A Talk with Téa ObrehtThe rising star reads at Hunter
When Téa Obreht stepped to the podium of the English Department’s packed faculty dining room on April 4, she looked and sounded as if she would blend right in at Hunter’s halls.
As the third author of the 2012 Distinguished Writers Series, presented by Hunter’s MFA Creative Writing Program, Obreht came to Hunter to read from her award-winning debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, and talk about her experience as a writer.
The 26-year-old author stumbled over her words excitedly as she recounted her “wild adventure kind of childhood” and spoke of the origins of her novel. Born in the former Yugoslavia, her family lived in Cyprus and Egypt before landing on the West Coast of the United States. After graduating from the University of Southern California, Obreht moved east to take part in Cornell’s Creative Writing MFA Program.
She recalled how the “seasonal change forced me indoors. I had nothing to do but write – and watch TV.” A National Geographic program on Siberian tigers sparked one of her first short stories and also one of her first failures. Her classmates slaughtered it in their workshop.
Despite that setback, though, the story stuck with her. Later, it evolved into The Tiger’s Wife, a tale of a young Balkan doctor who seeks to uncover the mysteries around her grandfather’s death. Winner of the prestigious Orange Award and placed on The New York Times bestseller list, The Tiger’s Wife is a novel that thrives on a magical realism. Its delicate threads recall the intricately woven work of Gabriel García Márquez.
Explaining why he sought out Obreht, Gabriel Packard, the associate director of the MFA Creative Writing Program, remarked, “[Obreht] is an excellent writer and is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that she’s achieved such great things at such a young age.”
Obreht was humble – nearly self- effacing – when the conversation steered toward her many achievements. “When I was writing [The Tiger’s Wife] there was this secret hope that someday five people might read it and they would not all be related to me,” she said.
Obreht chose to read a short section of the novel in which the protagonist’s grandfather, a doctor, tells her the unbelievable story of the “deathless man.”
As she read, Obreht’s excitement turned to commanding confidence. Delivering her work in a dry, witty tone and highlighting its astute humor, Obreht kept the audience engaged. She accompanied her surreal situations with the appropriate silence, building up the mystery of her immortal man’s tale and receiving laughter in kind.
After the reading, Obreht seemed eager to hear reactions from the audience. She said playfully, “I’d be very happy to answer questions for however long you care to be here – or not. And if I don’t see you asking a question, just throw something at me.”
The subsequent Q&A session kept a casual, conversational tone as Obreht joked with the attendees and talked about her writing process.
Obreht described the pipe dream for an English major and MFA student: “I had this sensation that I’d come to the workshop... and I’d be like, ‘I’ve decided that today is the day that I’ll begin work on my novel! This is a glorious day! Hooray for me!’ And everyone would stand up and throw confetti in big armfuls.”
Of course, the reality was far less glamorous. Her lauded novel, Obreht simplified, “was just a really bad short story” that improved with each draft.
Obreht spoke about developing characters beyond familiar tropes using the formation of the deathless man as an example. “He was at first really, really horrifying and would skulk in corners with an axe, and I was like, ‘this is subtle because he has an axe and death has a sign.’ No connection,” she joked. His evolution into a sympathetic character came as a surprise, Obreht said.
When someone asked if the vivid fables in Obreht’s work were passed down to her as a child, she responded, “I think the mode of storytelling was.” She commented, “there’s no straightforward storytelling [in the Balkans] – you immediately have to inject epicness into it. It digresses all the time.”
Even knowing a story is a lie, Obreht said she would likely still tell it: “there’s something cool about it... That’s myth, that’s how it happens.”
Obreht’s career arc seems almost as fantastical as her novel. She acknowledged the rarity of her accomplishments: getting published, becoming a bestselling author, and receiving widespread critical acclaim all by age twenty-five.
“I feel unbelievably fortunate because I know many deserving writers with fantastic work, and the cards don’t fall that way,” she said. “So, you know, lucky, lucky, lucky.”