Tea Obreht is living her grandfather’s prophecy.
Obreht was 7 when she left Yugoslavia in 1992 with her mother and grandparents. They lived in Cyprus, then Cairo. Her grandfather — an aviation engineer who served as her parent — was insistent that Obreht’s next move be to the US.
“He felt that America was possibly the only place where hard work and your education could get you through hurdles of the system and really let you be whatever it is you wanted to be, without any impediments of upbringing or social rank,” Obreht said in a telephone interview from Ithaca, N.Y.
So she came and worked hard. When other kids her age were going to their high school junior proms, 16-year-old Obreht was finishing her freshman year at USC; its creative writing program was her first choice.
And later, during her second year in the MFA program at Cornell University in Ithaca, she was up most nights until 4 a.m. writing.
All that work has paid off for Obreht, whose first novel, “The Tiger’s Wife,” has received a startling amount of attention since its March 8 publication, including a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review. This week, it takes the top spot on the Los Angeles Times’ hardcover fiction bestseller list.
The novel — set in an unnamed Balkan nation sundered by war — is braided through with folk and fairy tales. It follows Natalia, a young doctor, as she travels through the postwar countryside to deliver medicine, thinking about the grandfather she loved and the stories he told.
Obreht’s grandfather died shortly before she began “The Tiger’s Wife,” and without her realizing it, he served as a model for the grandfather in her book. The character is, she says now, “closer to home than originally anticipated.”
“The Tiger’s Wife” is a singular and accomplished work, all the more so because it was written by someone — now 25 — at the beginning of her career.
Obreht’s gift found her a place in last year’s New Yorker list of 20 significant American fiction writers under age 40 — in fact, its youngest member. And she’s the only one of the bunch who’s fluent in Serbo-Croatian.
Although she has always written in English, Serbo-Croatian also has an influence on her writing.
“I think the cadence of the language in ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ is not English,” she says. “I wrote it in English, I thought about it in English, every part of it was conceptualized in English, but the rhythm of the dialogue is a lot more Balkan in nature.”
As a child, Obreht skipped two grades — once deliberately, once in the confusion of moving to a new country; when she started high school in Palo Alto, Calif., she was 12. “I had a very early growth spurt. I was really a tall kid,” says the now 5-foot-8 writer. “There was no external way to tell” how old she was, she says.
At the University of Southern California, Obreht studied with bestselling author T.C. Boyle, taking his advanced fiction workshop for undergraduates: She calls his class “life changing,” both for what it taught her and the way Boyle treated his students.
“There was always a great sense of equality in the workshop, about everyone’s work being completely valid,” Obreht says. “It was very uplifting — it was a wonderful environment to be in.”
“Tea is right out of the gate great, and she has always been great,” Boyle says.
“Her first New Yorker story, ‘Blue Water Djinn,’ was a story that she put up in class in essentially the same form which appeared in the magazine.”
That marks a significant accomplishment — of the thousands of stories written in undergraduate creative-writing workshops around the country, very few will ever be published. And the New Yorker — and the Atlantic, which published her first story — are at the very top of the heap. Many writers with long publishing histories will never see their work appear there.
Obreht was determined to finish her first novel by the time she was done with graduate school. She was finishing her second year of MFA coursework and teaching when she began work on “The Tiger’s Wife.”
“I didn’t have enough time in the day to write,” she says, so she wrote at night — from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. “I’d write through the night, teach and then go to sleep, write through the night, teach and go to sleep.”
That’s a significant level of focus, and Obreht’s persona over the phone has the same maturity as that reflected in her novel. “It’s not very healthy,” she admits of her nocturnal writing routine. “It’s dark out, and you don’t get to see a lot of people.”
But challenges just seem to bring out her productivity. When living in L.A., she was faced with the classic conundrum — traffic — and in it she found a writing tool.
“I very much learned to love the car, and being in the car, and accept the interior of a car as ‘me time,’ which was time to think about writing,” she says. “Now, when I struggle with writing, I’ll make soundtracks that I associate with the work, and then I’ll get in the car and drive around. That was a result of living in Los Angeles — it’s a huge part of my writing life right now.”
Once in a while, a giddiness or embarrassment slips into her conversation that reveals this accomplished novelist’s youth. Asked what kinds of music she’ll listen to in the car for inspiration, she says it’s a mix. Some American rock (Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan), some jazz, some salsa and maybe some Disney songs.
“I grew up with Disney movies, so I grew up with Disney songs. The more I learned about my generation, when I came here, was everyone grew up with Disney songs.” It’s an American tradition that, like Obreht’s book, intersects many cultures.
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