March 6, 2011

Tea Obreht: Cornell MFA Writer at Large

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Since earning her MFA in creative writing from Cornell in 2009, Téa Obreht has already experienced tremendous literary success. Her story “The Laugh” was selected in the anthology Best American Short Stories 2010, and she appeared on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list of fiction writers. Her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife — the story of a tiger, a deaf-mute girl, a deathless man, and a young doctor trying to make sense of her grandfather’s death — will be released Tuesday by Random House. On the eve of the novel’s release, Obreht sat down with The Sun just a few blocks from her Commons apartment to discuss Ithaca, Cornell, and the book that will make her famous.

Sun: You’re a young, literary it-person. So, what are you still doing in Ithaca?

Téa Obreht: [laughs] I just stayed after my MFA. I have a writing community here, friends. I know I can write here, which is an important thing. I have some trepidations about moving on from the place I know I can function. But I’ve never lived in a place where I haven’t moved three or four years later. So it’s getting to be that time, and I think I’m probably going to move relatively soon.

Sun: Reading your work, a lot of your places have a unique feel. They have little, strange thing about them. So do you ever think you’d give Ithaca the literary treatment? Would you ever delve into that as a setting for a story?

T.O.: I don’t know, maybe. One of the things I’ve realized about myself is that I really need to get distance from a place in order to be able to write about it. So it’ll be in awhile.

Sun: When did you start writing The Tiger’s Wife?

T.O.: I started writing it in the spring of 2007. It started as a workshop story. It didn’t do so hot. It got slammed.

Sun: Who did you workshop it with?

T.O.: J. Robert Lennon. He was very nice about the story. I went to him after the workshop and I said, ‘I think that there are elements of the story that I wanted to stick with.’ At the time it was the tiger and the girl, and there was the snow-bound village. And he said, ‘That’s great, but what you have to keep in mind is the focus of a novel is very different than the focus of a short story.’ And I thought, ‘What does that mean?’ [laughs] So for months I spent thinking about that: you know, how is the focus different? But he was very helpful.

Sun: When did you finish?

T.O.: February of 2010.

Sun: What’s your relationship to the book now? I feel like it’s a strange phenomenon when you write something, you tell the story you want to tell and it’s somewhat private. And then, all of a sudden, it’s important to the world. What’s your relationship to that?

T.O.: That’s been something that I’ve struggled with. You’re in [Lennon’s] class. You know that when you write you spend a lot of time on your own with the material. It’s a world that exists for you, but in the context of the real world it means nothing. It’s this thing that you retreat to and it’s a private experience. And then, people have read it. Suddenly, people have read it. And I still get shellshock when somebody says to me, ‘So tell me about the deathless man.’ And I think, ‘How do you know about this?’

Sun: You have to engage with it in a way you’ve never thought about.

T.O.: Exactly. It’s like you’ve been hiding a friend. And they’re like, ‘Tell me about your friend!’ And I say, ‘How do you know? That person’s hidden.’ There’s an accessibility that happens from the outside and you have to think about your work in a whole new way. So it’s been very strange but very rewarding in a way. I’m glad people are responding to it the way they are. It’s so generous. I can’t believe it.

Sun: At 25 you have an audience and critical acclaim. So what are your goals as a writer now that you’ve got the two things that most writers strive for — to have people read you stories and also appreciate you as an artist. Where do you go from here?

T.O.: I think the goal is pretty much the same — to continue to be a storyteller and expand on the kinds of stories you tell and the way you tell them. I haven’t experimented much with fiction in terms of form, structure and those kinds of things. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I hope I continue to better myself as a storyteller. That’s all one can hope for I think.

Sun: Do you feel limited by the fact that you’ve ‘arrived’ before you’ve been able to do that sort of experimentation? Before you’ve been able to go through the glorious failures that older writers talk about?

T.O.: I’ve had some failures. [laughs] But I’m very grateful for everything that’s happened. There’s lots of time for glorious failures, don’t you worry. I don’t know, I guess we’ll just see what happens.

Sun: You’re very young, so I guess the first Big Literary book written by our generation is The Tiger’s Wife. [Tea laughs]. Right? It’s weird to talk about but if a band broke out and they were all 18, people would say, ‘This band represents the new generation of bands.’ Do you reject that notion? You’re youth is part of what has people so excited about the book.

