Téa Obrecht: ‘Do I deserve this success? I don’t know’

The Times

April 2, 2011


Many of Téa Obreht’s e-mails to her agent lately have simply read “Really???” as he sends notification of yet another literary OMG moment after the publication of her first novel, The Tiger’s Wife. Seemingly overnight the 25-year-old Obreht has become America’s hottest young literary star. One rave review earned the author the cover of The New York Times’s Sunday Book Review section. Then the lionised critic Michiko Kakutani passed her judgment: “Ms Obreht has not only made a precocious debut, but she has also written a richly textured and searing novel.”

The story, set in Yugoslavia, is a dense stew of past and present, myth and reality, and follows Natalia, a young doctor, on her search for the truth about her grandfather’s death while travelling with a colleague to deliver inoculations to an orphanage. Alongside this run two mythic stories set in the past: the first, told by Natalia, is set in 1941 after the bombing of Belgrade and is about a beautiful tiger’s mysterious relationship with a deaf-mute widow abused by her husband; the second is about a mysterious harbinger-of-death figure called the Deathless Man recalled in stories told to Natalia by her grandfather.

The genesis of The Tiger’s Wife was deeply personal. Obreht was raised by her mother, Maja, and maternal grandparents, first in Belgrade until she was 7, then, when civil war broke out in 1992, in Cyprus, Cairo and the US. Her grandmother was a Muslim, her grandfather a Roman Catholic, and Obreht says that each was comfortable with the other’s faith — ironic in light of the conflict that so bloodily con- sumed the former Yugoslavia. Obreht’s mother and grandparents decided to leave the country as war broke out to give Téa, already clearly able and intelligent, a better life. “Serbian education is good and Serbian intellect a great export, but it is an export,” Obreht says. “There’s not a lot of opportunity there. Also, the Balkan attitude is that you shield the child as much as you can. It doesn’t need to know any more than it needs to know. I didn’t have a problem uprooting, my mentality was it was a new adventure.”

Obreht was particularly close to her grandfather Stefan, an aviation engineer, to whom the book is dedicated. Her father “was never part of the picture”, her parents having separated when she was small. She claims to have no memory of him and never to have been curious about him: “My grand-father was the paternal figure in my life, if you don’t have x, y or z you don’t know to miss it.”

Stefan told her the kinds of stories “which couldn’t have been true” that are woven into the more fantastical strands of The Tiger’s Wife, such as the occasion when hevisited the palatial home of an Ethiopian official to find a pride of lions reclining on the porch. “Stefan was from Slovenia, but had Germanic roots and walked with a hunch, born of a hard-scrabble early life of working in a quarry carrying rocks. It was his deathbed request [that] I write under his name,” Obreht says, “and I am in the process of legally changing my surname [Bajraktarevic] because your name is your identity, and I feel Obreht is mine.”

Stefan and Obreht’s grandmother Zahida returned to Belgrade, where Stefan died on May 3, 2006 (the date is engraved on Obreht’s mind). “His death made me start writing The Tiger’s Wife,” she says simply. While the grandfather of the book isn’t “really” her grandfather and the character of Natalia not “really” Obreht (but more her best friend, who is a doctor), the book became a “coping mechanism”.

Her grandfather, who had colon cancer, asked her not to witness him die but to continue with her studies, “which became a big family conflict but I respected his wishes.

Our last conversation was banal, he was heavily sedated. I wanted to be there but I’m glad I wasn’t. I was able to avoid the finality of it for a while. It took me about a year to come to terms with the fact he would never pick up the phone when I called Belgrade. I was asking myself: ‘Where had he gone? Is death the end?’ It also brought up, 100 per cent, my own mortality. Writing the book extended my time with him and helped put my gutwrenching and obsessions on to the page.”

Obreht feels calmer now — the character of the Deathless Man goes from sinister to reassuring, which measures the shift in her mood — but on her annual visit to Belgrade she now cleans the family crypt alone, which she and her grandfather used to do together, “which is weird now he’s inside it”. She occasionally sees him in her dreams,“but the conversation is just,‘Oh it’s you’. I think writing this has preserved him”.

Obreht’s success isn’t completely overnight. Last year The New Yorker published one of Obreht’s short stories and named her the youngest of its “20 under 40” writers, but even so the reaction to The Tiger’s Wife has taken her aback “in the nicest possible way”, she smiles, and Obreht is now on a head-spinning cross-country tour. “I am loving it,” she says, “although it’s been difficult to process.” Her Balkan background makes her “very superstitious, and I worry it could be taken away from me”.

