Téa Obreht

Téa Obreht

Last night, Téa Obreht spoke at the Maison Française about her critically-aclaimed book The Tiger’s Wife, her writing process, writing as part of the healing process, and her new works. Our writer Karen Yuan was there to get us the details.

Téa Obreht, award-winning author of The Tiger’s Wife, spoke at Columbia as part of The Heyman Center for the Humanities’ The Writing Lives Series. Dressed in leggings and in relaxed conversation with Mark Mazower, professor of History here at Columbia, Obreht set a casual, intimate mood in which she discussed her novel and other writing. Afterwards, she read from The Tiger’s Wife and answered audience questions.

Opening with a joke – “I’m sorry I sound like I have the plague” – Obreht then began to address The Tiger’s Wife in, on the contrary, a clear and crisp voice. It was a reading voice. Her novel, about a young Balkan doctor and her relationship with her grandfather and his fantastical stories, includes war in the backdrop. “I wanted to write something war was a part of but not the center of,” Obreht said. “Small, everyday atrocities.”

What about the tiger itself in the novel? One of the grandfather’s stories is about a village girl who befriends a tiger that’s escaped from the zoo. Obreht laughed and confessed that while she was working on her MFA at Cornell, she would binge-watch National Geographic during the long winters. One day she saw a special on tigers and wrote a short story concerning a circus trainer losing a tiger in a Balkan village. “It was terrible,” she admitted. But she felt compelled to keep writing – that strange image of a tiger in snow haunted her, a lost and foreign thing – and soon her short story was looking more like a novel. When she told J. Robert Lennon, whose workshop she attended at Cornell and who read her “terrible” short story, he only said, “Okay. It won’t be perfect but it’ll be yours. And you’ll have to live with it.”

Her writing process for The Tiger’s Wife became stringent. She wrote from around 8 PM to 4-5 AM on a desk facing the wall. “I disappeared,” Obreht said. “Friends would text me and ask if I were alive.” She’d enter a stage of writing in which everything else ceased to exist. When she wrote, she’d still read other works, but only “safe” books that wouldn’t “warp” her writing. She named Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita as favorites.

Lately, she’s been writing more short stories and working on her second novel. “It’s sort of a post-apocalyptic western,” Obreht described. “It’s about building a community centered around a tower of junk…that holds people’s memories.” In US history, she continued, people have never experienced something like an apocalypse – unlike other countries, where systems collapse constantly. This might be why there’s such an obsession with the apocalypse in America (think of all the dystopian books and Hollywood films). The Tiger’s Wife was in the midst of war, and “war is always a sort of apocalypse…I’m interested in how life goes on after terrible things.”

Obreht wrote The Tiger’s Wife after her grandfather died. She’d lived with him her entire childhood, and he’d been a foreboding, eternal figure whose death was a crisis for her. “Mortality is often an impetus for sorting things out because everyone wants to live in a world that’s fine.” Writing the novel was cathartic as she discovered herself injecting bits of her late grandfather’s character into the fictional grandfather. “I could expand my time spent with him through writing The Tiger’s Wife.” Eventually, Obreht ceased to feel “emotional resonance” at her grandfather’s grave because that emotional space was somewhere else, within the book.

In the final part of the talk, Obreht read an excerpt from her book. It was a performance: Full of drama and humor, she pulled theatrical facial expressions and paused with mystery, her voice careening from lively and fast to soft and slow. Her chosen excerpt, about a “deathless man,” seemed to be a culmination of all the themes of her talk. When her reading ended, it was as if she broke a spell. The audience sat silent for a stunned moment and then broke into fierce applause.

Image via Wikimedia Commons