EYE OF THE TIGER
Alexandra Masters meets the author whose debut novel won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, making her its youngest ever recipient.
Téa Obreht has taken me by surprise. Sitting amidst the sudden calm of her publicist’s London flat, in the wake of the cameraman’s departure, we have barely begun talking than she is telling me her theories on the meaning of life.
It all happened, she explains, after her grandfather died and she discovered her own way of coping with loss which, in turn, helped her gain a new perspective on life. Her frankness is unexpected; her honesty touching. But then perhaps this should not come as too much of a surprise considering that Obreht’s debut novel The Tiger’s Wife – which won this year’s prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction and made her the youngest ever winner at just 25 – is not afraid to take on some of life’s ‘big’ themes of love, death and war in a quite bold and unexpected way.
The main thread of the novel centres on Natalia Stefanovi, a young doctor from an unnamed Balkan city. While on a trip with her friend to administer inoculations to orphaned children, Natalia strives to piece together the key to her own grandfather’s life and unexpected death which, we are told, lies between two stories that ‘run like secret rivers’: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the ‘deathless man’. So ensues a labyrinthine journey (told through disparate narrative voices) where accounts of prewar ‘social looseness and lunacy’ and its gruesome aftermath sit alongside tales of spirits, immortal men and a deaf-mute girl which, we later discover, is the eponymous (and no less mysterious) tiger’s wife.
As tales of Balkan folklore, full of colour and hyperbole, interweave with stark accounts of death and war, their distinctions begin to blur: fables are so vivid they become real while harsh reality is shrouded in superstition. And even though the place names in this Balkan country ‘still scarred by war’ are fictitious, it’s soon clear that the so-called ‘City’ isBelgradeand ‘the Marshall’, Tito.
Even life and death become interchangeable as the deathless man rises from his coffin while a taxidermist, known as Dariˇsa the Bear, stares at row ‘in thousands of forms standing in that hall with frankness and clarity… had come and gone, swept by, and left behind a mirage of life’.
As memories distort and questions remain unanswered, people ‘confounded by the extremes of life’ turn to superstition to try to make some sense of it all. But behind this collective hysteria lies a quiet voice of resignation that admits some things will always elude our grasp. This is depicted clinic where her grandfather has died: ‘There was something familiar about the room… a crowded feeling of sadness that crawled into my gut, but not for the first time, like a note of music I could recognise but not name.’
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Téa Obreht © Graham Jepson/Writer Pictures
But apparently Obreht’s yearnings to become a writer began long before then. When she was very young, she tells me, she started to keep a diary. ‘I was never any good at it because my thoughts about my life weren’t particularly interesting to me. It seemed like I wasn’t really running from myself and I wasn’t really running to anybody else. It was silly.’
But one day, she decided she wanted to write creatively. ‘I used to play those imagination games where you would be somebody else and that was when I decided...’ She breaks off and, putting on
a regal voice, says: ‘That was when I came to the conclusion at the age of eight, having written a
very short story about a paragraph long about the misadventures of a goat, that I would be a writer.’ She bursts out laughing. ‘My mother was very tolerant
of these pronouncements and I had made several already probably about wanting to be a vet or... a princess, or whatever it is that girls do. That was the defining moment, despite the fact that it happened at eight, and it persisted.’
Sadly, she no longer has the goat story (I would have loved to have read it) but it turns out her mother had been hoarding some of her other early works.
‘I would type them [the stories] up and illustrate them myself... there was a point at which I was writing stories only so I could then illustrate them. The wildest things would happen in these stories because I would be able to think of the corresponding illustration.’ She pauses and adds conspiratorially: ‘My brother, who is ten now, is an unbelievable illustrator. I have secret hopes!’
Obreht and her family only stayed in Cyprus for
18 months before moving to Egypt. ‘My grandfather knew people there, he had worked in Jordan for a while – he was in aviation engineering. This is back when everybody was still friends! It was not such a controversial thing to know people in the Middle East or to have worked there.’
