Téa Obreht - Author The Morningside, Inland, The Tiger's Wife

>> Jeniffer: Hey there, I'm Jennifer Thompson and today we have a special treat for

you. I will be doing an interview for Warwicks of La

Jolla. Warwick's is one of the oldest bookstores in

the nation and it is fantastic. If you have a chance to go

visit, I recommend it. In fact, buy all of their books.

Every book they have is good, including this one.

Let's begin. Bye. You telling us a little bit about this


>> Téa Obreht: Okay, first of all, thank you so much

for agreeing to do this. thank you so much, Warwicks, for

having me back. this is such a lovely homecoming. Always.

I, ah, see familiar faces and some new faces

and I'm very, very delighted to be here with you all.

so I wrote this book, this book kind of surprised me. I

feel like books are always surprising me. I'm always working on something that I'm

telling my publisher handing in,

and then I kind of go astray and end up writing something

else. but, as per that very

apt description, this book is about, mothers

and daughters and ah, climate, ah,

refuge. And, it follows Sil. She's an eleven

year old climate refugee from a place that's referenced in the book

only as back home. and she

arrives to a half submerged

metropolis called Island City, and her

aunt Enna is the superintendent of this

luxury tower called the Morningside.

and Syl and her mother, who's very

reticent to talk about the past, very tight lipped about

it, they move in with aunt Enna

and, Sil's aunt is a

great deal more, open about both Sil's

heritage and the past and begins telling

her folk tales from back home.

And Sil uses these as a

prism to try to understand the world around her and she

becomes obsessed with the upstairs neighbor, Bezie Duraz,

who is mysterious and lives in the penthouse with

these three huge dogs that might be more than they

appear. so, ah, that's my elevator

pitch and, that usually gets

a laugh, that bond.

>> Jeniffer: That's okay.

>> Téa Obreht: but I wanted to read, just very briefly from the very beginning

of the book. I was so determined to write this in

total chronological order, which I've never done before.

and I was like, right, no time loops this time. Just

write from the beginning of the story through the end of the story.

And then I finished the first draft and realized that actually I did need a

prologue because, everything is time

loops. so the book actually opens with

silver years after the events of the

book, and she's 27 and this is where

we meet her for the first time. I'll just read very briefly.

An old familiar dread was waiting for me this

morning. I couldn't tell where it came from.

It hadn't followed me out of a dream, at least not one

I could remember. But when I got up there it was in

everything the airless heat of the motel

room, the halo of sunlight around the window

shades, the vacant smile of the girl at the front desk

when she took the key from my hand. I thought

it might stay behind when I left the motel, but it

hitched a ride through the desert with me just sitting

there, tightening the world it knew

me so well. When I got to the

train station, I finally gave in and did what I knew

the feeling was after me to do. I looked up my

mother. I hadnt done it in a long time

because the suspense made me sick. Even though what I

imagined I would read was always worse than what was

actually posted. It didnt feel like the

kind of morning for bad news. Quiet,

unusually free of wildfire, smoke, blue and

windless. The train was light, the

platform mostly empty. A few

passengers had drifted out of the station and were

standing in the sun as they looked down the track.

The handful of others like me were clearly there to meet

someone. It was the calmest I'd felt

all week, so I thumbed my

mother's name into the search bar. There was

the brief nervousness that always stopped my breath before the

forums loaded, the dread of something having

changed, some new poisonous derangement.

Usually there was nothing, hadn't been for years.

Today was different. A new picture had

been added to the Bellin case file. It was

not as I always feared it would be, a police

snapshot of Mila's corpse. It was

a Polaroid, taken almost 16 years

before the day we arrived in island city.

In the picture, my mother and I are backlit by the vanishing

sun, standing side by side on Morningside

street. Our suitcases aren't quite out of

view. We're m smiling half heartedly,

hovering just far enough away from each other to make a

comfortable embrace impossible.

My mother looks worn and flustered, standing there in an

old dress of mine that is clearly too long for

her. I'm the tallest eleven year

old you've ever seen.

Gangly, shapeless.

I've got my arms some of the way around my mother's shoulders

and am obviously smiling just to oblige. The person

behind the camera, my aunt Enna, whom I haven't

yet hugged hello. I

remembered the moment the picture was taken and vaguely

remembered seeing the finished result pinned up on our fridge until

it disappeared under months of repopulation program

leaflets. I hadn't seen it since we

escaped and hadn't thought about it in

years. But, here it was, after all this

time, who had put it up and how

the hell had they gotten hold of it? And when?

Here I'd been going about my life, thinking this memory and

this picture were back in the past, somewhere

invulnerable to even the kinds of things I was afraid

of. And yet, for some unknown

while strangers had been peering at it on their

cursory journey through the handful of forms still devoted to

the question of my mother's criminality,

it didn't take me long to feel dizzy enough to faint. When the

vendor walked by, I got a bottle of water from him and drank the

whole thing in one tilt. Then it got

worse. In the background of the

photo, way up the sloping street behind us,

I recognized the unmistakable form of Bezie

Duraz. She was just starting up the

hill, and her three dogs, rangy

silhouettes, black as the gaps between stars, were

out ahead of her. Whatever I remembered of this

photo, Bezie Duraz certainly wasn't part of it.

Neither were the dogs. How funny, I

thought. Here I'd had a very different,

very specific memory of the first time I saw her. And

all the while this picture had been out there, confirming an

entirely incompatible truth.

Some stranger whose name I did not

know and face I would never see had held

all of us together in the palm of their hand. Bessie, my

mother, me, even Enna. Off screen,

the only person absent from the scene, fittingly enough,

was Mila, of course. Also

fittingly enough, she was the only person the people commenting on the

picture really cared about. They couldn't put any of it

together. The furthest they could get with it was,

isn't this the woman from the Bellin case? Which earned them

a smattering of replies from strangers.

For the first time in years, I thought about adding my

two cent. What harm would it do to chime in to

write something like, you don't have the first clue?

