Tea ObrehtTea Obreht bounced on stage at the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, looking for all the world like a stereotypical cheerleader – thick long blonde hair, shiny white teeth in a large smile, standard American TV accent. But hang on, hasn’t she written a world famous novel? Yes, it’s called The Tiger’s Wife, she began it at 19 and finished it at  22.

She spoke with Paula Morris about her Balkan heritage and how she comes from a tradition of rich storytelling, where even a trip to the shop is retold as an epic event. She is a fan of grand layered narrative and wrote this novel out of sequence – choosing to write sections at separate times, then wove them together later to make a seamless whole, that is virtually three dimensional in its complexity.

Her inspiration for the novel came from a National Geographic documentary she watched one snowy winter about Siberian tigers,  then combined that with traditional stories she’d grown up with, and she’d also loved reading The Jungle Book and Just So stories as a child. She is a zoo fanatic, has visited Auckland Zoo whilst here, and proclaimed it one of the best she’d seen.

Before starting this novel, she was commissioned by Harpers magazine to go to remote Serbo-Croatian villages to gain information for an article on vampires (this being the start of the Twilight era). She knocked on many doors, had a few slammed in her face, but at others was invited in and she listened to nonagenarians talk about their first hand experiences with these bloodsuckers. Not the average temporary job for a teen, and you can only admire her level-headedness at such a young age.

Tea has a second novel under way, but is making slow progress on it. The Tiger’s Wife was written as her grandfather was dying (Obreht is his Slovenian surname – he made a deathbed request that she dedicate her book to him, and she has, as well as taking on his name), and the novel was cathartic for her. Consequently it has taken her a while to come up with another idea that will be equally as meaningful to her. I wish her all the best for it because, let’s face it, she’s certainly got time on her side.