Well just about everyone has heard about the sensational debut novel by Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (see my review here). It is a sparkling and ambitious novel. And in person she is sparkling too. Obreht is in her words a ‘nomad’. She was born in Belgrade, has lived in Cyprus and Egypt on her way to New York where she has lived since she was 12. Given that around half of her life has been spent in the US Stephen asked her why it was she chose to write about the Balkans. She responded by saying that distance helps. She spoke about the tremendous influence her own grandfather has been on her life and how she came to write the novel 7-8 months after he had passed away unexpectedly. Those events drew her to writing about her childhood, (and she made the interesting observation that many novelists’ first book is about their childhood).
There is a great oral story-telling tradition in the Balkans countries, but also Cyprus and Egypt. Those old tales, the folklore, the history are ever present things in people’s lives. There is immense superstition – something which readers of the book will be familiar with! – in these cultures. She told the story of how I think it was her grandmother who places a pair of scissors on the floor with the sharp edge pointing toward the door to ward off evil.
When asked about how she has found the immensely positive reaction and whether it places extra pressure on her for her next book, she said that her only fear is that the 2nd novel might not come from the same emotional ‘well’ that The Tiger’s Wife has come from. She said stories are like people: some you date, some you fall in love with. She needs to feel that she is in love with the next story, that there is that emotional bond with it, that way she feels it will have the same resonance for readers too. The sudden readership, she says, is wonderful and amazing and surreal.
She’s always wanted to be a writer. She lists many literary influences and loves: as a kid she was exposed and loved Roald Dahl and Rudyard Kipling (no surprise there – The Jungle Book is a very important ‘prop’ for the grandfather character in her book). Then the Bronte sisters. Then Victor Hugo and Mikhael Bulgakov’s marvellous The Master and Margarita – which is one of her favourite books (and mine too – I like her taste!). Gabriel Garcia Marquez also a big influence and then modernist masters like Hemingway, Chandler, et al. She believes that the favourite experiences of reading these authors seeps into her own writing – and it is clear to me that Bulgakov comes through in The Tiger’s Wife very much.
She talked a lot about one of the other characters in the book: the Deathless Man. Apparently he is one of people’s favourite characters. She intended him to be more sinister at first, but as she went she found him to be very sympathetic and easy to write. Many of his sections survived editing without much rework. She said the shock death of her grandfather fed into the character; he was in part a response to death and her trying to comes to terms with it in her own life. She admitted that he was probably her favourite character.
She was asked whether the story of the tiger’s wife is real folklore: she said it was her own (based a bit on a Beauty and The Beast theme) but it’s structured and told in the form of a real folklore story. Having read the book I can attest that this is how it reads: as if it was one of those real stories that grew out of a village. She also spoke about some of the research she did: and how a much earlier visit to that part of the world in chase of village stories on vampries gave her a real sense of not only how such stories were told, but how the villagers told them. Also, she mentioned that the digging scene(s) in the book where people dig up fields in search of family members killed during the war so they can be given a proper burial is based on fact – many people have done exactly that.
She is optimistic about the future of the book and the future of the former Yugoslavia. And finally, she loves editing. She had to lose sections of the story in editing which she was attached to, but could see the reasons for editing them out and has learnt a whole new side of writing and a new skill in the editing process.
Another great session: Tea Obreht has a very bubbly and engaging sense of warmth and humour. I highly recommend The Tiger’s Wife and look forward to her next book.
More to come from Thursday…