There were plenty of anonymous comments.

Nothing would set mine apart, nothing would point back to

me. But then the loudspeaker crackled

to life, announcing the coming train, and I xed out of the

forum, stood, and went forward with my little sign.

Thank you.

>> Jeniffer: That opening for me was so incredible to read, and I

had never read any of your books, so this was such a

treat to open to this, and I want to start at the

beginning, you did something that was

so palpable, in that first. Those

first words, those moments

when you wake up, like in a weird hotel room and the

light around the window, I felt that. That

feeling of dread, that feeling of, like there's something

not right. This darkness that's tugging at you.

And to create that feeling

just drew me in. So, well


>> Téa Obreht: Thank you. Thank you very much.

>> Jeniffer: So I wanted to ask you about this. Well, actually, I'm gonna

hold this question. It's about memory. First, I want to ask you, where

did you get the idea to write this book?

>> Téa Obreht: from several different places kind of all at

once. M and so I'll try to

answer that question as succinctly as possible. I feel like I'm still sort

of learning how to talk about the book. And part

of that is trying to figure out a succinct way

to answer this question. so

my husband and I met and lived in New York for eight

years. it's the longest I'd lived anywhere.

And, we began to leave it, and then when the pandemic

hit, we left it full time, kind of in a hurry,

as most people did. and. Or, I mean, most people

who left. Not most people. Most people did not leave in New York.

I think you can find many of them still live there.

succinct is going great.

So, I had

wanted to write about urban living in,

particular in a metropolis like New

York. I'd grown up in cities all my life, but one of the things

that has happened to me continuously is an inability to write

about a place when I'm living in it. So the moment we got to

Wyoming, I was like, yeah, God, New York.

there had been. I had struggled for a long time with the

feeling that I didn't quite know the city very

well, even though I'd lived there for a long time.

kind of because I'm an immigrant. I've lived

here now for 23 years, but I still feel sort of like a stranger in

a strange land, which I think is quite common for

immigrants. And, there is the sense that you don't

quite know all of it. You can't quite

get all the way into a place.

and so I always felt like I did not know the city very

well. And people, you moved to New York, people are always telling you,

like, you missed its heyday. Like, its heyday was in the seventies or

the eighties, and, like, so you'll never really know it. So that really contributes

to it. But there were a lot of these sort of

small moments that I realized after we

left really belonged to me.

Like the experience of having a developer tear

down part of the jewish seminary on our street

and build an enormous luxury tower.

or like the experience of seeing this

tiny elderly woman, in the street one day,

walking three huge rottweilers on a chain,

sort of like in the middle of the sunset, just walking

them. and I realized that that was my New


>> Jeniffer: Yeah.

>> Téa Obreht: and I tried to put them

together first into a short story, and the first image

that popped out at me was this mother and daughter walking hand in

hand, down a dark street towards

a building that was half lit. and

in the street was water, which was clearly

the tide. and so everything came from that


>> Jeniffer: A vision.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah, a vision. Like, it always. I feel like it always

starts with a bit of a vision for me. Just a

moment that I want to ask questions about.

>> Jeniffer: And you just keep exploring.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah.

>> Jeniffer: And what I loved so much about this book, too, is it was so clearly

in New York, in Manhattan, and I could.

Could just picture it. I felt like I was really in

Manhattan, and

I was experiencing this post

apocalyptic, you know, climate change had

really sunken the lower east side

and taken over, and I was so there. What

I loved most about it, and we'll still get back to memory, by the way, I haven't forgotten

that. yes. What I

loved most about it was it was from the perspective of

this young girl. Right? So

we get to see it through her eyes and her

world, which was so

apocalyptic. Like, there's no food, there's not enough

for anyone. Like, the living conditions are so


Did you know from the very beginning that it was her story?

>> Téa Obreht: I knew from the very beginning that it was, the

story of a person young enough

to not be able to assess

the world accurately

or quote unquote accurately.

>> Jeniffer: which is what I really love the most about it, is, like, I started

to figure out that, oh, it's because she's so young that we're seeing

it this way.

>> Téa Obreht: I think it, she's sort of. She's at that age

where she's, you know, her mother is the center of her world, but her

mother isn't giving her a lot of stories, and she isn't giving her a lot

of context. And so

Sil is trying very hard throughout the book

to build her own context for what, you

know, for what this new society is that she's come

to, for what the past is made of. and

what's truth and what's fiction

and, you know, what's exaggeration. And,

she kind of settles on this

notion, as a result of her

aunt's storytelling,

that only she sees certain aspects of the

world for what they really are, which is like a very

eleven year old thing to be. But I

think it's also a kind of

wishful thinking, on the part

of people who arrive in new places that they've

brought with them the mechanism

to understand where they've come.

>> Téa Obreht: so, yeah, well, and it just.

>> Jeniffer: Felt like everyone must be living in these terrible

conditions. And then very slowly we start to realize, oh, no,

it's just her family, it's the immigrant, it's the

refugee, and there are people who have plenty,

their dogs have more than she has. And the way that that

unfolded was just brilliant.

>> Téa Obreht: Thank you very much. Thank you very much.

>> Jeniffer: The whole book I found to be really brilliant.

So I want to get back to memory, though, because

I had so many experiences that felt so personal

in this book. Of course it is. It's coming from your head, so it's very

personal. But this idea of having this

memory that's yours, and

then you start to realize, my memory is wrong.

So those feelings for this, you know, she's

older, but there's a couple times in the book where she

realizes that she's wrong and her memory is wrong. Talk to us

about where this, where this comes from for you.

>> Téa Obreht: That's a great, that's a great question. I think it

comes from, you know, this sort of. So much

of the book is about storytelling and kind of

the way people decide to frame things for

themselves. And Sil

is very invested. Like, her whole vision of her

childhood, I think, is very centered,

around a particular way of looking at these moments, a

particular way of looking at her mother, of looking at,

the, the journey that they've taken together and the parts of the journey that

they weren't able to take together because there's a thing that happens about

halfway well, two thirds of the way through the book that

rifts them. That's, all

I'll say, well


and so this, this

feeling of, you know, I think it's a very destabilizing feeling and it's

probably one that we all share. Right. This, this idea of

I, I thought I knew something and I

kind of reinforced it for myself.