T.O.: That’s true. The way I see it is that I’ve been writing for a long time, so the process of it isn’t new and that part of it doesn’t feel sudden. Because it’s not like yesterday I decided to write the book and today the book came out. No. The suddenness of the reception has been stunning. But I think that, at the end of the day, I’m just a writer. I just want to keep plugging away at that and I don’t know about the generational thing. I think, in that regard, only time can tell what something may become or may not become.

Sun: Okay, I think that’s all for the prodigy, up-and-coming questions. Despite the fact that you’re so young, the work itself has a timeless quality. Part of that has to do with the subject matter — myths, animals, etc. But is timelessness something you strive for in your writing? Or is it something that came out of particular stories in the novel?

T.O.: I think it’s something that came out of the stories because they dealt with myth and because of the skipping of time frames. The fact that the setting is clearly the Balkans but there’s also some ambiguity about where exactly, and that’s deliberate. … There’s stuff that’s out of your control. And if it does have a timeless quality, thank you, and I’m glad that it happened that way.

Sun: Even with the Balkan stuff, you’re obviously referencing historical events, yet there’s an absence of proper nouns and country names. So not saying the word “Croatia,” not saying the word “Serbia,” is that a conscious decision you made? Did you say, I’m going to divorce the story from the actual situation and create my own world?

T.O.: To same degree they are one in the same. I didn’t want to focus on historical particulars. I didn’t want the story to get bogged down in political specifics. And I think that by eliminating that kind of labeling, it freed the narrative to take on more fantastical qualities. It freed it from the restrictions of, well, if you right about this historical moment then this has to happen at this place and this time and you can’t have this character over here doing this when this is going on.

Sun: The book is pretty thematically ambitious. You’re dealing with life, death, myth, love. But at the same time there is a playfulness to the storytelling. What’s the relationship between the large themes that make your stories “literary” on the one hand, and the plain telling of good stories on the other?

T.O.: Well I think that, as someone, I can’t remember who, said, the universal is embedded in the particular. The more particular the details are, the more engaged you become in the trivialities of storytelling, the more the story becomes accessible to the audience. I come from the region and there’s this tradition of storytelling that is, in a way, playful. Somebody will tell you something about something serious in this deadpan way, and something in the way they say it will make a serious aspect of the story very funny. That sense is something that’s been with me my whole life and got amplified when I went there in 2009 on my vampire-hunting trip [for a feature in Harpers]. So I think that infused the story. But I also ended up following characters, like Luka and Darisa, who get their background story told. I ended up realizing that, in some ways, their pasts would make their presents much more significant. I wanted a way to open up these threads into a world that was more real, more vivid. It worked out really organically.

Sun: Were you inspired more by the stories of these characters, or thematic elements? Did you say, ‘I have this to say about death?’ Or, ‘I want to tell this person’s story?’

T.O.: It was more ‘I want to tell this person’s story,’ but I think that you can’t divorce the preoccupations of artist with the artwork itself. If I’m thinking about raspberry jam while I’m writing about polar bears, polar bears are going to be eating raspberry jam —

Sun: Some sort of animal at least.

T.O.: [laughs] Yes, an animal different than a tiger.

Sun: [in a mocking tone] Why do you have so many animals in your stories?

T.O.: [laughs] I have no idea. I’ve been thinking about it, and people ask me. But it’s a question I universally get stumped on. I think the answer is that the animal almost always becomes an external force that doesn’t always belong in the life of a character, and it somehow forces a rerouting of the character.

Sun: Well I hope all the interviews don’t make you shy away from putting animals in your stories.

T.O.: [sarcastically] No more animals. The next book will be the death of all animals.

Sun: The year is 2050 and there’s no animals left.

T.O.: [laughs] Bladerunner … But in terms of larger themes. At the time, I was trying to cope with the death of my grandfather and death was on my mind a lot. It’s not a very happy thing to say. I think that, in some ways, [writing] was a coping mechanism for me. Because while I was writing the book I had this life going on in the real world as well in which I was going through a crisis about it. I think, in terms of larger themes, especially death, they found their way in there because of my own neuroses and fears about it.

Sun: So what are you doing next? I hear you’re writing your second novel.

T.O.: I’m starting something that I think I’m connecting with the way I want to be. But with all this happening, it’s hard to get into that trance-like state where you’re completely immersed in it. I mean, with The Tiger’s Wife, I wrote eight hours a day and the hours were from, like, eight at night until four in the morning. So I don’t think it’d necessarily be healthy to go back to that particular mode of writing, but I think that I’m learning.

Original Author: Tony Manfred