Talia Lakshmi Kolluri’s short story “A Level of Tolerance” appears in Southern Humanities Review issue 52.2. In the story, an alpha wolf must reckon with the disappearance of her beloved brother, searching along the border between conserved land and hunting territory. In the following interview, Kolluri discusses how the story plays with time to convey the circuitousness of grief, writing non-human main characters, and the challenges and joys of being a working writer.
Caitlin Rae Taylor: Many writers shy away from writing pieces from the perspective of animals. What makes you feel an affinity for non-human main characters, and what are the particular challenges of writing stories from their perspectives?
Talia Lakshmi Kolluri: I would like to answer this question by telling a story about a bird. I live in a California suburb that still has a lot of undeveloped land in it. So we have houses and schools and shops next to open fields and old orchards, and little creatures like ground squirrels and birds make their homes there. A few years ago, my husband and I were on a walk around the neighborhood and we passed one of those fields. In a patch of brush right next to the sidewalk, there was a bird about the size of a starling. I might not have noticed her except that as we strolled past, she planted her feet in a firm stance, spread her wings widely and started chirping as loud as she could. Behind her spread wings was a nest, and inside the nest were her eggs. I think about that bird often, about how resolute she appeared to me. And I wonder all the time what it meant for her to have us walk past her nest. The thing is, there is more than one story for that moment. There is mine: the story where I took a walk past a field. And there is hers, where danger came to her nest and she bravely faced it to defend her eggs. To me, that’s the bigger story.
And I suppose that every time I have an experience like that, or read some piece of news involving an animal, I wonder what the non-human participant in the story thinks about it. I’m so curious about their inner lives! I just can’t accept a world where humans are the only ones who have emotions and dreams and feelings about the world around them. And lately, there has been research to show that other living things do have complex emotions and cognition. Just because they can’t communicate them to humanity doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There are some great books that cover this topic, and two of my favorites are Sy Montgomery’s Soul of an Octopus and How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King. My approach is also inspired by one of the theses of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement which is that art, and specifically literature, should acknowledge the environment and the world around us. In the context of Ghosh’s book, climate change is the factor that should be more present in literature. I think this creative call can also include all of the flora and fauna we share our world with. There are so many wonderful writers who are engaging with nature in their work and who write toward integration instead of distinction. I suppose telling stories from an animal perspective is my way of participating in that tradition.
The challenges in writing from an animal perspective are not necessarily so different than writing from any other perspective. In the most basic sense, I am trying to suspend the reader inside a dream without them noticing the mechanism. While I don’t necessarily write straightforward realism, I want the stories to feel real. And I think finding ways for the reader to connect emotionally to my narrators and characters is important. Several years ago I took a workshop taught by Anthony Doerr and I brought a story narrated by a sled dog. One of the tools he mentioned in our workshop was the idea of defamiliarization. In my case, this means figuring out how my narrator would describe a thing that is familiar to humans but unfamiliar to an animal narrator in such a way that the reader can still recognize it. So in this particular piece, our wolf does not know what a truck bed is, so she calls it a trough. She sees a knife as a large tooth, and so on. The risk with an approach like this is that the story can veer into precious or unreadable territory, so I try to use it somewhat sparingly.
I have to be honest though, I find writing from an animal perspective to be significantly easier. There is something about having the filter of an animal life between me and my characters that allows me to be more emotionally honest. When I write about a wolf or a donkey or a bear, I have to completely invent everything they think and feel. I have to manufacture all of their motivations because I quite literally cannot ask them about the world as they see it. But because I must invent everything, it also means that I can invent everything. The lack of limitations on my imagination is actually pretty liberating.
CRT: What kind of research process did you go through to write “A Level of Tolerance”?