Maybe. Maybe it's a story that you've

heard. I've certainly had this experience

where, like a parent or a family member

tells you a story about

something that you did not attend, like, that you didn't

witness, and then suddenly you were forming this memory about it.

And this is definitely how it happened. Right. And then evidence search

surfaces from some other participant,

or even in my case, occasionally this has happened where

the person who was telling you the story initially is just like, oh, no, no,

no. It actually went like this, and she's, like, changed it around

on me. Now what? M so

just the instability of memory

and how, invested we are in sort

of trying to keep it, like, a very

tight hold on it. But

actually, m it's very ephemeral. It's all

very ephemeral. And reality is kind of ephemeral,

and even rules in this world and in our world are

ephemeral, right? Like, this is a world

in which people aren't really supposed to eat meat, and yet it turns out

in the book that, like, quite a lot of people eat meat all the time. They avail

themselves of it because they can. And, so I think, yeah,

I think that's sort of all dovetailed in the


>> Jeniffer: One of the other things I really loved about it was

mother, who, by the way, doesn't have a name. Did I miss her

name? She doesn't have a name.

>> Téa Obreht: She doesn't have a name.

>> Jeniffer: Was there a reason for this that we didn't get a name for


>> Téa Obreht: I think it's that sill sort of just sees her as mother.

>> Jeniffer: So that's it. Through her eyes.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah.

>> Jeniffer: So when you're writing a, coming of age story for adults,

and your character is eleven, was

it difficult to write smart?

Smartly. Right. But keep

that naivety and that sense

of wonder, that childlike wonder. Did you have to,

like, check yourself sometimes and not go too

much into making it sound too


>> Téa Obreht: I actually had to check myself first. in the first

draft, I actually did write

chronologically from start to finish.

and everything that in the first draft was very

messy, but all the sort of moving

parts of the book emerged in it, which was a huge surprise,

and which is one of the first signs for me that something is working.

but that draft

sneered at sil a lot,

kind of because I was trying to

navigate that space between a very

young person's vision of the world and give

the reader a bit of room to feel out the

reality and be able to. To suss it out in their

own time, in their own context. and the

result was that she

was, you know, she was overly precocious and she was sort of

overly anxious about all these things. And it was very obvious.

And the book didn't take a very

kind lens to her.

But then I found that what it was actually missing

was the prologue. M and this

cast of an older person looking back

quite generously on themselves. And I think it was

that this idea of, like, being able

to look back at yourself when you were young and be like, you might

have been mistaken, but you

weren't foolish. Like, it makes total

sense that this is what you thought and maybe you weren't

mistaken at all. Right.

And so I think in many ways people have been,

there's been some discussion here and there about, like, whether

the book is ya because it features a

protagonist of this age, but I don't think it is because it

looks, ah, through this older lens,

very kindly on a young person who is also

interested in their relationship with their parent,

and interested in sort of understanding their parent


>> Jeniffer: Absolutely not. Ya.

No, I never thought it was a ya. And I thought, oh, it's so well done

that we really do. She is so naive

and she is eleven, and we love her so

much. Her relationship with her mother,

I think. I mean, I know that you had a baby, you

were just having a baby when you wrote this book,

weren't yet in a relationship, and your daughter's too. Right.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah.

>> Jeniffer: So, I mean, but what I found

so incredible was, so the

mother is trying to protect the daughter by

not giving her information. So what this does

is it confuses the daughter and makes her want to protect the


>> Téa Obreht: Right.

>> Jeniffer: So they're in this relationship where they're not sharing enough

information. They're hiding things from each other to protect each

other. Talk to us more about where this comes from

for you.

>> Téa Obreht: This comes from very close to the bone.

I found, I don't know if it was a result

of, my particular family and the particular

circumstances under which we left the former

Yugoslavia, or the sort of cultural

shape of families in the


>> Jeniffer: May I ask how old you were when you left?

>> Téa Obreht: I was seven when we left.

>> Jeniffer: Okay.

>> Téa Obreht: and twelve when we came to the states. Like twelve and a half.

>> Jeniffer: So very similar to sill


>> Téa Obreht: Yeah. so. And don't think that

didn't occur to me afterwards. I was like, oh, that's

close. but there was this

sense, you know, of the war was

happening. people were getting dispatches from

home that were horrific. And the

idea was like, just don't let her know

all the things that are happening. But of course, and I think the book

is very much, about this, too.

Adults don't do a stellar job of

hiding things from kids. Right. Of like, managing their own stress

in like, particularly horrific situations. Right.

Like, And it was noticeable to

me that my grandmother had an

actual nervous breakdown because she didn't know if

people that she loved were alive or dead under

shelling in moster, you know.

and I think that

effort to protect, Yeah.

That sort of circularity that you're talking about, I think

it came from a very

surprisingly personal place.

because that dynamic of sort of. I just don't want you to be

stressed by this is very

much the circumstance

under which I grew up.

>> Téa Obreht: No.

>> Jeniffer: Experience.


There's so much magic too, and fantasy in this book,

which I think is one of the reasons why I love it so much. It's so well done

and you're so generous to the reader. She gives us

so much opportunity to make our own decisions about

what happens and what's true and what's not

true. Talk to us about

the m mythology and some of the

lore that creeps into this book.

>> Téa Obreht: Thank you. Thank you.

>> Jeniffer: Well, it doesn't creep in. It's a big character.

>> Téa Obreht: And then it kind of creeps and grows. No, you're right. Like creeping.

I think it kind of, I think the extent to which it

kind of, I see it. It's funny that you said creeping because

I do it visualize it as like a vine

that's, that's growing inside the book all the time. Like

it sort of starts with a big moment at the beginning, and then it kind

of, its tendrils wrap around everything.