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Her memories of Cairo were, again, blissful but in an entirely different way. ‘Mythology was there on the street. Everybody’s house had some massive history to it. It’s kinda the way it is here; things are just old, they go way back.’ She waves her arm at the window with a dramatic flourish. ‘You can step out on the cobblestones of a street and say, “such and such a king walked these cobblestones” and “these great romantic figures of history were on this street” and “this happened on this corner” and there’ll be a plaque. That kind of storytelling was really inherent in a place like Cairo and on the weekend you wouldn’t go to the river, you’d go to the museum or see the pyramids.’ It was when she was at school at Cairo that Obreht picked up the stories and folklore that would inspire so much of The Tiger’s Wife. She describes her teacher as ‘a sort of mythological figure himself... an Indiana Jones type. He was an incredible storyteller. He would tell us myths in a very humorous way with twists and turns like horseback riding to the lost city of Memphis that was buried in the desert. I thought, “This is the way to go!”’ But the family did not settle in Egypt and, after three-and-a-half years, Obreht and her mother moved to the US. Did this frequent moving ever create a sense of upheaval, I wonder? ‘It never did,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘It was sort of natural: where are we going now? I don’t know how healthy that is. It’s only recently I’ve begun to realise how easy it is to leave people behind and how wrong that can be, how it’s important to maintain relationships and connections with people from your past because, at some point or another, they were part of your identity.’ It is another poignant revelation.’
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'It’s important to maintain relationships and connections with people from your past because, at some point or another, they were part of your identity.’
She remembers the tutor from her creative writing course at Cornell University commenting on another story she wrote called, ‘The Space Outfit’. ‘He said: “This is very nice but there’s no emotional depth here.”’ She laughs again ‘I was like, he’s right! Yes! It’s about engaging your work in the correct way; sometimes even if you see something being really alive, other people don’t. You have to go into it
and flesh it out... understand why it is alive to you and make it alive to somebody else.’ It’s an astute observation, and her capacity to take this kind of criticism is admirable – there are some notoriously thin-skinned writers who, at the slightest whiff of a negative reaction, have to retreat to a darkened room with a cold flannel.
Another moment of inspiration came later when Obreht went vampire hunting (which, amusingly, she mentions as flippantly as if she were talking about shoe shopping) for Harper’s magazine. ‘I was connected with village life; I suddenly understood things about the culture, the particularities.’
It was at that point she asked her editors if she could take back her manuscript of The Tiger’s Wife and amend it. ‘You’ve lived with the work long enough to know what’s missing and if you just wait it out the right elements will find their way into the story. Because you see the book in completed form you know what fits and what doesn’t... what’s forced and what’s not.’
I often wonder whether writers ever feel completely happy with their final work, or whether they re-read chapters months, or years, later which they are desperate to change. It seems Obreht suffers a similar affliction and admits she even edits when she’s giving readings. ‘I’m on the podium and I’m like, hmmmm [she mimes someone scratching out lines with a pen]. People think “That’s not in the book!” I think on a sentence by sentence level I will always
be unhappy with certain things... at the end of the editing process I was like “One more day, one more day!” and they [her editors] said “We’re gonna come over and pry the book out of your cold, dead hands!”’
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'Finishing a book is really a matter of knowing when to cut that cord and say “Now you’ll be free,” which was a difficult thing to do.’
The Tiger's Wife
by Téa Obreht
in paperback by
Téa Obreht © Graham Jepson/Writer Pictures
And so Téa Obreht sits beside me, grappling with words, trying to explain how writing The Tiger’s Wife helped her deal with the death of her own grandfather four years ago. ‘I think I am quite a different person than I was before I wrote the book,’ she says thoughtfully. ‘I think writing the book made me feel much more at peace with certain things, certain questions that are inherently human, certain questions that we all ask that I had never been forced to even consider previously: “If everybody dies, what does this mean?” “If I’m gonna die too then why am I here?” “What’s going to happen to all my memories which are going to vanish with me?” Stuff like that sometimes makes me sit up at night...’ she pauses, then adds: ‘But having written [the book] doesn’t mean I don’t still sit up at night!’
Unlike many of the characters in her book, Obreht found it difficult to turn to the familiar rituals that are so often relied upon during times of deep loss. ‘I felt less and less connected to my grandfather in the ways that you were supposed to feel connected to a dead person,’ she explains. ‘If I went to church and lit a candle – which I still do for my grandfather, even though I myself am not religious – or went to his grave, I wasn’t feeling connected to him; I felt most connected to him when I was writing and that is how I got through the mourning process. It was very cathartic… I didn’t realise at the time.’
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How she has gained such wisdom at so young an age remains a mystery, although I suspect her unusual and peripatetic childhood might have played a part.
Born in Belgrade in 1985, Obreht’s earliest memory is going to the zoo with her grandfather – she tells me that the zoo referred to in the novel is ‘based loosely’ on that zoo. ‘It is in a citadel in a fortress and it was bombed in 1941. But that’s pretty much the extent of the parallels.’ But with the imminence of civil war, Obreht, aged seven, and her mother and maternal grandparents left to live in Cyprus.
