Lecture preview: For novelist Tea Obreht, a journey from vampires to hurricanes
November 19, 2012 5:00 AM
Tea Obreht -- "For 'The Tiger's Wife,' I would write from 10 at night till 5 in the morning."
By Marylynne Pitz Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In August, when Tea Obreht moved from New York's winery-laden college town of Ithaca to the bustling Manhattan neighborhood of Morningside Heights, it never occurred to her that choosing an apartment on high ground would be important. But, when Hurricane Sandy deluged the city last month, living in the heights proved to be fortuitous.
Good fortune seems to accompany the nomadic 27-year-old author, whose first novel, "The Tiger's Wife," attained the lofty, literary height of being reviewed on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review in March 2011.
Weathering hurricanes and warfare are nothing new for Ms. Obreht. At age 7, she fled Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1992. During the 1990s, conflict in the former Yugoslavia killed 140,000 people, the deadliest European conflict since World War II. But, by the time Ms. Obreht fled the Balkans, her mother and grandparents already had immersed her in a deep well of stories rich with folk tales, superstitions and vampires.
"The Tiger's Wife," a richly textured allegory about war in Eastern Europe, was widely acclaimed and nominated for a National Book Award.
Ms. Obreht speaks at 7:30 tonight in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall as part of the Ten Literary Evenings Series supported by the Drue Heinz Trust.
After living in Cyprus and Egypt, Ms. Obreht was 12 when she immigrated to the United States with her mother in 1997. She earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Southern California and her master of fine arts degree from Cornell University.
Ms. Obreht, who is fascinated by the sense of place, returned to the former Yugoslavia in 2009 to write a piece for Harper's Magazine, "Twilight of the Vampires: Hunting the Real-Life Undead." She traveled through Serbia and Croatia.
"I don't think I re-entered the culture with any kind of sensitivity until I took that vampire trip. I felt finally at home," she said in a telephone interview.
In the Balkans, vampires are still horrific corpses who roam fields or dwell in water mills. But in Belgrade, young people eagerly read the popular "Twilight" series, a Western series of books that glamorizes the undead by giving them sex appeal and physical prowess.
Why did vampires get a makeover by Western writers?
"I think it has a great deal to do with our obsession with youth -- an idealized relationship and an idealized career and an idealized physical state of being, preserving yourself at the peak of what you supposedly are. ... We do shop and try to stay beautiful. That's what the vampire has ultimately become -- a shape-shifter for the momentary needs of society," Ms. Obreht said.
Each year, she visits her grandmother in Belgrade and is encouraged that the quality of a university education in that city remains high.
"The education there is just tremendous. The best universities in the country are still state run. The country is improving. It's still trying to make room for the incoming professionals who are being educated left and right."
The author needs several hours of complete solitude to write.
"The longer the project goes, the more extreme the solitude gets. For 'The Tiger's Wife,' I would write from 10 at night till 5 in the morning. People stop calling you because they know you don't exist."
When she lived in Ithaca, Ms. Obreht took long drives in the countryside, listening to soundtracks she prepared that included show tunes, classical music and rock 'n' roll.
"It helps keep me in the mindset of the writing."
As an urbanite, Ms. Obreht explores the streets of Manhattan.
"Now, I'm a pedestrian. I walk in the late afternoon with my little soundtracks instead of driving. Ultimately, writing, for me, is about being able to trick myself into having nothing but that world. For the period of hours you inhabit it, nothing else exists."