The Rumpus Interview with Téa Obreht

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Let’s get the age stuff out of the way. Téa Obreht was the youngest member, at 24, of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” in their most recent Summer Fiction Issue. Her short story, “The Laugh” was published in The Atlantic when she was 23, and now, at 25, Obreht’s debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, hits shelves this week.

But as she points out in our interview, Obreht hasn’t suddenly found success because she suddenly started writing. In a brief Q and A with The New Yorker, she says she decided to write her first story at 8-years-old, “largely because I liked the way the word ‘goat’ looked on the page.” From that point on, there was no turning back. “I decided then and there I wanted to be a writer. That desire never changed.”

Obreht was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. She lived there until the age of 7, when war forced her family to emigrate to Cyprus and then Egypt. She moved to the United States when she was 12. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Cornell in 2009 and still resides in Ithaca. We talked about how The Tiger’s Wife came together and her life experiences that shaped the novel.

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The Rumpus: There are layers of stories in The Tiger’s Wife. It seemed like you had a surplus of material. Did you leave any material out? If so, how did you did decide what to include and what to leave out?

Téa Obreht: There were story lines that I ended up leaving out. But I think that the three main story lines that started as separate ideas — the Tiger’s Wife, which started as a story for a workshop, the story of the Deathless Man, which has been brewing for a long time, and then this childhood story about a narrator and her grandfather – the three of these came together very organically.

There was this moment when it occurred to me to test out whether they fit together at all, and I saw they fit together in this wonderful way that very much appealed to me and to my process at the time. And the fact that three went together enabled me to keep going with the narrative.

Something else that happened was that as I went along introducing other characters, it felt, in particular with Luka, too much like a cheat to just make him a villain. So I sort of wrote his story just for myself, as an experiment, so that I would understand the character better, and then that story belonged there. So that’s how the story for Darisa and the apothecary came along as well.

Rumpus: Do you do that often, where you’ll actually create and write a full back story for a character?

Obreht: It depends on the character. This is my first novel, so everything was a learning experience. And I don’t know whether it’ll work again for a second book, and if I do end up writing backgrounds, I don’t know that they’ll end up making it onto the page. I guess, otherwise, it just becomes a formula — (laughing) which is terrifying, I know.

But I think that I do need to understand a character more in depth than is sometimes permitted by the framework of a story, so I’ll do a quick sketch on paper. For instance, for short stories that I’ve written, I did have backgrounds for certain characters that didn’t show up and were completely immaterial to the story itself, but they help me understand, “ok and now he did this.”

For “The Laugh,” which was a short story published in The Atlantic, I did have background stories for those two characters even though they never made it onto the page.

Rumpus: You say you didn’t want to make Luka out to be a villain. Why did you decide not to?

Obreht: I didn’t want him to be a villain, straight up 100 percent, because it felt very formulaic and very easy to just be like, “and this guy’s a bad guy.” In the first draft there was no background for him, and he was just this wife-beater and this very unlikeable butcher.

I had written a short story many years before that and one of my workshop teachers, when she read it, she said, “You’ve got a villain here and he has a name like Wormwood or something and, really, it’s just too much.” I started to get nervous that I was doing a very similar thing to Luka and I wanted to give him more depth, to have him be complex.

Rumpus: I think it definitely worked. Did you find it hard to balance him out?

Obreht: Yeah I did. In different versions, I would worry that it might look like I was excusing battery or something. But I wanted his rage to be founded in something, so he just wouldn’t be this throwaway character. I think that in the end, I struck the balance that I was looking for. I think villains are interesting.

Rumpus: Why did you choose to tell the story through Natalia’s eyes?

Obreht: Part of that had to do with something that was going on in my life. I was trying to cope with the passing of my own grandfather.

Rumpus: Is that Stefan, to whom the book is dedicated?

Obreht: Yes. And I was struggling with that, so what I was thinking about a lot in my own life was how we venerate our loved ones, especially earlier generations, and how when somebody passes their life becomes this enigmatic thing. And sometimes you don’t know details, and so it felt like a very natural thing to have the story told from the perspective of somebody who was young and thinking about past times to which she didn’t necessarily have access. That being said, virtually none of it is autobiographical except for perhaps certain relationships between certain characters.

Rumpus: I had a special relationship with my grandfather as well. Do you think there’s something about grandfathers that captures our imagination in a way that grandmothers don’t?

Obreht: In my case, certainly — but this is my personal case. I don’t know that it’s true for everyone though (laughing) maybe it is. My grandma, I loved and admired, but she and I never had the same pal-ing around rapport that I had with my grandfather. And she was much more of an authority figure.

But I think that a fascination with — you know, the grandparent’s generation, regardless of who you are — your grandparents’ generation has access to some sort of romantic past. And they’re somebody that you can envision in those scenarios who’s close to you. So there’s this whole other world and whole other life that happened before you were even a thought or arrived on the scene. And it’s more fascinating than it might be with your own parents. I think that’s part of it.

Rumpus: Did you lose your grandfather while you were writing the book or was the book borne of that experience?