She tells me that growing up in Limassol was
‘a blissful, golden childhood time’ where all the children in the neighbourhood would play together. ‘It was probably the only place on earth where anybody’s mother would be like, “Yeah go and play in the street, who cares?” It was really safe. I remember I would be running around for hours and nobody would know where I was... there were some fields near our apartment and you could just take off. It didn’t matter because it was safe.’
At such a young age, did she have any concept of what was happening politically? ‘I knew there was some bad stuff going on, that it would be better for us to go, but I experienced it all as this grand adventure. I don’t remember being traumatised by the move in any way.’
The fact Obreht has not had first-hand experience of war makes this observation in the novel all the
more astonishing: ‘When your fight has purpose – to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent – it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling – when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark
or event – there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who came before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.’
These are the words of an accomplished writer
– perhaps more so when one considers she started writing this when she was just 22 – and it comes
as no surprise to hear Bettany Hughes, chair of the Orange Prize judging panel, describe The Tiger’s Wife as the book that ‘changed the way we thought about the world’.
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‘I think I am quite a different person than I was before I wrote the book... writing the book made me feel much more at peace with certain things'
Tigers in the Snow
But there is one day in her memory that stands out amongst the others – one that was to mark a turning point in her career.
Four years ago, Obreht had been at her home
in Ithaca, New York, snowbound and watching
a documentary about Siberian tigers. ‘The documentary was called Tigers in the Snow,’ she explains to me. ‘There was this Russian researcher who kept a sister and brother pair so he could study their behaviour. He had this massive enclosure and his wife was this little Russian lady with a really sweet voice and she would call them to her. Even though they were partially wild tigers, if they needed to be inoculated or fed she would call them to the fence and they would come and they would just completely melt.’
There was something about this image that struck a note with her and she promptly sat down and wrote a short story called ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ – the tale of a deaf-mute girl who has performed in a circus with a tiger. ‘The tiger escapes and they come to this village and there’s this little boy and then...’ She trails off and gives a little shudder. ‘It was a horrible story! It got destroyed in the [creative writing] workshops.’
That must’ve been tough, I suggest, when you
get excited about a story only to have it torn apart, especially when so much writing can be so personal. She disagrees: ‘No, no, I think that’s very valuable. I think it’s really good to take criticism. It’s not easy but I’ve always viewed [writing] not as “I’m cutting my veins on the page here!’’’ She breaks into infectious laughter. ‘Instead it’s more of a “here’s what happened to come out, how can you make it better, what do you really want to do with it, what is the best form?”’ It turns out this story, for all its apparent flaws, would become the outline for her novel.
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Let It Free
But she has a theory about this, too. ‘A person is constantly changing while they’re writing the book.
I think there comes a moment where the person you were when you started writing the book is no longer the person you are now and if you continue to write, at least this is what I’ve found, the book will change in a way that isn’t true to its original form. Then it becomes a different book. So when I hit that point I was like, “Fine, whatever it is it is!” I think it’s really a matter of knowing when to cut that cord and say “Now you’ll be free,” which was a difficult thing to do.’
She also discovered an interesting way of working.
‘I used to wake up fairly late in the afternoon and I would work for the first part of the night. I’d drive around listening to music that I’d carefully formulated to correspond to the book; I made soundtracks for characters and plot events. Then I’d go back to my room.’
She says she enjoyed being alone with her characters, but it was a struggle to get back to ‘that place’ where you were the day before. ‘You have to be in the right frame of mind to really engage. But you write paragraphs that yesterday felt amazing and today you look at them and you’re like “This is garbage! What am I gonna do?”’
She alludes to Ernest Hemingway who would always stop writing when he knew what was going to happen next, ‘so he didn’t hit the bottom of the well’. ‘You sort of fight with it, it’s like landing
a plane... it doesn’t want to land, it’s like you’re powering down and trying to work with it somehow.’
However, she’s not sure she will be able to stick to this nocturnal ritual forever. ‘Hopefully there are different ways to write because my life is quite different now. Really, now, you can’t be like that at four in the morning... there are people who would like to see you during the day!’
Speaking of which, what will her second book be about? ‘I think that it’s gonna be set more or less in the same general geographic area – I’m not entirely sure I’m done with Balkans yet but I think it’ll be quite different thematically.’
Considering the myth and surrealism that abound in her book, Obreht’s disbelief on learning she had won the Orange Prize – and beaten a formidable shortlist, including Emma Donoghue’s Room – is quite fitting. ‘It’s a ridiculous honour, it’s incredible,’ she says smiling. ‘I’m more than honoured enough with all the great stuff that’s happened in the last three months. It’s surreal... I can’t believe that I’m here.’
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