratives about it to make it all make sense and to memorialize how exciting everything is. I have to confess that aside from a few very specific choices, incorporating mythlike elements was less deliberate and more intuitive for me. I like the way these kinds of stories sound to my ear. I like the way they transport me and lull me into that half-dreamlike state of listening to a tale. I also think that writing fiction about animals naturally lends itself to this style. Nature is wild, and confusing, and full of vivid colors and dramatic landscapes. It can also be violent, treacherous, and redemptive and it feels as though the stakes are always very high. I don’t know that I would have been able to tell these stories in any other way.
KH: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story Ball?
TLK: I am looking forward to pretty much everything. Since I first started writing short fiction, I dreamed about having something published by One Story and I really wanted the chance to come to the One Story Ball so it’s a little surreal that I actually get to do it! I’m looking forward to celebrating my fellow debutantes, and to sharing this time with my mentor who is one of my dearest friends, the writer Jeni McFarland. I’m looking forward to celebrating with my editor, Elizabeth, and to seeing what fantastic corsage is featured this year. I also am really looking forward to telling Tania James, in person, how much I adore her writing and how much her work means to me. I will try very hard not to cry while I do that. Most of all I’m looking forward to celebrating books!
Kim Huebner is a writer from Texas now living in Brooklyn. She recently received her MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College, where she teaches composition and creative writing. She works as a bookseller and was previously an intern at One Story.