Téa Obreht talks about her first novel, The Tiger's Wife
After completing my first novel, The Tiger's Wife , I've found myself indulging in a sentimental mood. I pretend that this is due to my need to retrace my steps, to see how it all came together, and, by remembering what I did before, somehow speed my next project along; in fact, I am probably just procrastinating or being insufferable, mulling over memories that, due to the late hours, were doomed to an impregnable haze a long time ago. I dig through my "notes": folded scraps of paper, the backs of torn-open envelopes where I doodled plot points and lines of dialogue, index cards with cryptic inscriptions"BUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THE WATERMELON?!?!?"punctuated as though I'd had some kind of civilization-saving breakthrough.
For whatever reason, as I go through my notes, I spend much of my time revisiting the evolution of my characters. Who's been there the longest? Who was thrown out at the last minute? Who was the life and soul of the first draft, and then ended up with one dialogue in the third? Who's been renamed, transformed completely into somebody else?
In some ways, the answers to these questions are both pointless and intensely personal, like telling a long-distance friend about how you've fallen in love with a person they have never met: they can listen politely while you rattle off a list of traits or events, but a whole world of experience separates the storyteller from the listener. But I do believe that thinking about these things gets back to the vital question of artistic control, and the surprising ways in which your work takes on a life of its own. In The Tiger's Wife, I found, of course, that core of the cast members a tiger, his "wife," a little boywere all together at the outset, in the spring of 2007, peopling a lackluster short story about a deaf-mute girl who arrives in a snowbound village in pursuit of the escaped tiger with whom she performed in a traveling circus. But, to my surprise, I also found a then-minor character called Daria the Bear.
Originally, he was a mean drunk, a ruthless and uncomplicated villain, hardened by religious fanaticism, and I wanted the reader's revulsion with him to be simple and complete. When the story began to expand, and the village of Galina and the characters who live there expanded with it, there was no room for Daria; his kind of villainy had been eclipsed by a far more sinister character, and he was extracted and put away. He wouldn't find his way into the book again until one afternoon, almost a year later, when I found myself at the Moscow flea market of Ismailovaa townie-shunned tourist trap against which the few Russians I knew had cautioned meand among the predictable lacquered matrioshkas, bootleg DVDs, prints of Soviet propaganda and fake Fabergé baubles, I met the bear-man. I can't picture his face anymore, but I do remember that he had pitched his booth at the top of a wide, stone staircase, and that, draping down from the top like water, were the pelts of maybe two dozen brown bears of all shapes and shades, mouths agape. We must have talkedI can't imagine not asking him where he was from, or whether he had done the killing himselfbut I don't remember the conversation. What I do remember is going home that afternoon and dredging up a man reincarnated as Daria the Bear, a hunter and taxidermist whose obsession with death, drawn from great personal loss, is rooted in his desire to understand and preserve the majesty of things once living.
I would never have thought, at the outset of all of this, that of all the characters in The Tiger's Wife, I would end up feeling closest to Daria. Perhaps it is because in a roundabout way I have ultimately spent so much time with him; perhaps it is because, in the end, he becomes a man who seeks to capture life in the absence of it. After all, isn't that what storytellers really do?