Téa Obreht is the 24-year-old writer who has been spending more than her fair share of time in the literary spotlight lately. And for good reason too. Colum McCann says she's the 'most thrilling literary discovery in years', she was named as one of the New Yorker 's top 20 writers under 40 last year and The Tiger's Wife - her debut novel - has been received extremely well by critics. Jo Case spoke to her for Readings on the eve of the book's release.
Storytelling is central to The Tiger’s Wife – its power to transport us to other places, to comfort, to inform, to entertain. And perhaps most of all, the way shared stories create bonds between people. Did you always see the process of storytelling as integral to the book?
Like so much of the book, ‘storytelling’ ended up taking over as a central theme very naturally. Of course, I wouldn’t realise this until later – one of the things I learned in writing a novel is how much of it formed on its own, almost behind my back – but I did know that the reader would have to reconcile two sides of the story when it came to the tiger and the tiger’s wife: ‘objective’ information and the perceived truth of village gossip. After that, other facets of storytelling, especially storytelling as a bond between Natalia and her grandfather, fell into place.
The Jungle Book is another central thread to the story – the book remains precious to Natalia’s grandfather throughout his life, for various reasons, and he carries it in his coat pocket from childhood until his death. What is it that drew you to this book to help tell this story?
In a way, it was a very similar process to what I’ve already described. At first, The Jungle Book was just a natural way for the grandfather to know the tiger, a window for a small child living in the rural Balkans to process what a tiger might mean through his literary acquaintance with Shere Khan. Later on in the draft, the book became a talisman, a way for the grandfather to cling to his own past and make it known to Natalia. I really didn’t anticipate that.
I think my favourite thread of the story was that of Gavran Gaile, the ‘deathless man’ who Natalia’s grandfather encounters at intervals throughout his life, always in places where people are dying en masse. I like the way science (embodied by Natalia’s grandfather, a doctor) meets superstition (Gaile) and they vie, in increments, for credibility. And that the doctor – and eventually, I think, Natalia – are seduced, despite their rational beliefs, into believing the unbelievable. What inspired this character? And what drew you to that juxtaposition of science and superstition, which is mirrored elsewhere in the book?
The character is based on an archetype who often appears in Slavic and German myth, and his presence usually forces the people around him to deal with the social necessity of death. In terms of the juxtaposition of science and superstition: my friend is a doctor in Serbia, and for the past several years, I have been treated to anecdotes from her medical life, most notably situations where she has had to struggle to get past a patient’s superstition in order to treat them. Knowing that much of the book would focus on death, it seemed that the deathless man’s continual reappearance would most naturally frustrate a doctor, so that’s how the grandfather became one. That being said, in thinking about death, I believe that we all walk a very fine line between superstition and reality, no matter how steadfastly our beliefs pull us in one direction or another.
Natalia’s grandfather is especially affected by his country’s civil war – he seems, in some ways, to represent the division of the country’s soul. ‘All his life, he had been part of the whole – not just part of it, but made up of it. He had been born here, educated there. His name spoke of one place, his accent of the other.’ He has a wife from the other side, even his country house lies on the other side of the border. Was this internal division – of the man and the country – something you particularly wanted to explore?
I wanted very much to understand the idea of the interaction between personal identity and place—in some ways because my own childhood was so nomadic. I thought a lot the division of any country, how, if one’s identity is made up of a whole, the dissolution must feel like you’re becoming someone different. This had to happen to the grandfather; and I think is part of what forces his sentimentality for his childhood and his days with the deathless man, too.
One thing that strikes me about this book is how nuanced your characters are. For example, the reader is uncomfortably forced to recalibrate their feelings about Luka – the village butcher who beats his wife, serves customers in a blood-soaked apron and compares ‘delicious’ pigs’ feet to children’s feet – after we discovery his back-story. And even Natalia’s grandfather, in some ways the book’s hero, is morally complex. (Such as his reluctance to honour his bet with the deathless man.) Was this something you worked deliberately to achieve?
In writing several of my short stories, I had struggled with my tendency to oversimplify characters. Luka was very much a villain at the start, but it didn’t seem right to throw him out there and allow him to be comfortably reviled. It seemed easy. As a writer, I didn’t feel I understood him, and thought it would be useful – and fair – to explore his character further. This lead to his youth as an artist and the difficult times he had, and also opened the door for me to explore Darisha the Bear and the apothecary.
I was intrigued by your insights about the young people – Natalia and her peers – for whom the war had always been “at the center of everything”, and their seemingly paradoxical “inability to part with it” as it draws to a close. The idea that, terrible as it is, it’s both what they are used to and provides the circumstances they have planned their lives around. Are these observations based on your conversations with people you grew up with in early childhood, reading and research, or simply imagining yourself in that place? Or a combination?
Well, thank you! They’re definitely a combination. I was very young when I left, so my understanding of the war was based on the stories of people with whom I later reconnected, and my own observations of its aftermath when I returned to Serbia and Croatia. In spending my childhood in Cyprus and Egypt, I also grew up surrounded by a very restless youth culture. There’s a kind of energy when people are on the brink of something, and I think that made its way into the book.
Natalia’s grandfather says, after they see an escaped zoo elephant on the streets of their neighbourhood in the middle of the night, ‘The story of this war – dates, names, who started it, why – that belongs to everyone ... But something like this – this is yours. It belongs only to you. And me. Only to us.’ It’s those small, often surreal, moments, in this novel that brings the lived reality of this conflict and these places to life – and make the reader feel something in a way that reported facts can’t. Was that something you were aiming for?
Yes. I didn’t want to tell a ‘war story’ straight, because I felt that relying on facts and historical accuracy and politics would restrict the essence what I wanted to write about. Personal and family mythology born of conflict, the way you keep people and situations alive long after they are gone, were both something in which I was deeply interested. I found that mostly in the small, surreal moments you describe.
You were born in Belgrade, in the former Yugoslavia, but migrated with your family aged seven. Yet you capture the place and the experience of living in a conflict situation so beautifully. What kind of research did you do? And did you visit the place as an adult to gather details for the book?
Place is very important to me; the books I love to read have a common thread of total immersion in place, whether it’s the African savannah or twentieth-century Moscow. I go back to Belgrade annually to visit my grandmother, and on those trips – particularly the last one, during which I went vampire-hunting for Harper’s magazine – I’ve come to better understand the culture, and fall in love with the region’s landscape. Of course, I did take some liberties—that’s the beauty and fun of fiction, you get to make things up!
You spent your early childhood in Belgrade, then lived in Cyprus and Egypt before moving to America aged 12. Do you think your experience of these very different places has influenced the way you read and write? If so, how?
Absolutely. Growing up, I was steeped in stories. Myths were in minutiae, even the copper platter on which the merchant around the corner sold his spices (he might tell you the platter had once belonged to Napoleon). I think the idea of a story behind everything is very prevalent in The Tiger’s Wife; and is ultimately something by which we are all riveted. Great-grandmother’s silver picture frame is that much more significant an heirloom if we are told that it survived a flood or an arduous ocean crossing—whether or not that story is actually true.
Who are some of the books and writers that have influenced you?
I am always forcing Mikhail Bulgakov and Isak Dinesen on people – I have been known to buy The Master and Margarita and Out of Africa for students even when neither book is on my syllabus. Growing up, I read Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Victor Hugo voraciously. At some point in college, I switched gears completely and went with Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor. I am an indecisive reader.