The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” issue in June 2010. Being a New Yorker-anointed author can be a strong predictor of a great career to come, as evidenced by Jonathan Franzen and Jhumpa Lahiri’s inclusion on the first iteration of the list back in 1999. The magazine took a gamble by giving her a boost before her first novel The Tiger’s Wife was even released, but it has paid off richly: Early reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, including one from our own Lisa Schwarzbaum. The Tiger’s Wife is a wise, beautifully imagined novel well beyond Obreht’s years. As a 25-year-old writer myself, I spoke to Obreht about her stunning novel and her journey before, during, and since writing it.25-year-old author Téa Obreht couldn’t have asked for better buzz when she was the youngest author (24 years old at the time) featured in
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It was exciting to see “20 under 40” make a discovery of sorts with you, and I came away from the issue remembering you even more than some of the established writers on the list. Were you shocked by that level of public recognition?
TÉA OBREHT: I was. I think to some degree, it felt like it was happening to somebody else. It was a big accolade to get, and a really early one. It took a while to sink in. It was shocking for me, in a very good way.
So what was the journey to being featured in 20 under 40? How does that happen before your first book is available to the public?
The journey started well before the list came out in June of 2010. The rights to my book, The Tiger’s Wife, sold to the Dial Press in 2008. To my understanding, my editor submitted the book to The New Yorker in hopes that some part of it could be used as a short story to run in the fiction section of the magazine. I worked with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, an editor at the magazine, to excerpt a chapter, also titled “The Tiger’s Wife,” into short story form, and it ran in June of 2009. By the time “20 under 40” came out, I think people were surprised because I only had that story and one other in The Atlantic published, but the New Yorker editors had access to the whole novel from the very beginning — they had read the full “spectrum” of my work [laughs.]
In the time that you were in the process of getting published, you were completing your MFA in creative writing at Cornell. As an MFA student myself, I know there’s a never-ending debate about the usefulness of a writing degree. What did you get out of your MFA?
The great benefit of the MFA is time to write entirely to writing, and the opportunity to do so with people who are equally passionate about the work. I think a lot of people with, you know, “serious jobs” have a hard time understanding what we writers want to do, so having that community of people who understand is great. My road to publishing actually came through a colleague who connected me to my agent, and the faculty at Cornell was very supportive.
It’s hard for young writers to be taken seriously because of a perceived lack of experience. In your writing, how do you draw from experience, and how do you go beyond experience?
Being taken seriously, for a young writer, is a wonderful form of encouragement, but at the same time, I don’t think one should ever feel like attempting a kind of artistic endeavor is beyond your scope just because of age or inexperience. If you’re passionate about telling a certain story, your need to tell the story supersedes the level of experience you may or may not have. While I was writing The Tiger’s Wife, I tried not to let the question of whether or not I was the right person to be telling the story get to me. I think that’s something writers deal with regardless of age.
There are many fantastical, mythic elements of the novel that couldn’t have come from experience. Where did the strange story of the tiger’s wife — the deaf mute who befriends the animal — come from?
There were a couple of things that led me to that story. The bombing of the Belgrade Zoo, which actually did happen in 1941 — there are stories of escaped animals — was part of a rich time in the city’s history. People like to look back on it in stories and films, so the notion of escaped animals in the region are taken from reality. The wife was based on an elderly Russian woman I saw in a documentary once who could subdue tigers with her voice. But then, as I was writing, she became a young girl who was deaf-mute. The germ of the idea came from weird places.
Elephants, tigers, and bears, oh my! Several large beasts factor into The Tiger’s Wife; giant sea turtles and hyenas have played large roles in your short stories. What do animals mean to your work?
I’ve thought about this question a lot, but I don’t know! [Laughs.] Animals just interest me. I’m a nerd — I watch a lot of nature documentaries. But also, I’m intrigued by the way animals reflect certain human characteristics, and they’re also a huge device in mythmaking. If you read Slavic or Russian myth anthologies, there are always three stories about a princess and one really short one about a fox and a donkey that symbolize something about human behavior.
What have you been reading recently?
The book I read most recently is Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which was really fun and pleasurable to read. I also read Touch by Alexi Zentner and I loved Swamplandia!.
I like dark subject matter. I’m not sure what that means about me! But I’ve always loved young adult and kids books, maybe because I have a brother who’s ten. If I go lighter, maybe I’ll attempt a book for younger readers.
What are you working on now?
I’ve started a project that may expand into a novel. I’m reservedly optimistic about it. I’m in that phase where I’m trying to get attached to the new work, but I’m having a hard time letting the text of the old novel go. I saw the finished book today, and it’s done, it has a jacket and everything! But there are still moments when I think of it as this faceless thing on my computer, a bunch of drafts of chapters that I re-process in my head. It’s very difficult to let it go — that’s been a process in itself.
Can you give us any details about the next project?
Not really. [Laughs.]
Fair enough. You’ve had so much success right out the gate — does that put a lot of pressure on whatever you do next?
It would be a lie to say no. I’m trying to work out what kind of pressure it is that I’m feeling. I don’t know if it’s internal or external or a combination of both, or if the pressure will be long-lasting or nonexistent when I actually reflect on it. I’m trying to enjoy this moment, which is so wonderful. At the end of the day, what I want is to be a storyteller. Hopefully, I can remember that if the crucial moment comes.