Conversation: Tea Obreht, Author of ‘The Tiger’s Wife’

BY Jeffrey Brown  April 1, 2011 at 12:03 PM EDT

The horrors of the Balkan War and strange encounters with a “deathless man”; the love between a woman and her dying grandfather; the magical story of a tiger terrorizing a European village. This mix of realism and fantasy is all part of “The Tiger’s Wife,” the new, first novel by Tea Obreht, a 25-year-old writer who was born in the former Yugoslavia and came to the United States at age 12.

I spoke to Obreht earlier this week:

 

And you can watch Obreht read an excerpt from “The Tiger’s Wife” here:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: The horrors of the Balkan War and strange encounters with a “deathless man”; the love a young woman for her dying grandfather; and the magical, almost surreal, story of a tiger terrorizing a European village. The mix of realism and fantasy is all part of “The Tiger’s Wife,” a new novel — and first novel — by Tea Obreht, a 25-year-old writer who was born in the former Yugoslavia and came to the United States at age 12. Welcome to you.

TEA OBREHT: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is set in a particular place and time — the former Yugoslavia, as we said. It’s a place that is in part yours, but not really in a sense, right?

TEA OBREHT: True. Very true. I grew up in Yugoslavia for the first seven years of my life, and we left and moved to Cyprus and Egypt and that’s where I sort of grew up in a very nomadic way. A lot of this based on vague childhood memories and then things that I have reabsorbed since going back to visit my grandmother, who still lives there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was it a way to connect or did you desire reconnecting in some ways?

TEA OBREHT: I did. A lot of writers that I know have told me that the first book you write, you write about your childhood, whether you want to or not. It calls you back. And that definitely ended up happening. My grandfather died, so it was a very difficult way to get called back to writing about childhood, but it would have been impossible to write the book without reconnecting to the place.

JEFFREY BROWN: I did want to ask you that, because I had read that. So there are some — it’s a novel, but there are some autobiographical elements to it?

TEA OBREHT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: In terms of the personal story between the daughter and the grandfather.

TEA OBREHT: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s almost inevitable that some autobiography sneaks in. A lot more of the relationship between the grandfather and the granddaughter snuck than I anticipated or really had any control over and didn’t realize until afterwards, but none of the plot lines are autobiographical. It’s about doctors in the Balkans; I’m not a doctor, my grandfather was an aviation engineer, so it’s sort of off in its own imaginary world in that sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this balancing of realism, the story of people living through a
very harrowing time, and the fantastic, the mythological — was that hard to pull off as a matter of structure, as a matter of writing, to keep them together somehow?

TEA OBREHT: The structure was interesting, and dealing with structural problems, you know, it was my first time writing a novel, so when you start you really have no idea what you are doing, and when you write a short story you can see the whole thing right away. You write it possibly in a space of two nights and you see it from beginning to end and then you can restructure. And with a novel —

JEFFREY BROWN: That was your background.

TEA OBREHT: That was my background, yes. Yeah, I wrote short stories exclusively. And then, a novel you realize you’re not going to see the end until like a year has passed. It’s a very long time to wait for structure, but I think that —

JEFFREY BROWN: That means you did not envision the end when you started.

TEA OBREHT: I had an end outlined, but it was not the end it came to. It sort of did that on its own, and I think that with a novel you have to be a lot more — what I learned, at least — is you have to be a lot more open to the work taking on a life of its own and going places where you didn’t expect. But in terms of the fantastical elements and the real elements, I thought that they ended up complementing each other really well in the writing process, because I think that myth-making is something that people really do in strife, and when dealing with reality, fantasy comes in so much as a coping mechanism, and I think that the magical realism aspect of that really made its way in very naturally.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the realism parts, you talked about going back and doing research and memories and talking to people. In the fantastic parts or the magical realism parts, there are two major stories here. There is the deathless man and the tiger’s wife, and they’re complicated to go into, but take one — the deathless man, because that’s an easier one to grasp. One of the main characters — the grandfather — keeps running across this character who tells him that he himself cannot die.

TEA OBREHT: Right. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now where does this story come from? Is it folklore, is it mythology? Did you make it up?

TEA OBREHT: It’s based on Slavic and German folklore, and it’s usually about a man who somehow tries to deliberately or on accident ends up cheating death. And it doesn’t end well for him often, but I wanted to explore — the character had made its way into some of my short fiction, and it had never really panned out that way and then he ended up, again, naturally — I realize I keep using this word, natural — but it made its way into “The Tiger’s Wife” because I knew that the doctor, that the grandfather as a doctor, had to be confronted with this notion of death, and that was something with which I was also coping — again, related to the death of my grandfather. So he ended up being a lot more complex and interesting of a character to deal with than in the folklore, and I had a really fun time expanding him. He was supposed to be sinister, but he ended up comforting. It’s weird.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, ultimately, his story, the tiger’s wife story, the grandfather telling stories, I can’t help but think this is sort of a story about story telling in a way.

TEA OBREHT: Yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: The grandfather carries in his pocket throughout his life “The Jungle Book.” Did that mean something to you? Is that an important book to you? Or this notion of storytelling? Where does that come from?

TEA OBREHT: The notion of storytelling is an important one to me, I think, again, as a coping mechanism. But also, I grew up in Egypt and the former Yugoslavia, and those are all cultures that have a very rich oral storytelling tradition. Everything becomes a story, whether it’s your everyday marketing or the story of your own great-grandfather. I had read the Jungle Book as a child, but it wasn’t such a key book in my life. Initially it was just a way for the grandfather as a child in this isolated Balkan village to understand what a tiger is, but then like so many other parts of the novel, it ran away with itself and became so much more, and it’s this talisman of his life so it really became important.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s funny to listen to you talk because everything sort of took on a life of its own —

TEA OBREHT: It did.

JEFFREY BROWN: — and was not expected, reminding me that this was a first novel for you. What are the most important lesions you learned about writing a novel?

TEA OBREHT: In its difference from short-story writing. It’s very important at least for me now — obviously everything is different for different writers; perhaps some writers feel that they have more control over a novel — but it’s surprising how much you lose control over the different threads. It’s important to have the whole thing in front of you so that it can be restructured in a controlled manner, and that then you can work through the things that come up continually and sort of maybe give the themes like a nice wash so that they make some sort of coherent sense. But, yeah, I think that the lack of control was really a big thing to deal with, coming from a background of short-story writing where you just have a handle on the whole thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, no story review is written without pointing to your impossibly young age of 25, so there wasn’t a whole lot of background in terms of experience of writing. Are you surprised now by all of the attention? Are you daunted by the pressure it now puts on you? Or are sick of talking about your age at this point? All of the above?

TEA OBREHT: I’ve been talking about my age for a long time because I skipped grades when I was very, very young. In the mess of moving from place to place, I skipped two grades in the space of one year. So I was always two years younger than everybody else, so the talking about the age is not a new thing for me. And I went to college at 16 and grad school at 20. But I always wanted to write. So the fact that this is happening now is just incredible to me. I still get floored by the fact that there is an actual book. You know, it has a face. It’s like meeting a stranger. It has a face. And people read it and know the characters and talk to me about aspects of the plot, and it’s just amazing. I’ve wanted to write my whole life and now people are reading what I’ve written. It’s wonderful.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new novel is “The Tiger’s Wife.” Tea Obreht. Nice to talk to you, and congratulations.

TEA OBREHT: Thank you.