Obreht: I think the book was borne of that experience. I had never attempted to write anything about my homeland or anything related to that at all until after he died.

Rumpus: And he was a doctor, I’m assuming?

Obreht: No. He was an engineer. An aircraft engineer.

Rumpus: So how does the grandfather in The Tiger’s Wife become a doctor? Why did you choose to make him a doctor?

Obreht: That happened very organically too. At first, I was like, “because doctors have authority,” and “oh because doctors have this or that.”

My best friend from childhood is a doctor, and she and I, we go way back, and even though she lives in Belgrade still, we’re really close, and we talk often. So I’d been getting her anecdotes about medical school for years.

Doctors have the most access to the line between the supernatural and the real, and I know people who have to navigate that line every day. That happened very organically, and now I think I understand why that happened — that that’s the right profession to walk that line.

Rumpus: There’s seems to be something that the book is trying to resolve between science and the supernatural. Both Natalia and her grandfather are doctors who are confronting death in their own ways. I found myself asking — is the problem of death better answered through science or religion? Were you going after that at all?

Obreht: I don’t know that I was going after it consciously as something to talk about in the book, but it ended up on the page mostly because I was going through very similar questions and sort of a crisis of my own related to death.

People told me that the first time you’re faced with the death of someone you love, all these questions arise, and your beliefs are shaken, and you’re not sure, and for some people it can take a long time to resolve. In some ways, in writing the book, I was trying to resolve those issues for myself so a lot of it ended up on the page. I was definitely thinking about that.

Rumpus: The worlds in the book – the grandfather’s and Natalia’s – are worlds in which magic or superstition still very much exists. Is there something about living in the places you did that populated your imagination in this way?

Obreht: I think definitely. I definitely grew up in places where there’s this supernatural undertone to a lot of things. Where I come from, people are extremely superstitious, and that infuses everyday life. And people in Cyprus and Egypt are not beyond superstition either.

There’s this wealth of myth, and wealth of folklore, and these are all things that people live with every day, and I was very into those stories when I was young. And I’m still into those stories now. So I think it’s something that very much infused my own childhood.

Rumpus: You write very convincingly about the lives of adolescents in a war torn country — it’s eat, drink, be merry because there’s a war on. Were you old enough to be cognizant of what was going on in Yugoslavia? Where does that come from?

Obreht: I think that a lot of the places that I moved to were places that had political problems and tensions that aren’t necessarily present in more Western locales right now. I think that, even though I was decidedly too young to appreciate what was going on in Yugoslavia at the time, but from having returned there many times since moving to the States, I got the general feeling, from conversations with people my own age and with people who’ve lived there and people we left behind, that there’s this, “life goes on” attitude. People deal with strife by just doing every day things.

And that was the case with the other places where I grew up too. In Cyprus, in Egypt, people there were going through difficult times, not perhaps as bad as war-torn Yugoslavia at the time, but people have this general attitude that, you know, “the persistence of life will get us through this,” and that’s what I wanted to capture.

Rumpus: Have you spent any time with tigers at all? The book opens up with what, to my eye, was a very convincing depiction of a mauling.

Obreht: I haven’t. I didn’t spend any time with tigers in the wild or in reserves or anything, which was sad because I wanted to, and I kept trying to find ways to do it. But it never came about.

I went to zoos a lot as a child and then also as a teenager, and I did frequent a local zoo that had Siberian tigers while I was writing The Tigers Wife - so, mild action in enclosed spaces.

Rumpus: You started writing very young. I think I read somewhere that you remember writing your first story at 8. Are you tired yet of people talking about age? Or do you still get a kick out of being the youngest genius in the room?

Obreht: It’s very flattering. It’s surreal to me, too, that now this is happening. Personally, I’ve been writing for a long time, so I realize that I’m young. But at the same time, I’ve spent a lot of time in the act of writing. So while this feels sudden to me that all this happened, it’s not sudden because I started writing suddenly, and then suddenly all this happened.

But at the same time, you know I’m getting older, so eventually I won’t be the youngest anymore. (laughing) I just passed the, “ability to rent a car without paying the young driver’s fee” mark. (laughing)

Rumpus: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that if you weren’t writing you’d be teaching writing. Are you teaching now at Cornell?

Obreht: I’m not, I haven’t taught since 2009 when the program ended. So, I’m writing now, for a living, which is wonderful.

Rumpus: What is it about teaching that you like?

Obreht: I like the excitement of students. In the creative writing courses I taught at Cornell, there’s this real sense of freedom that they get when they write. The course was not required, and a lot of engineers ended up there, and a lot of agriculture and pre-med students also ended up there. That was where they came to sort of do that thing they weren’t supposed to be doing at the time.

There’s this real energy that they give off. They’re so excited, and it’s new to them, and then they find out there’s stuff they can do — you know, do something to the narrative here and then that happens over there and it works. It’s wonderful to be there witness that.


John Wilwol teaches literature in Washington D.C. His work has also appeared at The Millions and The Washington Independent Review of Books. More from this author →