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Tea Obreht: The Interview

Téa Obreht was born in the former Yugoslavia and moved to America when she was 12. Now 25, she's the youngest of the 2010 New Yorker's 20 under 40 writers and the only one not to have a book published at the time the list came out. Her first novel, The Tiger's Wife, more than explains the New Yorker's choice. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly raved, "[A] brilliant debut....Obreht is talented far beyond her years, and her unsentimental faith in language, dream, and memory is a pleasure."

Set in an unnamed Balkan country recently ravaged by civil war, Obreht's debut moves between three interwoven plotlines. Natalia is a young doctor mourning her grandfather's death and helping children across the border, many of them hurt or orphaned by the war. Throughout Natalia's life, her grandfather told her tales of a "deathless man," and later she pieces together the story of "the tiger's wife," a woman who had a profound effect on her grandfather's childhood.

We agree with T. C. Boyle, who called The Tiger's Wife a "novel of surpassing beauty, exquisitely wrought and magical. Téa Obreht is a towering new talent." Obreht explores loss and grief with grace, clarity, and intelligence, and The Tiger's Wife is a marvelous and moving book.

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Jill Owens: How did The Tiger's Wife begin?

Téa Obreht: It started as a short story that I wrote for a workshop in the spring of 2007. The short story contained some of the essentials that ended up later in the novel — mainly, the tiger and the tiger's wife, who at the time was a deaf-mute circus performer who performed with a tiger. It failed pretty much on all accounts as a short story, and even the workshop wasn't very fond of it. But I was very attached to the tiger and very attached to the girl and I started to expand on that element.

At the time, my grandfather had just died and I was trying to cope with that — simply by ignoring it. But the grandfather idea also started to take shape as a story. And the third element in the novel was the deathless man. Once he appeared, the three elements just fused together, and, from then on, it was one story.

Jill: The three main stories tie back together thematically, and plot-wise in some cases, and it just feels absolutely seamless. How did you decide to structure it like that, with those three interweaving stories?

Obreht: First of all, thank you. I'm glad you see it as being seamless. That means a lot to me. I had thought a lot about structure, but what ended up happening was I had to finish it before I could decide. At first, I wrote the three stories sort of independently of one another. Then, the more they became fused in the narrative, the more I had to write all of them at the same time.

But I had to write the whole thing from beginning to end and then see it, the way you would see a short story. I came from a background of short-story writing, so it was very important for me to have this hovering bird's-eye view of it, where I could see the beginning, and I could see the end, and I could see how the storylines work with each other.

Then it came down to restructuring a lot. Some of that was part of rewriting, and some of that was part of revision and edits with my editor, Noah Eaker, who was just brilliant. I think that somehow, once we had the finished draft, I was able to work it into a place where the three elements flowed.

Now I'm trying to piece together just how I did it, because I'm setting out on a new novel and I want to know how I made it work last time.Now I'm trying to piece together just how I did it, because I'm setting out on a new novel and I want to know how I made it work last time. [Laughter] I can't find the places where I made major decisions and fixed structural problems. I just can't do it. I can't figure it out in the notes, and it's very frustrating — but I'm glad that it worked.

Jill: Maybe you can't use the same process twice?

Obreht: I guess not! [Laughter] Every time is a learning process, but this time I will take notes on how I took notes.

Jill: What research, if any, did you have to do? For example, I loved some of your descriptions of the roads that Natalia takes through the countryside, which are really detailed and gorgeous. I was wondering if you went back and took any road trips?

Obreht: I did. I'd been back before I started writing the novel. I tried to visit pretty much once a year, starting in 2003, because my grandparents still lived there at the time. Now my grandmother lives there by herself, and I felt it was very important to reconnect to the past that way. Also, the region is just unbelievably beautiful and unbelievably conducive to road trips.

I returned again in the summer of 2009, after the book was already written, to hunt for vampires for a nonfiction piece that I did for Harper's November 2010 issue.

Jill: I must have missed that! I'll have to go back and read it.

Obreht: That really forced me to take a very similar kind of road trip through villages and ask questions that were similar to questions that Natalia might have asked in The Tiger's Wife — mainly to go door to door in villages with uncomfortable pasts and knock, you know, and ask uncomfortable questions of people who weren't necessarily willing to talk about what you want to know, about the subject matter that you're interested in.

It was very enlightening. And, when I came back, though the book had already been written and already been through one round of edits, I told my editor, "I'm going to need more time with this." Which I'm sure was not what he wanted to hear! [Laughter] Then I spent another six months rewriting huge chunks of it.

Those road trips were the first time I felt completely connected to place and to my homeland, and I felt that I had achieved a much better understanding of it. So, it was this last-minute, unrelated research that really cemented what I wanted to get out of the book, and I was very happy with the results.

