Novelist Tea Obreht at Aspen Winter Words
Ryan Summerlin February 7, 2013
ASPEN – “The Tiger’s Wife” is a big, rich novel, embracing war and death, childhood memories and familial ties, cultural superstitions and modern realities. It makes leaps in time – from the present back to the middle of the 20th century – and, even more boldly, crosses the divide between what is real and what is imagined.
Still, for Tea Obreht, writing “The Tiger’s Wife” was in some ways easy. Obreht didn’t need to search her writer’s soul for the central subject matter of the book: Her grandfather, with whom she had lived the first years of her life, died while Obreht embarked on her first novel, giving her a clear direction.
“That set the tone and theme without any effort on my part,” Obreht said.
Also simplifying matters was where she was in her career at the time. Obreht wrote “The Tiger’s Wife” while she was a master’s student at Cornell University in her early 20s. Expectations, from within and without, were minimal.
“I wrote in this blissful space of innocence: ‘It will never see the light of day.’ ‘One day I’ll show it to my grandkids and tell them, ‘Hey, I once wrote a novel,'” the 27-year-old Obreht said from her home in Morningside Heights, near Columbia University.
The fall from innocence – or rise to stardom – was swift and conclusive. Obreht was spotlighted in The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list before “The Tiger’s Wife” was published; she was the youngest to make the list. When “The Tiger’s Wife” was published, in March of 2011, the cover bore a blurb from author Colum McCann, calling Obreht “the most thrilling literary discovery in years.” The book earned Obreht the Orange Prize for Fiction, a prestigious U.K. honor for female writers, and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Obreht, who appears Thursday in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series, maintains an unaffected character. She is giggly and open; she referred to herself as a “goofball” – hard to imagine of someone who wrote such an ominous novel. But she is at work on her second book, a process which is toughening her up, showing her that, for good and bad, not all novels will come together like the first one did.
“The primary difference is, this one, thankfully, wasn’t triggered by a tremendous emotional trauma,” Obreht said of the death of her grandfather. “With this one I had to be much more present with the thematic aspect, thinking about what is most important to me now. There wasn’t an external trigger.”
Obreht also is wrestling with the fact that she’s got a literary history. She’s not so concerned about how her next book will be received but more about the idea that “The Tiger’s Wife” is now a creative foundation for her future writing.
“All your work has some relationship to your past work,” she said. “It feels strange to be anchored to something. It’s not a blank slate anymore.”
The follow-up novel isn’t finished.
“But thankfully, not unstarted,” Obreht said. “It’s taken shape enough for me to see what will happen during revisions, as opposed to three months ago, when it looked nothing like what I wanted it to look like.”
Because she sees it as far from a finished product, Obreht was reluctant to say much about the story. She revealed, though, that the new book, like “The Tiger’s Wife,” is set in the Balkans and in the era following the war of the 1990s.
“It’s like a Balkans Western,” she said. “I know no way to describe it other than that.”
Unlike “The Tiger’s Wife,” the new novel is written in the third person, and the primary point of view is through male characters. It doesn’t jump across generations but does shift perspective from one character to the next.
In setting her first two novels in Southeastern Europe, Obreht is addressing a place that exists more in her imagination than in her history. She was born in Belgrade, in what then was Yugoslavia, in 1985 and left with her family in 1992 at the onset of the ethnic hostilities. The family followed what Obreht called a common trajectory – to Cyprus, then Egypt and then the U.S.
“Even having been raised for such a short time in the country itself, I was raised on the culture,” she said. “Those ways of seeing the world, of thinking, are very much part of me. But I think imagination is most significant.”
Relocating like that, books became a significant part of her life.
“The formation of friendships was always impeded by the fact that I knew we’d be moving soon,” Obreht said. “I found solace in books. And hearing stories developed into a desire to tell stories. I had dolls, and you’d make these things interact and tell a story about them.”
Obreht, who went to high school in Palo Alto, Calif., had her first breakthrough as a writer while studying at the University of Southern California under novelist T.C. Boyle. Her short story “Bush Meat,” set in Uganda, a place she’d never been, “let me realize I could do this,” she said.
At the creative-writing program at Cornell, Obreht would work late at night, writing “The Tiger’s Wife” – a story of a young woman, Natalia, and her grandfather, both doctors; of a man who was incapable of dying; and of the relationship between a deaf girl and a semi-tame tiger. For each character, Obreht made a soundtrack – the novel is sprinkled with references to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon – and after her writing sessions, she would drive and listen to the music she associated with the characters.
Deep into her second novel, Obreht doesn’t find herself preoccupied with whether her writing is maturing, whether she is taking steps forward from “The Tiger’s Wife.”
“The only way to maintain artistic integrity is to write the novel you’re meant to write at that time,” she said. “A lot of midcareer writers with whom I seek counsel say, ‘Don’t worry; it’s still you writing it.’ But that’s been a difficult thing to get my head around – that it isn’t supposed to be entirely different.”