Chasing Down Ghosts and Monsters: An Interview with Puloma Ghosh

On May 1st at our Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating four of our authors who have recently published or will soon publish their debut books. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

Today we’re talking to Puloma Ghosh, author of One Story Issue #282, “K,” and the short story collection Mouth (Astra House).

On the cover of Puloma Ghosh’s debut collection, images of a mouth and the exposed flesh of a citrus fruit prime the reader for her surreal explorations of desire and consumption. Speculative and often nightmarish, Mouth’s eleven stories probe loneliness and longing in unique, fantastical worlds. Ghosh pairs characters with monsters embodying their fears and cravings, and shadow selves acting as mirrors and foils. In Ghosh’s stories, there are vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, and love has teeth that might tear you apart. From the first page, Mouth is sharp, weird, and delightfully dark.

—Theda Berry

Theda Berry: Where were you when you found out Mouth was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Puloma Ghosh: I was alone at home, trying and failing to focus on my day job while I waited for my agent to call. Like every good thing, I celebrated by cooking an elaborate, decadent meal.

TB: There’s a throughline of the uncanny throughout the collection, including hauntings, unsettling mothers, and many monsters. In an interview with Manuel Gonzales about “K,” One Story Issue #282 in 2021, you mentioned that you “often have terrible, vivid nightmares that can sometimes be fodder for stories.” Are there other stories here inspired by bad dreams? Where else do you find inspiration for the supernatural elements in your writing?

PG: “In the Winter” came from a nightmare of endless rooms with no exit in a campus building, “The Fig Tree” from eerie half-dreams I’ve had with jet lag, “Lemon Boy”” about (of course) a strange boy with yellow hair at a party in a beach house…I could go on. I always wind up writing bits of nightmares into stories when they stick with me after I wake, as a way to dull my fear by making it my own. I also find inspiration from weird stories people tell me, unrequited crushes, and horror movies.

TB: I admire how you create eerie, speculative fiction—mostly from first-person perspectives, and even with a self-proclaimed liar as the narrator in “K”—that still feels grounded in its own reality. How do you approach crafting reliable narrators, maintaining that balance between the unexpected and the real within the bounds of such expansive stories?

PG: I buy wholly into my character’s reality. From their perspective, everything they narrate is real, so I try my best to imagine how I would feel if those were my circumstances, how their feelings might be similar to or different from my own. It’s the same as what any other writer does, but instead of putting characters in a room that could be feasibly found in our world, it’s a room in a “what if” world I’ve made up. In some ways, it’s easier, because I don’t have to adhere to anyone else’s rules.

TB: Beginning with the perceived bloodlust of “Desiccation” all the way through to the hunger for forbidden fruit in the final story, “Persimmons,” Mouth is full of complex longing. How did you land on these particular frameworks—like vampirism and ritual sacrifice, in those examples—for the character’s cravings? Do the surreal elements typically come first in your writing, or do you layer them in after determining their underlying emotions?

PG: Whether fantastical elements come first or the character comes first depends on the story. For instance, I wrote “Desiccation” because I love vampires and writing vampire stories, and “Leaving Things,” because I wanted to try making werewolves sexy. But in “Lemon Boy” I wanted to explore how surreal parties can feel, writing a story within a story, and a character adrift in her early twenties. The holes came later. What story and character goes with what monster is something I figure out along the way, and that moment of connection is where I have the most fun.

TB: Desire and consumption are intertwined in multiple stories, and the idea of literally eating the person or creature you love appears in “K” and “Nip”. How were you thinking about intimacy and being devoured in the collection, and the power dynamics of eating and being eaten? 

PG: Eating and sex are two of our most animal pleasures. And both, as you pointed out, have elements of power baked in, between predator and prey, between two people involved in a bodily act, where it’s impossible to be completely equal. They share so many of the same gestures, with hands, teeth, voice, and (I’ll say it) mouth. Putting them together feels very visceral, something my brain does as a knee jerk. Sometimes with desire it’s hard to tell whether you want someone or want to be someone. Both eating and loving are ways to merge with an object of admiration and hold it inside you.

TB: Internal tensions are often given external talons and teeth in Mouth, but are also mirrored in shadow selves or doubles, most explicitly for the narrator in “Supergiant” and the character Less. Can you talk about how you used that duality to explore loneliness and self-reflection in “Supergiant”? Are there other stories in Mouth with narrators you see as similarly lonely but not alone? 

PG: I’m a little obsessed with doppelgängers and shadow selves, but I’m also really afraid of them. When you’re alone, you have to be with yourself for better or worse. The more alone and lonely you are, the louder and bigger and sometimes scarier that self becomes. With “Supergiant” I wanted to explore how that self is worth loving even when it’s a little mysterious and grotesque, assigned no value by our own and others’ terms. I think every character in Mouth is lonely in different ways, and wants to stave off that feeling by any means—chasing down ghosts and monsters and their own unraveling to escape it.

TB: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball? 

PG: Meeting the other debut authors! I feel lucky to be in the same room with them.

Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based fiction writer and music journalist. She is currently the senior coordinator of membership and direct marketing at the Whitney Museum of American Art and a reader for One Story.

Posted On:
April 15, 2024
One Story
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