TLK: I started by reading everything I could find about the wolf on which I based this story and then went for a deep dive into wolf behavior, the social structure of packs. I then moved on to research the landscape so that I could root the piece in place as much as possible. I relied heavily on work by Jim Brandenburg, who is an icon in wildlife photography, an advocate for wolf conservation, and a generally impressive human being. He produced and directed a beautiful documentary called White Wolf, which I relied on for atmosphere and wolf behavior. I also used work by Jim and Jamie Dutcher regarding wolves specifically in the vicinity of Yellowstone, which is where I imagine this story being set. They have a book called The Hidden Lives of Wolves which chronicles the lives of the Sawtooth Pack. It includes beautiful photographs as well as accessible discussions about how wolves benefit the ecology of their surroundings and the different stories that humans have told about them. It also does a nice job of dispelling negative myths about wolves.
To gain a technical understanding of wolf ecology, pack structure, feeding behavior and breeding patterns I used Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation by L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani. I spent a lot of time researching weather patterns in Wyoming as well. Our wolf has denned pups, but it’s snowing when this story takes place, so I checked weather reports in Yellowstone to see how often a large snowfall could come in the spring. I’m satisfied that it’s plausible even if not predictable since I didn’t want weather to undermine the believability. I generally wanted to feel submerged in a sea of wolves and tried to write most of this story while I was under that water, so to speak.
CRT: So yes, this story is based on the life of a real wolf. Can you tell me a little more about the wolf in particular and where you first discovered her? What made you want to reimagine this story as fiction?
TLK: I’m so glad you asked about her. I first learned about her through her obituary. I have been interested in wolves for a while and was just searching the internet looking for a wolf story that would snag me, and in early 2012 just a couple of months after she died, I found her obituaries in the New York Times and Outside. She was the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon Pack (named for their proximity to the Lamar River in Wyoming). Her research number was 832F but among her fans she was often called the 06 female because she was born in 2006. She was, by all accounts, an impressive wolf with the ability to navigate the complex social structures of her pack and avoid conflicts based on territorial rivalries. She was also famous for her ability to complete solo hunts, often taking an elk down on her own. She would leave her two mates (yes she had two), to watch over her pups in their den and would go out hunting alone. Eventually she taught them to assist her, but she still took the lead. Everything I’ve read about her showed her to be an interesting, complex, and truly special creature. I admired her and I still admire her.
When she was killed, during a sanctioned wolf hunt just outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, what struck me the most was how precarious her life truly was. No matter how powerful she was, no matter how savvy, no matter how well she negotiated the nuances of pack life to become a successful wolf, it all ended when she crossed an un-seeable boundary that she could never identify or understand. And I realized how one-sided human interaction with the natural world is. Official wildlife management policies in the US tend to be oriented toward benefitting the human population the most. And all of the living things that we share our space with are at the mercy of these policies.
The title of the story is actually taken from language that is used to justify wolf hunts. Sanctioned wolf hunting is used to keep the wolf population below a certain level and this phrase is used to describe the benefits of the hunt, meaning a wolf hunt (or cull) is used to keep their population at a size that the surrounding human population is willing to tolerate. It’s very sterile, clinical language. And when I read that phrase, I wondered who that level was really for. Certainly not the wolves. I chose to write about this wolf because I wondered what the experience was for her. Of course we can never truly know, but I tried to imagine it.
One of the things that I learned in my research is that once a wolf hunt is sanctioned, trophy hunters tend to target the largest and most impressive wolves, which are often the alphas. This is a completely different approach from when animals hunt, because when an animal hunts, it tends to target the weakest members of a group. But when the strongest member is killed, it damages the group as a whole. The loss of their alpha female disrupted the cohesion of the Lamar Canyon Pack. The alpha male and female of a pack are a breeding pair (in 832F’s case a breeding triad). So a pack is essentially a family, and the alphas are the parents. Once one half of the breeding pair dies, the remaining alpha can’t breed with their offspring, so leadership becomes unstable. 832F and one of her breeding mates were killed, leaving only one. I don’t know what would have happened to the pack if she had lived, but I wanted to give her a different ending. I wanted her to have the opportunity to learn that she was at risk and to make a different choice.
CRT: As you were writing this piece, how did you conceive the idea of animal grief, and how do you imagine it is both different from and similar to human grief?
