In this interview with the author of last year’s sensational What We Fed to the Manticore, our own Swetha Amit discusses the inspiration behind the collection, the research involved in its composition, as well as what’s next for Talia Lakshmi Kolluri. Read on below!
Talia Lakshmi Kolluri is a mixed South Asian American writer from Northern California. Her debut collection of short stories, What We Fed to the Manticore (Tin House 2022), was longlisted for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the 2023 Aspen Words Literary Prize, the 2023 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection, and was selected as a 2023 ALA RUSA Notable Book. Her short fiction has been published in the minnesota review, Ecotone, Southern Humanities Review, The Common, One Story, Orion, Five Dials, and The Adroit Journal. A lifelong Californian, Talia lives in the Central Valley with her husband, a teacher and printmaker, and a very skittish cat named Fig.
Swetha Amit: What inspired What We Fed to the Manticore? How did the idea initially come up?
Talia Lakshmi Kolluri: I was always interested in animals. When I wanted to take my writing seriously as an adult, I wrote about things that reflected my life in a self-edited manner but had a hard time writing in an uninhibited way. One day when I was looking for something to write, I found myself with a copy of National Geographic magazine and came across a story about the serial-led patrol. I wondered what dogs thought of that experience. I decided to answer this question by writing a story from a dog’s perspective, which preceded this collection. I liked the feeling of writing from an animal narrator’s voice. It felt joyful and uninhibited. I experienced this emotional honesty; I had not felt while writing before. I felt compelled to keep going and wrote another one. This collection evolved almost intuitively. My personal creative mission was to place the reader inside the animal’s heads and their lives.
How long did it take you to write this collection?
It took about ten years. Partly because I write slowly and like to marinate an idea by indulging in research and letting my imagination wander. Partly is also because I balance my writing with my day job and all the responsibilities that come with it. I was also shaping my creative voice and finding what felt right. A couple of stories didn’t make it into the collection.
Did you face any challenges while writing from the point of view of animals, such as the concept of defamiliarization?
My advisor at the Tin House workshop, Anthony Doerr, introduced me to defamiliarization. It helped me reframe how to really speak as an animal. Partly because I am asking readers to believe me when I write about animals being able to communicate in a human language. I relied on intuition to decide about this defamiliarization concept because sometimes it can get weird. If I spend all my time describing every object as though it’s brand new, it can slow down the story’s pace. So, I developed a spectrum of how I would use defamiliarization. If animals had more contact with humans, they would tend to understand more about the human world. They would know much about the human world and objects if they were pets. And if they were wild animals, they wouldn’t be so familiar with the human world.
Each story has a distinct voice. Did the voice also come as an intuition?
Partly yes. I paid a lot of attention to what kind of colors an animal could see. How do they take in the world? What parts of the world are essential to them? And personality is shaped by how we take in information and perceive things and how we experience and react to what we see. A lot of these characters also reflect aspects of myself. In a certain sense, all art is a quest to understand ourselves partly. Understanding self means understanding all the things we are linked in.
The stories in your book are set in different cities and countries—what kind of research was involved?
I relied on books and documentaries. I have visited India and been to Mumbai, but not Delhi or the Sundarbans, where the stories were set. I used Google earth, and I could get street-level views of the cafes via the photos people post there. I also tried to read literature written by authors from that specific place I was writing about. For the story “The Good Donkey”, set in Gaza, I read two nonfiction books by Palestinian authors; one was Palestinian Walks, which was vivid and moving. When I wrote the whale story, I spent much time listening to documentaries and underwater audio clippings of container ships to absorb what it’s like to be submerged. While writing about birds, I’d read about flight mechanics and watch slow-motion videos of birds flying. It was a combination of trying to make myself embodied in the animal and doing justice to the places where the stories were set.
The language in your book has a good sense of sound and rhythm and embodies a poetic quality. Was that a deliberate attempt to write in a lyrical style?
I love poetry, though I am not a poet. There are so many outstanding contemporary poets writing today. My favorite poetry book is Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Reading contemporary poets has been crucial in learning how to feel the rhythm of language and how the rhythm can create emotion. I see how I think about something I have written. Does that make me feel an emotion I am trying to convey? I ask myself: How does it feel? How does it sound? Whether I like the way it sounds or does it mean what I want to convey.
Your book covers themes like identity, isolation, and climate change. Did you decide on these themes? How did they emerge?
These themes are essential to me. It felt like understanding my own identity, like where I belong. Art is understanding our place in the world. The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh influenced my writing about climate change. He explains how important it is to write about climate change, crisis, and it almost felt like I was receiving permission from a great writer to allow myself to write this way. Nutmeg’s Curse is another book of his that influenced me.
In the title story, you broke the stereotypes of a tiger, exhibiting it shows gratitude. Was that a deliberate attempt to break that stereotype?
Tigers are such a touchstone worldwide, and people, especially in South Asia, tend to have strong feelings about them. A large part of the conversation about tigers is about how we react to animals that have lived their whole lives in an environment, and suddenly find us in their space. I wanted to imagine what a tiger would think of a cyclone experience and disruption, or when they saw us in their space. It’s common for us to imagine the tiger feels remorse or doubt. But tigers and people don’t think in the same manner.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I want them to feel that the distance between human and animals have been minimized. I want them to remember that we are animals, too, and that we are all part of the same earth. To survive, we need each other.
Has writing this book changed you in any?
It has made me more sensitive and thoughtful of the environment. It has made me feel more connected to the world around. Ultimately we are all living in one complex environment with other species, so the world has become smaller in a good way.
Which authors or books have inspired you?
It’s an endless list. I love Amitav Ghosh, and Helen Oyeyemi. Memoirs Of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada is another brilliant read. She also wrote Scattered All Over The Earth, part of an upcoming trilogy. They also touch upon the issue of the climate crisis. The Story of a Goat by Perumal Murugan, and The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara are brilliant reads. I am inspired by a lot of emerging authors and enjoy seeing their books in the world.
Tell us about your writing process.
I carry small notebooks with me, where I can fill the pages out fast. If I think of an idea or a line or title, I write it down. I like the idea of starting out small. And then it accumulates to a point where I feel I have enough bones to write a first draft. I type it out and then print that. Over time I’ll revise that by hand. Then I type out my revisions.
Any upcoming books in the pipeline?
I am working on a novel. Being a slow writer, I’m still determining when it will finish. I am working on the first draft, which deals with the premises of animal captivity. We will see how it progresses.
Interviewed by Swetha Amit