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Sat March 5, 2011
Author Interviews

'The Tiger's Wife:' A Young Talent Takes On Folklore

Originally published on Sat March 5, 2011 10:17 am

At 25, Tea Obreht falls on the younger end of writers to pen a literary phenomenon that rises above the din of the publishing world. The Tiger's Wife, her first novel, is a vividly imagined work that draws on the folk culture of the Balkans, where Obreht was born. She lived in Yugoslavia until the age of 7, when the war prompted Obreht, her mother and grandparents to flee to Cyprus and Egypt.

"I've since been back," Obreht told Lynn Neary on Weekend Edition. "I go back once a year to visit my grandmother, so I've managed to put those stories and those experiences of my parents together with my very faint, very young memories of places and people, and then also the stories that I've heard from people that I've reconnected with since I've gone back."

Obreht earned praise from The New Yorker, where she was listed as one of the 20 best writers under 40 (one of the most influential lists in the publishing world), and from the National Book Foundation, which named her one of the five best writers under 35 last year.

She says she is still in a place where it's hard to believe her book has been published and finds herself grateful for the support she's received.

"So many people ... above all, have just read it, which to me is miraculous," Obreht says. "It's an amazing thing for me, and I'm really thankful for it."

A Girl And Her Grandfather

The Tiger's Wife begins as a young doctor, Natalia, learns that her grandfather has died under strange circumstances in a remote village. As she tries to understand what happened, the novel gives a glimpse of life in Eastern Europe before, during and after the most recent conflict that tore it apart, and also portrays her grandfather through two fantastical stories framing his life.

At its core, The Tiger's Wife is the story of a granddaughter's love for her grandfather. Though Obreht says the plot of the novel is not biographical, the story of Natalia and her grandfather was inspired by her own life.

Obreht's grandfather died the year before she started writing The Tiger's Wife, triggering her desire to explore that particular storyline. The Tiger's Wife deals with coming to terms with endings — both of Natalia's grandfather's life and of the unity of her native country. The process of writing the novel helped Obreht herself deal with her grandfather's death, even if it didn't bring her to any sort of comforting conclusions.

"For me it was a lot harder to come to terms with the death of my grandfather than it was to come to terms with what's happened to the former Yugoslavia," Obreht says.

Tall Tales, From Small Slavic Towns

Like Natalia, Obreht grew up listening to her grandfather's stories. While Obreht's grandfather mostly told tales from his own life spent traveling the world as a plane engineer, Natalia's grandfather shares the stories of two memorable mythical characters in particular: the deathless man and the tiger's wife.

The deathless man comes from Slavic and German folkloric tales that explore the necessity of death, though Obreht's particular version evolved from previous incarnations in her other fictional writings. The myth of the tiger's wife was mostly Obreht's own, but she says it draws slightly on the tale of The Beauty and the Beast.

Although she came from Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia, Obreht says she learned about the rural village life that appears in the novel in a "strange and unexpected way." On assignment for Harper's, she traveled to Serbia and Croatia and went door to door asking people for vampire myths they'd heard of in their small towns.

"It was the first time that I really understood the closed-off nature that villages can have, and also the very open nature ... that village life can sometimes extend to strangers," Obreht says.

The story of Natalia learning of her grandfather's death intertwines with her memories growing up as a teenager while "there's a war on," as the characters of the book chime repeatedly to each other, and of the fantastical stories her grandfather would share. Unlike Natalia, Obreht didn't live through the actual war, but she believed she could express the chaos and unrest people felt when living through such a conflict.

"[Egypt and Cyprus] didn't have a turbulent time when I was there," Obreht says. "But there was this underlying unease that I think was prevalent in the youth culture, and I think that seeing that throughout growing up, I was able to access it more fully than I would have been able to otherwise."

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Transcript

LYNN NEARY, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

Every now and then a new literary voice emerges above the din to become something of a phenomenon. Tea Obreht is such a voice. Just 25 years old, Obreht was named one of the 20 best writers under 40 by the New Yorker. Her first novel, "The Tiger's Wife," comes out this week.

It is a vividly imagined work that draws on the folk culture of the Balkans. Born in Belgrade, Obreht and her parents fled after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Though she now lives in the United States, the stories of her homeland seem bred into her very bones.

"The Tiger's Wife" begins as a young doctor, Natalia, learns that her grandfather has died under strange circumstances in a remote village. As she tries to understand what happened, we learn about her grandfather through two fantastic stories that frame his life. And we get a glimpse of life in Yugoslavia before, during and after the most recent conflict which tore it apart.

Tea Obreht joins us now from Ithaca, New York. So good to have you with us, Tea.

Ms. TEA OBREHT (Author, "The Tiger's Wife"): Thank you so much.

NEARY: Now, you left the former Yugoslavia when you were only 12, which made me wonder how it is that you developed such a strong feeling for your homeland at that young age?

Ms. OBREHT: I actually left even younger; I left when I was seven. And I think that there's a very strong presence of the history and stories in the conversations with my grandparents and my mother with whom I lived when we were moving to Cypress and then later to Egypt. And I've since been back. I go back once a year to visit my grandmother.

So, I've managed to put those stories and those experiences of my parents together with the very faint, very young memories of places and people. And then also the stories that I've heard from people that I've reconnected with since I've gone back.