>> Jeniffer: there's a well, and I'm gonna interrupt you.

>> Téa Obreht: No, please.

>> Jeniffer: The way you did it is so perfect because it's just a

story that's told. And then throughout, you're like,

oh, I'm starting. Oh.

You know. And you're calling back to this story

that's now taking a bigger place on

the stage.

>> Téa Obreht: Thank you. Thank you.

>> Jeniffer: I interrupted you. I'm so sorry.

>> Téa Obreht: No, this is lovely. No, no, no. I believe

that conversations, we interrupt each other to be like. And

also, no, it's a, I have a two year old. I

interrupt people all the time.

so the main

folk tale in the middle of this story

is the myth of the vila. the vila is a

figure of slavic mythology and folklore. she's a

nymph of, woodlands,

rivers, mountains. she's the kind of

spirit of, the divine

feminine in nature. She's a

powerful entity, but

she's fickle. she's not

exactly malevolent, but she's out for herself.

and in slavic mythology, she often

stands in opposition to sort of the

abrahamic efforts of the new

kingdom, of the Slavs.

Right. so she's

there to represent nature. She speaks for the trees.

and, aunt Anna tells sil a

story about this. This entity. and

I think everything that sil does,

and every way that she begins to interpret the world comes

from this newfound myth. Right. Because she has had no

other stories before that. And

so this is kind of a foundational story for her,

for understanding her past.

>> Jeniffer: Well, her culture. She's given so much

all at once, from having no history

to suddenly this, like, richness. And

it's. The storytelling of Aunt Enna is such a beautiful

part of the story, and she's such a lovely

character. In fact, I just forgot what I was

going to ask because I was getting excited about Aunt Anna.

Oh, I remember place, the sense of place

in this book. So you do something that I

found very interesting. You never

name anything, but I know exactly where we are, you

know, and we're talking about climate crisis in the

future. We're talking about wildfires and flooding.

And no matter where we were in the story, I could picture it in

my mind. And their home and their language

is ours, so you never say in our.

Whatever the language is, it isn't a language. And then we say

in ours. It was very personal,

but again, it was generosity to the reader in some ways.

Was that intentional, to let them bring

bare immigrant experience to the story? Was that

your purpose, or.

>> Téa Obreht: It really was. And it's sort of. I. One of the

reasons that I write fiction, is that I

love making things up. I love the

freedom of invention, and I think it

enables me. I'm useless at nonfiction because

I will often come to sort of points in a

nonfiction narrative and be like, well, that doesn't. That's boring, or,

like, that doesn't serve the story. so

I often find myself

inventing place, like, basing

settings very closely on something real, but

then kind of, you know, putting it

adjacent to that reality and being

like, well, you know, that neighborhood is a little bit different,

you know. and I think

in the case of this book,

that invention allowed me to kind of

lean as much as I could because,

like, every immigrant experience is obviously very different. But there

are some universalities to being a stranger in a strange

land, you know, to being.

To entering a culture that is not legible to

you and struggling to do so and entering a

setting that is not legible to you and trying to discover it and

make it your own and see which parts of it can be made to

belong to you. there is a universality to that

experience, kind of no matter who you are and

kind of no matter where you go. Right. Like, you don't just have

to end up in the us, for that to be the case.

And, so, yeah, I think that it

tilted toward that kind of naturally, on its own.

And it felt right.

>> Jeniffer: Nice. Nice. Well, it felt right to me, too.

And again, like, I could picture it.

Everything I imagined was because I was adding to

the story, my experiences. And so for someone

else, you're going to see a different place in your

mind's eye. And so that was really beautiful. Even home.

You know where home was. I have my idea of where it was.

And you all will have your own idea.

Let's talk about sil just a little bit more. I

feel like I could sit here and talk to you for hours.

>> Téa Obreht: Thank you. I'm having the most wonderful time. Please, let's talk for

hours. I love it.

>> Jeniffer: So sil has a technique, a calming technique that she

uses. Do you want to talk about that or do you think it's giving away too much?

>> Téa Obreht: Syl does have a calming technique. there's, well, there's a couple of.

There's a couple of things that still does that are also

very personal.

in this mode, of

protecting her mother, she has developed

a habit of leaving out

talismans, that are

intended to create a kind

of, circle of protection around the

person she loves the most. And of course, her mother doesn't know about this,

and she doesn't quite. She spends a lot of the book not knowing

how to invite her mother into her own knowledge and her

own experience of the world.

>> Jeniffer: But she wants to. She wants to. She's just afraid.

>> Téa Obreht: Exactly. Yeah.

>> Jeniffer: Ah, being rejected.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah, totally, totally. And, being

rejected kind of wholesale, you know, like, for the person that she

is. So, she, you know, she

starts out when she arrives in island City. She's sort of

very determined that she's not going to do this protection business anymore. She left

that all behind in the last place. They were

paraiso. And she's, she's just not

doing it anymore. But, like, very quickly, she

begins to get that kind of, urge, that

compulsion, one might even say

to organized talismans. And

she counts them one, two, three. And, it's a calming

device for her. you know,

if she were as far into her

mental health journey as I am, perhaps she would.

She would know to call it a grounding technique. But alas, she does

not have that vocabulary, which is

also part of the journey of the book.

so, yeah, that's what she does. And she believes that

she sort of has this power, and not just this power, but this

obligation, and I think it exudes a tremendous burden

on her.

>> Jeniffer: Absolutely.

>> Téa Obreht: That she can't share with anyone.

>> Jeniffer: Absolutely. Yeah.

Well, I want to talk a little bit about you

and your writing.

>> Téa Obreht: Okay.

>> Jeniffer: Unless there's something else you want to talk about. The book.

>> Téa Obreht: No, no, no. This is. This is great.

>> Jeniffer: It's just so good, though. I just love it so much. I can't wait for

your next book.