TLK: I imagine that animal grief has enough similarities to human grief that it is recognizable. I truly don’t know what animals think about their own mortality. I know humans as a species tend to fear it and will go to great lengths to avoid it. And I imagine that, to the extent survival is a basic instinct in all living things, animals have the same drive to survive. But I don’t know if they have the same fascination with mortality. I think human grief is enmeshed with that fear. Of course we miss our loved ones when they are gone. We even miss those that we have complicated relationships with, and we can feel tremendous loss even for people we have never met. I think some of that anguish is tied to what the death of someone else says about our own transience. We are confronted with the knowledge that, someone else being gone forever means, someday, each of us will be gone too.
I like to imagine that animals have a more practical vision of their own impermanence because they don’t appear to have cultures built around trying to live forever. But this clearly does not obviate the very real process of mourning. At this point, it’s common knowledge that elephants mourn their dead. There is research into the rituals and behaviors of corvids when they encounter their own deceased. Dr. Kaeli Swift with the University of Washington has a lot of interesting scholarship in this area. And wolves, who are very social animals, have also been observed in periods of mourning. Jim and Jamie Dutcher have another wonderful book called The Wisdom of Wolves where they describe how a low-ranked wolf named Motaki was killed by a mountain lion. After Motaki died, the Dutchers observed that the remaining members of the pack did not engage in any play for approximately six weeks.
Play is in important activity for these very social animals so that would have been unusual. They further observed that pack rallies, which normally include excitable group howling, changed tone and mimicked the kinds of howls a lone wolf would use to locate their pack. Finally, the Dutchers observed members of the pack returning to the place where Motaki’s body was found. Is this not mourning? I think it is. I thought of this as I had my narrator wolf return to her own familiar places in search of her brother and only let go when she realized he would never return. This is the closest I can get to letting go of my human lens to get inside the mind of a wolf. They feel the loss, they process the loss, and perhaps they find a way to move on.
CRT: A piece you published in Ecotone, “What We Fed to the Manticore” is from the perspective of a tiger, and your piece “The Hunted, the Haunted, the Hungry, the Tame” in the Minnesota Review is from the perspective of a sled dog. Are these pieces and “A Level of Tolerance” part of a larger collection you’re working on solely from the perspective of animals?
TLK: Yes these pieces are part of a collection, all from the perspective of animals. With the exception of one story (which is written in a close third), they are all from the first person perspective, which was really important to me. They cover the spectrum of animal experiences from domesticated working animals, to those in some form of captivity, to those existing in their wild habitats. But every story, either overtly or at the margins, engages with the issue of how human action affects animals and how that impact may be viewed by the animal characters. In some instances the human influence is climate change, in others it’s poaching or the relationship between working animals and their human handlers. While people are not absent from the collection, they are not centered either.
CRT: I’m intrigued by the way you play with time in the story, particularly the notion of every possible scenario, every kind of death, happening simultaneously. How do you see time functioning in relation to grief and in relation to human destruction of plant and animal life?
TLK: I think time, or our perception of time, is fluid with respect to grief. I see this more broadly as a feature of trauma, whether that’s collective trauma, intergenerational trauma, or personally experienced trauma. We tend to return to the genesis of our pain over and over again as a way to understand it and place ourselves in some sort of comprehensible context. Part of this desire to understand is a futile exercise, in a way. Harm and tragedy don’t always make sense, but we tend to want them to. And if they don’t, we may want to reimagine them so they exist in a narrative governed by reason. Sometimes we have no control over what happens in our lives, and yet we want to feel agency nonetheless. In this story, the time loop allows the wolf to repeat a moment and to approach it in different ways until she learns to survive it. With respect to grief, perhaps this repetition can allow the griever to live alongside their grief instead of being overtaken by it.
I’m also drawn to the idea of simultaneous selves. I like the idea that there are other Talias out there who are living different lives based on different choices. Perhaps all of us are infinite wolves trotting through infinite paths in a million different forests, living other lives through other seasons.
