25 Year Old Author Makes Us Jealous
If 25-year-old author Téa Obreht has anything to teach aspiring writers, it is this wisdom: don’t throw out that terrible story you turned in for a workshop. Before graduating from the University of Southern California in 2007, Obreht brought such a draft to class. The story centered on a deaf-mute woman who performs in a circus with a tiger and escapes with him to a village. Though the draft “failed on every level,” as Obreht recalled in a recent interview with the Free Press, the workshop didn’t take away her fascination with the world she’d created. In seeing what more might come out of it, Obreht created her debut novel, “The Tiger’s Wife.” It is dedicated to her grandfather, Štefan Obreht, who died in 2006. Obreht, born Téa Bajraktarevic, writes under his name to honor both his memory and one of his last requests.
Between that failed workshop and today, Obreht’s stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic and the New Yorker, which featured her last year on its list of the “Top 25 Under 40.” The National Book Foundation also ranked Obreht among their “5 Under 35.” Today she is able to write full time from her home in Ithaca, New York.
The story of “The Tiger’s Wife” swings between Natalia, a doctor trying to trace her grandfather’s recent death, and his almost-mythic childhood in a small Balkan village. Natalia follows clues from stories he told her of his youth — the woman who loved a tiger so much that she almost became one and his repeated encounters with a man who could not die. Though these narratives play out as fact within the novel, there’s a taste of a bedtime fable about them as well. “Something people forget when discussing literature in a scholarly way is the pleasure you get out of hearing good stories,” Obreht said. Perhaps her connection to storytelling comes from her international background — our American folktales don’t compare to the superstitions of old European villages. Obreht was born in Belgrade in 1985, when it was still the capital city of the former Yugoslavia, and moved to Egypt, Russia and Cyprus before immigrating at the age of 12 with her family to the U.S.
There is a real difference between books written because the author wanted to write a novel and ones that came about from the author having something to say. “The Tiger’s Wife” is in this latter category and even reads more like a 300-page short story. Contemporary fiction often allows its readers to skip paragraphs, a few pages, a chapter, and find their place There is a real difference between books written because the author wanted to write a novel and ones that came about from the author having something to say. “The Tiger’s Wife” is in this latter category and even reads more like a 300-page short story. Contemporary fiction often allows its readers to skip paragraphs, a few pages, a chapter, and find their place again. It’s an airiness I’ve come to expect from new novels (good books, too). There is a very different density to the words in “The Tiger’s Wife.” If you were to take this book and shake it, unnecessary words wouldn’t come floating out like paper — Obreht’s writing would drop like a brick. As with any good short story, the sentences of “The Tiger’s Wife” are interwoven and necessary.
Though the memory of Obreht’s grandfather is strong in the novel, many other characters in “The Tiger’s Wife” were drawn from Obreht’s friends and acquaintances. “The autobiographical elements have to do more with characters and the way people were painted rather than any plot points.” she said. But she couldn’t help highlighting at least one of her own childhood memories in the very opening of the novel — a memory of visiting the Belgrade Zoo with her grandfather.
Though Obreht speaks fluent English and Serbo-Croatian, she said that she struggled with a tendency to write from an outsider’s perspective, even when writing of her native country. “If you were a writer from Yugoslavia,” she said, “you would never write about raikja and describe it as ‘a plum brandy made from different fruits.’” She kept trying to explain things for an American audience. Obreht said that after a trip to the Balkans on a nonfiction assignment from Harper’s, “I felt that I got a very clear understanding of village life and what it meant to have an unwanted presence and an unwanted story.” This often translated into having doors shut in her face after asking certain questions. In the Balkans, there are some stories that villagers would rather bury than discuss.
Just to make it clear to any aspiring young writer seething with jealousy, Obreht’s luck isn’t undeserved. She seems to genuinely be interested in her characters and their world. Obreht gravitated toward fiction out of a love for imaginary places and the fun of simply making things up. We live in world of workshops and competitive MFA programs full of deadlines and the seriousness of becoming a Real Writer. Unlike many others, Téa Obreht hasn’t forgotten that writing fiction is all just telling stories and playing pretend.