>> Téa Obreht: Thank you so much. This is so lovely. Thank you. What a

lovely. Thank you very much. You're being very generous to me. I really appreciate


>> Jeniffer: While I was reading the book, I was like, oh, she must know

how incredibly brilliant this book is. You're

very kind, and you're either incredibly humble

or I. You don't

realize just how brilliant it is.

>> Téa Obreht: I felt. I think I navigated.

>> Jeniffer: Did you feel magic?

>> Téa Obreht: I felt. I felt, yes, I felt certain things

about it that felt. I think you can hit a place in your

writing where you're like, this is real. This

is coming from some real place, you know?

you become a conduit for something

that is working under the surface, and you

find you stumble through trial

and for me, trial and error, into the correct

mechanism of delivery to invite somebody else into

it. And you can feel when that

happens. And I felt it at

points in this book, and that made me feel like I was doing

something right.

>> Jeniffer: Nice.

>> Téa Obreht: Thank you.

>> Jeniffer: That is so cool. So I'm m gonna tell you, I

actually tracked the beats.

>> Téa Obreht: Okay.

>> Jeniffer: Because they were so well done. I started writing them down

this page. Oh, this happens. And the stakes are here.

And then, you know, all of the things that I felt were

the beats in the book. So when you

were writing it, you just said you would be maybe

going down a wrong path and you'd be like, mmm m. And then you have to back

up, and then you hit the beat and you know it.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah.

>> Jeniffer: Does it happen in the rewrite or do you get the


Okay, talk to us about how, you know, you have the right


>> Téa Obreht: Everything.

>> Jeniffer: The right pacing.

>> Téa Obreht: Everything happens for me in the. In the rewrite. So for this

one, I used to be the kind of writer who would write very, very

slowly and meticulously, like the. You know, and if

I didn't have the sentence right, I wouldn't move on from

it. And then it would just be, like, weeks and weeks and weeks.

>> Jeniffer: That sounds like a paragraph.

>> Téa Obreht: It was really, you know, it was a long, long

journey into hell. and.

But, the thing I discovered, and I, you know, I did

this as, like, a fledgling, like, a hatchling writer, because I

didn't realize, like, oh, my girl. Like, all that's going in

the trash. Like, you have perfect

sentences. Like, it doesn't. That's not gonna

be there.

>> Jeniffer: and then they become your darlings, and you have a really hard time killing


>> Téa Obreht: Yeah, it's really true. It's really true. And you're

sort of like, I'll put that.

And I'll never feel this way about a sentence again. And it's true.

So, as I've grown

as a writer, I've learned to adopt

the very messy first draft. It is a

lifesaver for me. And so the beats of this

book, I think I said it earlier, and I apologize if

I'm repeating myself, but the beats of this book,

sort of arrived in the correct order, and I was

like, amazing. I have event. There's a moth. Oh, no. I have the

correct events. They're in the right order, but I have

absolutely no idea of the emotional

condition or the relationships between the participants

in these events. Like, I have no clue.

and that's always my journey in the second draft. So, like,

the generative stuff gets out of the way. I hate the generative phase.

We're done now we have something to shape. That's great. and

then I sort of.

Then the part of trial and error comes,

and it's sort of trying to find, is this the right

voice? what is the psychological

condition of the person experiencing these events?

That, to me, is paramount, and

that, to me, is the thing that

most explicitly belongs to the form

of prose and

poetry in nonfiction. Right. Like,

writing itself enables you to enter another

person's consciousness and to inhabit, to wear

that person like a suit.

And that sounds manic.

and that's the real. It's not just that it's a

red apple. It's a red apple seen by a

person in a particular emotional

state, and that makes it a

beautiful red apple, or, you know,

a blighted red apple, or, you know,

or an inconvenient red apple. That

lens of self and consciousness

is everything. And for me, that happens in the

second draft. And,

is the place where I can sort of be like, oh, whoops.

Went way too far down the wrong path.

Gotta get back to the crossroads where it was right and kind of

back up and do it again.

>> Jeniffer: And so many people give up because they don't feel that

yet. I'm a writer, at least I'm trying

to be. And there are those moments where I've got

the perfect sentences, but I'm like, yeah, it's

missing something. And it's so easy to give up on the characters and

walk away from it and feel like this isn't working. When do you know it's


>> Téa Obreht: That's a great question.

when you. I don't know how to. I don't know how to. When you. When it, when

it doesn't feel like writing, when it feels like it is just

like, it is just. It crosses that barrier.

Sorry, that barrier of illusion for you,

and you're just like, right. It is this,

For me, it's a feeling, for other

people, you know, like, I know many

writers who will sort of read their work aloud

and it's not real until it hits a particular kind of

rhythm in the ear. I write at a library, so I

can't read aloud when I'm just sitting there

muttering to myself. so, yeah, it's a

different thing for different people, but

many m writers have shared with me, and I'm sure that you

must have had this experience at times when it's working for

you, that it's just like. You just know. I know it

sounds. I know it sounds. I know how that sounds. But you just


>> Jeniffer: You just know.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah.

>> Jeniffer: And there's this excitement.

>> Téa Obreht: Yes.

>> Jeniffer: It's incredible.

>> Téa Obreht: There's an electricity to it that's like.

>> Jeniffer: Absolutely.

>> Téa Obreht: And for me, it comes with like a.


>> Jeniffer: Yeah. Say it again.

>> Téa Obreht: Like love.

>> Jeniffer: It is like love.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah, it is like love. Yeah. It is that kind of

sensation of,

>> Téa Obreht: Crossing an intellectual barrier and being like this is something that

is beyond

me. Like, I'm not actually a participant in this anymore. It just

is. It exists by itself.

>> Jeniffer: Absolutely, yeah. You write in a

library exclusively?

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah. Well, I live in a very small

condo, with a very loud,

very, involved two year old,

toddler. And, she has necessitated my

move to the library for writing purposes.

So. Yeah, I work at the Teton county library. I have my chair. If

my chair is occupied, I get very distressed.