I think it becomes a bigger question when we consider how humanity as a species has impacted plant and animal life. When I finally got around to reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to learn how destructive we have been as a species and for how long (spoiler alert, a very long time). Here, I want to note that not every culture and community has been the most destructive, and there are traditions and communities that tread lightly on the earth and stand as exceptions to this particular characterization of humans, and certainly the western world (in the political sense) is responsible for most of our modern global pollution.
However, I would like to set aside the exceptions for a moment and consider our species as a whole, which requires acknowledging that humans, throughout our deep history, have been very hard on the environment. We bring invasive species of plants and animals and insects when we travel and move, which disrupts local ecosystems. We cause a significant amount of plant and animal extinction. Modern industry has infused every corner of the globe with micro-plastics, or toxic chemicals, or noise. Even “unspoiled” wilderness is impacted by global changes in temperature or extreme weather patterns as a result of climate change. Here, I think time is less of a loop and more of a bellows. The earth will survive our species, of that much I am certain. But when our influence swells to the point that we decimate too many other living things, we may not endure. I think it’s hubris to think that we can continue on as we have and survive the world that we are making. And despite my affection for revisiting a moment until it can be righted, we are not invincible and will not have an infinite number of times to slow the destruction of our environment.
CRT: What are your views on legal and illegal hunting, poaching, animal conservation, etc., and how did those views inform the story?
TLK: I originally wrote a very long answer to this question because I do have strong feelings and opinions about all of those things. But I ended up deleting it because what I wanted to do with this story, and what truly informed my writing was to ask myself what the wolf thinks of humans hunting (and more specifically, recreational hunting by humans). What does it mean to her? Does she understand what is happening and why? Which takes me back to the first question I asked myself when I started writing: what if the wolf told this story?
And when I frame it that way, my opinion is less relevant, because it wouldn’t matter to a wolf. All of the ways in which we as a species either condemn or justify our individual and collective behavior doesn’t make a difference to the animals and environments that are affected because they are fully outside of those discussions. When I let the wolf tell the story, I then leave it to the reader to decide whether and how that impacts their opinion on hunting and conservation.
The way this played out in this particular story, is that I considered the idea of a boundary between the point where hunting a wolf was legal versus illegal. For a human, this is a clear boundary. If you have a permit to hunt a wolf you will probably also have a map that shows you where you can and cannot use that permit. But to a wolf, that human-created boundary line has no meaning. She can stand next to one tree and be perfectly safe because she is in a “no hunting zone,” and if she walks 10 feet over, her life is in danger. And she will not know the difference. As “A Level of Tolerance” progresses, the mechanism of the time loop allows her to start learning this distinction. This produces a second question for the reader: What does it mean when a hunted animal learns that she is hunted, and does that change anything for the reader? I think that’s a conclusion that everyone will have to draw for themselves. I have an answer that I hope the reader will reach, but I want them to get there through the story.
CRT: Is there anything in particular you want readers to take away from “A Level of Tolerance”?
TLK: If I were to distill my intention down to a single thing, I would say that with this story I wanted to reduce the emotional distance between the reader and the wolf. I often hear “nature” and “the natural world” framed in the kind of context that casts them as something separate from humanity. I think this narrative ignores the very significant fact that we as humans are natural things and are integral parts of the natural world. I hope that by reducing that distance between humans and the rest of the natural world, I can remind readers that we too are part of nature and the health of flora and fauna is important for the health of humanity.
CRT: What do you do when you’re not writing?
TLK: I have a full time job as a public sector attorney, and I also have a ton of hobbies like hiking and photography. There are also the regular trappings of life like family and community events, and exercise and errands and trying to keep up with an ever-accelerating life in the modern world. And of course I love reading. If I could highlight something I like to do that isn’t writing (but may be writing adjacent), I absolutely love learning things. So I’m trying to learn to read and speak Japanese, and I’m learning how to successfully grow some vegetables, and I like research so I just have a number of things that I’m curious about that I’m researching with no real purpose or end game in mind.
