Téa Obreht Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Téa Obreht
Beowulf Sheehan Photography

Téa Obreht

How to pronounce Téa Obreht: Tay-uh Ah-bret

An interview with Téa Obreht

Two brief interviews with Téa Obreht, discussing her most recent novel, Inland, and her acclaimed debut novel, The Tiger's Wife.

Téa Obreht discusses her latest novel, Inland

Why did you want to write a novel set in the American West?
I grew up a city kid, living with my mother and grandparents on a grey street in Belgrade. America, when I finally arrived here in 1997, was suburban Georgia, and eventually the neat neighborhoods of Northern California. The America of the western novels my grandparents loved seemed impossible to me—a landscape of the imagination, a painted backdrop. The first time I saw the Rocky Mountains in real life, however, I was helplessly lost to them. The landscape, its textures and smells, its sounds and solitude, were all I thought about, all I dreamed of returning to when I left. For someone who had spent a lifetime on the move, this pull felt entirely new. It felt, at last, how I'd always imagined the draw of "home." It seemed inevitable, before I ever arrived at any semblance of story, that whatever book I wrote next would have to grapple with that feeling and its myths, consequences, and illusions.

What did your research for this book involve?
I was deep into the research and drafting of a completely different western when I stumbled onto the substance of Inland by happy accident. Some years ago, an episode of the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class detailed an old Arizona campfire tale about two sisters left alone on a homestead, and the inexplicable and terrifying encounter they have at their own front door. The podcast contextualized the incident and the bizarre, little-known, but utterly true 19th-century military experiment in which it was rooted.

I couldn't believe I'd never heard of it before, and that something so incredible and richly layered didn't have a more prominent place in the mythos of the American West. At first, I kept returning to the initial campfire tale. But then, as I traveled to Texas, Arizona, and Nevada, and pored over journals and newspapers of the period, what I learned of the experiment and its participants began to stir up questions I had only just begun to ask of my grandmother (a Bosniak Muslim who married into a very secular, but ethnically Christian, household) before she died. Questions about her sense of identity, as well as my own mixed ethnicity and how it shaped my sense of belonging and search for home—not just as an American immigrant, but as a child of a country that no longer exists.

What do you hope readers will be surprised by, and most take away from this story?
I hope readers seek out the true story of the Beale Wagon Road, and the people whose real lives and adventures inform many of the book's key moments. But I also hope readers find themselves turning to some of the questions that carried me along during the years I wrote Inland: What determines whether myths live or die? What is the tension between self and history? What does it mean to live at the periphery—of identity, community, landscape, empire? What is it about the American West that seems to put our need to belong at odds with the powerful urge to self-invent?

Téa Obreht explains how her first novel, The Tiger's Wife, came to be.

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 boy—were 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 Dariša 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 Dariša; 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 Ismailova—a townie-shunned tourist trap against which the few Russians I knew had cautioned me—and 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 talked—I can't imagine not asking him where he was from, or whether he had done the killing himself—but I don't remember the conversation. What I do remember is going home that afternoon and dredging up a man reincarnated as Dariša 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 Dariša. 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?

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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