The Best of Tall Tales
An Interview with Michael Burns and Akshay Gajria
I’ve always been intrigued by the impact stories have on the world. And when a friend recommended Tall Tales Storytelling as a place where true stories about people are celebrated, I took a chance and attended their show. And what I witnessed there blew me away.
A typical live true storytelling event by Tall Tales is a little like sitting on a rollercoaster ride of emotions.
After each event, you get to personally meet and greet the storytellers and sometimes the characters featured in their stories come alive, quite literally.
As I went back home after the first show, the stories kept playing on loop in my head: the nuances of the storytellers and the way they transformed something mundane into something magical. The avid reader in me wanted to find them in between pages of a book. The good news is that this is possible now. Twenty handpicked stories have been printed and published in The Best of Tall Tales.
I interviewed Tall Tales founder Michael Burns (MB) who curated and edited the books’ stories and Akshay Gajria (AG) the current director of Tall Tales.
RY: The selection of stories in this book promotes the idea that everyone has a story. That’s the Tall Tales tagline of course. But, just to play devil’s advocate for a second, can everyone really be a storyteller?
MB: I love that you asked this. When I give a workshop or host a live show and I say that everyone has a least one great story I can see a few beads of sweat gather on the foreheads of some of the people in the audience because I know they’re thinking: But I can’t possibly tell a story. Am I the only one in the room? My heart goes out to them because they don’t realize their own potential.
If a cheetah were tied up to a post all its life and saw another cheetah run by and you told the tied-up cheetah that it could do that too, it wouldn’t believe you. But not only can the tied-up cheetah run, it was born to run. Human beings survived because of our ability to package information in a special way to make it unforgettable. That packaging is called a story. It’s in our DNA. It’s literally embedded in the alleles of our genetic code. So yes, everyone can not only tell a story, every person was born to be a storyteller.
RY: You are now at the helm of an organization that teaches and promotes storytelling as an art.
When and how did you fall in love with stories?
AG: I was in love with stories from the very beginning — my earliest memories are of me begging my mother to read me the text alongside the picture books that had made their way into our home. But once I started reading, there was no stopping me. Stories helped me grow up; they were there during times of loneliness, there were there when I was at a loss to understand the world. It was a comfort to know that there was someone out there who thought and felt the world similar to the way I did. Books and the authors who wrote them were silent companions, always there when I needed them.
The best part about Tall Tales is I get to meet the storyteller behind the story, and that has been a very rewarding experience.
It’s essentially a slice of urban, changing India where people are finding a way to breathe in a society crowded with expectations, pressures, and confusion. This is Indian life. And it’s glorious in all its chaos.
RY: What were your criteria to select the stories for this particular book?
MB: It’s an impossible task, really, to pick through 250-plus stories and to pick out just 20 great ones. But I had two things in mind in the selection process. I wanted to feature some of our best performers ever, people who were so instrumental in the early days that there might not have been a Tall Tales without them. So names like Gayatri Aptekar, Rohit Nair, and Yogesh Upadhyaya come to mind.
I also wanted to feature stories that show as much of a cross-section of a changing India as possible. I will be the first person to say that one of the faults of Tall Tales is that we don’t have enough of a cross-section. In the future, I want to see more stories in other languages along with more unspoken stories of struggle and triumph across the sometimes tragically invisible corners of Indian society. But, having said that, even in the Tall Tales stories we do have, we have many that paint a picture worth looking at. It’s essentially a slice of urban, changing India where people are finding a way to breathe in a society crowded with expectations, pressures, and confusion. This is Indian life. And it’s glorious in all its chaos.
RY: How did you and Michael meet? What are the lessons that being a part of Tall Tales and then managing it has taught you?
AG: It was the first Tall Tales’ Writer’s Retreat conducted in November 2015. I hadn’t known about Tall Tales or Michael before that. The retreat changed my life (for the better) and Michael told us all at the retreat about the live storytelling shows he does. I was averse to writing non-fiction stories, but I thought I’ll try something new. And I did. With Michael’s meticulous coaching and help, I told my first story at the live show and never looked back.
Tall Tales sort of became a second home after that. People, I found, were more accepting of a person after they heard their story. It was a heartwarming experience and after every show, I’ve been at, my heart has been full of love for us humans.