NEARY: "The Tiger's Wife" is a story told on many levels. It's both realistic and very fantastic. At its core, though, is this story of a granddaughter's love for her grandfather. You just mentioned your own grandmother. I had been wondering if you had a similar relationship with your own grandfather or is this based on your relationship with your grandmother?

Ms. OBREHT: I think that it's definitely based on my relationship with my grandfather. He and I were very close, and I wouldn't say that any part of the plot of the novel is autobiographical but I think that almost inevitably the relationships between the characters ended up being based somewhat on reality -most particularly my own relationship with my grandfather.

He actually died the year before I started writing the book, so I think it was very much a triggering event for some of what I wanted to explore in writing it.

NEARY: Natalia grew up listening to her grandfather's stories. Did you grow up listening to those kinds of stories as well?

Ms. OBREHT: Perhaps not folklore so much and stories that weren't necessarily based on mythology. My grandfather was a storyteller, but the stories that he told were about his own life. He was an engineer. He made planes. And he traveled all over the world. And so I did grow up listening to his stories but they were, I think, in many ways very different than the stories Natalia's grandfather tells her.

NEARY: Well, the two stories that sort of dominate in this book is the story of the deathless man and the story of the tiger's wife. Did you make those up whole cloth or did they have some basis in the folk culture of the Balkans?

Ms. OBREHT: I think they have some basis. The deathless man is an archetype and he's drawn from the folkloric traditions of a couple of cultures - mostly Slavic and German - and he is present in a lot of myths where people reflect on the necessity of death.

My fictional explorations for a long time - long before I started writing the book - I had a character very similar to him, so he naturally flowed out of a former incarnation into this character who has a relationship with the grandfather and his youth.

But the tiger's wife, that part of the narrative was entirely made up. I suppose to some degree it draws on the "Beauty and the Beast" myth.

NEARY: Yeah. Also very sort of rooted in the village culture it seems. And what was your experience with that? You seemed to understand what life in a small, very rural village might be like.

Ms. OBREHT: I learned about that in a strange way and a strange and unexpected way. The village was present throughout the first draft of the novel and the second draft of the novel as well. But it wasn't until I went back to Serbia and Croatia in the summer of 2009 to do research for a non-fiction piece that I did for Harpers called "Twilight of the Vampires." And I went there looking for vampire myths in small villages and so the first time ended up having the firsthand experience of going pretty much door-to-door and asking people uncomfortable questions about the history of their village.

And it was the first time that I really understood the closed-off nature the villages can have and also the very open nature - the openness that village life can sometimes extend to strangers. But in addition to doing research for the article, it very heavily influenced the third draft of "The Tiger's Wife," and I think it became a lot more real for me then.

NEARY: Well, of course, the story of the tiger's wife, a folk story really based very much in this village, sort of flows in and out with a story, a more contemporary story, about what Natalia is actually going through. And she, of course, is an urban - first an urban teenager, then a young woman from the city. And you managed to capture what it feels like to be a teenager during the time of war, again, I guess, a feat of your imagination 'cause you were not a teenager during that time, were you?

Ms. OBREHT: No, I wasn't, and I was fortunate enough not to experience the war firsthand. I did grow up, I mean, like most teenagers, I had lots of angst for assorted reasons and, you know, when you don't have a concrete reason perhaps you come up with the reasons of your own as a teenager.

But I also had the experience of growing up in Cypress and in Egypt, which were both countries that had - they didn't have a turbulent time when I was there but there was this underlying unease that I think was prevalent in the youth culture.

And I think that seeing that throughout growing up, I think I was able to access it more fully than I would have been able to otherwise.

NEARY: You also describe what life is like after that war and I wonder if you could read an excerpt that gives us a sense of that. It's on page 161.

Ms. OBREHT: OK.

(Reading) The war had altered everything. Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics that had formally represented their respective parts of the whole. Previously shared things -landmarks, writers, scientists, histories - had to be doled out according to their new owners. That Nobel Prize winner was no longer ours but theirs. We named our airport after our crazy inventor, who was no longer a communal figure. And all the while we told ourselves that everything would eventually return to normal.

NEARY: Well, on one level you book, "The Tiger's Wife," is very much about coming to terms with death. And you use the stories, the folkloric sort of stories, to examine that on a very personal level. On a larger level, are you also sort of coming to terms with what your country has become also? I mean, are those two different things going on?

Ms. OBREHT: I do think that for me at least what I went through in the process of writing the book, they are two different things. Because for me it was a lot harder to come to terms with the death of my grandfather than it was to come to terms with what's happened to the former Yugoslavia. The challenge of understanding the actual death of my grandfather and death in general was very difficult for me and a very difficult time. And the process of writing the book certainly helped me.

I wouldn't say that I came to any conclusions about it that were comforting in any way but the process helped.

NEARY: You are getting so much acclaim for this novel. Is this all a little daunting for a 25-year-old?

Ms. OBREHT: You know, it's really overwhelming but in the best possible way. I'm still in this place where I can't believe that there is a book at all and that it's getting all this very generous support from so many people who, above all, have just read it, which to me is miraculous. It's an amazing thing for me and I'm really thankful for it.

NEARY: Well, congratulations.

Ms. OBREHT: Thank you so much.

NEARY: Tea Obreht. Her new book is "The Tiger's Wife." You can read an excerpt at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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