>> Jeniffer: Yes, yes.

>> Téa Obreht: And I sort of glare at them.

>> Jeniffer: Excuse me, this is my chair.

>> Téa Obreht: Sort of sitting kind of uncomfortably close

for a long time. yeah.

>> Jeniffer: I was working on a novel once, and there was this Little Coffee

shop down the, like two blocks from my house. And every day I would go down

and I would sit in the same chair and I would write for 2 hours and I'd go home, and

if someone was sitting in my chair, I would literally stand and wait for them to

leave. The coffee shop closed and I never finished

the novel.

>> Téa Obreht: Oh, my God.

>> Jeniffer: That's all on me. I get that. But that happened.

>> Téa Obreht: No, but it's a real thing because there's actually.

I do think that your Writing Environment serves as a kind

of portal. Right?

>> Jeniffer: Totally.

>> Téa Obreht: You place yourself in this

physical situation that enables you to

remove yourself from your body

and go into this space where you are just

dealing with words and you're kind of uninhabited and

uninhibited, you know, both. And it

does take a really particular. You have to feel a certain way

in this world. It's kind of like the matrix, right? Like, you have to be safe

and in that seat and there has to be someone looking out for

you in order for you to go and, like, navigate safely through the

matrix. And it's true, like, if you.

If your environment is changed. I mean, I

know people who can write anywhere, but I'm not

one of those people. And the vast majority of writers I know are not

those people. They, like, have to have these very particular conditions

for that departure from the south.

>> Téa Obreht: I'm so sorry that the coffee shop closed and

took your novel from you. That is that.

>> Jeniffer: I'll get back to it. I'm going to find the right coffee shop.

>> Téa Obreht: Yes. Maybe what you're looking for is a


>> Jeniffer: You know what? You may be right. I like


I think it's time to open up questions to our lovely


>> Téa Obreht: You.

>> Speaker C: In the second round, it's a two part question.

How long do you typically work on a book?

And how hard is it

to let go of all those characters?

>> Jeniffer: When you're done, do you mind repeating the question? This

is going to be on a podcast, by the way, so I will.

>> Téa Obreht: Totally repeat the question. so the question was, how long do

I typically work on a book and then how hard is it to let

go of the characters once it's done? I

have found that my sort of cycle for a book is

typically around three years. that's been

the case sort of once I find the right

material, that's its

lifespan. Somehow I don't know how

because the three books that I've written are

pretty different in length. One is like 450 pages, one is

like 350. And this one is, you know, I think it. It's

like 270. So, it is.

And one, like, involved, like, a tremendous amount of research. And one,

you know, and two didn't. And so, so. But somehow it all

boils down to three years. and I wonder if that's

sort of. I do believe that the act of writing a

book changes fundamentally the person that you are. Like, you're one

person going in and you're like another person coming out because you've gone

through this process of dealing with these

characters, navigating language, interrogating the

emotional and psychological experiences that led you

to down this path of narrative. and

so I wonder if, for me, that's the

cycle, right? Like, by the time three years, and it's like, I'm done

with it. you know, for someone like Donna tartt,

that cycle is ten years. And, like. And it's,

really interesting because I've

spoken to lots of writing, not to donna tark,

but, I've spoken to lots of writers who

have very short cycle, about a year and a half,

and writers who are like, it's eight. It's eight every time. But

there's real consistency in it from

book to book. And that's an interesting phenomenon, I

think. and then characters

are. It's a very emotional thing to

give up the book and sort of

send it out and be like, I guess this is

goodbye. Now

you are something else. yeah, it's a

very emotional experience. And I definitely feel. I feel sort of a

slump the end of. At the end of it, I do

become, like, a little depressed. And in particular, for my

second book, inland, which I

wrote, I felt that

book, I was with those characters

still when I had to let them go. and

that was a hard one. That was a really hard one.

yes. Hi. And then we'll go to mark.


>> Speaker C: From listening to you talk about how you write

and what you're writing about, and from an

interview that I read with you, I think

when inland came out, kind of feel

like. You almost feel like these books take on a life of

their own and they actually become

an entity and

they start to show you where, you know, which

direction you're supposed to go. Have I

interpreted that correctly? You feel that about

your books?

>> Téa Obreht: I do. and the question was,

do I feel that the books become kind

of an independent entity as they're being

written? Yeah, absolutely. I think,

you work on a book and then it starts to work on you.

and I think that that's the case also

with books that I read. Right. Like, a

book comes into your life, at the right time,

sometimes at the wrong time, and it can have this

completely mind altering effect on

you. and then you don't revisit it for,

like, ten years, and, like, you come back as a different

person and you have this interaction with it again.

whether writing or reading, it's a deeply

interactive experience.

>> Speaker C: I just recently reread the tiger's wife, and the

first time I read it, when it first came out, I had had

a horrible, horrible accident and had a terrible

surgery while I was reading it.

>> Jeniffer: Oh, my God.

>> Speaker C: So I was sort of seeing it, I think, through

a lens of trauma.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah.

>> Speaker C: Physical trauma, a lot of pain. And it was

very different when I read it just a couple of months ago.

I enjoyed it a lot more.

>> Téa Obreht: Amazing. I'm so glad to hear

I see you here in. Ok.

>> Speaker C: But it, seemed to resonate with me in a very

different way.

>> Jeniffer: Yeah.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah. And I think, you know,

the only issue with that is that you can never

really revisit a book that you've written.

Right? Like, you only write it the one time.

>> Jeniffer: Right.

>> Téa Obreht: And you can't have that relationship with it again. And

I have a very difficult time

revisiting my books a couple of years on

because it feels. I feel like

I can't get back in touch with them. You know what I mean? Like, it's sort

of like the end of a breakup where you're just like, oh, right. We're not supposed to, like, hug

or anything. We're just supposed to be like, hello, we're having coffee. Like,

it's a totally different dynamic shift.

so, yeah, thank you for sharing that with me.

>> Jeniffer: Yeah.