Managing Tall Tales is immensely satisfying. Stories have a transformative power and listening to people, real people, tell their stories of how they overcame their fears and reached where they are now is a humbling experience. Michael is right, storytelling is in our DNA and we as human beings must keep sharing stories. It’s the only way.
RY: What do you think is the secret behind a great story?
MB: You said “great” so I’ll focus on great. To me, what makes not just a good story, but a great one is the ability to have you laughing one minute and crying the next. It’s easy to write a story that has one single note. You play that note in rhythm, have some fun with it, and then wrap up. It’s a whole different thing to be able to switch emotions on and off, to know where to go deeper just after lightening the mood, how to make the uncomfortable not only bearable but meaningful. This is special stuff. I always say to myself that every day you should think, laugh, and cry at least once. That, and doing something positive in the life of someone else, is the recipe for a day well spent. The same definition works for a great story.
We are getting stories in Hindi and I’m hoping we get more stories in regional languages that showcase an India rarely seen or heard from.
RY: Is there an age limit or language barrier for the submission of stories for your events? Also, what is your vision for Tall Tales in the near future?
AG: We don’t have any age barrier per se, but we believe that most children haven’t lived enough to tell a mature true story suitable for our shows. It’s a loose 18+ event, but we’re open to accepting true stories from children younger. It is solely based on the story.
When it comes to languages, we are open. We have always been open, looking forward to new stories shared in different languages, but somehow people have always overlooked this and almost all our stories have been in English. This is changing, we are getting stories in Hindi and I’m hoping we get more stories in regional languages that showcase an India rarely seen or heard from.
Tall Tales has always been a platform for people, everyday people to tell their stories. I’m slowly, but steadily taking Tall Tales from its roots in Mumbai and reaching out to various cities. We’ve had successful shows in Delhi and Bangalore and we’ll be hosting one more soon, along with our story writing workshop. Having a storyteller (whose story is also in the book) situated in Bangalore has helped tremendously. My sights are set on Pune and more in Delhi next.
RY: A lot of writers out there struggle to put pen to paper and write their personal stories. How do you think they can overcome their fear?
MB: If you ask someone to write a story or to tell a story, 90% of people will try to find something funny. This is endearing and very normal. But why? It’s because funny stories are entertaining and people like the attention. And funny stories are safe. Both of these reasons are beautiful even if they’re predictable. Just think of the last time you heard an 8-year old tell you a story that he thought was hilarious. It’s one of the sweetest things you can imagine.
But the real challenge is to search your soul for the moments in life when you felt the most defeated and the most inadequate and the most embarrassed. This is where the soul lives and sustaining your soul is the true purpose of a great story.
So my advice to writers and storytellers is to let the low-hanging fruit ideas for stories come into your mind and then let them go. Rather, find the place in your heart you don’t want to go at first, that place you’re blocking yourself from exploring. When you sense that hesitation, you know you’ve found the hidden canyon where your greatest story lives.
RY: Why should people read this book?
AG: Michael has done a tremendous job of picking out those stories that show the entire length and breadth of the stories we’ve received and showcased in our shows. On one hand there are stories about people dealing with a close loved one’s death, one about fighting the system to be a single mother, and another about what it feels like to be watched by someone all the time; while on the other hand there are stories about eating an entire burger in one sitting, one about fearing abduction by aliens, and one about having your first ever cup of tea. It ranges from the sad to the ludicrous but all of them have one thing in common, they are true stories lived by real people and you will never forget them.
When we start looking at our lives, really looking at it without any filters attached, a story starts emerging. We are all storytellers: humans are programmed to find patterns.
When you read this book and read the beautiful stories it contains, it’ll make you relate to the inner chambers of your own life. And that is the moment, right there, when you’ll start discovering your story too.
RY: Thank you both very much. Find out more about the book online at: http://bit.ly/BestTallTales
Michael Burns is a university teacher, writing coach, editor, and storyteller. He is the founder of Tall Tales, India’s longest-running, true storytelling event series that features live performances and writing workshops of all kinds. More online at writewithmichael.com.
Akshay G. is a writer, editor, story coach and entrepreneur based in Mumbai. He is the director of Tall Tales where he hosts and curates stories for the True Stories Told Live shows. In his spare time he edits fiction stories for The Coffeelicious.
More about Tall Tales Storytelling at talltales.in.