Eight years after Téa Obreht burst onto the literary scene with “The Tiger’s Wife,” her second novel, “Inland” — set in the late-19th-century American West, and brimming with little-known historical detail — has finally come out, entering the list this week at No. 12.
What took so long?
“One of the biggest challenges was realizing that it was appropriate to let the wrong books go and wait for the right one to come along,” Obreht explains. “For the first two years after ‘The Tiger’s Wife,’ I wrote in a very unstructured, directionless way. I would inevitably get to the end of a project and realize something was absent from the heart of it.”
Obreht acknowledges that any writing project “teaches you something about your process or ability or interests, of course. But there are projects you do because you’re solving puzzles, and there are projects you do because you need to tell a story.” She explains, “For me, that need is linked to a particular moment between the first and second draft, when the work’s chorus of smaller questions — who are these characters? why are they making all these terrible decisions? — coalesce into a bigger, burning question about why the story is being told at all. Finishing the book is by no means guaranteed to answer the burning question. But without one, the whole work collapses.”
Early in her career, the novelist David Mitchell, whom Obreht calls “one of the finest minds and most generous souls on the planet,” gave her important advice, telling her “to make peace with the fact that I would always have limited control over what stories drew me in. He told me there are three different categories of theme all writers have to contend with. First, there are the things all books are about, like mortality or love. Then there are the things a particular book is about: man’s relationship to nature, for instance, or the aftershocks of empire. And then there are the things every book you write are about — things to which you’ll keep returning even if you think you’ve already dealt with them in your work. It was an incredibly freeing thing to hear.”
[ After “The Tiger’s Wife” came out, Obreht told The Times, “When you’re writing, you’re working on this private world that becomes more and more real to you, but it’s still your own. And then to discover that suddenly other people can access it — in a way that really shocks me.” ]
Obreht, who “grew up moving just about every three or four years — from Yugoslavia to Cyprus to Egypt to various parts of the United States,” now lives with her husband in Wyoming part of the year. “I have never felt the draw of home as powerfully or profoundly as I do when I’m out there,” she says. “The oddness — and maybe even predictability? — of that is still something with which I struggle, but the desire to understand it certainly led me to write ‘Inland.’”
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