>> Téa Obreht: So, Kim Stanley Robinson also wrote a book set

in a submerged New York, and typical of him, it's

much more politics and sociology.

What do you think are the advantages for a

writer? To set a story in a familiar setting

that is set a little bit askew?

That's a great question. the question was, what are

the advantages to a writer?

>> Téa Obreht: what are the advantages of setting a story in a familiar

setting? But the sort of setting

elements are, ah, a little bit askew.

Oh, my gosh. There are so there. There are many, you know,

I, think, you know, it. I think

there's a great trust to be placed in the

reader when you're. When

you're sort of inventing a world that's like

adjacent. and

as you were saying, you know, you bring, you trust the

reader to bring their own stuff

to the narrative.

and one of the advantages that I found

to writing this particular book from an eleven year

old's point of view was that

she didn't understand the world anyway.

And so the things that I was very interested in writing about, like

systems that are failing in this particular world, I

didn't want to write about one great

apocalyptic event that wipes out everything and we sort

of have to start society over. I wanted to write

about an accumulation of

bureaucratic incompetencies and just like a general

slide into, into

mundane horrors.

>> Jeniffer: Yeah.

>> Téa Obreht: because that is, you know, there are several apocalypses going

on in the world at any given moment and many of them

have that at their heart, you know. And

so I wanted the strangeness

of it and

for lack of a better word, the dystopian nature of it, to

be visible to sil but not

legible to her. She's trying to figure

out, you know, what is this system? What is this

repopulation program that I'm really part of? You know, like where is the

food? How does this function? but she doesn't

really, the reader doesn't really need access

to the particulars of it because

still doesn't have access to the particulars of it. And

frankly I barely understand how our society

functions even in the everyday. So, so

yeah, I think there was a great advantage to sort of

those things being kind of opaque. I'm very interested in the work

that people do when, when they

world build to great detail. Right. you

know, you can, like I love tolkien. Like

I love that there's. That he made up languages and that

he felt that he needed to do that work to access

the world and that not only did he need to do the

work, but he wanted the reader to have access to it

too. That's amazing. but

in the context of an eleven year old

navigating that part of her life in a new

society, it felt like that should be


>> Téa Obreht: And I'm not sure that I answered your question mark,

but I hope I answered part of it.

Pretty open ended question.

>> Jeniffer: Yeah.

>> Téa Obreht: Fantastic. Thank you.

Just like my media training prepared me for us.

Yes, thank you.

>> Speaker C: So I wanted to follow up on your idea

that you can never go back to the book that

you've written, but you wrote

this as a short story in the

Decameron tale from the New York

Times. And I read it recently

because of this talk, and I

was completely fascinated

because the essence of the story is there.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah.

>> Speaker C: But it's also not. It is very different.

So when you were

approached to write that short

story, were you already thinking

about writing the novel? And so I'll

just sort of

write this out and we'll see what

happens. Or did the short

story bring into a novel

that you were interested in writing?

>> Téa Obreht: That's a great question, and thank you so much for it. The question

was, in light of my comment that

one cannot revisit, one's work,

being pointed out that I actually wrote this as a short story. No, you're

right. as a short story first, and then, that it

became a novel. And sort of asking about the

trajectory for that. So I actually. So I

had these ideas in my mind

as part of what would become a novel.

And when the Decameron project came, this

is something that the, New York Times magazine did sort

of, as an homage to the original

Decameron, which was like, well, you know, in Renaissance

Italy, they sat around, and during the plague times, they told

stories and put it into a compendium. People are nodding.

They know. So,

I kind of. They came, they said, will

you write something that captures the mood of this moment? And I had these

ideas swirling around in my head as part of a novel, and I hadn't

sat down to write them yet. And I thought, I'm going to.

I'm going to do this as a short story to see what's there,

to see what comes out. Because I had the building, the mother and

daughter, the woman and the dogs, and

I was like, there's something here. and put

it into the shortest possible.

Shortest story form I could imagine. 1500

words. That was the limit. and it acted as a

kind of a stress test. I was like, what will

emerge? And the character of Mila suddenly

appeared, and

she came out of nowhere. And then there was this friend in

the park who sort of became may.

And I also recently reread the short story,

and I was shocked at how different it was,

because I had thought that it was interesting and

the names were different, and actually the roles were different

of the girls. so that,

yeah, it was a surprise to me to go back to it, and

see how far I had sort of wandered into the

woods. But, yeah, the intent was,

let's see if there's something there. And the short story

produced more questions than answers. And that,

to me, is always a good sign that there's some sort of fertile ground

to be had there. M thank


>> Jeniffer: That was a great question.

>> Téa Obreht: There's a hand here. the denim


>> Jeniffer: Okay.

>> Speaker D: I'm so glad that we were walking by.

>> Téa Obreht: Thanks for wandering in and letting us lure you in.

>> Speaker D: And, you know, I just said, you know, I like

this person. We're gonna come in and send the kids back to the


>> Téa Obreht: Amazing.

>> Speaker D: And the more you talked about the story,

I think it was, you know, you mentioned

this fantasy, sort of, and my husband

and I like fantasy a lot. That genre.

>> Téa Obreht: Amazing.

>> Speaker D: That's interesting. And then you mentioned,

kind of eastern european,

slavic fairies and God.

>> Jeniffer: And we both looked at each other.

>> Speaker D: And said, a, character from

another book. And, so I'm really interested.

And then my husband said, I think.

>> Téa Obreht: We gotta get this book, too.

>> Speaker D: I'm interested to know, like, do you have

interest in reading fantasy? Or where did this come from?

Or then you started talking about Tolkien, which,

you know, everyone loves, but do you have you read more

the eastern or the

slavic would you call

myths and things like that fascinate us a little


>> Téa Obreht: So, yeah, I was wondering if you.

