Three narrative threads weave through Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife. A tiger escapes from a zoo in the Balkans and finds its way to a village in the mountains, where it’s cared for by an abused deaf-mute woman and a young boy. Later in life, that boy becomes a doctor and meets the Deathless Man, who claims to be unable to die. Far in the future, the doctor’s granddaughter, Natalia, who is also a doctor, is in the process of attempting to understand her grandfather’s life after his death. The book’s central focus is the experience of losing a loved one: it explores the strength of our bonds with those we love, as well as how (paradoxically) unknowable those people ultimately are. And despite all the brouhaha surrounding Obreht’s age (if you haven’t heard, she’s 26), what matters most about this novel is that it’s simply a very, very good book: it reaches for emotions and human experiences that lie just beyond words, for something intangible, indescribable about how we relate to one another and, ultimately, ourselves.
We spoke with Tea Obreht over the phone about her process in writing The Tiger’s Wife, her vampire-hunting experience, and the frequency with which animals appear in her work.
You’ve said that when you brought the short story that became The Tiger’s Wife to workshop it got battered. What kind of criticisms did you receive?
I remember that story came up and it got compliments here and there – J. Robert Lennon was my professor and he said, “There’s something bigger here that you need to think about,” which then turned it into a novel. But my friend Alexi [Zentner] said, “There are actually people with pitchforks in this story.” [laughs]
It had been this sort of strange, short, very fast-moving piece that had a Frankenstein feel to it. The elements that I was happy with were the ones that made it into the final draft: the tiger, the story of this very strange relationship, the snow – those elements were there. But it was poorly crafted – more of an outline than a story, really – and there were pitchforks.
The Tiger’s Wife is intricately structured – I love dismantling the moving parts in a novel, but the book was so well put together that I almost didn’t want to do that. How did the structure of evolve?
It was very strange. I think that I understand how the structure developed a lot more now that it’s finished. I still don’t quite understand how it came together because my greatest trepidation when I started it was: how am I going to put this together? [laughs] Because I don’t write in order. I write out of order. Not just non-linearly but in this crazy all-over-the-place way, where different story lines came in independently of one another and then once it was whole I went back and gave it a retreatment.
I knew that I wanted there to be three separate storylines. I wrote the parts that interested me most first – the “Tiger” section, which originated as a short story here at Cornell in the workshop – and didn’t do so hot in the workshop. But I stuck with the tiger, I stuck with the [deaf mute] girl. I wrote those threads and then the Deathless Man and the present-day portion followed. And somehow after it was all written out in weird, non-ordered ways I was able to go back …. And it turned out there was a pattern in the narrative that made it easy to reshuffle the parts and make it flow.
How did you discover that pattern?
I didn’t know how to thread [the three storylines]. That there were three storylines was easily recognizable. And the book deals with mythology, so I thought, how fitting: there are three storylines, the magic three number! [laughs] And I think that the way they fit in together was regulated by the way they support each other. I had to figure out what the backbone was and how the other two [storylines] would be woven into that organically. I knew that the three stories were really the same story, but I needed to figure out how they could work off each other and build off of each other. And the answer to that, in the end, was voice.
Do you always write out of order?
Not at first. I feel like, to some degree, as a functioning individual, I’ve degraded to these weird patterns of behavior in terms of process. [laughs] I work extremely well under pressure …. but now the only way I can really work is under extreme pressure. …. The older I’ve gotten and the more I worked on [The Tiger’s Wife] it was just, “I like this part! It’s supposed to be somewhere in the middle of the chapter. I’ll work backwards. And then forwards maybe!”
I’ve learned to let go of whatever control I think I have over the piece and do what feels right at the time. Then when everything’s on the page, I say, “Alright, now I’m in charge. Let’s see how this works.”
Each of the three narratives is characterized by a web of lies that slowly unfolds – it’s partly thematic, but it seems to be cultural as well.
There’s this cultural propensity towards lying to protect the younger generation. Your grandparents will lie to your mother about something bad that’s going on. Your mother, who has some details, but not all of them, will lie to you about it to protect you. This extends from a belief that the young should be spared of worry. It extends from everything from “There is no spinach to the house, although I was going to make spinach pie. I will go out and get it myself rather than tell you” to just about anything else – to grand, life-changing news of personal devastation or war. You just protect, somehow. I don’t think it works very well. [laughs]
What’s your relationship to village life in the Balkans?
I left [Serbia] when I was 7 in 1992. All my memories of the region were reduced to these impressions of places and people and childhood feelings. We went back for the first time in 2003 and, you know, everything was smaller because you’re a lot bigger, but at the same time these feelings were still there. I could recognize the way to get from point A to point B without having been there in 11 years. I got reintroduced to Belgrade first. Then to parts of Croatia, where we have a house on the Dalmation Coast.
So there was this slow, gradual reintroduction from 2003-2009. I would go about once-a-year, but I never felt completely reconnected to the region, even though most of the book was already written by 2009 and it was already with my editor.
Then Harper’s sent me to Serbia and Croatia to hunt vampires. The trip ended up being a very impromptu — “Here’s a village with some vampires!” And the village wouldn’t be on the map and you’d have to find roads and ask people who were on the roads “What’s the way to this and this” and it was bizarrely like Natalia and Zora’s trip in many ways. That was surprising to me, because I had already written the book and there were moments where I was like, “This is very weird. I don’t know how I feel about this. I already wrote this!” [laughs]
It was firsthand experience in going door-to-door and asking uncomfortable questions. Some people were happy to answer; some people were happy to answer after liquor; and some people just did not want to answer at all.