Jill: Is Natalia's grandfather based in any way on your own grandfather? Was he a doctor?

Obreht: He is, I think, but, no, my grandfather was not a doctor. He was an aviation engineer. He made planes, and he had a very fascinating life.

I think that the relationships between some of the characters almost inevitably ended up being autobiographical. The way that Natalia relates to her grandfather. The way Natalia and Zóra interact. The grandfather's personality, in some ways. Certain aspects of the grandfather's character ended up being a lot closer to true than I anticipated.

That said, I don't really see myself as Natalia. I felt much more connected to certain other characters, personality-wise, than I did to her. I felt I saw myself in different characters more than in her when the book was finally written.

Jill: The book casts a kind of spell on the reader. I think that has something to do with the magical elements and the wonderful storytelling. But I also think it's related to the voice; you have this great authority of voice in the novel.The book casts a kind of spell on the reader. I think that has something to do with the magical elements and the wonderful storytelling. But I also think it's related to the voice; you have this great authority of voice in the novel.

Obreht: Thank you. I struggle with that fairly often. I think that's probably the thing I struggle with most in writing, because in the past when I've wanted to tell stories, if I can't find the right voice, the story fails. It just does.

In The Tiger's Wife, the easiest voice to find was that of the tiger sections. I wrote those first and with absolute devotion. That was the one voice that I tried to carry over into the rest of it, because that was a voice that I felt was right and a voice that came very naturally.

If I can't find the right voice, I'm capable of erasing files and files of pages because I know that it's the right story, but it's not the right way to tell it. So, that for me, is a preoccupation. It's an obsession.

Jill: The contrast of the modern and scientific with the ritual, superstitious, and mythic makes the book feel epic as well as specific in its exploration of grief and loss, both personal and national.

Obreht: I think that it was very clear early on with the story of the tiger and the girl that the question of myth and reality was going to be a big one, and a very important factor in the whole book. The fact that Natalia and Zóra are doctors, and the grandfather, too, also happened very organically. I have a friend who's a doctor in Serbia, and I know through her anecdotes, that in places where superstition and homeopathy, in some ways, are the standard approach of the people, there's a great conflict with science. This is something my friend had to navigate pretty much every day and negotiate with people and their beliefs. Some of the superstitions are very, very prevalent. Yet, in some places there, you really feel like it's a culture on the brink of leaving those ancient beliefs behind. And, so, it came very naturally. Somebody once said, the universal is in the specifics, so, hopefully, it is the specifics that made it that way.

Jill: That's interesting that you say that, because a lot of the medical stuff — Natalia's class inflating a lung on the roof, the difficulty in getting intact skulls during the war — is fascinating and feels very true.

Obreht: Thank you. My doctor friend will be happy to hear it. She and I have been friends for a very long time. Some of the stuff that I heard from her and her colleagues, I couldn't believe. As a person growing up in America, and as a person growing up all over the world, I had reactions like, "That's not possible. Somebody didn't actually try to do that." But, the truth is, they have. There were many, many strange things that she had to deal with.

It seems like it was a conflict that I very naturally ended up wanting to explore in the book. And it comes through in all those scenes of death, I think. Because, at the end of the day, there's a universality in the ways that different cultures deal with death and the question of death. And it was something that I was going through in my own life, so that fit in, as well.

Jill: How did you channel the feeling of having grown up during a war, the "social looseness and lunacy," you call it, and then the impotence that all the young adults feel, which leads Natalia to being a doctor in the first place?

Obreht: I was fortunate enough to leave. We left just when things started. So, I didn't feel a lot of those pressures and those concerns myself. But, they were very prevalent in the way that that particular generation talks about their own experiences. When I went back, I was exposed to a lot of it, and also to the aftermath of these great changes that happened throughout the whole region. It's very palpable when you go there still.

Jill: How do you think about prose, about writing on a sentence-by-sentence level?

Obreht: I will write sections out of order — not just plot sections, but also, when I know there's a sequence of events that has to happen, I will write paragraphs out of order. I'm horrible about it, and I get worse and worse as I get older, which is horrific and needs to change. I think possibly because I come from short-story writing, I have a difficult time moving past a sentence if I feel it's poor or isn't doing the job that I think it's doing and that it should be doing. I can write huge lumps of paragraphs, but then I have to go back through and edit them. So, line by line, I'm editing all the time and revising all the time.

In this situation, where it was a novel, it was very hard to juggle that process with the large-scale editing that's also happening on the plot and structure level, which you don't really see at the moment, but you'll see later. That was a learning experience for me, too, but I'm a nitpicker on the sentence level.

Jill: Was The Jungle Book an influential book for you, growing up?

Obreht: I grew up with it, and my understanding is that a lot of people that I've come into contact here in the States did not. Growing up, I and everybody I knew read it.

