Author Téa Obreht opens up about writing the wildly successful ‘The Tiger’s Wife’
While 2011 was considered the year of the rabbit, for author Téa Obreht, it was really the year of the tiger. In March of last year, the 26-year-old released her first novel through Random House and became a literary sensation with “The Tiger’s Wife,” a mystical fable set to the backdrop of the recovery of war in the Balkan area. With rich language, compelling storytelling, magical realism, and historical events, it’s no surprise that “The Tiger’s Wife” was such a hit with readers and critics. As a young literary voice, Obreht writes like a longtime seasoned pro—her writings have already been featured in The New Yorker online, The Atlantic online, as well as in the pages of Harper’s.
While her book was a break-out hit last year, it was recently released in paperback and Obreht will be visiting Bookshop Santa Cruz for an author event at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13.
“The Tiger’s Wife” is a quick read—its textured storylines captivate the reader in the first few pages as we take a journey with the story’s youthful heroine, Natalia, a doctor on her way to an orphanage, who is accompanied by her best friend, Zóra. As we follow their journey to help children, the story is spliced into several subplots—Natalia learns that her beloved grandfather has died and the explanation for where he died, how, and why is unsolved. So, as she fulfills her medical duties, Natalia begins to unravel the mystery behind her grandfather’s passing. What she discovers is a series of mystical tales that are, truthfully, far more interesting than the story of the work that she’s doing with the orphanage.
We are introduced to her grandfather, also a physician, who shares the story of the deathless man—a man who was punished by his uncle and cursed so that he might never experience death. Her grandfather meets this man on several occasions throughout his life and the storytelling is so believable that you begin to wonder if such a man could exist.
Meanwhile, we come to understand her grandfather’s obsession with the story, “The Jungle Book.” Her grandfather grew up in a small village where a tiger roamed the surrounding areas of his hometown. There, in the remote town, is a butcher and his wife—a passive, abused woman who has an affinity for the wandering tiger.
These stories all unravel together throughout the course of “The Tiger’s Wife,” presenting an epic tale that will put Obreht on the literary landscape for her entire career.
GT recently caught up with Obreht to inquire about some of the unspoken things in the book, her unusual writing process and whether she had to endure stacks of rejection letters in order to finally get published. She was warm, gracious, and hilarious.
GOOD TIMES: You are originally from the former Yugoslavia, and then you moved to Egypt and Cyprus, and eventually to the United States when you were 12. Why did your travels take you to these places?
Téa Obreht: I was raised by my grandparents and my mom. It was my mom and my grandfather’s job that kept us moving. In 1992, there was a lull in employment in the former Yugoslavia. My mom caught a break and got a job in Cyprus (she’s an economist). My grandmother’s family had ended up in a suburb of Atlanta in Georgia and it was time to move forward to the States or go back. My grandfather was adamant about a U.S. education for me.
In the book, your character and her grandfather are very close. Was this the case with you and your grandfather?
We were very, very close. He was a father figure to me in many ways. We had a great bond. He passed in 2006. He appeared indirectly in this bad short story that I wrote about a little boy who witnesses a relationship between a young woman and an escaped circus tiger. The boy became the grandfather/narrator (in “The Tiger’s Wife”). It was cathartic.
How long was the process of writing the book to getting it published?
I started writing the short story in the spring of 2007 and a first draft of the novel was finished in the fall of 2008, and then the final draft in February of 2010 and it was published in March 2011.
What was your journey to getting this book published?
Everyone’s journey is very different. If you ask 10 writers, you’ll get 10 different stories. I had started writing the novel and didn’t feel that it was ready for publication. A writer friend mentioned to his agent that I was working on this and the agent queried me. I had 70 pages, but he loved it and signed me. I finished the novel in the next few months and he went out with it and it sold. I then went on a vampire-hunting trip to Serbia and Croatia (for Harper’s) and which became an inadvertent research trip, so I restructured and reworked the book. The process was very quick for me. I know great writers who go through that process for years.
Did you find any vampires on your trip?
Many, in fact [laughs]. It was surprising what we did find. We found people who live with ancient stories and pagan beliefs that are in strange and unexpected ways a part of everyday life. I met one guy who was a demon purger and exorcist.
“The Tiger’s Wife” is a beautiful story but there are some details that are left out. What happened to the copy of “The Jungle Book” that the grandfather carries around forever but mysteriously disappears when he dies?
That is totally a question for the reader. Has “The Jungle Book” been spirited away by the deathless man?
You had a unique writing process with “The Tiger’s Wife.”
I woke up in the late afternoon, had breakfast/dinner, then wrote for several hours, drove around the cornfields in Ithaca and listened to soundtracks that got me into the mind frame of the book, then wrote until 3 or 4 a.m. then went to bed at dawn. It was manic, isolated darkness, a kind of immersion.
You tell several different stories in the book: Natalia and THE orphanage, the deathless man and the tiger’s wife. Which story were you most connected to and why?
From very early on I was connected to the story of the deathless man. He was supposed to be a sinister figure, but as the story progressed, he became more and more comforting.
Ultimately, what is “The Tiger’s Wife” about?
To some degree, it’s not my place to say because I feel like for each reader it’s different. But, I do think it’s a meditation on death and the meaning of death, which is what it ended up being about, which was not the agenda. There was no agenda.
Téa Obreht speaks at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Learn more at bookshopsantacruz.com or call 423-0900. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan