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‘The Tiger’s Wife’ Mixes Realism, Fantasy in Larger-Than-Life Tale From Balkans

June 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In her first novel, Tea Obreht mixes realism and fantasy in a larger-than-life story about her native Balkans. Jeffrey Brown sits down with the author to discuss her debut book, "The Tiger's Wife."
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a first-time novelist and a larger-than-life story from the Balkans.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: The horrors of the Balkan War and strange encounters with a deathless man, the love of 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, “The Tiger’s Wife”: 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 — I grew up in Yugoslavia for the first seven years of my life, and we left and — and moved to Cyprus and Egypt. And that’s where I sort of grew up in a very nomadic way. But 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 was — it would have been impossible to write the book without reconnecting to the place.

JEFFREY BROWN: 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 mean, I think it’s — 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 — but none of the plotlines are autobiographical.

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 question of — as a matter of structure, as a matter of writing, to keep them together somehow?

TEA OBREHT: With a novel, you have to be a lot more — what I learned, at least, is that 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 complemented — 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 — really made its way in very naturally.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the — 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, one of the main characters — the grandfather — keeps…

TEA OBREHT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … running across this character who — who tells him that he can’t — he himself cannot die.

TEA OBREHT: Right. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, where does this story come from? It’s — 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 — tries to deliberately or, on accident, ends up cheating death.

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 — 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 — 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.

(LAUGHTER)

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 story about storytelling, in a way.

TEA OBREHT: Yes.  

JEFFREY BROWN: The grandfather carries in his pocket throughout his life “The Jungle Book.”

TEA OBREHT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: 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: I grew up in Egypt and in former Yugoslavia, and those are all cultures that have a very rich oral storytelling tradition. Everything becomes a story.

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 — and became so much more. And it’s this talisman of his life. So, it really — it really — it really became important.

JEFFREY BROWN: No story review is written without pointing to your impossibly young age of 25.

(LAUGHTER)

TEA OBREHT: I have been talking about my age for a long time, because I — 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.

(LAUGHTER)

TEA OBREHT: So, this is — this is — 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 — I always wanted to write. So the fact that this is happening now is just incredible to me. And, you know, 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 the aspects of the plot. And it’s just — it’s amazing.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new novel is “The Tiger’s Wife.”

Tea Obreht, nice to talk to you.

TEA OBREHT: Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: And congratulations.

TEA OBREHT: Thank you.