>> Speaker D: Can tell us about your interest in fantasy or your that kind

of work.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah, absolutely. So the question was about my interest in fantasy,

and, I'm so glad y'all came in. Thank you so

much. you were very kind to let me lure you in

through the door as you were standing outside looking at the poster.

so I grew up, I grew up on a very serious

diet of folklore, of

slavic, myth, and, the serbian

epic poems, russian

mythology, the tales of

Baba yaga, whom we call Babaroga, but she's sort of

the same character, and her whole cycle. And

Vasilissa the wise, and, like, all these


who were just really the

backbone of my upbringing.

so I grew up on that. And then when we left

Yugoslavia, we moved to. First to

Cyprus and then to Egypt. And then

I grew up in that

tradition of mythology, which is an

extraordinary. I mean, like, the myths of ancient

Egypt, and then also the history of Egypt. And the way

that that's metabolized is narrative. is

fascinating. And I found it to dovetail

really nicely with slavic mythology, because

a lot of it is about these very

fickle gods, and

also very fickle monsters. And, so by the

time I arrived in the states and

started reading fantasy,

Tolkien, but also Alexander

Lloyd, I don't know if people. Yeah, some people are

nodding. Some people are not. The pride day the chronicles of Pride

Day Narnia, was huge for

me. which is interesting. And then you sort

of grow up and you're like, wow, these are very, very different

mythological structures, very,

different pursuits. Cs Lewis and Jenner

Tolkien, that, you know, Tamora

Pierce was huge for me as a kid.

So, I did grow up in

this cycle that was folklore straight into

fantasy. and I don't know,

it's a real. I don't

read enough of it now. it's a

real shame that

the genre divide is so

extreme and so sort of supported by

academic structures and

publishing, structures as well, that, you

know, I'm

supposed to. As a person who teaches in a master

of fine arts, I am often discouraged from teaching

fantasy, even though it is an extremely

instructive form. so, yeah,

I'm just gonna comment. No, come on in.

>> Speaker D: I'm a high school teacher, and I find that that is

a genre that we're introducing to get

more kids to read.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah, yeah.

>> Speaker D: And, you know. so I don't know. And I was

wondering, where does. Where will this book fit? Would you be in the

fantasy files or will it be on the.

Could it be in both? You know, and how cool that

it bridges both of the worlds.

>> Téa Obreht: Thank you for that. I hope it would. I hope it would be in both. I think

it's. I think it's sort of a straight from m for me

especially. It's like a genre bending situation.

and, I would be very flattered to have

it, you know, cross lines that

way and have people feel that way about it.

Thank you.

>> Jeniffer: I think we have time for one more question.

>> Téa Obreht: Thank you so much. I'm just like, answering for, like.

>> Jeniffer: No, it's wonderful. I feel bad cutting all you off. I see all


>> Téa Obreht: Yes.

Are there any camels in this book? There are

no camels in this book, unfortunately. I'm sorry,

but not for want of trying

and not for want of love of camels,

I'm actually working on. I'm working on a treatment

for. There's hope that inland might

still become, a series.

I'm working on a treatment right now. I hope to be

knee deep in camels for. For many years to

come. So thank you.

I think there might be more.

>> Jeniffer: Just gonna say that.

>> Téa Obreht: Yeah, that was a quick one.

>> Jeniffer: Yeah, totally.

>> Téa Obreht: historical fiction with a touch of magical realism, which is totally

my genre. I was wondering, was it hard

or intimidating for you to kind of switch gears into more

of a future? It

was really the question was about whether it was, given that I write

that I've written mostly historical fiction in the past, was

it intimidating to switch gears into a

future setting? It really was, because, I feel like

there is, a whole

swath of writers who are working exclusively

at that crossroads of sort of

speculative, new

weird, which is a term I recently learned. you

know, not high fantasy,

but kind of magically twisty.

And so, it was

very intimidating to venture into that, especially because

the world building in those novels can be

so extraordinary. and

I world built in this novel for myself to

understand how to navigate it. But then I took a lot of that

away because I didn't want sill to have

access to it and I didn't want the reader to have access to it either.

And that felt sort of, like a bit of a

transgression, but it felt like a necessary one, and I'll defend

it to the death. So I think I was, you

know, I did feel it felt,

The storytelling felt organic, but then

the sort of the genre bending felt. Felt,

Yeah, I was nervous. I'm still nervous.

You built a structure and then you

removed it and let the stories stand up. That


>> Jeniffer: Yeah, we got to be careful. We're going to be here

all night.

Okay, one more.

>> Speaker C: I understand the

concept of not wanting to revisit the

world you've created.

How does it feel to you to be working on,

a movie or series of inland because

that's in contradiction

to your


>> Téa Obreht: that's a great, that's a great question. The question was,

how do I feel about sort of revisiting inland through the

prisma? I feel like it's a different beast

because it's a medium that's completely foreign

to me, and I'm m not navigating it with the

same tools. I feel like I'm

learning how to write and I'm simply

in a totally different way because script

writing is different. All the stuff

that you access, as a writer was just like, I'm going to

set. I'm going to set the scene. I'm going to have a

person's emotions come out in their mind. You have

to be thinking of the actors. You have to be thinking of.

You're navigating a totally different way of

communicating information.

>> Speaker C: Does the actor or actress look the way

you intended?

>> Téa Obreht: I don't know yet. It's all still in my mind.

So they still do.

>> Speaker C: Did you retain that right?

>> Téa Obreht: No, I don't think. I don't think anyone does. I think it's

all once you send it out there, it sort of becomes its own. Its

own animal. Just like the writing.

>> Jeniffer: But I bet you have a picture in your mind.

Exactly. Thank you, everyone, so much

for coming. And thank you.

>> Téa Obreht: This is such a joy. Thank you so much for your questions, and thank

you all for coming, really.

Creators and Guests

Jeniffer Thompson
Jeniffer Thompson
Writer. Reader. Interviewer. Cohost of The Premise Podcast. I help authors build brands + websites. Cofounder of the San Diego Writers Festival. Chicken-mama.
Téa Obreht - Author The Morningside, Inland, The Tiger's Wife
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