It was influential, but it's strange how your work takes on a mind and life of its own, because The Jungle Book certainly didn't have the biblical importance for me that it ended up having for Natalia's grandfather, and later for Natalia. Originally, it was just supposed to be a way for the grandfather to understand the tiger, to have a way to understand what a tiger is, if he had read about Shere Khan. Then, as the story ran away with itself, The Jungle Book took on this monumental significance for the grandfather, for his childhood, for Natalia and their relationship, and their final communication. It became all these things I had no idea it was going to become. In a way, writing The Tiger's Wife has made me now even more sentimental for The Jungle Book.

I feel like a lot of people know the story in sort of a Disneyfied version. I began to reread it several years ago when I started writing the book, and I've also been reading it to my brother, who's 15 years younger than me. I found myself coming to certain paragraphs and going, "Oh, we'll just skip that. That's not a part you want me to tell you about." I realized it's not so much a children's book, really. Its subject matter is not.

Jill: The zoo features very prominently in The Tiger's Wife. Are you a zoo person? Also, I was wondering if you'd read Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife, which also deals with a zoo in wartime.

Obreht: Somebody was just talking to me about The Zookeeper's Wife yesterday. I haven't read it, but I've heard that it's fantastic, and I can't believe that I haven't read it yet. I'll have to seek it out.

But, yes, I do go to zoos. I visit zoos regularly. I'm one of those insufferable people who will come to a new town, and the first thing I'll say is, "Let's go to the zoo here. Do they have a zoo here?" And then, "Let's go to the art museum here. Do they have a...?" [Laughter] And I do like a zoo story. There seem to be a lot of zoo stories in a war. It seems to happen a lot in war, to have travesty happen in zoos. I don't know why that is.

Jill: How did you feel when you found out about the New Yorker's 20 under 40 list?

Obreht: It was, and remains, surreal. I don't think I even registered that it was a possibility. I knew that the list was coming and that they were going to announce it, and all I thought was, "That's cool. I can't wait to see who's on it." [Laughter]

Honestly, I can't believe I made the list. But it's been surreal in a wonderful way, and the support that I've gotten from the New Yorker has been incredible, and from the publishing industry, and from booksellers. It's just been wonderful and I feel very overwhelmed and happy... I do feel happy. That's such a basic thing to say, but I was shocked and happy.

Jill: Who do you think of as some of your influences? And who are some of your favorite writers, if those don't overlap, which they may not?

Obreht: Oh, I feel like they do. For me, that's inevitable. For some people they don't, which is cool, but I want to ask those people, "How is that possible?"

I went to undergrad to study English and creative writing, and I couldn't understand while I was studying English for my BA, why we weren't reading Bulgakov or García Márquez or Victor Hugo, all of whom I loved. I'd read these wonderful works and couldn't understand why we weren't reading them in the English program. Then, in my senior year, it became clear to me, "Oh! Well, they're not English writers." [Laughter] It was sort of shocking that I didn't understand that, but, as an immigrant, I'd failed to make that distinction in my head, somehow.

But I love Bulgakov. I love The Master and Margarita. I love Gabriel García Márquez. I think Love in the Time of Cholera is a spectacular book; it has so many layers, and it's so complex and funny. I love Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

I like to get carried away by place, and I like to be totally immersed in a world. I also love Hemingway and his short stories. I think it doesn't get much better than Hemingway in terms of short stories. So, I'm sort of all over the place.

I think that the unifying factor here is that they're dead. Well, Gabriel García Márquez is not dead, but people think he is. But — knock wood, knock wood — he's not yet. [Laughter] I'm a little old school, I guess.

Jill: That can be a good thing. Do you think a sense of place is another unifying element?

Obreht: Absolutely. Yeah, that's a better one. Let's use that instead. [Laughter]

Jill: In your New Yorker Q&A, you said place is very important to your writing. What do you think it is about place in particular that gives it that resonance or that importance for you?

Obreht: When I was little, and in high school, as well, I read often to escape. I also wrote often to escape. At the end of the day, despite all the other great things that literature does in society and in a person's life, I think that we read to escape. And I think that place, more than anything, provides that escape quickly, if an author is engaged with the place.

I think that place lets you exist in a world that you can't otherwise access or you won't be able to access for a while, sometimes ever in your lifetime. It brings you back, and it takes you forward, and you can cross continents with it. I think it's the magic of literature.

I spoke to Téa Obreht on March 3, 2011.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Tiger's Wife
    Used Hardcover $7.95
  2. The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story
    Used Trade Paper $2.50
  3. Love in the Time of Cholera
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  4. The Master and Margarita
    Used Trade Paper $8.50
  5. Jungle Books (87 Edition) Used Trade Paper $7.00
  6. The Short Stories Used Trade Paper $7.95

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