When I came back I took the book back from my editor and said, “I need more time with this!” [laughs] So, I think it was a really valuable experience and my understanding of village life was broadened. For the first time I really understood elements of the culture that I hadn’t been able to tap into since leaving. It was a life-altering experience for me and it really, really changed the book for the better: it is what it is today because of it.
What were the uncomfortable questions you were asking?
Oh, you know, you knock on somebody’s door and say, “I hear there’s a vampire legend here and you people still believe in it. Is that right?” [laughs] Some people would say yes and would let you in for coffee and rakja anyway – and twenty minutes later it would turn out that they didn’t have a vampire legend, but they had something even more bizarre that could be linked closely to it. …. Sometimes you’re dealing with people in their mid-90s and they don’t want to talk to you about these things that were very real in the past, that were very real to them when they were 10, 15 years old. People were overwhelmingly generous about it [though]. It was a strange and wonderful time. It will probably remain for the rest of my life as the summer from which most anecdotes are drawn.
While the specter of war hangs over The Tiger’s Wife, you keep the conflict at arm’s length: the conflict, like Belgrade, is never named.
I was really interested in human stories, rather than political specifics. I deliberately didn’t put real place names or historical events – what happened here or there – or particular conflicts because what I’d been exposed to and what I’d come to understand was the aftermath of it, rather than the war itself. Human stories rather than historical inventories is something that really interests me. The first details that emerged really came from that desire to just write about people: the fallout, rather than the particulars.
Similarly, the religious conflicts in the Balkans are, again, alluded to never become a focal point.
I wanted to bore out the religious aspects because my family is a mixed bag: my grandmother’s Muslim, my grandfather’s Roman Catholic, my stepfather’s Serbian Orthodox. What I realized as I grew older, what I realized as I look back, is that religion and religious rituals that pertain to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim canon are not as prevalent as these rituals and beliefs that date back to pre-Christian times. There’s this shared pagan past across all the religions that infiltrates even the religious rituals of today. I wanted to address that more than the specifics of the religion. I didn’t want to make a comment on Orthodoxy or on Catholocism or Islam, so much as the underlying superstition in those rituals that are really related to something a whole lot older. Despite the religious conflict those similarities are still there – and those similarities are what I encountered on that vampire hunting trip. In some ways I think that’s unique to the region.
There’s something very restrained and understated about the fantastical elements in The Tiger’s Wife – it reminds me quite a bit of Eastern European folklore.
There’s a great tradition of oral storytelling in the Balkans and Eastern Europe in general, and I think I really understood it when I went back there and listened to people I didn’t know telling these stories. There’s a tendency in those stories to talk about something in such a straight-forward way that you miss the fantastical part of what they’re saying. Then, whether its moments later or days later, you have this thought, “C’mon. That didn’t happen!” But in the instant that you are told, there’s no delay: you just buy it. That can only happen in this straightforward storytelling way where people dole out facts: “It was a sunny day and 75 degrees outside” and then, in the same breath, “When, on the river, I met a vampire.” [Laughs] Why wouldn’t that happen?
In the same storytelling vein there’s a tendency to treat serious subjects in the same deadpan tone and there’s something so funny about it. Even if it’s a very serious subject: deadpan tone. And the person telling you the story is completely serious, then they say something – I can’t even think of an example now, which bothers me – and it’s a way of turning the narrative on its head because suddenly this very serious subject becomes very funny. There’s an element in the story that doesn’t fit, in addition to the fantastical stuff, which makes it extremely funny. Those were all things I kept in mind and, to some degree infiltrated the writing process — probably not even consciously. I became aware of it later, when I started to dissect [the recordings I made on the vampire-hunting trip for Harper’s] and wonder, why am I dying laughing every time this guy says this when it’s really not that funny? But I started to realize why it was [funny] and it made its way into the book, probably without my intending it to.
Do you think that “magical realism” is a fair descriptor for The Tiger’s Wife?
I don’t know. People have described it that way and, if it is magical realism I’m so happy and flattered. But I didn’t set out to write magical realism. I think you write what you like to read and …. I’ve never said, “I really would hate to read this so I’ll go out and write it.” [laughs]
I do read a lot of magical realism – but if it is magical realism, it just happened. And I’m happy if it is. But I think because it deals with myth so much it might not be. Sometimes in magical realism you’re not really supposed to admit mythology. …. There are moments in stories by Bulgakov and by Garcia Marquez, both of whom I love, where things are never presented as potential facts: they’re just facts. I think that [The Tiger’s Wife] ended up dealing with whether or not something is potential fact. I should add that I’m in no way comparing myself to Gabriel Garcia Marquez; it’s my frame of reference mostly because I read him a lot.
Animals have become something of a signature in your work – the eponymous tiger in your novel and the hyena in “The Laugh” being great examples. Why?
I guess it is [something of a signature]. …. It’s gotten to that point now where if I say, “I’m working on a story,” [the next question] is: “is it an animal story?”
Animals are [often] stand-ins in literature: they can be stand-ins for a human soul, for a conflict with nature. For me, for a long time, they represented – and in some ways the tiger [in The Tiger’s Wife] represents – innocence, this pure state that perhaps man is no longer in. Beyond all those things, though, I’ve realized that animals make their way in as an external force that isn’t supposed to be there, in the life of whatever character is perceiving the animal – the elephant [that escaped from the zoo and is wandering around Belgrade in The Tiger’s Wife] isn’t supposed to be there, the tiger isn’t supposed to be in the village, in the Balkans. Hyenas are supposed to be in Africa, but they’re not supposed to be in your house. None of that was intentional. It’s just ended up that way.
Those images are there as forceful elements in the life of the character, beyond which life – or your perception of life – changes. Not necessarily an epiphany: just force.