Today, in a bar in Syracuse, upstate New York, the nearest significant city to Cornell University, where she studied creative writing until 2009 and where she still lives, Obreht is softly pretty and modest rather than the enigmatic blonde bombshell of her dustjacket photograph. “The most jolting thing,” she says, “is readers having opinions and talking about characters who were mine in private for so long. It’s like other parents, strangers, suddenly talking to you because you have a child. You feel like saying: ‘How did you comeby this information?’”

Her identity is both Balkan and American, she says: she still touches wood, “and I never tell anyone they have a beautiful baby because when I grew up if you said that, the Devil would come and take it away”. As The Tiger’s Wife makes obvious, Obreht loved going to the zoo in Belgrade, “being held up on the railings of the carnivore wing”. A tiger really did escape from Belgrade Zoo during the 1941 bombing, and after Nato bombs fell in 1999 a traumatised tiger began to eat its own legs, an episode that features in Obreht’s novel. More recently, in Syracuse, Obreht observed tigers “at their happiest” in the snow. In Cairo she and Stefan would see the mummies unveiled in their tombs, “and it was only later I realised ‘That was a real body’.”

She was an early fan of ghost stories, from being transfixed by the Disney version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to (as an adult) Guillermo del Toro’s The Orphanage, crying so much that she thinks her friends “will never invite me to scary-movie night again”. She doesn’t believe in ghosts so much as “the myth of ghosts”, as The Tiger’s Wife illustrates. “I went to Salem recently, and the legacy of the witch-hunts is tangible in the desire of people who live there today to atone for what happened all those years ago.”

Obreht has always been private and introspective, happy to play, read, draw or create stories by herself from a young age. “There’s this image of the sad and pathetic only child, but that wasn’t me,” she laughs.

She had friends — “and I have friends. I go out, have girls’ nights, all that” — but was happily “self-engaged” for much of her young life. She was inspired by Gothic writers such as Poe and Hawthorne as well as Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen), Hemingway (for his short stories), Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita) and Victor Hugo (she still has her childhood copy of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). The Jungle Book, which features in The Tiger’s Wife, was also read to her. “I always wanted to write, apart from a period as a teenager when I thought about being a zoologist.

Even then I imagined writing in a tent [and] tagging wildebeest on the side.” Obreht was “an obnoxious teenager”, she admits, going outlate, “but never drinking or doing drugs”. Her grandfather once saw her in a friend’s car when she shouldn’t have been. “I didn’t fear him but I feared his disapproval. His attitude was very much, ‘You have this opportunity to excel, don’t waste it or screw it up’.” In 2000 her mother remarried and Obreht got a baby brother, Alex, who, when she took him out in his pram, other women assumed was hers. A writing class at the University of Southern California in 2005 “completely got me, I learnt how you structure a book”.

Despite its freighted present-day setting, Obreht’s novel doesn’t use real names for towns. “I wanted to write a human story without a political inventory,” she says. So there is no political symbolism in the tiger? “No. If people want to read it that way, fine, but the tiger is just a tiger, although allegory and myth are used by all kinds of cultures for making sense of difficult times, including war and conflict. The book is about fear and ignorance, and also childhood and how children conceptualise death.” A trip to Yugoslavia to research vampirism for a magazine article helped to hone the dialect and her understanding of how “shame and guilt inform gossip in communities”. She is optimistic for the future for her home country. “I think the younger generations just want to move on.”

The Tiger’s Wife took Obreht three years to write from the seed of a very different short story, living the kind of writer’s life that meant visiting her grocery store at 2am for “limp lettuce and not a lot of bananas”.

“I’m very hard on myself,” she says. “I don’t like putting anything out there that I’m not 100 per cent happy with. I write sentence to sentence. I’m aware of the pressure already around my next novel” — also to be set in Yugoslavia, “but a radical departure” — “I don’t think I’ll get overwhelmed and get writer’s block. My problem is the pressure I put on myself. Other writers have said it’s important to be deep into writing your second novel. I don’t feel I am yet.”

Happy in her relationship with another Cornell writer, who she declines to name, marriage and children are still far off: “I have dated writers and it can be a nightmare, but not this time. He’s very supportive.” She is “excited to be doing all I wanted to do” and, just as she was as a child, she is “still a nomad. I’ve been at Cornell for five years and I’m getting itchy feet”. She is planning a move to New York.

Surely Obreht’s former classmates must be envious of her success. “They’ve been overwhelmingly generous,” Obreht insists, “although I have had people at conferences ask me, ‘Do you think you deserve this?’ My response is ‘I don’t know’.”