CRT: Do you have any advice for fellow emerging writers on how to navigate the publishing world or advice for fellow working writers on how to balance a full work schedule with writing time?
TLK: I think the most practical advice I can offer on balancing a full-time work schedule is to be kind to yourself about time management. I’ve seen a few pieces of advice that suggest writers should write every day and that if a person is not writing every day then they aren’t really a writer. I totally disagree with that. It’s not always realistic to work on creative pieces every day. Sometimes I have really long work days and I’m too tired to write when I get home. Sometimes I exercise, or cook dinner, or go out with friends. And sometimes I’m a writing machine and ignore everything else. Every day is different. One of my tricks is to keep a little book with me at all times and if I think of a sentence or an idea, I just write it down in that moment. In fact this story started out that way. It was just all these little snippets, some of which I discarded, that suddenly became something whole.
And if you work outside of the literary and academic community like I do, lunch breaks can be a really useful tool for making space for your creative life. When I have a deadline I’m working with, one thing I do is assume my workday is one hour longer than it actually is and use that last hour for writing. So if my workday ends at 5, I go to a café or head home and give myself one additional hour of work before I start my evening. I recognize that if a writer has family or personal obligations that start right after work like childcare or a second job, this may not work. But a similar concept can be used for carving out time on other days. I think the key here is to treat it like work in the sense that it’s a commitment to yourself and your creative goals. But again, if this doesn’t happen very often, that’s fine! You are still a writer! Make time when you can but give yourself permission to make your writing a priority.
As far as navigating the publishing world, I’m still figuring this out. My approach so far has been to revise my stories until I’m confident that they are my best work and then submit them to journals that I admire. Most of the time this means that I get a lot of rejections, and not the personal kind either. I get a lot of “dear writer” rejections. This sounds pretty straightforward, but writing is an inherently solitary pursuit so it’s easy to let self-doubt become so all-consuming that pretty much any writer just starting out can talk themselves out of submitting. And it can be difficult to remember that trying is one of the most essential parts of the publishing world. I do think success comes from persistence and the persistent belief in your own ability. If I assumed that every rejection was a commentary on the quality of my work, then I would barely submit at all. But instead, I don’t take it personally. I assume that it’s the wrong time or the wrong audience, or my story reached a reader on the wrong day. It’s a big world out there and there is space for a lot of stories, including mine. And to all the emerging writers out there, there’s room for your stories too!
I don’t have an MFA and I don’t have plans to get one, but I still want to be part of the writing community, so one of the places that has been great for me in building community and finding writing partners is a summer workshop program. I’ve been to the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop about four times, and I use my vacation time to go. I understand that the expense can make them inaccessible for a lot of writers, but many programs have scholarship options that cover either part or all of the expense. I encourage emerging writers to explore those programs. My writer friends are wonderful, big-hearted people, and they love reading, and I’m so grateful to have them.
The last piece of advice that I would offer is to remember to lead with kindness. Kindness when you interact with other writers, kindness when you interact with editors, kindness even when you are rejected and don’t feel inspired to be kind. The writing community is large, but the connections between its members are intertwined. The editor that rejected your story may also be the cherished writing partner of one of your workshop classmates. The classmate that got the book deal that makes you boil with jealousy may be a client of your dream agent. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule (as there are exceptions to every rule), but I think that kindness is a great default approach.
CRT: What else are you currently working on, if I’m allowed to ask?
TLK: I love the way you phrased this question because I am a little superstitious about discussing work in progress. I have the story collection, and while it’s complete, I will most likely always be writing short stories of this kind, so I could theoretically add to it forever. I am also in the early stages of a novel that deals more directly with the large-scale consequences of human environmental impacts and how they are experienced by a group of animals.
TALIA LAKSHMI KOLLURI’s short fiction has appeared in the Minnesota Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere. She was born and raised in Northern California and now lives in the Central Valley, where she is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel. Her home on the internet can be found at taliakolluri.com. If you would like to learn more about gray wolves, their environment, and how to protect them, visit defenders.org.