In this excerpt from the 12th Street interview, Téa Obreht talks backstory, process and the questions we’d love to ask our own work with Online Managing Editor, Kate Cox.
See Téa Obreht at 12th Street‘s launch event Wednesday, May 9th at 7:00 p.m. at the Union Square Barnes & Noble (33 E. 17th Street, New York, NY 10003.)
Téa Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia, and spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt before eventually immigrating to the United States in 1997. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Zoetrope: All-Story, The New York Times, and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Non-Required Reading. Her first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, was published by Random House in 2011. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. Téa Obreht lives in Ithaca, New York.
STREET : It seems especially clear to me in The Tiger’s Wife that storytelling is
a delicate balance between revelation and restraint. How do you decide what’s
necessary for a reader to know about a character’s backstory?
OBREHT: That’s a really tough question. I think that decision depends on what
needs to exist in the larger story as a whole. What I found in writing The Tiger’s
Wife was that I didn’t want to give background. The chapter on Luka the Butcher
was only supposed to be for me. I was supposed to write it to get to know the
character and to establish his villainy, and then I was going to cast it aside. What
I found was that the way his story played out was actually very beneficial to the
novel itself and to this idea of myth making. The leap to the characters of Darisa
the Bear and the Apothecary came from that. I certainly hadn’t done that before.
In my short fiction, I had learned about the character as I went along, instead of
doing a whole separate backstory. Several of my writing professors had said that
you must know what your protagonist would have for breakfast each morning.
And then there are people who give you the advice that you don’t need to know
anything; the character will come as he or she comes, and you’ll learn about them
as you go. I’ve definitely taken both routes. But it has to be in service of the larger
narrative somehow. There’s so much to be had in withholding. It’s not necessarily
what you withhold or reveal, it’s the way you do it. Writing short stories showed
me that you can do so much with implication and turn of phrase. If you want the
information to trickle through, you can do it very subtly, and the reader will get
the information without feeling like they’re getting information at all—which is
a wonderful thing to be able to do.
STREET : In writing short pieces, it feels easier to me to open an unmarked door
and walk through a dark hallway. The end is never far away; you can find your way
as you go along. It reminds me of what Joan Didion said about why she writes: “I
write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and
what it means. What I want and what I fear.” It seems that in short work, you can
do just that: write to find out what you think. You don’t have to know how it’s
going to come out. But I’m not sure the same thing applies to writing a novel. Do
you need to know the end to write the beginning? Since your background is in
short fiction, what surprised you the most about writing a novel?
OBREHT: The process was just so different. I was quite surprised at the lack of
control I ended up having over certain elements of the narrative. As a short story
writer, I would sit down and crank out the whole first draft of a story in twenty
four to forty eight hours, maximum. There would be all these different drafts and
the excitement of editing—which is a process I love. I love finding out how the
story will change from the first draft into something that actually makes sense
and flows and has connections between all its elements. It’s something that in
short-story writing involves a lot of immediate gratification: you’re done, you see
the beginning, you see the end, and now you can play. You’re in control of those
elements. You start a novel, and the end is such a long, long way away that you
begin to lose the thread of what it is you intended. By the time you arrive at the
end, the novel has taken over out of its own necessity. It’s dictating what needs to
happen in that revision process. That was a big surprise.
STREET : In the Riggio writing program, we talk about approaching editing as if
it were an interview: you ask your piece why it exists and what it’s doing. In your
PBS interview, you mentioned it being strange that your novel is a real thing and
that it feels almost like a person with a face. If your novel were a person, what
would you ask it?
OBREHT: That’s a really great question. Wow. I’d ask: How do you feel? Do you feel
as good as you could feasibly feel? When you were asking that, I had an image
of myself sort of hovering—this horrible image of myself hovering over the
hospital bed of my novel. I pictured it looking up at me and me asking: How are
you doing? Are you all right? Now it’s done, whether it’s good or bad. For better or
for worse, it’s finished. It’s out there, and it’s this entity that’s roaming around, you
know, taking the bus—
STREET : Living in other people’s houses—
OBREHT: My question for myself was, if this goes out today, are you going to be
able to look back at it in ten years and say, I really did the best I could at the time
for what I was capable of and what I knew? You hope that you’ll be able to do better
and that you’ll learn something by screwing up the first one in some way. So, I
think my question to my novel would be along the same vein: How ya feeling? Did
we do okay?
STREET : Right. Are you happy? Are you out there in the world having good experiences?
The idea of your novel being set adrift to have its own life is amazing
because that’s really what reading and writing is: a shared experience between
reader and writer, and eventually the experience of the language itself. Once you
let it out of your hands it takes on a life of its own.
OBREHT: Absolutely. And another thing I learned is that you can’t be married to
your own intent. You hope your words get across what you want to say and that it
functions as a whole, more or less, the same way for everyone who experiences
it. But the truth is, you’re not going to be able to come out of the pages tomorrow
when some reader is disagreeing with it, or not enjoying it, and shake them
and say, “This is really what I meant.” That’s something else to make peace with.
You can’t believe in the universality of everybody experiencing your novel in the